We were away for a few days this week with friends, and while eating dinner with them one night someone asked me what I was preaching about on Sunday. I told him that the sermon was about just what we were doing: eating dinner. For us it seems like such a non-controversial subject; certainly not something to build a sermon around. But in Jesus' time it was the one thing that he was criticized for more than any other.
I got all choked up during Holy Week this year. It wasn't on Palm Sunday when the children came in waving their palms. It wasn't when the Hallelujah Chorus was sung on Easter. It wasn't even during the Tenebrae service on Good Friday when the sanctuary went black and we left in silence.. It was on Holy Thursday when we remembered and celebrated the Last Supper. That evening I wasn't even participating as a preacher or liturgist in the service. I was sitting next to Kim in the third row, and as I watched person after person come forward to receive the bread and wine of that holy meal, I was brought to tears. After 16 years at St. Luke's, I know so many of you. As I saw you walking forward, you were all shapes and sizes. You were Asian, Caucasian, African-American, Latino, and others. You were young, old, married, single. I saw you one by one. I remembered the things we have shared: unexpected deaths, new births, weddings, divorces, baptisms, comings and goings, times of great joy and times of tremendous challenges. I was all teary—Kim took my hand and rubbed my back—because we were all coming to the same table. We were all welcomed by the same Lord. We were all assured that we had a place.
That which we take for granted here at the table of the Lord was at one time quite a social scandal. Jesus, the one who taught with authority and intimated that he was the Messiah, the Holy One of God, was anything but holy given the kinds of people with whom he would pass the lamb shanks and lift a cup of wine. And his enemies, the other religious leaders, called him out on it.
Eating with others is actually one of the most intimate things we do. Choosing with whom we will share that intimacy says a lot about who we are. I would tell you this story even if it wasn't my own daughters who did it, but as a Dad I am particularly proud of them. My girls, Kristin and Meredith were always popular at school, and often times popularity can lead to cliquishness. Not so for Kristin and Meredith. We would hear from their teachers how both of them would always notice the kid who was eating alone at lunchtime, oftentimes the kid who was unpopular or different for some reason, and they would pick up their trays and go sit with them. Given that lunchtime relationships were, and probably still are, of paramount social importance in school, they made strategic and compassionate decisions about those with whom they would eat and drink their macaroni and cheese and box drinks.
Have you ever stopped to consider how important meals are in the Judeo-Christian tradition? The most important holy day for the Jews is Passover, and it is commemorated by a meal. The central sacrament of the Christian faith is Holy Communion, a sort of mini-meal that recalls not only the last meal of Jesus with his disciples but also several post-resurrection meals and a heavenly banquet yet to come.
The scriptures recount more meals than prayer meetings! The whole saga of human sin begins with a meal of sorts in the Garden of Eden after God has specified what is on the menu and what is not. Abraham and Sarah serve a meal to strangers, only later to realize that they were actually angels. Escape from Egypt is remembered with a meal. God feeds the people manna and quail in the wilderness. Moses receives the Ten Commandments, and then to seal the covenant with God, he and the elders of the tribes go up on Mt. Sinai where we are told that they "ate and drank with God." Many dramatic stories are set in the context of meals: kings making promises, people seeing visions. Meals and the choices of food are so important to the Jews that hundreds of laws are set in place to regulate washing, dining, and even inviting.
Put together the intimacy of eating with the laws regarding "acceptable practice" and then mix in the preacher from Nazareth who is always pushing the limits of those carefully lined boxes, and you have a script for confrontation, as well as an opportunity for insight into the mind of God.
I suppose I don't need to say much about the dinner Jesus attended. Tax collectors were viewed as turn-coat sell-outs to the Romans, and as for the rest of the "sinners," they were both the people who violated the moral law as well as those who violated the scribal law. As William Barclay points out,
The man who committed adultery and the man who ate pork were both sinners; the man who was guilty of theft and murder and the man who did not wash his hands the required number of times and in the required way before he ate were both sinners. These guests of Matthew no doubt included many who had broken the moral law and played fast and loose in life; but no doubt they also included many whose only sin was that they did not observe the scribal rules and regulations.1
The interesting thing is what Jesus said back to his critics: "I have come for the sick, not the healthy: the sinner, not the righteous." The more precise translation would be: "I haven't come for the ones who think they have it all figured out and are self-satisfied in their righteousness. I have come for the ones who know they need some help."
Our core-value of Christ-centered acceptance is based on this table text. We welcome all because only God and the person who maybe even timidly takes a place at the table knows what help is needed. A psalmist once wrote, "Our help is in the name of the Lord."2 That name is Jesus. He has a place of acceptance for all.
1 The Gospel of Mark, The Daily Study Bible, commentary on this passage
2 Psalm 124:8