Sunday, May 4, 2014

Breaking Bread With Gays, Jewish Folks, and African Americans (Reflections on Easter 3)

...he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:35b)

One of my great pleasures in my bachelor days in Philly was the occasional trip to Center City's Ritz Movie Theater to see foreign and independent movies which weren't in wide release. I was particularly excited to see a film called Gods and Monsters, a 1998 fictitious account of the mysterious death of the British film director James Whale—the man who directed the original horror classics Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). I'm a life-long movie geek, and I was also once a horror movie host for a midwestern TV station (probably the low point in my utterly underwhelming theatrical career!) and a tour guide at Universal Studios in Hollywood where those grand old fright flicks were made. I even took my tours past an outdoor set Whale had used, and so his mysterious drowning in 1957 had always been of interest to me.

I was a bit surprised when I entered the Ritz auditorium as I had expected to see it filled with geeky academic types not unlike my own dear self. Instead, the Ritz audience consisted of mostly well-dressed, fashionable, professional looking thin people. And they were almost all men. And they were sitting as couples.

I remember saying to myself, “I wonder if James Whale was gay?”

Sure enough, Gods and Monsters left no doubt as to Mr. Whale's sexual orientation. I thought it was an excellent and entertaining drama (it would later win an Oscar for its screenplay), and I started to leave the theater after the film feeling I had gotten my money's worth. In the lobby I overheard a trio of young professionals discussing the film and wondering how much of it was based on fact. I confess I could not contain my pedantic geekiness, and, apologizing for eavesdropping on the conversation, I introduced myself to the three strangers and shared what I had known about Whale and his career. The troika thanked me for the information, and the four of us struck up a conversation which resulted in their inviting me to join them for dessert and coffee at a bistro on Spruce Street.

My three hosts were a gay man and a lesbian couple—all three of whom I learned could correctly be addressed by the title “Doctor.” One was a physician, one a psychologist, and one a university professor. We discussed the movie, movie-making, art, aging, and a host of other subjects. Rarely have I enjoyed such good-hearted, spirited, and intelligent conversation. It was an utterly delightful, serendipitous experience (made all the better when my three friends insisted on paying the tab!).

Some months later I found myself visiting patients as a volunteer chaplain at what is now called Aria Torresdale Hospital. Making my rounds, I arrived at the room of an elderly patient just as his evening meal was being served. I apologized for the intrusion and suggested that I could come back at a later time.

“Not at all, Father,” he said. “Please come in! Join me! Or should I call you Reverend..?”

I explained that I was Lutheran and that “Pastor” would be the correct form of address. The old gentleman smiled. “Won't you sit down, Pastor?” he said.

I pulled up a chair near his bedside. He explained to me that he was Jewish, and that his faith taught him always to share with strangers. He politely divided the meal he had been served, putting portions of his chicken and vegetables on the bread plate for me, and explaining how a kosher meal should be eaten. Taking a dinner roll, he broke it, handed half to me, and recited a prayer in Hebrew. We ate together, talking religion and ethics. I left the hospital room feeling as if I had met a long-lost relative.

In our first few weeks as students at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia my fellow juniors and I had been instructed to explore worship opportunities in different Christian traditions. One Sunday three or four of us found our way to the New Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a huge congregation on Germantown Avenue. When four young Caucasian men enter an AME church, the ushers know pretty quickly that we were not members. With the utmost of tact, an elderly usher inquired if this were our first visit to New Bethel. We explained that we were LTSP students exploring worship in other Christian traditions. The usher politely directed us to our seats, and then approached the senior pastor, alerting him to our presence. After the first spirited praise hymn, the pastor announced to the assembled faithful that there were special visitors in the assembly that morning. A host of black faces turned to where we were sitting with beaming smiles of genuine welcome. Then the pastor explained that we were seminarians. The smiles turned to shouts of “Amen!” But then the pastor announced that we were students at the Lutheran seminary—the seminary whose Urban Theological Institute had trained so many members of Philadelphia's black clergy. Suddenly we had gone from being celebrities to being super rock stars.

“And of course, Brothers,” the pastor said, “you'll stay after service today and break bread with us!”

There was no saying, “no.” Following the three-hour worship service, the four of us headed to the church basement where an army of church ladies fed us fried chicken, greens, and mashed potatoes until I had to loosen my belt. I have never experienced such genuine love and hospitality in any other church I have attended. It was truly amazing.

In the gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for Easter 3 (Luke 24:13-35) the disciples walking to Emmaus encounter a stranger. When they break bread with him, they recognize him as the risen Jesus. What I love about this story is that these two grieving souls find someone who will walk their journey with them, and when they open their table to him, Christ is present.

I think we all yearn to know Christ—to know the love, the compassion, the total acceptance and forgiveness, the peace that is the presence of Jesus. In the gracious welcome of strangers—be they LGBT, Jewish, African American, or whatever—Christ is made known. In the comforting of the bereaved, when a neighbor brings a meal to a mourning family, Christ is made known. Anytime we choose to feed the hungry, Christ is made known. And when we all come as one with our burdens and sins and anxieties to the table of the Lord's supper—each of us weighed down and each of us in need of grace—when we acknowledge our oneness as the bread is broken, Christ is made known.

May we all experience Christ in the breaking of bread and, like the disciples of Emmaus, may we be eager to run and tell the tale!

God's peace, my friends.

PS- Wouldn't it be great if Lutherans and Roman Catholics could break bread together at the Lord's table? A church called Mission of the Atonement in Beaverton, Oregon brings the two denominations together to worship and—almost—share the Eucharist. Read this cool article about the church by clicking on Mission of the Atonement. Then, sign my petition to Pope Francis and see if we can't all of us break bread together! Just click here.

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