The Table of Life never stops asking for your bet. Black, red, odd, even, and lucky seven always roll. Pascal made his wager with drinking buddies at the bar while his Bible stayed at home, closed on the bedside table. If a table could talk, a table would say, "The Table God has four legs, not three." When we declare, "All are welcome at this table!" remember, the invitation is for those not in the room. Once I was told to "Lay it all out on the table." I declined. My life is more profound than any metaphor.
What a seat! Let’s see: What seats or places of honor have I sat at in my life? There was front and center in the middle of the wedding party table at my wedding reception. And my fraternity had a Senior Dinner for each graduating senior so I was front and center for that meal. (Mmm. Dessert. Peppermint Ice Cream Pie in an Oreo Crust covered with chocolate syrup!) There was a particular ritual performed on a Men’s Weekend that I served on staff for a number of years where I was the center of attention for the opening act of the meal. Great fun! I certainly felt honored last November at the Birthday Dinner when Elizabeth and I sat at the February table with the McCoys. And I really can’t think of a time where I sat down at a “low place” at a table where the host ever came up to me and said, “Friend, move up higher.” I tend to be humble naturally and when I am exalted I get a little bit embarrassed.
What a seat! How about thinking of the year 2020 as a table in our lives? What has come along and pulled up a seat at your table? And made you laugh, cry, yell, scream or simply shake your head in bewilderment and disbelief? There are these wonderful BINGO memes floating around social media that play off the absolutely absurd and tragic events that have transpired this year. BINGO. Some have been calling it “Apocalypse Bingo.”
My guess is: nobody had COVID-19 for 2020. Civil unrest? How about one of the largest economic plunges in U.S. history? Sure, why not!?! Pull up a chair to the 2020 table of our lives. Killer hornets? Wildfires in California? Everyone had that on their card. It’s a regular occurrence. Hurricanes in the Gulf? Yup. It’s hurricane season. Well, how about two hurricanes at the same time? Better than that…How about a hurricane in Iowa!?! Come on. Have a seat. How about most people receiving $1,200 but Jeff Bezos’ net worth increasing by $87 billion during our pandemic crisis? Okay, Bezos, have a seat. But, just because you are the richest person in the world doesn’t mean you get to sit at the head of the table.
Speaking of head of the table…
Where was the “head” of the table at an ancient Greco-Roman-Jewish meal? That is a very good question. We know that Jesus’ parables are not what they seem at first read and always introduce just a wee little bit of a twist or surprise ending that takes the listener – or reader, in our case – by surprise AND, more often than not, challenges us in one way or another. Where was the “head” of the table? And, knowing that, if we follow Jesus’ instructions, where would we sit?
Think of the seating arrangements for the more formal occasions in your life. A Thanksgiving or Christmas meal. Dad on this end; furthest from the kitchen. Mom on this end; closest to the kitchen. And others sprinkled…how…between them and on which side of the table? One thing is sure: the seat of honor was NOT at the card table set-up in the living room for the kids. I have no idea what Emily Post protocol is for being a guest at such a meal. My guess is the guest would wait for instructions as to where to sit, right? Imagine taking Jesus’ parable seriously and going straight to the kids’ table when dinner was called? No doubt the host or hostess would say, No, no, come sit here at the big persons’ table!
Well, there are a couple of tripping points if we think of “sitting” at the table in our dining room for a formal meal. And here they are:
First, there is no such thing as the “best seat” at the table because people reclined at the table while eating. A person would lean on his or her left elbow while laying down, leaving her or his right arm and hand free to reach for food and drink from the central table. No seating. The highest “seat” in the house, the seat with the most honor was in position 1 on the right. In that manner all the other people would be on that person’s right. With one exception. The host was typically in the first position of the lowest table.
So, let’s hear what Jesus has to say one more time. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”
Where are you sitting (or laying down) when you do so at the lowest place? You are directly across from the most-honored guest. And, no matter how many tables there are you would always be directly across from the most-honored guest. Which, in my mind, is a pretty honorable place to be? And if you were asked to move up, well then, more honor, and publicly given to you. Well, thank you very much! What a great feeling. It’s like that first time where I was told I could sit in the dining room with the big people on a cushioned walnut chair rather than on a hard, metal folding chair at the kiddie table.
