Those of you who know me are aware that I love to watch movies. In many ways movies have become a powerful art form of communication for the contemporary world. Now I know there are many movies that are exploitative and which pander to the base desires of humanity. And I am aware of the economic dimensions of moviemaking. But in spite of all these temptations and problems, there are movies which speak to the human condition in profound and transforming ways.
My life and faith have been enriched by movies like Gandhi, The Mission, Schindler’ List, Places in the Heart, Brother Sun Sister moon, the Color Purple, Amazing Grace, and so many more. The scenes, dialogues, characters, and stories in these and many other movies have become a leavening part of my consciousness.
One of my favorite movies is Fried Green Tomatoes. I turned down Susan’s invitation to see the movie in the theaters when it first came out. I had heard that it was about an old woman in a nursing home. I had spent more than enough time in nursing homes with old women over the years as a pastor and felt I would not enjoy a movie that focused on an elderly woman in such an institution. Years after the movie was in theatres, it was on television. Susan was watching it and as I walked by, something was said that grabbed my attention. I sat down and watched the rest of the movie with my wife and then asked, “Why didn’t you tell me this was such a good movie?” Susan merely rolled her eyes and said she did tell me, but I wasn’t listening.
In this movie, based on Fannie Flagg’s novel by the same name (which I also read), we are introduced to a variety of characters. In many settings these characters would have been seen as misfits. They certainly challenged the cultural norms and expectations of their time. But their unconventional behavior and willingness to find and express love and community wherever they could allowed for a redemptive difference in the little town of Whistle Stop.
Idgie and Ruth (the heroines of the movie) owned and ran the “Whistle Stop Café” known for its fried green tomatoes. They served anyone who came to their establishment—black or white, rich or poor. With tender compassion they nourished an alcoholic hobo named Smokey Lonesome. Smokey found in the fellowship of the Whistle Stop Café the nearest thing to family he would ever know. Years later when his dead body was found on a railroad car, he had only one possession—a photo of Ruth he kept in his pocket. He was in love with her from the first moment he saw her—all those who met Ruth were in love with her.
With fiery and courageous justice, Idgie and Ruth stood up to the KKK and the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South. The two main black characters in the movie (Big George and his mother Sipsy) were family to Ruth and Idgie and were valued and protected from the violent bigots and evil customs and laws which infected the South. A redemptive community unfolded like a fragile blossom opening in the Spring.
In some ways the Whistle Stop Café became church for people who would not have been comfortable or welcomed in the traditional churches in that community. Our lectionary passage from James deals with the sin of partiality and prejudice we are tempted to commit in church as we welcome some and ignore or discredit others. In light of James’ words, I think we can learn from this movie something about the nature and mission of a church truly devoted to Jesus.
Perhaps the first lesson is that people need to feel they belong. They need to be embraced and loved as they are. Love and commitment are so rare in our world that wherever they are found, they need to be valued and celebrated as precious if not sacred.
The second lesson is that the church must take its place in the struggle against injustice which would exploit, dehumanize, and oppress others.
The problem in Whistle Stop was not that there were no churches in the town. The problem was that those churches were not willing to differentiate between the gospel of Jesus and the suffocating cultural values of that time. Fortunately, people who could not belong otherwise were brought together at this café which served fried green tomatoes. Tragically, in many communities there is no similar option for the “misfits,” the unconventional, and the marginalized. And so they are denied community while we, the church, are denied their exciting presence as we, mired down in our sameness and encrusted in our inertia, become dull, lifeless, and irrelevant.
Now I know that Fried Green Tomatoes is just a movie. And I know that Hollywood scripts are rarely as complex as life. But as pastors look out over the empty seats in their sanctuaries and reflect on the number of unchurched in their neighborhoods, I wonder what, as a church faithful to its calling in Christ, we can do to be a redemptive place where all sorts of people are brought together within authentic community. And yes, if the members of those churches allowed for that transformation, their congregational life would certainly change. But church would be so much more exciting and alive. And I think we in the church need—desperately need – a breath of fresh air.
The Table is so important in the Gospels and within our particular church tradition. The Table reminds us that God’s grace and love are for everyone without a single exception. I think it was no accident that where the redemptive inclusion in Whistle Stop occurred was around tables in a cafe. How tragic that this grace of inclusion has been turned into a table of exclusion within churches over the centuries.
But in this place—in this church—and at this Table, let there be no misunderstanding. At this Table you belong—you are embraced and loved just as you are. And so is everyone else. And if we have a problem with that, then let’s learn from Idgie and Ruth. That café was their establishment. It did not belong to those sitting at the table. This Table does not belong to us. It is the Table of the Lord who invites whomever he will. And the good news is that he invites everyone.
Do you want to make a difference in this world? Then be different. And at this Table where you belong and are embraced and loved as you are, you will find the courage to be and live that difference of grace, compassion, and courage as you watch the circle of belonging grow to match the heart of God.
Depart now in the fellowship of the Spirit.
Go forth as children of God, knowing that you belong and are valued and loved just as you are.
Go forth as a blessing from God as you share compassion and joy with all your fellow creatures.
And go forth as the family of God ever seeking to enlarge the circle which is already complete in the heart of God. Amen