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Percolator hospitality

This post was originally the script of an episode of my short-lived podcast called
Not Your Ordinary Joe

If you had a time machine and could go back to any time or place from your childhood, where would you go?

I’ve actually thought about this a lot, and I have a short list of times and places I’d like to revisit, but way toward the top of my list would be a chance to revisit just about any Friday night in the mid-1970s at my grandmother’s house — a home that always smelled and often sounded like coffee.

I say “sounded like coffee,”because my grandmother made coffee in a large electric percolator.

For those too young to remember… In the time before Keurig coffee pods and drip coffee makers, coffee was often brewed in an appliance called a percolator. My grandmother’s was an urn, that in my memory was very large.

I liked watching her make coffee. She’d fill the urn with water and insert a hollow metal tube into the machine into its spot in the center. Next came the basket that rested on the hollow tube toward the top of the earn where she added the ground coffee. Finally, she closed the lid, turned it on, and stood back.

Making coffee in a percolator is a somewhat violent process. As the water heats, it is forced up the hollow tube and shoots in spurts against the lid, and sprays down over the grounds. The force of the water hitting the lid was great enough to unseat the lid — just for a fraction of a second — and then it would return to its place with a satisfying kalunk.

That, to me, is the sound of coffee: kalunk, kalunk, kalunk.

As a kid, I remember watching the coffee percolate. The knob on the lid on my grandmom’s coffee maker was clear, and I would watch the water splash against it. Slowly turning darker and darker as the coffee got stronger and stronger — or as my grandfather said, “better and better.”

Plus, I was convinced that one day the lid was going to blow right off that thing, and I didn’t want to miss it. That never happened, of course, but the repeating kalunk of the percolator still has a sweet spot in my memory today.

Coffee lovers

Coffee was important to my maternal grandparents. They were coffee lovers long before being a coffee lover was cool.

They sometimes went to the local McDonald’s and ordered two of what they said was the best coffee in town. Then, they would sit at a booth and just drink coffee. We thought that was so weird. Who would go someplace to just get coffee??

Turns out, the answer is me… years later… at Starbucks or Dunkin’ or just about any local coffeehouse—even McDonald’s from time to time.

But for my grandparents, going out for coffee was rare and unnecessary because there was always coffee at grandmom’s house. And I don’t mean in the can ready to be brewed. I mean in the pot ready to drink—morning, noon, and night.

Even as a kid, it always seemed to me that the coffee was prepared for others. Her percolator filled with ready to drink coffee was a sign of the welcome—the hospitality to be found in her house.

My grandmother was almost always home. She never got a driver’s license and there wasn’t much within walking distance of her house back then. So, people came to her. Her sisters would stop by and gossip over coffee. Neighbors would sometimes come over for a cup. My mom — the rebellious tea drinker — didn’t stop grandmom from having a cup of coffee herself when we visited.

And most importantly for my time machine fantasy, coffee was the center of our Friday night family gatherings at Grandmom’s house.

We lived near a bakery, so we would often bring dessert—always something that went with coffee—and the family would squeeze around grandmom’s dining room table to reconnect after a week apart. Some of my favorite childhood memories are hanging around aunts, uncles, and cousins on Friday nights at grandmom’s house.

A place at the table

When I think back, it’s kinda funny how much I liked going to my grandparents’ house as a child. I mean, there really wasn’t anything specific for the kids to do. No toys. No playground in the backyard except horseshoes.

My other set of grandparents, who also lived in town, had an in-ground pool where I learned to swim and dive. But somehow, that was never as good.

An aunt and uncle nearby had a rec room with a large screen TV and an Atari gaming system that included Pong and Tank Battle—but even that didn’t have the same draw.

I guess I always knew my grandparents didn’t have a lot, and that things were sometimes really hard for them.

My mom, who is not particularly known as a joke teller, once offered one of the greatest one-liners I’ve ever heard… “Growing up,” she said, “We were so poor that we didn’t even get junk mail.” Brilliant.

But somehow that didn’t matter. I liked being in the house with the noisy coffee maker. In fact, if I had a time machine, that’s where I would go back to.

And the reason is simple. I had a spot at my grandmother’s table.

I can still picture it—the far left corner as you entered her dining room. A seat between my dad and grandpop, who always had my rapt attention whenever they talked about cars (my grandfather was the mechanic at the Texaco station on Main Street).

When the adults played Pinochle, we watched and “helped.” When they talked about family, we heard stories about relatives we’d never met. And no matter how many people were there, no matter how tightly we had to squeeze around the table, my brother and I and the rest of our cousins, always had a place. Even when I had to give up my chair to an adult, I didn’t have to give up my spot. I could stand nearby, or sit in mom or dad’s lap.

I was welcome at the table and I loved it there.

The ‘Party Parables’ of Luke 15

It’s interesting to note that when Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God in the Bible, he often used the image of a table. He told stories about banquets, parties and other celebrations.

The Kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet, he said. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who threw a party, he says in another place. There’s wine and fattened calves in his stories. It all sounds exciting. And frankly expensive.

