I read this week about a family gathered around a table for a nice Thanksgiving meal. Things were going well until Uncle Larry said, “Hey, Steve, you need to pay me back that $200 I loaned you last year.” And Steve said, “I don’t have the money to pay you back, Uncle Larry.” And Uncle Larry got so angry that he grabbed the sweet potatoes—Steve’s favorite food—and went into the bathroom. Everyone heard the toilet flush, then Uncle Larry reemerged with an empty sweet potato bowl.
Really, it shouldn’t be that hard to have a nice family meal. There are just a couple basic rules:
- Don’t air your grievances against others at the table.
- Don’t talk politics or religion.
Clearly, Uncle Larry broke the first rule. And, according to the story we just heard from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus broke both of them.
Rule #1: Don’t air your grievances. In the middle of the meal, Jesus says, “Hey, by the way, one of you is going to betray me. Pass the salt please.”
Suddenly, what was a nice Passover celebration turns into an anxiety fest. “It’s not me, is it Lord?” “I’d never do something like that.” “Who could it be?” Leading to the very tense exchange with Judas: “Surely not I, Rabbi,” he says. And Jesus replies: “You have said so.” Awkward.
Then, just when people had kind of gotten over the whole “someone will betray me thing” and the meal was going along as planned, Jesus chimes in with the really weird stuff: “This is my body, eat it. This is my blood, drink it.” Eating flesh and drinking blood? Not kosher.
And it’s not just any blood. It is the blood of the covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Religion talk. Granted, Jesus can’t really be expected to not talk religion at a Passover meal, but still, he’s making it awkward again.
There is a tension here between the welcoming, prepared, comfortable space in the upper room and the air of foreboding and discomfort caused by Jesus’ words. It’s the tension of any space—like an upper room or a dining room or a worship space—where outsiders are invited in; the tension of any space that seeks to be a space of welcome and inclusion for diverse and flawed human beings.
The tension is not always comfortable, but it is necessary. It is necessary for us to prepare the room, to set the table, to offer hospitality. AND it is necessary for us to speak the truth, to be true to Jesus’ teachings as best we understand them.
Sure, the family dinner is more comfortable if we don’t mention the betrayal, or if we offer quick forgiveness for harm done and move on. The family dinner is more comfortable if we just invite the people who think and look and act like us. The family dinner is less awkward if we just smile and nod politely.
Congregational dinners are more comfortable if we don’t talk about money and theological differences. Denominational dinners are more comfortable if we don’t bring up the fact that our denominational policies are oppressive to LGBTQ people. Neighborly dinners are more comfortable if we don’t bring up the jail ballot initiative and point out the racial disparities in the county jail.
I suppose there are times—like maybe Thanksgiving—for us to just enjoy a nice, comfortable dinner.
But that is not the kind of dinner we remember when we gather around the Lord’s table. This table is a place of prepared hospitality and a place of hard truth. We remember Jesus eating with his friends and his betrayer, Jesus sharing pleasant conversation and talking about his death. We remember the food that they ate and the arguments they had. When we gather around this table, we declare our longing to receive Christ’s comfort and our willingness to participate in Christ’s presence in the world, even when it’s not comfortable.
This post is excerpted from a sermon I preached on Matthew 26:17-30.