I knew my mother was mad at me whenever I got a cold meatloaf sandwich for school lunch. Do you remember school lunches? Do you remember how you could tell where everyone fit in the scheme of things just by observing what they brought for lunch? There was protocol to all of this, you know. It wasn’t about just a bunch of kids eating lunch, what it was really about was opening up your insides for everyone to see. The school lunchroom, after all, was the precursor to the Jr. High post-gym class shower, where everyone would see your everything or lack of everything, as you shook and shivered beneath a cold leaky drizzle of water wishing you could be anywhere else doing anything else — even eating a cold meatloaf sandwich.
No, lunch time at school was not usually the most pleasant of experiences. It could be more like exploratory surgery than necessary sustenance. And although no one ever really said it out loud, everyone knew where you stood in the scheme of things just by seeing what you brought for lunch.
The best lunches always had the small snack size bag of Doritos or Ruffles, a bright yellow banana with no brown spots, a couple of Chips-Ahoy chocolate chip cookies, and a sandwich neatly wrapped in Saran Wrap, not wax paper or tin foil. Ham, bologna, salami, roast beef — these were all okay. Last nights leftover pot roast was not (neither was last nights left over meatloaf). Peanut butter and jelly was okay as long as your Mom understood the jelly/bread issue. American cheese, Swiss cheese, these were okay. A couple of fish and some homemade bread loaves would’ve been completely out of the question.
If you came with a good lunch, the right kind of lunch, it said something about you, about your family. It said you came from an economically healthy home with at least one working parent. It said someone at home understood the importance of the right kind of school lunch. It said your last name might as well be “Brady.”
But not everyone came with a good lunch. There were the poor suckers who had their lunch packed by on older sibling, or worse yet their Dad. This meant everything inside was going to be wrong. The sandwich would be wrapped in aluminum foil with no cheese, the banana would be so brown and black that it wouldn’t even be removed from the bag, there would be no cookie in sight, and the chips would all be crushed because someone put them at the bottom of the bag instead of the top. Such a lunch meant things were not good at home. It meant your Mom had probably walked out because your Dad spent more time at the horse track than at work. It meant that all kinds of stories would begin to swirl around making you out to be an uncool, unworthy, an outsider. (Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), 33-38.)
So heaven forbid you brought the wrong kind of school lunch. The only thing worse than the wrong kind of lunch was no lunch at all. At the bottom of the totem pole were the no-lunch-kids on the school lunch program. These poor kids had to carry a colored lunch ticket with them. The red ticket meant they were on the reduced price lunch program, and the blue ticket meant they were on the free lunch program. These kids felt humiliated every time they had take out their ticket and hand it to the lunch lady in front of the whole cafeteria. They were in a whole other class and most everyone tended to avoid them. These were the kids whose parents were probably alcoholics or drug addicts
or something, whose Dads were probably in jail, who wore Dollar General clothes instead of Abercrombie and Fitch and Doc Martins, who walked with their eyes down as if looking for an escape hatch in the green linoleum floor of the cafeteria. Maybe they could be your friends on the playground, but in the lunch room the caste system was the rule of law.
It all sounds so silly now, but the measures of worth we placed upon others as children still color our world even to this day. The labeling process that has us downsize others to fit a category we paste to their foreheads began in elementary school. Actually, it began long before that in the history of humanity. Ultimately, all labels boil down to just two categories: insiders and outsiders, us and them.
For the earliest disciples of Christ, the issue was Jews versus Gentiles. All of Jesus’ disciples were Jews and the Good News of Christ was taken first to the Jews. The Gentiles (i.e. the rest of the world) were not even considered worthy candidates for the message at first. The Gentiles, after all, were unclean, sinners, dirty people who knew nothing of God, ignorant people who bowed down before stone idols, people who brought the wrong kind of lunch or no lunch at all to the market place. And a lot of the dislike the Jews had for Gentiles did have to do with something as insignificant as food. The Jews had very specific dietary laws, what could be eaten and what could not be eaten, how food was to be prepared, and when it was necessary to fast. But the Gentiles followed none of these dietary laws, therefore they were thought to be outside the love of God, outside the realm of salvation, outside friendship with Jews, outside hope itself.