What a seat! And like all of Jesus’ parables not only is there a twist or surprise ending but there are two twists or surprise endings or a particular challenge that the parable presents. What is THAT in this seating chart? Yes, Jesus is turning the tables upside down at the meal table. Jesus is also telling us, without telling us, to take this way of “seating” and use it throughout out our daily lives. Our Sunday School/Study Group is addressing this in our get together after church today. Their homework was to pay attention to where their power was limited or abused or truncated in some way this past week. And, like Jesus asks over and over again in the Gospels: in this parable about the table Jesus asks us to put ourselves consciously and intentionally into that place of powerlessness anywhere and everywhere in our lives. Not just at the dinner table.
What a seat!
What a mess! How many of you have heard Paul’s description of the words at the Lord’s Table in their context before? Words said millions and millions of times over the bread and the cup over the last two thousand years: “‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” Add in Paul’s words to the Corinthians before these instructions and you get a biblical equivalent of John Belushi standing up in scripture and yelling, “Food fight!” And, not to be outdone, after the words of institution, your worst nightmare-ish vision of demon-Mom sending you off to bed with no supper for fighting with your brother.
All of this reminds me of a food fight my brother and I had in the kitchen of the house in which we grew up. The parents went out for dinner leaving two junior high-aged sons home alone and food on the table for OUR dinner. (Thanks, Mom! You’re the best!) I have no idea what the main course was but I do remember cherry jello with mandarin slices and chocolate pudding. I thought my brother and I did a fantastic job of what Paul asks of us, Examine yourselves. We did. We examined ourselves and the kitchen for spots of food. We rinsed our clothes. Mopped the floor. Wiped off cabinets and counters and the ceiling. Only to be called downstairs upon our parents return and to be asked by Mom, Why is there a mandarin orange slice in the kitchen curtain? Why is there a mandarin orange slice in the kitchen curtain? I thought about pointing at my brother. I am sure he was thinking about pointing at his brother. We took the question, Am I my brother’s keeper very seriously. Uhm, well, levitation? I mean, Keith – my brother – I think dropped an orange slice and it landed on the end of a spoon handle and, well, then my elbow accidentally came down on the spoon which then allowed the mandarin orange slice to defy gravity and fly ten feet across the kitchen to land in the fold of the curtain. I look at my brother for confirmation and I get a nod. The next morning I came down for breakfast and Mom was scraping out some dried chocolate pudding from the window frame molding.
My point, though, in sharing this story is this: If Mom has the power to pick out a mandarin orange slice in the rear fold of a curtain five feet above her line of sight – I exaggerate for effect – then how much more can God discern our hearts when we come to the table? And, I don’t think God is too concerned about mandarin orange slices in kitchen curtains or chocolate pudding in window molding as much as God is concerned about OUR concern for the Body of Christ.
Paul is on a terror in these lines of scripture: Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. Now there are many scholars who will take Paul’s little diatribe at face value and say that some wealthy people who were hungry couldn’t wait for the buffet that always accompanied the Lord’s Table celebration back then to start so they ate and got drunk before everyone else arrived, particularly before the poor and hungry folks who would like some food and drink as well. It’s like coming to one of our birthday dinners on time and yet all the food and drink is gone – including all of the pink, red and white M & M’s in the dishes at the table for February birthdays – and the rest of those gathered are having a grand time; full and content.
But Paul is NOT raging against some folks who decided to eat before the dinner bell rang. The earliest memory that I have – and I think I have shared this story with you all before – is sitting on the stairs of my apartment building where we lived when I was two or three. I am sitting about halfway up the stairs, looking at the open transom window above the door of my best friend’s apartment. There are smells of cooking and shouts of celebration as a birthday party for my friend is being held. And I am excluded, shut out, and alone. (Now, that’s what I remember. I was probably at his birthday party that he had for friends and neighborhood kids.)
It is the sting, the ache, the tears of exclusion, being shut out, and of being alone that are remembered. Remember me, asks Jesus. Paul passes along Jesus’ words: Do this in remembrance of me. The early 20th-century, Russian, Christian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev wrote, “The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question.” This bread, my body broken for you, says Jesus. The next time you break bread think about the mess WE are all in together. And the next time you hear the words, My body broken for you, remember who the you…are. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. What a mess! Imagine, the act of re-membering as an act of cleaning up after a food fight.
Holy Questioner and Divine Judge, you allowed yourself to be stretched out upon the Roman cross. May this bread and this cup stretch our minds beyond the hurt we wish to inflict, so divisions that make us hungry to hurt and thirst for our righteousness to be done come together at a table. Amen.