March 11, 2018: 4th Sunday of Lent
It seems we are a bit like Jesus and the disciples this morning. In need of a place to gather for our religious observance. When they needed a room in which to celebrate Passover, Jesus sent some disciples to “a certain man” who offered up his home and allowed them to prepare a room. In our case, the “certain man” is Pastor Matt Sturtevant—and all the members of the First Baptist congregation—who have graciously opened up their home and allowed us to prepare a room. (Thanks, also, to those who came early to prepare the room.)
There is something very comforting and comfortable to me about this prepared room—Mark describes it as a “large upper room, furnished and ready.” It is a place for Jesus and the disciples to gather out of the sun and the wind. A tangible space of safety and intimacy, with furnishings and food and friends.
A space prepared is lovely, indeed. But then the people get there and gather around the table for a meal. And the comfort is no longer guaranteed.
I read this week about a family gathered around a table for a nice Thanksgiving meal. You know how it’s supposed to go. The room is prepared, the table is laden with food, and the conversation is polite: “Please pass the turkey.” “My, the kids are growing up fast.” “This is lovely jello salad, Aunt Betty.”
But then Uncle Larry—and isn’t there always an 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.” (Because, let’s face it, Steve never has money and why Uncle Larry loaned him $200 in the first place is a mystery.)
Uncle Larry got so angry that he grabbed the sweet potatoes off the table—Steve’s favorite food—and went into the bathroom. Everyone heard the toilet flush, and Uncle Larry reemerged with an empty sweet potato bowl. Larry’s poor wife—who had made the sweet potatoes—got really upset and left.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to live through this meal. I can only imagine how awkward it felt to be there, in the middle of what should have been a nice meal, caught up in the tension. 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.”
“You have said so.”
I mean, Jesus didn’t flush the sweet potatoes down the toilet, but that exchange had to have ratcheted up the anxiety in the room. And then everyone is expected to just continue on with the meal? 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.
Even the most comfortable space cannot make it comfortable to hear accusations of betrayal, to be told that the bread is his body, the drink is his blood.
Do you feel the tension? The tension between the welcoming, prepared, comfortable space in the upper room and the air of foreboding and discomfort caused by Jesus’ words? The tension between being a good host and being an honest leader?
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.
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 flooring options. Denominational dinners are more comfortable if we don’t bring up the fact that our denominational policies are still 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. We remember the comfort of the prepared room and the tension in the air.
This is a table where Christ is the host. We are all welcome to enjoy the comfort and hear the sometimes uncomfortable truth. We are all welcome to eat the bread, which is Jesus’ body; to drink the cup, which is Jesus’ blood. We are all welcome into this reenactment of a tense and holy meal, this reminder of God’s presence with us in Christ, God’s presence which comforts and challenges.