A Seat At The Table
“Oh my gosh, we’re out of bread,” Rick Strandlof yelled from the kitchen, the statement putting a quick stop to the action in the church basement where moments before the commotion of Ziploc baggies, packets of mayonnaise, pumpkin pie bars, and mischievous holiday cheer had seemed unstoppable. Everyone paused but the children, who, unaware of the work stoppage, continued to slap stickers onto paper lunch sacks that read, “It bites that you you have to work on Thanksgiving. Operation: Turkey Sandwich, brought to you by House for All Sinners and Saints.”
It was our third year bringing Thanksgiving lunches to unsuspecting folks all over our city who are unlucky enough to have to work on a holiday when most of us get to be around a table with friends and family. Our “Operation: Turkey Sandwich” sack lunches mirror the traditional Thanksgiving meal: sandwiches made from freshly roasted turkey, pumpkin pie bars, and stuffing muffins (all accompanied by salt, pepper, mayonnaise and mustard packets, and a napkin). After assembling six hundred bags, we loaded them into our cars and dispersed to find any gas station cashiers, strippers, security guards, bartenders, bus drivers, hospital janitors or anyone we could track down.
It was Rick’s first Operation Turkey Sandwich. He’d been looking forward to it, as the event suited his manic personality. Six months prior, Rick had come to us a homeless, bipolar, pathological liar. Now, half a year later he was our homeless, bipolar, pathological liar.
His puffy REI vest and Levi’s had the smell of infrequent washing and he slept in an abandoned building, but Rick is without question was a help. He’d been a helpful contributor to our church. He shows up early for every event and stays late until all the work is done. But when he offered to run out and get more bread for Operation: Turkey Sandwich, I froze. That’s the thing about saying that all are welcome at your church. People take you up on it. And Rick Strandlof is a notorious con artist.
Running my thumb repeatedly over the raised numbers on the church credit card in my hand as though it might contain a message in braille for how to respond to Rick’s offer, I spun around to Eileen, a nice lady in her fifties. “Eileen, you have a car. Could you run out real quick?”
When Rick had first started showing up at church, I had met him for coffee. “I know who you are,” I had said at the start of our meeting, “so let’s just start there.”
Here’s some background:
Two years earlier, in the summer of 2009, the FBI investigated an Iraq War veteran named Rick Duncan. Duncan had been seen in TV ads endorsing political candidates and telling his story as an antiwar vet who had also been present at the Pentagon on 9/11. He had started a nonprofit fund dedicated to helping returning war veterans receive their benefits. Rick was incredibly helpful. But his name wasn’t Rick Duncan. It was Rick Strandlof. And Rick Strandlof has never served in the military. He admitted all of this in an awkward interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper in July 2009.
Soon after the interview, he was charged with violating the Stolen Valor Act, a federal statute prohibiting the unauthorized wear, manufacture, or sale of any military decorations and medals. Impersonating a war vet was not enough for Rick Strandlof; he also claimed to have been awarded a Purple Heart for being wounded in action. Rick had, of course, never received the Purple Heart, but for lying about it, he did receive a great deal of time in federal custody during his trial. And a lot of negative publicity that, for a time, had his face and name (his real name) plastered on a lot of newspapers and on TV.
On July 16, 2010, a federal judge in Denver ruled the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional because it violates free speech. In other words, a federal court determined that when Rick Strandlof lied about being a decorated war hero, it may have been reprehensible, but it was legal. All charges against him were dropped since it ends up that, unlike most con artists, Rick never deceived others in order to steal money. He just wanted to be liked. Everyone wants to be liked, right? And he just wanted to be helpful. Everyone wants to be helpful, right?
All the goodwill garnered from the work he had done on behalf of veterans was gone—replaced by hatred for having impersonated a soldier. A lot of people hate Rick Strandlof for lying to them. And yet, he didn’t stop. I’m not sure he knew how to stop.