But something strange happened one day, Peter and the Jewish Christians with him witnessed God’s Spirit being poured out on…Gentiles! Our text from Acts said they were “astounded.” They were dumbfounded is more like it. They had no idea that God’s love would extend so far as to include Gentiles, people with lousy lunches.
You see, there had long been a sense of entitlement within Judaism that God was now blowing away. God’s Spirit would do the choosing and not family lineage. God would choose human beings, not the other way around. And God would choose human beings to be “friends,” not slaves or servants, but friends in the sense that as friends of God people would want to do what is right and good as their part of upholding the friendship.
There is still an unfortunate sense of entitlement that pervades the Church. There are still those who proclaim what a proper lunch looks like, who focus on the food and not the friendship. There are still those who would resist believing that God’s Spirit truly shows no partiality and would dare to include those who are vastly different.
It has been said that you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. Part of the problem continues to be the fact that the Scriptures are not the only place from which we form our understanding of who God is and what God is like. Some people have an image of God as Glinda the Good Witch who simply touches the faithful with her magic wand and makes everything alright. If everything isn’t alright, it’s not Glinda’s fault, but yours — you weren’t faithful enough to deserve the good wand treatment.
And then there are those whose image of God is something akin to an uptight, judgmental perfectionist, sort of like Jerry Falwell or Kathy Lee Gifford after a few drinks. Or God as a high school principal in a gray suit who never remembers your name but is always leafing unhappily through your files. Or God as a powerless distant undefinable “thing” that has nothing to say to us and does not intervene in life.
These are not Scriptural understandings of who God is and what God is like. Nevertheless, they have invaded our psyche and set up house in the deepest recesses of our being, in places so deep we’re not even aware they exist.
And it’s with all this baggage that we come to discipleship, that we come to friendship with God through Jesus Christ. We bring our lunch room measures of human worth to worship. We bring our misinformed unconscious understandings of God to church. We bring our worldly labels and our holy restrictions and we come refusing to be surprised by grace. I mean, there’s nothing worse than finding out the kid you thought was such a loser, who brought the loser lunch everyday, turns out to be the smartest kid in the class who takes that cute little Cindy Crawford to the prom and wins the scholarship to Harvard. We don’t like surprises that challenge our conventional wisdom and show us to be the amateurs at life we truly are. We don’t like to be proven wrong. We don’t like to have our theologies challenged either and be told God is not Glinda the Good Witch or that God is free to choose friends without consulting us first.
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Many of us sit here believing ourselves to be “insiders,” which means that somehow, whether we’ll admit it or not, we’ve also identified those who are “outsiders.” And then there are those of us sitting here who feel like “outsiders,” who feel forgotten, abused, mistreated, second class. The Good News of the Gospel challenges us no matter who we are. Those who feel like outsiders are in for just as big a surprise as those who claim to be insiders. The Good News of the Gospel comes with a word that says, to a very significant extent, you people have got it all wrong. Inside/Outside, Good Lunch/Bad Lunch has to do with human ways of thinking, human categories of restriction. A Family of Friends is the only category that has a place in the Kingdom of God. When you picture the first Gentiles experiencing the gift of the Spirit in the presence of Peter and his companions, you can almost hear God laugh out loud and say, “Now that oughta give ‘em some food for thought!”
It all sounds so simple, yet the fact that this congregation is predominately able bodied, white and middle class says we ourselves have got a ways to go.
Friendship with God calls us to be more fully surprised by God’s disturbingly inclusive grace. Friendship with God calls us away from our school lunch mentality. Away from any sense of entitlement, or insistence upon dwelling in the self-pity of feeling like an outsider. Friendship with God calls us to take in the glory of God’s bigger family portrait.
We have to come to constantly remember that friendship with God came at a price, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for his friends, for us. Such friendship is still costly because we are called to do the same, to love our friends to the point of death.
The friendship Christ brought took the emphasis off the worldly and insignificant, off the junk food of adolescent lunch room divisions, and placed it squarely on the food of friendship,
squarely on living faithful lives of sacrificial label-free love. Holy lives that are a feast of friendship. Amen.
Copyright 2003, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.