I love the American folksinger Carrie Newcomer. I first heard her music some years back at a church conference in Indianapolis. We were gathered in a large convention center and were suffering under an evening emcee trying desperately to be funny. So, when this well-intentioned “comedian” introduced our evening’s musical entertainment, I slumped in my seat. I was sure I was about to hear music as bad as the feeble attempt at comedy had been. I was so very wrong!
When Carrie opened her mouth, I began to drop mine. Not only is her voice one that I could listen to for hours, she is one of the finest singing theologians I know. Theologians are often thought of as lofty old intellectual recluses who write books about God that few read and even fewer understand. As for me, I hate that stereotype because every living soul is a theologian, someone who thinks about God and tries to make sense about the ways of God. Even if you reject the notion of God, you are a theologian, because you must first consider the possibility of God in order to reject the reality of God. Excuse my theological detour, but again, Carrie Newcomer is a fine singing theologian.
Long before Carrie, Luke was an exceptional singing theologian. Luke first sings not with the pronouncement of the birth of a royal son, a child born to be king; no, he introduces us to a young girl who would never consider herself a theologian and whose voice most people in society would ignore. When Mary sings her Magnificat, we get our first hint in Luke’s Gospel of how God will call together the most unlikely cast of characters to be the church.
Luke goes on to sing of a God who searches for those who are lost and invites them to join the choir of divine singers. He sings of a Samaritan, the walking definition of “not one of us” and then the Samaritan sings an aria of compassion and generosity and courage that would be welcome in any church. Luke sings of a rich fool who is so lost in his fortune that he does not live long enough to experience God’s overwhelming abundance. Luke sings of those who are lost in their own need to be right like the elder child in today’s parable, those who are lost and refuse to sing because, for them, God’s grace just never adds up.
Toward the end his Gospel, Luke teaches us a dinner song, a song in which Jesus reminds us of who is welcome at the table of God’s grace. In her song “Betty’s Diner,” Carrie Newcomer uses the metaphor of a diner for the church and a hostess named “Miranda” for the one who serves us at the church’s table. In the refrain of the song, Carrie sings:
Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold
Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind
Like in Luke’s Gospel we meet lots of lost souls in “Betty’s Diner.” First, she sings of Arthur.
Arthur lets his Earl Grey steep
Since April it’s been hard to sleep
You know they tried most everything
Yet it took her in the end
She sings of Jack who is working days and studying nights to get his G.E.D and Diedra who works at the downtown “stop and go,” along with Veda a recovering addict and Mike who runs the crisis line. After naming each person, Carrie sings: “Here we are all in one place, the wants and wounds of the human race, despair and hope sit face to face, when you come in from the cold.”
I love the loving dad we meet in Luke’s last parable in chapter 15. He knows all about tough love and how people would have him put the wayward son in his place now that he has returned home, but dad decides that the place for the wayward son is at his table in a great celebration feast.
I have often wondered what would happen if good church folks spent less time divining reasons why some of God’s children should be sent to their rooms without supper, like the no-count prodigal, and instead we spent more time setting places around the table, polishing the silver, and making sure everyone got an invitation to the feast. What would it mean if we listened less to church rule keepers and more to the church’s Lord who sings quite a different tune? For the host at God’s table sings that there is room for everyone and anyone who is ready to “come in from the cold” or who is ready to come in from the heat, for those who come to the table feeling on top of the world or who come feeling that the world is collapsing upon them or who come, believing heart, soul, and mind in God or who come doubting that God’s supper has any nutritional value for them at all.
On the night of 9/11/2001, twenty-one years ago now, in a church just a few miles from where a plane had crashed into the Pentagon, I looked out over a sanctuary jammed packed with many faces I had never seen before and many I would never see again. When I invited people to share their concerns that holy night, I listened to almost thirty minutes of intercessory prayers rising from that stunned and grieving sanctuary, all the while I could hear Carrie’s hymn echoing in my head: “Here we are all in one place, the wants and wounds of the human race, despair and hope sit face to face, when you come in from the cold. Let her fill your cup with something kind. Eggs and toast like bread and wine. She’s heard it all so she don’t mind.”
On the next Sunday, somehow the communion table had grown in size. It was larger, much, much larger than it had been on the day before 9/11. It was so large that it no longer fit in the room. Around the table, I could see thousands upon thousands of place settings for repentant prodigals and for unrepentant elder children, for the regular church crowd who always sit in the same pew and for starving souls looking for any free meal and for crushed and terrified souls, obsessed with what disaster would happen next.
Even more miraculously, the fence around the table was gone, the one that permitted only a select few to come to dinner, only those who had behaved well and whose virtue shone like an evening star. And when I looked at what was once carved on face of the table, the familiar words “Do this in remembrance of me,” they had been replaced with these words: “It is the will of your Father in heaven that not one of these little ones should be lost.”
And just a moment later, I am sure that I saw a young, prodigal, n’er do well boy, take his place at that table and I am almost sure that I saw a too-good-for-his-own-good elder son sit down right next to his younger brother. I saw a loving dad who could not stop smiling as he looked and saw “all in one place, the wants and wounds of the human race.” I saw “despair and hope sit face to face,” all having “come in from the cold.”
Since that holy night, I have never thought of this table in any other way than a table that requires not a fence around it to protect it from sinners and scoundrels but a table that needs more leaves to be built for it, leaves like Walter Mehring might construct, and a room bigger than all the church sanctuaries on earth combined, a room with doors wide open for anyone ready to taste and see that the Lord is good.
When you and I feast again at this table on the first Sunday in October, World Communion Sunday, give a long, hard look at this table and you might also notice at how it has become the biggest, most welcoming, table in the world. I sure hope so.