Those images are kind of an odd choice for a bunch of people who were so poor that… in the words of my mom… they probably didn’t even receive junk mail.

The first followers of Jesus were struggling to get by. Parties and banquets were a luxury they could scarce afford.

If you are of a certain age, I’m guessing when I said fattened calf earlier you thought of either Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” — “we’ll kill the fatted calf tonight so stick around.” — or if you grew up in church you may have thought of the end of the story we call the parable of the prodigal son.

It’s the story of a younger son who asks for his inheritance, spends some time on his own — lost to his father — then goes back to his dad when things get bad. When he arrives home, the dad asks his servants to bring the best robe to put on him, rings for his fingers and sandals for his feet. Then he orders them to kill the fattened calf and throw a party.

That story is actually the third in a series of stories Jesus tells in Luke 15. We preachers like this one best, because it is a complete story with elements of a hero’s journey, family conflict, and character development — a whole host of sermon topics. The other two are more like extended similes.

The first one begins, “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them.” Jesus points out that the sheepherder would leave the 99 to find the one. When the shepherd returns to the flock carrying the lost sheep, Jesus says, “he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’”

The second is about … well let’s just read the whole thing: “Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’”

Only after those two stories do we get the story that involves a lost person — a son — and when he is found, the dad throws an extravagant party with robes, rings, sandals, and a fattened calf.

Lots of people talk about how these parables all talk about lostness — a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. But I like to think of these stories in Luke 15 as the party parables, because each one of them ends with a celebration of a reunion. “Come, celebrate. My lost sheep/coin/child has been found.”

When you look only at the third story, it seems strange for Jesus to talk about a party his first listeners could not have thrown. There’s no way they could throw an extravagant party anywhere near the one the dad throws at the end of the lost son story. And may have assumed that’s not a party they would have even been invited too.

But I don’t think that’s their story. They aren’t the party-throwers in that one.

The first two stories show what human beings would do. There are a couple of clues in the text that help us understand what’s going on here. Look how Jesus starts each of the stories.

The lost sheep story starts this way, “Suppose someone among you had 100 sheep.” He’s talking to religious leaders here, and some have speculated that there is a subtle dig in Jesus’s phrasing because none of them would have been tending sheep — that was a job for the “unclean,” the unreligious for lack of a better word. But certainly they would celebrate with the flock was back together again.

And when Jesus gets to story 3, he is very specific. He begins, “A certain man…” Something else is going on here. This is a story about a father, the father, and the extravagance of God.

It’s story two, the story of the lost coin, that is their story, our story. The heroine is an every woman. Jesus introduces here saying, “what woman if she owns 10 coins…”

She could be anyone in any time. She’s you and me. And her celebration isn’t extravagant. Some might even argue it isn’t worth celebrating. I mean, who calls their friends together because they found their keys in the bottom of their purse or some change between the couch cushions?

Yet Jesus tells us this is cause for celebration. Why? Because something is back where it belongs. When lost ones find their place, there is cause for celebration.

Who’s at the table is what counts

Which brings me back to my grandmother’s percolator — I bet you didn’t see that one coming, did you?

The Kingdom of God isn’t always an extravagant banquet, with fine china, crystal glasses and real silverware. It isn’t only about robes, rings, sandals and fattened calves.

I learned from my grandmom that hospitality isn’t so much about the extravagance of the party, but about who has a seat at the table. Dessert at my grandparent’s might have been something fresh from the bakery or an Entenman’s cake from the grocery store. We sat in dining room chairs, folding chairs, or simply stood nearby. It didn’t matter. What mattered was being at the table. And when we are all in our spots, there was cause for celebration.

When the time came for Jesus to leave the disciples something to remember him by, Jesus took ordinary bread and ordinary wine and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And we still do whenever we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion today. We are welcome at that table. And Jesus told the disciples and us, that one day we will gather again with him around his table.

Even for Jesus it wasn’t about the extravagance of what was on the table, but of who was around the table.

That’s how we point to the Kingdom of God in the world today—by throwing little celebrations. Whenever we call our friends together to celebrate our victories — finding what was once lost — we are doing what God has called us to do. Sitting at Starbuck’s — or McDonald’s — and having a conversation with someone we love, is cause for celebration.

When we show love and acceptance to someone we don’t know, yet somehow recognize as part of the family; When we show patience, offer a listening ear, or an understanding nod — even when we’re not sure we understand; When we take time to allow another to share their story, their life with us. When relationships are reconciled. When the lost are brought back to the many. Any time we make someone feel welcome “just as they are.” When everyone is in their place, the party can start because we are right where we belong.

That’s why if I were given a time machine, I would return to my grandmother’s table on a Friday night. It’s a sign of the kingdom of God (of heaven) for me, because I have a spot in the far left corner between my dad and grandpop.

That’s the place that I hope Jesus has gone to prepare for me one day. A place that sounds and smells like coffee. A place where our family will be reunited, where we’ll all find our place, and we’ll get to catch up, share our stories and celebrate over a mediocre cup of coffee!


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