by Rev. Mary C. Olney
February 27, 2000


The 1967 movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" raised questions about the way in which "white and black America" related to one another. If you recall the movie, a young woman brings a man home to meet her parents--she's in love! They plan to be married. The surprise is she's white and he's black. Many of us would give our eye teeth to have Sidney Poitier, who played the doctor, come to dinner. This is not the case in the movie however!

I had to rent the movie, because I couldn't recall how it turned out--Spencer Tracey, playing the young woman's father has an "aha" moment before they all sit down to dinner. He realizes that it's not about race--it's about love. Do they love each other? Will they support and care for one another through the good times and not so good times. In other words what is their relationship like? The father sees they love each other. As the movie concludes this curious group sits down to dinner to bond a new family: a prominent newspaper owner, his artist wife, their beautiful daughter, her distinguished doctor fiance and his parents--a retired mail carrier and his wife. Unlikely dinner companions.

Jesus eats with unlikely folks too. One day as he walks along the lake called Galilee; he calls Levi, a tax collector, to be his disciple. Jesus says: "follow me." Levi follows. In the next scene they're having a dinner party at Levi's home. In Mark's Gospel people come and go very quickly. Jesus calls Levi to follow him. Levi gets up and follows. In the next sentence they're having dinner together. They dine together--not just sandwiches and coffee. No this is a banquet. "Jesus sat at table," writes Mark. The word translated as "sat" means reclined. When there was a special meal, a banquet the dinner guests recline on something resembling a chaise lounge, with their upper body near the food. Jesus dines with one who cheats his neighbors, regularly works with Gentiles and collaborates with the occupying army. Tax collectors are outcasts, despised persons, as you may recall.

Marcus Borg, the New Testament scholar explains that eating together in Jesus' day was very significant. Not only were there rules about what to eat and how to prepare it, but also rules stating with whom one could eat. Eating together meant mutual acceptance. The Jewish leaders, Pharisees, would not eat with someone who was impure. No decent person would eat with an outcast. Yet Jesus eats with the lowest of the low! How could he! How can we put it in today's terms? Who is outcast in our society? Maybe today Jesus would eat with a young person with various pierced body parts, AIDS patients, gay or lesbian persons, prisoners, even sex offenders. Would you invite yourself to their place for dinner? I realize I might be uncomfortable. Yet I truly believe the poor and the outcasts have much to teach us. They know what it's like to be excluded--on the outside looking in. And if you've ever found yourself "outside" you know how excruciating it can be!

Eating together is a significant event. Friendships are formed around the dinner table. When we break bread together we relax and come to know one another in deeper ways. We form community. We feel accepted, cared for, forgiven, loved, safe. When we find ourselves among friends like this we can let our hair down and be real. In a safe place like this we grow as human beings and children of God. In community we are changed, transformed, healed, made whole. I think Jesus knew this. And I think that's why he wanted to have dinner with Levi. So Levi would realize how much God loved him--and who God wanted him to become.

The same is true for you and me--Jesus calls us into community as well. Christ wants us to live into our best possible person. I've experienced community here. It's a powerful thing! Thank you. Jesus calls us to extend the gift of community to others--the life-giving gift of inviting someone on the outside, inside. I've heard it said that the church is not so much a voluntary institution, as it is an invitational society. As the ones inside the church--we--you and me--are responsible to welcome others into our midst. Jesus calls us to offer the gift of community one another, to those who are lonely, searching, those who come to our doors, as well as those we need to seek out. Jesus has dinner with unlikely dinner companions and calls us to offer community to outsiders, welcoming them into our midst and to our table of joy.

Story--Sam was a college freshman who dressed in scruffy blue jeans, old tea shirt. He wore the same ones each and every day, so they didn't smell very good either. His hair was kind of long and rather unkempt. He was very bright--brilliant actually, even though his appearance didn't indicate this. During this first year of college Sam had become interested in religion through one of his classes. His curiosity was peaked and his faith in God growing. One Sun. when he awoke he decided to go to the church nearby campus. He didn't know the time of the service so he arrived a little late. The church was full because there was a baptism that day. As Sam walked up the aisle he looked for a place to sit, but no one moved over, welcoming him into his or her pew. So Sam just kept on walking toward the front of the church.

At the same time one of the upstanding church members and head usher, an older gentleman dressed in a three-pieced suit started up the aisle behind Sam. He was a distinguished looking man with his shock of white hair and he walked with a cane. The minister watched this scene unfold, as did the entire congregation. There was tension in the air as it was clear the service could not begin until this situation was resolved. The congregation and the minister anxiously wondered what would happen.

Finally Sam reached the front of the sanctuary and plopped right down right on the floor in front of the pulpit. He was a front row student after all. When the head usher finally reached him he threw aside his cane--and with some difficulty sat down on the floor right next to Sam, where he stayed the entire worship service. Conclusion: Unlikely companions at worship. What a great witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unlikely companions at dinner! Jesus ate with outcasts and sinners, like you and me. Over shared bread and wine new relationships form--old boundaries, old understandings, old walls are broken down. Healing occurs. Outcasts and sinners, outside society's norms are now insiders--having a dinner party with the rabbi, Jesus. There is healing and joy. There is new life! Thanks be to God!