The next summer he reappeared in Denver as Rick Gold, convincing those around him that he was born in Tel Aviv and had served in the Israeli army, none of which was true. Rick is Jewish (I think). But he’s never been to Israel and has never served in the army.
Being conned is on a small list of things I want to avoid. I had already been had by a Denver pimp and I hardly was up for repeating the experience with a Denver con man. So when Rick Strandlof showed up at church in August of 2011, my first instinct was to try to get rid of him. You know, like Jesus would do.
Ugh, Jesus. He always seems to be showing up when I want him to politely just keep out of my business. It’s the worst.
Repentance in Greek means something much closer to “thinking differently afterward and learning from it” than it does “changing your cheating ways.” Of course repentance can look like a prostitute becoming a librarian, but it can also look like a prostitute simply saying, “OK, I’m a sex worker and I’m not all to sure how to change that, but I can come here and receive bread and wine and I can hold onto the love of God without being deemed worthy of it by anyone but God.” Everyone is welcome at the table!
Rick Strandlof is trying to be a real person for the first time in his life and he doesn’t really know who that person is anymore. But he sees a glimpse of it at the communion table. He sees it in the eyes of the person serving him the wine and bread, saying, “Child of God, the body of Christ, given for you.” That’s his repentance.
Repentance, “thinking differently afterward,” is what happens to me when the truth of who I am and the truth of who God is scattered through the darkness of competing ideas. And these truths don’t ever feel like they come from inside of me. They come in weird little packages and are delivered to our lives in unexpected ways. Left to my own devices I would never welcome the likes of Rick Strandlof into my life or my church. I hate being lied to (have I mentioned that?) and I mistakenly trust more in my ability to protect myself from others than I trust in God to change my heart. But I really do love Rick and this is just one more thing that makes me believe in God.
How about this,” I suggested to Rick the first time we met for coffee and about ten minutes after my latest spiritual heart transplant. “Hang out at House for All Sinners and Saints and just be Rick Strandlof. You’re a mess, so I plan to love you, to try to keep you honest, and to keep an eye on you, but seriously, Rick,” I warned, “you’ve got to take the edge off that crazy. Go get some help.”
Rick Strandlof is more painful than being Rick Duncan or Rick Gold because the real Rick has a history of childhood neglect, mental illness, and alcohol abuse.
“It hurts a little, being loved for who I really am,” he told me recently.
Rick has been sober now for six months, he is getting help for his manic depression, and recently moved indoors. He is also one of the loudest people I’ve ever met and is so spastically hyperactive that I often wonder if he’s lying about taking his medication. He could be lying about everything, but that’s true of everybody. All I know for sure is that he’s still unbelievably helpful at every church function and that he is loved, wanted at House for All, and has a seat at the table.
In the fall of 2011, during the Occupy Denver actions, he organized and oversaw all of the food distribution at the hub of the local protests. “Distributing food at Occupy Denver is awesome!” Rick chirped to me over the phone. “Everyone is fed. It’s doesn’t matter if you are a homeless guy who is scamming and doesn’t even care about Occupy or a lawyer on a lunch break.” He pauses. “The only place I’ve ever really seen that is at communion.”…
The story I just shared comes from Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber her church a House For All Sinners and Saints is located in a changing part of Denver Colorado, the North Park Hill community has a mixture of people. We have the opportunity to invite people of all shapes and sizes to be part of our community to come have a seat at the table and experience the love and compassion of a Christ who will sit down with you and listen. All are welcome at the table.
What would it look like if we provided opportunity for all of those we encounter to experience Gods grace and peace? What if we the communion table wasn’t the only place we were able to see a lawyer, a teacher, a drug addict, a homeless man, a doctor and people of many other colors, shapes, sizes and varieties come together and in community and worship with one another, well the good news is that can happen several ways. It can happen when invite people that we know won’t come to worship, when we as a church continue to find ways we can do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. See the table is big and there is a seat for everyone at it.
This sermon contains several excerpts, direct quotes and phrases from
Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Published by FaithWords on September 10, 2013.