The dinner in today’s gospel is all about Jesus. We’re left to wonder if the host was hoping Jesus would teach or heal, or if they’re hoping to catch him doing something wrong. Regardless, he is the star of the show. He embraces the role. He’s not quite David Lee Roth grabbing the microphone and crying, “Look at all of the people here tonight!” He uses the dinner as a metaphor for what God is already doing and what the resurrection will be. Seating order at a dinner was more important than we can imagine. It’s an honor-shame society. You do not want the shame of moving down a seat, so, you make sure to take a seat that, if you must give it up, you’re moving upward. The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart offered an interpretation of this scene that compared ascending to a seat of honor to ascending a staircase. Having already opened the door to rock and roll, I am tempted to follow Eckhart to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” but David Lee Roth was in Van Halen, and Jesus speaks of a table. I think that’s the image we should retain.
How do we ascend to a seat of honor at the table? Meister Eckhart says we need three things. Speaking of the staircase, Eckhart says you first need a staircase with a solid base. This is humility. The Pharisee’s dinner guests used humility in picking their seats, as I said. Jesus calls for a similar humility in our faith: don’t act like you deserve the seat of honor at God’s table. In Lutheran language, we do not innately deserve a seat at the table on account of Sin. Sin is not necessarily bad things you’ve done, though Sin manifests in those. Rather, we are broken. Sin is always with us.
In the Garden of Eden, God makes people who depend utterly upon God, interact face-to-face with God, trust God to provide enough, and cannot eat God’s private stash of apples. The people are okay with this at first. Sin makes them say, “I don’t trust God. Maybe God is hiding something about the apples. Maybe we shouldn’t even touch the tree? No, let’s eat the fruit. I cannot bear to face God. Let’s put on shorts and hide from God in the bushes. I cannot admit what everyone just saw. It was my spouse’s fault. It was the snake’s fault.” That’s Sin in the Garden. At the dinner party as Jesus describes it, Sin makes us say, “We deserve a spot at God’s table,” and, “others do not deserve a spot at God’s table.” Humility says, “I do not deserve a spot at this table. It’s not up to me.” Humility makes us look at those gathered for Christ’s meal and say, “Look at all of the people here tonight. Who am I that I get to be here?”
Now, please note, this is not Jesus attacking self-esteem or basic non-sinful facts of human existence. For example, being LGBT is not a sin. It’s still common to hear church folks meaning well say in reference to sexual orientation or gender identity, “all are sinners,” which is true…and in that conversation suggests that sexuality is a sin. It isn’t. That comment suggests, “Well, my sin is difficulty forgiving my parents for things they could not control, which is bad, just like your being attracted to women.” Those two things are not the same. Yes, all are sinful. But there is not some “normal” person you can compare to. There is no “Ideal” person that we could say, “I measure up to him here, but not there.” There’s only one perfectly human being: Jesus. And today he is talking about seats at God’s table and the sin of thinking God owes you a seat and God needs to keep others out. So, let’s get on with that.
We’re humble. That was the first thing Meister Eckhart said we needed. What was the second? Speaking of the staircase, Eckhart says that to ascend one must give up responsibilities that would weigh one down or keep one on the lower level. Makes sense. Want to go upstairs? Stop what you’re doing down here. In the Gospel we’re talking about the table. The specific sin is feeling that we deserve a spot and/or that others do not. We look around and say, “Look at all of the people here tonight. Who do they think they are?” Our confession this morning says, “Our sins hurt and diminish us… our lives bear the scars of sin. Show us your mercy, O God.” It expresses a basic fact of life: we cannot free ourselves from Sin. It’s always there.
Thinking I deserve a spot weighs me down. How must energy to I spend thinking God owes me? It’s more than I care to admit. How much energy to I spend being angry or disgusted at people I don’t think deserve that spot? It’s a disturbing amount, varies with how much of the news I read that day. It weighs on me. I need to let go of it, and I cannot do so on my own. Christ will carry it for me. Christ is like the coat check guy. As you’re on your way to communion Christ sees you still wearing all the reasons you think you deserve a seat and someone else does not, and Christ says, “Here, I’ll take that for you.” And this is a challenge. Can you let Christ carry your idea that you deserve a seat or that someone else does not? When we do, we look around, and say, “Look at all of the people here tonight—Christ is carrying the sins of every single one.”
Finally, Meister Eckhart says, there’s a third requisite to taking our seat. Speaking of the staircase, Eckhart says we must turn our hearts toward to the top of the stairs and what is there, which is love, God’s love, God, who is love. You don’t climb the stairs unless you want what’s at the top. In the Gospel, you don’t take a seat at God’s table unless you want God. The whole reason you want to sit at God’s table is you desire proximity to God. The God at the table owes a seat to no one yet makes everyone worthy.
In the Eucharistic Prayer we’ve used this summer, we pray an adaptation of a second century prayer from a document called the Didache or The Teaching of the Apostles. In the prayer, the priest holds up the bread and prays, “As this lay scattered upon the mountains and became one when it had been gathered, so may your Church be gathered into your kingdom from the ends of the earth.” Just as grains are growing in every direction, on flat places and in cracks, as far as the eye can see, and are drawn from their places into one loaf, so people are every which way, living in every conceivable condition, and God draws them all together into one. God loves. Actively. In every life. Look at all of the people here tonight.
The triune God makes people worthy. Does it for everyone. You cannot be too unworthy for God. Sometimes we may think we’re too much of a mess for God. If your god cannot justify you, your god is not really god. God makes you worthy. Sometimes we may thing someone else is too horrible for God. If your God has “unworthies”—people too despicable to be admitted to the table—you are following a phony god. God makes people worthy. God calls us to embody that. That was the absolution offered after confession: “‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Be at peace, and tell everyone how much God has done for you.” It’s why our table is open. Some traditions say you must be their sort of Christian to partake of the table. If I am in their space and know that I try to respect that. But we understand this meal to be offered to people whom God makes worthy, and God does that to everyone. Our meal here is open.
Our meal is open. Now, we don’t want to get paternalistic with this. We do not want to start thinking, “We are so gracious, welcoming all of these reprehensible people.” I said earlier there is no Ideal person. Similarly, there’s no Ideal worshipper who’s got it together, is always in the right intellectual and emotional spot, is always in the right spot in the liturgy and lives a perfect life all week. There’s no Ideal, no yardstick, that we could say, “Our congregation is fifty percent normal and fifty percent messed up people.” Each worshipper is an individual. Each individual has their own stuff going on right now (in worship) and in life, and God has made all of us worthy. Look at all of the people here tonight.
What now? We ascended to our seat of honor. God has lovingly taught us humility (Yes, Tim, you are a mess and do not deserve a seat). God has carried our sin for us (Tim, I’ll take that). And God has focused our lives on God’s love. (Tim, I make you worthy. Sit, so we can eat.) What now? This meal is both a sign of something to come and a meal right now. Jesus delivers his teaching in the middle of dinner. And this side of the resurrection, we eat at both heavenly and earthly tables. We are eating the banquet at the end of the world and bread and wine on the first of September. Our table is open because it is God’s table. Whether it’s this one here with holy words and objects; whether it’s the table of fellowship; the table at which men without homes eat on Mondays; the table in our homes; the table of our community; the table of our country; the table of the world; the table at the end of the world. It is God’s table. God makes the diners worthy. The table is open. Look at all of the people here.