Luke 22:24-27, Matthew 4:18-22
Rev. Tom Herbek
January 22, 2017
When Jesus called Andrew and Peter, two fishermen, to follow him, he told them that- from now on- they’d be fishing for people. Obviously, Jesus was not a fisherman, because if he were, he’d have known that your goal is to catch the very best fish. Jesus fished in some pretty shallow pools because the fish he caught – the people that followed him – were not the very best fish, and even after he tried to help them understand what life was really all about, they still were arguing among themselves about who was the greatest, and who would get the best seats. Jesus just didn’t seem to understand that there should be reserved seats for the most important people, especially when eating. It was the rule of Jesus’ day, and it is still a rule in our day.
When I was 12 years old, my family moved to a new city. I left all my friends and moved to a new place and a new school where I knew no one. And I was not a part of the group of kids who had been together since first grade, which was pretty much everyone. It was OK in class, but then came the dreaded school lunch room and the humiliating search for a place to sit. Lillian Daniel, who moved around a lot, captures this moment in a realistic way:
Picture this moment: You enter the school cafeteria and freeze. You clutch your lunch and wonder. Where do I sit? Will I be welcomed? Will I be ignored?
This is the worst moment, but you will get through it. You will get through it because you have been the new kid before. Every couple of years, in fact, you have gone to a new school and faced this hideous moment.
But the noise from the lunch room hits you like a bomb. It is so loud and so full, but for you it is so empty. All that chattering, shrieking, and laughing does not include you, and it never has. You are the outsider. You have nowhere to sit. You could turn around and spend the lunch hour in the bathroom, but then tomorrow you will have to deal with this again. Sit down, sit yourself down. It will be okay.
“Is someone sitting here?” you ask at a table with an empty seat or two.
A shrug. “Go ahead.”
You remember your last school where, when you asked, “Is someone sitting here?” they said; “Sorry, it’s taken.” So you sat somewhere else and then spent the lunch hour looking at that still-empty seat, and the girls around it whispering to one another; saying, “That was mean,” when their laughter indicated what it really was, to them: funny.
After that, you wondered if you would always eat alone at this school. And now, sitting here, living this moment one more time, you sit down and wonder: Will they talk to me? Will I ever eat with these people again?
“What’s your name?” the girl I have joined at the table asks me. Another says, “Where did you move from?” And at her question, my heart fills with such gratitude that I fight to keep back the tears. They have welcomed me. I have a place to sit. I will not have to eat alone in the middle of a crowded room.
This was a scenario I went through every couple of years in my childhood, moving as we did from one place to another, a foreign correspondent’s family, never staying in any one country very long. That internal first-day-in-the-lunch room dialogue, I have it memorized and can recall it as if it were yesterday.
The desire to eat at a table with others seems to have been hardwired into human beings.
In Jesus’ day, who you ate with mattered. Where you sat was not a casual affair. You were associated with the people you ate with. If they were good, upstanding people and they invited you to eat at their table, you were, by association, good and upstanding too. Add to this social pressure the fact that there were dietary laws that good, observant Jews followed, and those who did not follow them were considered unclean. So eating with the wrong people, who were not careful about such observances, would make you dirty by association.
Even worse, if people were sinners, known to the community as such, you definitely didn’t want to eat with them. The only people who ate with the sinners were the other sinners, the people who had to share a table because no other table would have them.
So people kept track of these things. In Jesus’ day, they weren’t all eating in a school cafeteria; they were observing one another in small-town life. They kept track of who went into whose house, and who stayed for dinner, and who was invited and who was not invited. Everybody watched, and while there wasn’t a sign hanging over the various dining room tables, you knew who would be served and who would not.
By the time I got to high school, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., the last school I would attend before college, I had already been to nine other schools. So I knew how to read the lunchroom tables like an anthropologist. Technically, you were free to sit anywhere you liked, but not really.
There were the orchestra kids, the ethnic and cultural groupings, the loud kids, the quiet kids. One table featured a group that you never saw in any class, because they seemed to be present in school only for lunch.
There was another table that apparently you could eat at only if you were pretty. There was no sign posted, but there may as well have been. Only the handsome can sit here.
The nerds hung out together, talking about things the people at that previous table would not have been able to understand anyway.
