“Better than Brunch”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
June 11, 2017
University Baptist Church
Jesus tells the story of a dinner party. He admonished people to invite everyone, not just your friends. What follows is a vision of a great feast that is extravagant. Everyone is welcome, regardless of class, sex, race or status. But as always, people had their excuses. In youth choir 40 years ago we sang a little ditty about this story,
“I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me know. I have married a wife I have bought me a cow. I’ve got fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum. Pray hold me excused I cannot come.”
Today’s scripture lays on the guilt–trip about attending important events—and not just any event, but a banquet set by God. We have all made the excuses. We justify it by saying, there will always be another church service, another event. God will understand. I have a soccer game. I have theater tickets. I have a performance. I have better things to do. Parking’s a pain. It’s raining. It’s snowing. It’s hailing. Besides, one time many months ago I heard musical piece and the tenors were out of tune, or the sermon was meh, or someone spoke too long in the Joys and concerns. I can get a better message on line. I’m spiritual, just not religious. I think what this sometimes means is that I like God and the concept of a spiritual plan for my life, but I don’t like so much the institutions around religion. I don’t like to be in places where people might offer differing opinions. I don’t want to be where a crying baby might disrupt me, or a person with mental health issues might disturb my peace and quiet. Even worse, I don’t want to be surprised or challenged or God forbid, held accountable for my actions.
On a lazy summer Sunday, brunch with friends or the New York Times or gazing out at a lake looks very attractive. When I was on Sabbatical a year ago, I noticed the phenomenon of Sunday brunch. People attend it with devotion. They laugh, they spend money, they choose their restaurant of the week. How does the church compete with this? In what ways are we better than brunch—or are we? Maybe we are different than brunch. Maybe church delays brunch a bit. How do you justify your church attendance to your brunch devotees?
A woman told her spouse one morning, “I don’t want to go to work today. Let’s go out to brunch instead.” She went on to say that her workplace is full of backstabbing, hypocrisy and the job is boring. Suggesting coffee might make her feel better, her spouse dutifully poured her another cup. Her spouse had heard this rant before. People bicker the whole time and it seems that no one is willing to try anything new. In addition, nobody likes me. They are always talking behind my back and I don’t like their stares. Give me one good reason I should go to work today. Her spouse replied, “because it’s Sunday and you’re the pastor.”
Just to be clear, I love working among you at UBC. And I also like a good relaxing brunch. And since most people work during the week, the weekends are the time when people do this. That is, except for church-going folks.
Some churches have started doing church on Saturday or Sunday nights, in part so they don’t mess with the holy ritual of brunch.
What can be worth it to come to sit in a hard pew where there is not even air conditioning.
Well, I can tell you that sometimes people miss church and then ask me to tell them what the joys and concerns were.
Church. It’s not always fun, but it’s worth our time and energy. It’s usually inspiring—not the sermon necessarily, but the music, the bravery that someone practices when they stand up and tell their truth. Church. It’s a community that supports and challenges us. It provides an opportunity to sing. It’s where we experience the waves of the joys and concerns, the shared celebrations and grief. We attempt to make a portion of the world a little better. Not just paying it lip service, but getting together and making a difference—like we do with Loaves and Fishes, with sanctuary activism, with welcoming our sister church here, like offering weekend meals at Marcy Open School, like employing musicians and making space for beauty in our lives, like offering respite for people in this crazy-making world. So, we get dressed up, or at least dressed on Sundays, put on our best and bravest faces and try not to think about work, or the neighbor that drives us crazy. Maybe we’ll even get the wisdom and tools to get the strength to forgive our neighbor or ourselves.
Church and brunch are two different entities, except when we meld them together like on Palm Sunday here at UBC. At brunch, you decide who goes there, where you sit, who you listen to. You eat your favorite dish and drink your coffee or Mimosa. There is joy, food, companionship. Sometimes it’s loud and rushed. It’s usually beautiful, especially if you can dine alfresco on a breezy summer day. Sometimes it can be costly. But it seldom requires much of you. It’s for you and not necessarily for others, beyond those at your table.
