August 20, 2023 — The Rev. Mary Anderson

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The Dinner Party

“Everything that has divided us will merge
And both women and men will be strong
And both men and women will be gentle
And all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And all will nourish the young
And all will live in harmony with each other.”

Is this make-believe, wishful thinking, a fairy tale before an antagonist shows up? A contemporary take on the message of scripture, a new Jerusalem? Heaven on earth? A vision quest? But these lines are not a reframing of theology and were not written for Sunday morning. They are part of an exhibit that opened in the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1979.

Imagine a table forty feet long in three equal sides, about the area of this section of this room. The table is set for dinner for 39 people, 13 on a side. Each plate is unique and sits on fabric embroidered with a name: an abolitionist, someone in the arts, the humanities, in science, or myth, Sojourner Truth and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Georgia O’Keefe and Jane Goodall, Jane Austen, Ishtar, and Sophia. Beneath the table, pieces of tile have the names of nine hundred and ninety-nine others. The art lives in the Brooklyn Museum, the artist is Judy Chicago, and the exhibit is called The Dinner Party.

You notice that the dinner guests are women. In 1979, there was not enough conversation about the prevalence of patriarchy, about glass ceilings, and roadblocks. But this piece of art is not only a social or cultural statement. It takes an ethical and moral position. The Dinner Party is an invitation and an opening, a threshold to imagine, “What if…?” What if we did share equally in the Earth’s abundance? What if compassion were combined with power? The art is an invitation into something larger, more open, another way of thinking, something bigger on the other side.

Every Tuesday at 12 o’clock, I stand outside a shed about 30 feet long on Bainbridge, home to far and away the best food I have ever seen. Brian McWhorter has grown organic produce for forty years, the long fields lined with rows of dahlias just for the beauty of it. He set up a 501c3 to build three small houses for six interns who apply and come from all over the county to learn from him, and when I get to the shed, the interns have gathered crops, washed and sorted them, put them in baskets on tables. And they leave.

Sometimes nobody is there. Sometimes Brian is around, sometimes he tells me about himself, shows me photos of his granddaughters in Maine, and he leaves. During Covid, he couldn’t go to Mexico in winter, so he kept sowing crops and gathered the produce, and put everything out by himself, and every Tuesday I took the ferry and showed up at the shed and found a sort of redemption.

The abundance always surprises me and takes me aback, with Brian picking corn right behind the shed. I pick out produce and fruit and eggs and chickens and pork, write the amount by my name on a chipboard, and walk away. No checkouts, no questions, no computers, no phones, no credit cards. Hybrid lilies and sweet peas sit in great containers beside the shed, and nobody bothers them, and last Tuesday at ten minutes after twelve, it came to me that this is heaven on earth, “And all will live in harmony with each other.”

Right after the near fiasco with Peter walking on water, Jesus walks into Gentile territory, to the fringes, and encounters a woman, a Canaanite, a Syrophoenician. She’s an outsider: Gentile, female, and alone, and in that culture, she is suspect. We don’t even know her name. But she’s heard about Jesus and calls him “Lord,” as if she were an insider, part of the Hebrew community. The story reflects the mindset of the time, and Jesus does not answer her. The woman kneels in the dust and begs, “Lord, help me,” and he looks at her.

He uses the word “dog” when he speaks to her. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Do not give what is holy to dogs,” speaking of Gentiles as junkyard dogs. Here he uses a different word, one that refers to a house dog. It’s the only time that Jesus uses that word, and the woman catches the subtle shift and finds her voice: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs…”

If the conversation strikes you the way it strikes me, I shift from feeling slightly uneasy to being embarrassed, “Can you believe she’s doing this?” And there’s discomfort because her exclusion reads to me exactly the way it has felt to me. The woman’s assertion makes me queasy, afraid that she will be rebuffed yet again, but her spirit is abundant and open, full of hope, and he heals her daughter, instantly, “And all will live in harmony with each other.”

The story is provocative and feels like an invitation. We’re caught up in her dignity, and agency, and hope. She believes in what she’s doing. A line from David Whyte comes to mind, “The doors have always been there to frighten you and invite you.” Yes, Jesus is on a mission to the Hebrews, but there is no stopping the inclusivity of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom breaks open suddenly, without warning. There’s great abundance, more than enough, with room enough, inside.

The exchange is heavy with promise: “This is how you’ll find the kingdom of heaven.” This is the vision, and once there’s a vision, there is hope. And that hope and belief bring me back to The Dinner Party. In this light, hear the full text of the poem as Judy Chicago wrote it, adding one word that I left out earlier, the word ‘then.’

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be combined with power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

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