NB: The following is a sermon I delivered at Presbyterian New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs, NY on October 6, 2019.
Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church
It was a holiday weekend. Everybody was in town, and all of the shops were crowded.
And the word on the street was that the police were going to arrest Jesus. There was a warrant out for his arrest – the police had an informant who had given them the goods on Jesus, and now it was just a matter of finding him.
I find it interesting, and somewhat reassuring, that on the night Jesus knew he was going to be arrested, he decided to be with his friends. He could have run and hid. He could have left town, or hidden in someone’s attic. Instead, he had supper with the people who mattered to him.
We don’t know an awful lot about his mood that night, or what he was thinking. Thanks to a different witness to the story, we know that during dinner, a fight broke out at the table about who was going to be in charge after Jesus left.
I have to wonder if that frustrated him. I mean, over the preceding three years, they had seen the blind be given sight, had watched him raise Lazarus from the dead, had seen him tell beggars and paupers how to claim their dignity in the face of the most powerful regime the world had ever known.
And Jesus had told them that they could do it too. They could do even greater things.
Together, they had crisscrossed the countryside, telling people the Good News that the Kingdom of God was at hand. They had healed the sick, cared for the dying, gave meaning to those who had theirs taken away, fed the hungry, confronted the Powers that Be, and bore witness to the goodness of God to people who had legitimate reason to doubt that goodness.
And on the night when he is in grave danger, on the night he could have ran away, but instead decided to be with them – on that night, they are still not getting it. They are still bickering. Trying to grab power for themselves.
So, I think it’s safe to say he had to be frustrated.
We also know he was scared. The story goes that after supper was over, he is going to take his best, closest friends and go into the garden and pray – hard. He is going to fervently ask God to for this to go down any other way. He is asking for mercy, and he is so upset that he is sweating giant drops as he prays.
The New Revised Standard translation of the Bible tells us he is in anguish as he prays, but the old King James I memorized as a child said that he was in agony.
All of that had to be building up while he was eating, while he was watching the infighting and the bickering.
Frustrated, and afraid.
Judas had betrayed him to the cops – he knew that.
And then Peter. Oh Peter.
Mark Twain once said that no man was completely worthless, as he could always serve as a bad example. I feel that way about Peter sometimes.
Peter just kept going on and on about how much he loved Jesus, and the whole time, Jesus knows he is going to betray him too. Before the night is over, Peter won’t even admit he knew Jesus, let along stand up with him.
So it is in the midst of this, surrounded by fears and doubts and unworthy friends that Jesus does something both simple and yet radical.
He took the bread and the wine off the table. He blessed it. He shared it. And he told them that when they shared food with each other, they were to remember.
It was that simple. And that complex.
Because it wasn’t just about sharing food – but the sharing of the food was important. It wasn’t just about being with your friends, even though they were betraying you – but loving your friends in their failures was important. It wasn’t even about having a community that was large enough to include both a government employee and a zealot who wanted to overthrow that government, large enough to have people of various races and a wide range of educational levels – but the diversity of people at the table is important too.
No, Jesus showed them that sharing a meal with people – with people who are at odds with you, with people who frustrate you, with people who are different than you, with people who share your values but don’t always live up to them – that sharing a meal like that is an act of resistance to the Powers that seek to make us afraid of each other.
Imagine a world if we made room for meals like that to happen?
In a world like that, the supper table is an altar, and the meal spread out on it an offering of faith to the idea of a better world than the one we live in now.
* * *
My wife and I have some friends, Linda and Hank*. They are in their 70’s, and they have had a life full of adventures. As a result, they have a wide range of friends from all over the world. And when we lived in their city, so far from our own families, they sort of adopted us. A mutual friend said once that Linda and Hank collect people. And we were part of their collection.
They lived in a large old house, filled with knick-knacks from their travels – there is the ancient Turkish rug, over there the Buddha from India, the buffalo skin from the Southwest, the antique couch from Goodwill. It was an eclectic house, but in a good way.
And when we lived there, we went to their house for Thanksgiving. Everyone brought something, and just as their friends were eclectic, so was the meal – there was American style turkey and dressing, for sure, but there was also babaganoush, and eggrolls, and empanadas, and baklava. They would put out the invitation – if you don’t have a place to eat Thursday, well, now you do. Come as you are and bring what you can.
When you got there, the table was already full, but Linda would always say, ‘Don’t worry – we will make room”, and another chair magically appeared and people would scooch their chairs and now there was room for one more person at this most unlikely of feasts. By the end of the day there would be several tables added to the end of the dining room table that now extended into the living room.
And I am here to tell you, that would be the best meal you had all year, and the most diverse. The last year we were there we ate with, among others, an undocumented house painter, a professional dulcimer player, a nurse who worked on death row, a Syrian mathematician, a folk singer, and the woman who worked the front desk at a nearby retirement community.
I think of those meals often when I think about the sort of meals Jesus envisioned. A table that is full, but there is always room for more. A table where there is already plenty, but we accept what people bring with them, and we can always scooch over to make room. A table where honest conversations can happen, where we can enter as strangers but leave as friends.
It’s worth noting that such meals do not happen by accident. They never went to a thrift store without hunting for folding tables and chairs so they could fit more people. They had a huge stock of serving platters and mismatched flatware and plates. There was an intentional invitation – in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, if you had a conversation with them, you would be invited, and had a standing invitation from then on. These meals were planned to be wide ranging and inclusive from the beginning.
If we are going to have the sort of meals Jesus had, we are going to have to plan for them too. If you put it out in the world that everyone is welcome, and you really mean it, you can’t be shocked when the person who eats with you betrays you later. You can’t be shocked when one of your closest friends won’t stand with you when it counts. You can’t be shocked by who shows up.
And if you invite everyone and mean it, it means it’s Ok when the person who shows up doesn’t look like you, or vote like you, or live in a house like you, or have the same sort of manners you do. No, all you can do is scooch your chair over and say, “We will make room.”
And when we do that, the world changes. Not huge, earth-shattering changes, but in small, incremental ways, the world becomes better. We move closer to the better world Jesus imagined.
And we feel less afraid.
I don’t know about you, but from where I sit, the world seems pretty scary right now. There are days I am afraid to listen to the radio or look on social media, because I am just happier not knowing what new atrocity is happening.
When we are most afraid, when we are in anguish, when we are in agony about the future, when we are begging God to not make the inevitable happen – that is when we ought to share a meal with others, and remember.
When we share that meal, we bear witness to the Principalities and Powers that we are greater than our differences, and that while we may be afraid, we will not let that fear deter us from working to make God’s Kingdom a reality. That despite our fears, despite our frustrations, despite our bickering and infighting, we will persist in seeking the make it on Earth as it is in Heaven.
When we scooch our chairs over and make room at that massive, diverse table, we remember.
We remember that Jesus did amazing acts of power, and said that we could too.
We remember that Jesus showed love to the downtrodden, and we can too.
We remember that Jesus said the Kingdom of God is not some far off country, but that it is within us.
We remember that Jesus tried to love the Hell out of the world, and showed us that we can too.
We can go out into the world and share the good news that another world is possible,
It begins when we make room at that table.
It begins with a meal.
* I have changed names and some details to protect the privacy of folks, but otherwise, this is completely true, and those were the best meals ever.