At church, we are by definition unpredictable. Sure, the rituals are similar, the pews are relatively in the same configuration. This is a beautiful room in which to gather—holy and filled with the memories of generations who have gone before. From week to week, the order of worship seldom changes. But the people do. At church there is always a different bunch of people. Some who are brand new alongside people who have sat in these pews for generations. And invariably, someone shares an insight, something inspires us and something challenges us. Maybe we’ll even have a topic for discussion at brunch. You can’t lay hands on someone and pray for them during brunch.
One of the people who hated missing church was Thor Kommedahl. He sat right about here for almost seventy years. He would often write to me after church or send me little articles. Here’s one of the scraps of wisdom that I cherish. It comes in an email from May 15, 2012.
When I leave church and enter our dining room at 1666 Coffman, I'm usually a little late and Faye and I get seated next to others at a table. They all know we have just come from church and often, someone asks us what the sermon was about. I give them a short summary of the main points of your sermon and to some of them this is a surprise because when they have asked that of others, the others can't remember.
This is relatively easy because your sermons are coherent and points hang together around a theme. You tend to repeat your main point several times during the sermon so that other points can be attached to the main point or theme to make it easy to remember when I leave church. You make a point and then reinforce that with illustrations or queries that make your points stick in my mind. Some sermons that I've heard from others are too general or ramble too much so that there is not a good take-home message.
So my being able to summarize your sermons is not because of my memory but is the result of a well-preached sermon that can be remembered and recalled later on.
I hope you continue that format because it is an aid to recalling your points and deepening spirituality.
I don’t share this with you to toot my own horn, but to emphasize how important it was for Thor to be here. To pay attention. And I know he heard many a mediocre sermon from me. But when that happens, you focus on something else. The ritual of being with each other in the good times and bad times. Imagine if we were not blessed by Thor’s presence. Imagine if you are Thor for someone else. That’s what we get in church.
You know, I think we need to stop thinking of church as better than brunch or vice versa. The two are different beasts altogether.
Church gives us music, poetry and ritual. It gives us the opportunity to sing. I was speaking with a schoolteacher the other day and she was lamenting the fact that once you graduate from school, you seldom get the chance to read music—unless of course you sing Sacred Harp. Sure, you can sing along to the radio. Even if you go to church, many of them project the words onto a screen and you are supposed to sing along with the band. I like the fact that we have hymnals. Not only do I like the theology of hymns, but you learn to read music, to practice harmony and to make a joyful noise with your choir of choice once a week.
When I was on Sabbatical, I enjoyed my share of relaxing brunches. But I also felt that something was missing in my life. It was the connection that I get each week from you. The way you push me to be not only a better preacher, but a better person. They way that I am held accountable to a community—just by showing up, by being present when someone shares their greatest joy or their deepest concern. That’s what we get at church.
We don’t have to be better than brunch. It’s not a competition. What we do need to do is to make the message that we share compelling. Jesus ends the story today by encouraging us to go to the highways and byways to invite people to this feast. There’s always room at the table. We’ll pull up another chair. We’ll pass the food around. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry and we’ll try to hear you.
Jesus said that all are welcome at his table. All are part of his feast. "All who do the will of God are my brothers, and my sisters and my mother and my father."
Jesus welcomed the lepers and the outcasts, every person whom organized religion had called unworthy. Jesus said that God has called you worthy.
So, welcome to the welcome feast of Jesus. That’s what the true church of Jesus Christ is all about.
This is a feast for the Spirit where all are welcome.
This is a feast where there are no boundaries.
This is a feast where the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
This is a feast where the poor are lifted up and the rich are sent empty away, as Mary sang in her Magnificat.
This is a feast where the former nobodies are God’s somebodies.
This is a feast where no one can call you an outcast and get away with it.
This is a feast where we celebrate love in all of its forms.
This is a feast where we mourn for the world that is blinded by its own greed, its own lust for power, its own temptation to put God and God’s people into a small box.
This is a feast that witnesses to something new and glorious, and blessed by God.
The story of the great feast is not about missing a meal or a party. It’s about setting priorities and being a guest at the best party in history—which is better than brunch.