And then there was the back table, where any type of food could be turned into an aviation device, and weapons were crafted from straws, ketchup packets, and Tater Tots-tiny fried potatoes that functioned as missiles. You remember this table from your school days.
That’s where I ended up, I must confess. Why? Because back when I was the new kid, they welcomed me.
But high school was the first place in my life where I actually got to start and graduate in one place, and so something remarkable happened over those three consecutive years. The lunch room ceased to be a place of terror and instead became for me a wonderful social buffet. And I decided not to be restricted to any one food group. I decided to cross-pollinate the lunch tables.
At first, when I would sit down at any of the aforementioned enclaves, I was stared at as if I had made a mistake. But gradually I got to know different people, make different friends, and realize that the cliques were not nearly as homogeneous as I had been led to believe.
There were smart students at the pretty table, and jocks at the orchestra table, and interesting stories everywhere. It was my grand experiment in lunch table infidelity and, like many forbidden things, it was fun.
One day at the nerd table, a guy who had seen me at the back table over the years said, “You know, Lillian, you’re a lot less of a loser than you seemed to be.”
I sympathized. “Yeah, you throw one Tater Tot and people think you’re a moron.”
“Well, you actually threw a lot of Tater Tots,” he replied. “Whatever. Dude, we’ve got to break down these walls.”
When Jesus was fishing for disciples, he was fishing in some pretty shallow pools. The people who ended up following him around were not really all that great. They definitely would not have been those voted most likely to succeed. At one point, he even called a tax collector named Matthew to be a part of his inner circle.
These tax collectors of Jesus’ day were collaborators with the ruling Roman Empire, extorting as much money as they could from Jewish people to line their own pockets, after they passed along what was actually owed to the Empire. If there were people who should be vilified and judged, it was the tax collectors.
And as Jesus sat at dinner, all sorts of other tax collectors and sinners came and joined them. Because they had become a table with a culture. Not the nerd table, not the jock table, but the sinners’ table. The rejects, the people no one else wanted to eat with. And there were Jesus and his disciples not just eating with them, but recruiting leaders from within their ranks.
The Pharisees, who were good and observant Jews, the ones who were most careful about the rules, saw this and must have said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? Why isn’t he sitting at his assigned table?” Because they were honestly baffled at this rule-breaking. They were genuinely worried that Jesus was making himself unclean. And he was- without apology.
To which Jesus and the church have a very clear answer that will not satisfy these people. The answer is this: in the world, there may be assigned seating, but in the kingdom of God there is not.
And so if we believe in that, we ought to act like it, and live it out here. For Jesus and the disciples, there were no assigned seats at his table. All were welcome, particularly in their brokenness, for the church was born on the damaged consciences and rotten reputations of tax collectors, sinners, and people in need.
The church will always be criticized when it challenges the world on these issues. We will always be told that the barriers are there for a reason, that the rules are there to keep order, and that if we can keep to our own lunch tables, we will all be better off.
And the myth of that story is that you could keep all the sinners at their own table. Which is, of course, wrong, and also profoundly self-deceiving. Because there are sinners at every table.
You can argue with that. But I can say this for sure: there’s a sinner at every table I sit down at, because it’s me.
- When Spiritual But Religious Is Not Enough
Jesus kept reminding the disciples that the old rules don’t apply any more.
The greatest are the people who show compassion, who serve one another, who take care of the left out and left behind. And Jesus kept reminding people that the things we think make us special – having lots of money, being from the right families and belonging to the right clubs, graduating from the right schools and having the right jobs – these things don’t make us special.
What makes us special is that we have compassion for the people around us, and that we realize our own need for compassion and caring. And the church then becomes one long banquet table with no assigned seats.
We all get to sit next to whoever we’d like. Because Lillian Daniel is right. The sinners are at all the tables. The sinners are us.
Thank goodness, we are not called to perfection, only to compassion and caring. And that means there is no humiliation in needing compassion and caring for ourselves either.
Jesus taught these first disciples to fish in some pretty shallow pools. Jesus said there are only two things that are important:
Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor and yourself in the same way.
And the pools you came from and the tables you used to sit at don’t matter.
And in this church, when we eat together, it’s really nice to move around and eat with different people. And to know that we have all come from shallow pools- each in our own way- and with God, that is just fine.
And above all, we know that we are loved here.