I love eating in diners. You how to tell if you are in a good diner? Your coffee cup is never empty. There is always a waitress coming by to fill it. You get to half a cup and this friendly voice says, “Hon, you want more coffee?” And your cup is full again.
I recently preached a funeral for one of the street people who was a part of our church. I knew a lot of his friends from the streets would attend, as well as members of our church, who are run of the mill Presbyterians. I had chosen to preach on the Luke passage where Jesus reads from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
I knew how to aim this at the street people who were at the service. I wanted them to know that Jesus was on their side. But how would the church members take it? “Didn’t Jesus come for all us” I could imagine hearing. “Are you saying these people are somehow special? Didn’t Jesus come to help me too?” How was I going to thread this needle? Yes, Jesus did come for all people. But there are these pesky parts of the Bible where he indicated he came especially for the needy.
Then I stumbled onto diner theology.
In a diner, the waitress comes to fill empty cups. If your cup is full, she does not need to serve you. But if it is early in the morning, and you are not used to being out that early, and you are pretty sleepy, not yet awake, and your coffee cup is empty, a good waitress will come fill your cup.
So, in the diner of life, it’s not a coffee cup, it’s your heart. And instead of coffee, it’s love. We go through life and our hearts get wounded or broken–it can happen in a thousand different ways–and up comes Jesus, saying, “Let me fill that heart for you. Looks like your heart is running low. Looks like you are about out of love. Let me fill that heart for you.” My friend Jesus goes to the broken hearts, and he tries to fill them with love. And because I’m one of Jesus’ friends, he says to me, “You know, there are a lot of broken hearts out there. Why don’t you help me try to fill them. I need your help on this.” And because Jesus is such a great friend, I try to help him. The church tries to help him.
When you are trying to fill hearts with love, you run into two problems. The first is that people put their hands over their cups and say, “No thanks. Don’t need it.” If the waitress was determined to fill the cup, and poured coffee on their hand, she would actually burn the person with hot coffee. That’s not a good idea. It is hard to pour love on someone who does not want it, or worse yet, has no cup to hold it. We don’t ignore that person. We still try to help them. But it is harder.
When someone says they don’t to be loved, there is nothing you can do about. There is nothing my friend Jesus can do, except wait until they are ready to be loved.
But there is a second problem, a much bigger problem. Imagine a diner where the waitress comes to the table, and one cup is almost empty and the other is full. And imagine the person with the full cup is well dressed, looks like they have some money, and the person with the empty cup looks kind of shabby, like maybe they have been sleeping on the streets. And the waitress goes to the guy whose cup is already full, and pours in more coffee, and ignores the guy whose cup is empty.
When Jesus says he came to preach Good News to the poor, release to the captives, help the blind see, and free the oppressed, he is saying that he came to fill the empty cup. Its not that he doesn’t care about the person with the full cup. But the empty cup needs to be filled. As Jesus said, in Mark 2:17, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Jesus goes to the empty cup. And that is what he calls us, his friends, to do. But too often the friends of Jesus spend more time filling cups that are already full, and not enough time filling empty cups. Coffee runs all over the table, spilling around empty cups, which remain empty and ignored.
Some people get spiritually fat, soaking up words and words, claiming blessing after blessing, while others sit ignored by churches, and spiritual leaders. This is not the way of Jesus. Nor should it be the way of the friends of Jesus.
Perhaps it is understandable. We see the empty cups and we think, “I don’t have enough love to share. I barely have enough for myself.” The thing is, love is one of the few things that, the more you give it away, the more you have. Because our friend Jesus is always coming around to us, saying, “Your cup looks empty. Let me fill it for you, so you can fill the cups of others.”
In a good diner, the cup is never empty. The major difference between a diner and a church, is that Jesus tells us that we are both waitress and customer. Jesus serves us, but then calls us to serve others. After he washes his disciples’ feet, he says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher (i.e. waitress), have washed your feet (poured you a cup of hot coffee), you also ought to wash one another’s feet (fill each others’ cups). For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Too often we think of the Church as a posh social club for Christians. Better to think of the Church as a diner, where we all serve one another.