Sunday, June 5, 2016

The ABUNDANCE of Grace (Matthew 26:17-30)

17 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover meal?”

18 He replied, “Go into the city, to a certain man, and say, ‘The teacher says, “My time is near. I’m going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.” ’” 19 The disciples did just as Jesus instructed them. They prepared the Passover.

20 That evening he took his place at the table with the twelve disciples. 21 As they were eating he said, “I assure you that one of you will betray me.”

22 Deeply saddened, each one said to him, “I’m not the one, am I, Lord?”

23 He replied, “The one who will betray me is the one who dips his hand with me into this bowl. 24  The Human One goes to his death just as it is written about him. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays the Human One! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.”

25 Now Judas, who would betray him, replied, “It’s not me, is it, Rabbi?”

Jesus answered, “You said it.”

26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” 27 He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. 28  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven. 29  I tell you, I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 30 Then, after singing songs of praise, they went to the Mount of Olives.

After my parents died, one of the things I ended up inheriting was the family dining room table.  It’s a piece that means a lot to me, not because it has any great monetary value, but because of what it represents.  That table represents years of family birthdays and Sunday dinners.  It represents Thanksgivings and Christmases and Easters.  It represents parties and open houses with friends from church.  It represents family and friends coming over for a meal.

I think of the times we would put all the leaves in this table and open it up to its full length so that everyone would have a place.  One of those times was during the week between Christmas and New Year, when friends of ours who were originally from the Dominican Republic, living in the US, planting a Spanish/English church came over.  Mom and Dad had invited them to come over, and then, unexpectedly, some friends of theirs from out-of-town showed up the same day.  Our friends called Mom and Dad to reschedule, and I remember Mom on our end of the phone call saying, “Oh, just bring them along!”  My grandparents were also in town for the holiday, and we ended up with 24 people squeezed in around the table that night – 8 of whom spoke only English, 8 of whom spoke only Spanish, and 8 of whom spoke some combination of the two.  We had a blast.

I think about the lessons I learned around that table.  Sure, there were the usual nuggets of etiquette about how to use my napkin, not chewing with my mouth open, not speaking with food in my mouth, waiting until everyone at the table had been served before I began to eat.  More importantly, I learned lessons about who I am, and to whom I belonged.  Lessons of nurture and love.  Lessons of hospitality and grace and abundance.  One thing about our table is that it was an open table – there was always room for one more.  And it didn’t matter how many crowded around that table, there was always plenty to go around.

What we learn and experience around the family table make us very much who we are today.  And for Christians, we find out very much who we are around God’s family table, in the meal we celebrate as Holy Communion.

In the Scripture we’ve read today, Jesus has gathered with his disciples for what we refer to as “The Last Supper.”  We call it that because it was the last meal he ate before death and resurrection.

Many of the same lessons I learned around my own family’s table are on display around this table with Jesus.  We see evidence of nurture and love.  Hospitality and grace and abundance.

As you look around the table of those first disciples, realize that none of them was worthy of their place at the table with Jesus.  Judas, of course, is the one we single out.  Judas, the betrayer, the one who sold Jesus out for a few measly coins, Judas, the bad apple in an otherwise good bunch.

But friends, there was plenty of sin to go around the table that night.  The disciples had argued about who would get the most important, honorable place.  They had all refused to serve each other.  They had false expectations about him, even at that late hour.  They would fall asleep when Jesus told them to pray.  Peter would deny ever knowing him.  The others would abandon him and run for their own lives.  None of the disciples is any prize.  Not just Judas, but there is enough sin to go all the way around the table.

If the places at God’s family table were awarded based on who is worthy, then Jesus would have eaten that meal alone.  Jesus took his place at the table among those who would betray, deny, and desert him.  Even those closest to Jesus would let him down and disappoint him, and yet he expressed how much he wanted to eat that meal with them.

The saying goes, “You’re known by the company you keep.”  Throughout the Gospels, you’ll find all manner of unsavory people around the dinner table with Jesus. You’ll find Jesus eating with tax collectors and prostitutes and every manner of sinner, every outcast, every social misfit, every disreputable character you could imagine.

