"You are who you eat with"
I don't know about you, but it seems that I have spent a good part of my life trying to find the right place to sit. It started when I was a child, I think, because I am left-handed. At the dinner table, I always sat on the end, so that I wouldn't disturb anyone else in the family by bumping elbows with them. This worked pretty well until we got a new table: round. Luckily, my family still let me eat with them. So, whenever I go out to eat, and particularly when I eat with a large group, I am always looking for the "right" place: the place on the end, where I can eat without bumping into anyone else. Of course, there are other ways that I look for the "right" place to sit, too. Many years ago, I traveled to New York for the first time -- to interview for a position as a missionary in the Lutheran Church. It was my first time to do a lot of things, including taking a cab from an airport, riding on a subway, and eating out by myself in a restaurant I didn't know anything about. To be truthful, I skipped a couple of meals, because I didn't know where to go or what to do. But one morning, I ended up at the Empire State Building, and I found a little cafe right in the building. It was clear when I sat down that everyone else there was a regular customer. The waitress was impatient with me for having to look at a menu, she wanted me to hustle and not waste her time. I was starving and a little desperate. But I can tell you, I felt pretty much that morning as if I had NOT found the right seat. It was stamped across my forehead "You are not from here." In fact, later that morning, a woman leaned over to me on the subway and said, "You're from the Midwest, aren't you"? (How could she tell?" (She was nice about it, though.)
On the other side, I have often been anxious when invited to a wedding reception where I know no one except the bride and groom. Where will I be seated? Will I fit in? I remember once or twice, at least, where the hosts had planned the seating arrangement so carefully, so that even though my husband and I were seated next to strangers, they were people we had something in common with. We ended up having a really good time. Like I said, it seems like I have spent a good part of my life looking for the right place to sit. Is it ever this way for you?
That's the issue this morning in our gospel lesson. Jesus is speaking to people who are, as well, concerned about finding the right seat. He is observing guests are a dinner party, and one of the behaviors he is observing is how guests were trying to figure out what the "best" seats were, and make sure they got them. The best seats they called "the places of honor." They were probably the seats nearest to the host; the closer you could be seated to the host, the more honorable you were. The farther away you sat from the host, the less honorable you would be considered. Now this is all in the eyes of the others at the party. In other words, everybody is trying to figure out who is the greatest and who is the least by figuring out where they are sitting at the dinner party. and all the time, the Pharisees who were the hosts of the party, are keeping a close eye on Jesus.
You might remember from at least one other Gospel story, that Jesus sometimes ate and drank with "sinners." and the Pharisees were scandalized by that. Because, they thought, no they KNEW that 'You are who you eat with.' In other words, if you were righteous, you would eat with other righteous people. If you were a sinner, you would eat with other sinners. If righteous person ate with sinners, they would become identified as a 'sinner' too. In the same way, if you sat next to someone honorable, you would be considered more honorable. And if you sat next to someone at the low end of the table -- that said something about you too. 'You are who you eat with,' remember that. Because then you have a better understanding of Jesus' instructions to guests are the party. In one way, they are just common sense. "don't think of yourself more highly than you ought to think" is one way of putting it. "Have a realistic idea of who you are. Look in the mirror, and say, "you know, I guess I'm not that close to the host. I guess I'm not that great.' But Jesus says more than that, he says, "take the lowest, most humble seat." Sit the farthest away you can, even if it means that everyone is looking at you and wondering about you. Because you know, you are who you eat with.
You might think this is a funny think to believe, 'you are who you eat with.' We don't believe that way now. Goodness or badness does not 'rub off' on us, like when we were children and were worried about whether we had "girl germs" or "boy germs." But think about it another way. As I said before, I think I had spent a good part of my life looking for the right place to sit, the place I will fit in, the place I am 'comfortable.' And I am told that in churches, one of the most common reasons people will visit and not stay is if they don't see anyone else "like them" in the the church. Young or old, male or female, ethnic background, we are all looking for the "right place to sit," for someone who looks like us, someone we would feel comfortable sitting down to eat with. Because you know, 'you are who you eat with.' In the past and sometimes even now, communities were defined by the ethnic background of the people living there. Think "Swede Hollow" or "Snoose Boulevard" in the Cedar-Riverside area. Those are the ones I know from my own background. We lived together with others 'like us', and sometimes it causes stress that our communities are not so much alike any more. We are more diverse, and there are good things about that, but we might not feel like we belong in the same way any more. 'You are who you eat with,' in terms of poverty or wealth or ethnic background, health or illness.
So Jesus' words of advice to guests are somewhat risky to take. But his words to hosts are even more radical. He tells the hosts are the dinner party not to invite those who are similar to them. In those days a host might give a party and invite people because he wanted something from them in return. After he had so generously and graciously served them, they would be expected to do something for the host. That was how it was done. so of course you would invite people to your party who were somehow 'like you.' Jesus says, instead, go out and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. This is really radical advice for a couple of reasons. First, because, as Jesus says, they can't help you. they can't pay you back. They can't turn around and give you a party. A host who invites the poor, the blind, the lame ... is a truly generous host, not expecting anything in return. and the second reasons this is radical advice is because 'you are who you eat with.' What does it mean to invite the poor, the lame, the blind... the sinner... and to sit down and eat with them? In some sense it is to say, "I'm poor, I'm blind, I'm lame" too. Because we are all looking for the right place to sit,aren't we? The place where we feel comfortable, next to people with whom we have something in common. But Jesus says, when you give a party, invite the poor, invite the lame, invite the blind, invite the sinners.
A number of years ago, a movie called Places in the Heart featured Sally Field as a young widow struggling to keep her farm during the depression. At the beginning, her husband, who also serves as the town sheriff, goes out to help a young black man, who is drunk. He husband is accidentally shot and killed. In the next scene we see that the young black man is hanged by the townspeople. The widow takes on a blind man as her boarder, to help with expenses, and a black man to help her with her farm. The town is against her plan to try to run her farm, and encourages her to sell. but she wants to keep her family together. Near the end of the movie, the black man is run out of town, and there is a devastating tornado. The final scene of the movie takes place in the local church. It's a communion service, and, as is common in the reformed tradition, everyone remains seated and the bread and the wine are passed around. At first it seems like an ordinary scene until the young widow takes the bread and passes it to the person next to her -- her husband. Her in turn passes the bread to the one next to him -- the young man who shot him. later on we see the black man who had been run out of town, the people who had run him out, the blind boarder -- all eating and drinking together. Because Jesus invited them. It's the communion of saints. Or the communion of sinners. 'You are who you eat with,' after all.
Every week we gather around this table, rich and poor, young and old, wounded or healthy. Every week we gather around this table and eat and drink with one another, and with Jesus. "Though he was in the form of God, he humbled himself, and taking the form of a servant, was born in human likeness." He took the lowest place, right next to us, and now he invites us to eat and drink with him, even though we can never pay him back. and then he invites us to go and sit next to, to eat with, to know and to serve the poor an the lame and the sinners ... just as if we were poor an lame and sinners ourselves. Because we are.
But remember, as you come to God's table today: 'You are who you eat with.' AMEN