Harrowing Of Hell
August 28, 2022

Table Talk

The Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick

Have you ever noticed
how often in the Gospels
Jesus takes “the stuff” of ordinary life
and reframes it, reimagines it —
so that somehow
the mundane has cosmic meaning;
the everyday reflects the eternal?

A woman is looking for a coin that she has lost,
and she will not rest until she finds it.
Well, that’s just like
God’s unrelenting search
for each one of us.

A farmer is planting seed,
and some of it will grow
and some of it won’t
and the birds will eat some of it.
And that’s just how the Gospel is spread.

Two people built houses,
and one of them chose a good lot to build on
but the other didn’t.
When the storms came,
one house was secure but the other was washed away.
And that’s how people live —
some with their feet on solid and certain ground,
some desperately trying to stand on shifting sands.

Jesus is teaching us that
the priorities and passions of God are never that far away —
that, with a bit of holy imagination,
we can find the eternal here and now.
Everything can offer us a lesson about
God’s work and way in the world
if only we have the courage to name it.

So, on one particular Sabbath day,
when Jesus starts talking about seating charts,
where to sit when you’re invited to a wedding,
it’s fair to assume that he is
both talking about seating charts
and also teaching about something much bigger
than where to sit at the reception.

Let’s start at the beginning.
On this particular day in question,
on this particular Sabbath,
Jesus and his disciples are headed to dinner
at the home of one of the religious leaders of the day.

Now, Luke tells us
that the religious leaders
are watching Jesus closely.
This, it turns out,
is not a friendly meal among colleagues
all working in the religious sector.
This is trial by dinner.
Does he know which fork to use? Which bread plate is his?
Is he one of us? Or not?
Will he play by our rules? Or not?
That’s what they’re going to suss out
over each successive course.

But at the same time that
they are watching him,
He is watching them, of course.
And from the first moment,
He notices something curious about this party.
He sees how they are jockeying for position around the table.

Now, as you remember,
in Jesus’ day,
as is still somewhat true in our own,
seating arrangements at these kinds of meals
were not accidental.
They were a complicated calculus
of power and prestige and privilege.
Where you sat was determined
by where you lived in the hierarchy of society,
and by your place
in the hierarchy of the room.
The closer you were to the host,
the more honor you deserved —
the greater seniority you likely had,
the more influence you carried,
the more power you could wield.
Thus, when Luke says that the religious leaders
were choosing the places of honor around the table,
he is telling us how they saw themselves.

This is a portrait of entitlement:
“I am more important than the rest of you,”
“I am more influential,”
“I deserve to be at the head of the table.”

But what Jesus knows
is that some of these people
choosing places of honor —
well, they were on page 3 of the potential guest list,
highlighted in orange — that’s the “maybe if there’s room” category —
on the Excel spreadsheet.
Jesus knows that they only got to come tonight
because the caterer said that
with this menu
you paid the same thing for 12 as you did for 10.
So, as Jesus watches these people jockey for position,
claim power and move closer to power,
what Jesus knows is that some of these people
as we would say in the south
are about to get a comeuppance.
Some of them who have moved themselves up the table
may well be invited to move back down the table,
to take themselves down a notch or two.
“Excuse me, but you’re in someone else’s seat.”

And Jesus, watching this happen in real time,
calls his followers over and says to them — and says to us,
“When you get invited to the wedding,
at the reception,
go to the worst table.
The one by the restroom.
Or by the kitchen. Sit there.
And what may well happen to you
is that the host may come over
and say, ‘what are you doing here?
We saved you a seat at the head table.’
And then, then you can move up.”

But, lest we think Jesus is just offering us
just a first century version of Miss Manners or Emily Post,
this is both about seating charts and about much more.
Because this is Jesus,
We know that this is not about
how to protect our egos from embarrassment in social settings.
This is about how to safeguard our souls.
Jesus seems to be saying to his followers then and to us today,
“You are living in an upside-down world.

And the only way to survive in an upside-down world
is to embrace that the way up is down.
That true power, true influence, true honor —
they come by practicing humility, not entitlement.
So, let them fight for the places of honor,
but you, choose the lowest seat,
and trust that at the tables that matter,
you will be invited to move up.”
St Paul will say something similar later
when he writes to the Romans:
“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought;
Don’t think you are better than you really are.
But be honest in your evaluation of yourself.
Think of yourself with sober judgment.” (12.3).

And, of course, Jesus doesn’t stop there.
“It’s one thing to embrace humility when you’re the guest,”
he says, “but it’s just as important when you’re the host.
So, when you’re throwing a dinner party,
when the wedding is yours,
don’t just invite the people who can return the favor
but invite the people who never get invited.
And this may take some work on your part
because, since they never get invited, you don’t know them.
Go out on the streets and look for them,
find them, make them come to dinner.
And when you do that,
something remarkable will happen!
Dinner on a Saturday night
will start to look
like the kingdom of heaven.”

The mundane has cosmic meaning,
the everyday reflects the eternal.

You know,
it really shouldn’t surprise us
to hear Jesus talk this way about dinner.
After all,
at the end of his ministry,
what Jesus entrusted to us was a meal,
a feast where he promises
that he will forever be the host.
Where the Kingdom’s wide embrace
is always on display —
where friends and strangers
cross every hierarchy
to come together, to eat together.
There’s no jockeying for power or position here,
Because in the ordinary things of bread and wine,
we find that we are all part of
the new human family
that Jesus came announcing.
Don’t worry about a seating chart here,
Because there are always surprises at this table
And people whose names you do not know.
Because the best part of this meal
is that there’s always room for one more.