It was his table company that seemed to upset the religious leaders the most.  Because, as Jesus ate with these people, he was giving them honor and recognition, worth and value as human beings created in the image of a good and loving God.  He was saying, “The world doesn’t think you matter, but I do.  The world doesn’t see you, but I do.  The world doesn’t think you have any value, but I do.  The world calls you garbage, but I invite you to sit here at the table with me.”

This ticked off the religious leaders something fierce, because it called into question an entire society and culture that was based on hierarchy and status and privilege.  The world worked just fine when “we” were up here, and “they” were down there, when the world was neatly divided into “us” on the inside of the party and “them” on the outside. 

Then along comes Jesus, and he starts inviting “them” to become part of “us,” he blurs the line between “we” and “they,” and if you are someone who has built your life and worth around considering yourself better than other people and someone comes along who threatens to undo that whole system, yeah, you’d be pretty ticked off, too.  You might just conspire to have such a person removed from power or even killed.

Jesus understood that cost.  Jesus knew what he was doing around the table.  He doesn’t end up sitting with tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners by accident; he invites them to his table, he invites himself to their tables, even up to the last, he desires to eat a meal with people who would let him down in the biggest ways imaginable.

Jesus invites to his table sinners and deniers and betrayers and those who disappoint him at every turn.  When it comes down to it, Jesus invites to his table all manner of unsavory, inscrutable, undesirable, undeserving rabble – people like you and me, who are not worthy of a place at the table, but are only here because of God’s amazing love and abundant grace.

Thanks be to God.

The challenge, as we come to the table of our Lord, is to adopt the same attitude that was in Christ Jesus.  I ran across this some time ago, and it seems appropriate: “Be like Jesus: spend enough time with sinners to ruin your reputation with religious people.”

It was Jesus who said he came not to save righteous people, but sinners.  It was Jesus who said he would leave behind the 99 sheep already in the fold in order to go after the one lost sheep.  The hard part for the religious people of Jesus’ day was that they considered themselves so holy already that they didn’t see their own need for grace.  They didn’t see their own need for repentance.  They were so comfortable with the life they had built for themselves, they didn’t desire the new life Jesus was offering them.  They didn’t see themselves as sinners or lost sheep, which is too bad, because sinners get a place at the table.

That’s some real food for thought.  The challenge, as we come to the table, is to adopt the same attitude that was in Christ Jesus.  As Jesus has offered grace and love and hospitality and hope and abundance to us, to in turn, offer them to those around us.

I have a friend who is a single mom who worked her way through college 4:  waiting tables in a restaurant.  Anyone here ever wait tables?  It’s a hard way to make a living.

She told me about the shift she dreaded working the most each week – can you guess what it was?  It was mid-day Sunday, the after church lunch crowd.  She came to dread seeing a nicely-dressed group of people who had obviously just come from church being seated in her section, because they proved to be some of her worst customers.  One of the more memorable was the party of 8 who stayed an hour and a half, had her running back and forth to the kitchen constantly, ran up a bill of $120, and left her a $4 tip.  She was amused at part of their conversation, in which they were talking loudly, about what an awful sin it is to work on Sunday, and yet they didn’t bat an eye at going out to eat and making someone else work on Sunday.

From her interactions with Christians, she had seen enough to know that she didn’t want to become one.  Whereas Jesus demonstrated amazing love and abundant grace at the table, her experience was that when his followers got to the table, they were rude, demanding, inconsiderate, and cheap.

Friends, we worship a loving, gracious, and generous God.  God is a giver, and we are created in God's image.  We are created to be generous as God is generous.  That’s something we learn and experience around God’s family table.

God’s grace is abundant and there’s always plenty to go around.  That’s part of the reason I give you such big hunks of bread when you receive Communion.  I want you to have a big reminder of how big and generous and abundant God’s grace is!  That’s something I want you to remember and why – that I gave you big pieces of bread because God is generous when it comes to giving out grace.

God gives grace in abundance; who are we to be stingy with what God has given abundantly?  When someone complains about the bread being too big, too much, you just look them right in the eye and say, “And how much of God’s grace is too much?”

How much grace is too much?  I’m 36 years in, and I haven’t had my fill yet.

Friends, taste and see, the Lord is good.  Exceedingly, abundantly good.

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