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Crowded Table




Lesson: Luke 19:1-10


This Zaccheus incident is just the latest of Jesus’s offenses. We catch up with Jesus this morning well into his ministry, near the end of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem, and we know what comes next – the Last Supper, arrest, trial, and crucifixion – the stakes are high, and time is almost up. And so, Jesus has been traveling through the countryside and the towns, preaching with urgency, and he has been making trouble everywhere he goes. We know that about Jesus. That’s what he does.


Jesus is proclaiming that God’s love is for all people – not just for some. Salvation for everybody. As he moves through the crowds, Jesus touches the untouchable. Jesus heals on the Sabbath – putting the well-being of the sick and broken, above rigid adherence to rules and regulations. Jesus elevates the role of women in his ministry, breaking the rules of patriarchy. Jesus has recruited a tax collector as a disciple. And – what he says, what he says – Jesus is travelling around preaching blessing to the poor, and woe to the rich.


In the sequel to the Gospel of Luke – the Book of Acts – they will say of Jesus’s followers: “They are turning the world upside down!!!” [1] We see that here in Jesus. Jesus is turning the known world upside down. Or, as many have said, Jesus is really “Turning the World Rightside Up.”[2]


For the next 4 weeks, as we journey with Jesus through the Gospel of Luke, as we travel together to the close of the church year, we’re going to spend some time exploring this – how Jesus is “Turning the World Rightside Up.”


And there’s nowhere that Jesus does that more obviously – nowhere that Jesus is more disruptive – than in his table fellowship.[3] Jesus will eat with just about anybody – and, in the Gospel of Luke, he is eating with just about anybody, just about all the time. One scholar has said, Jesus is pretty much either “going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.”[4]


And we are talking here about more than just table etiquette. Jesus lived in a world of strict social separation – it was part of how power was maintained – and those separations were particularly observed in the intimacy of gathering for a meal. A meal wasn’t just a meal – it signified parity, mutuality, and acceptance.[5] There were those with whom one ate – the acceptable ones. And there were those with whom one did not eat – ever – the unacceptable, the untouchable, the broken in body, the broken in spirit, the poor, the Samaritan, the outcast, or as the Gospel of Luke comes to describe them collectively, “the sinners and the tax collectors.” Now keep in mind, under these rules, there were more who were out than were in. Even so, in Jesus’s world, to cross the line, to sit down at table with the outcast – it’s not merely an act of hospitality, it is an action that breaks the social order. It’s that big.


Throughout his ministry, Jesus does just that. Jesus gathers again and again at table with those whom others would consider to be “the wrong people,” and the authorities and the crowd grumble, again and again: “He eats with sinners and tax collectors.” And what Jesus lives in his life, he also makes explicit in his teaching. Jesus teaches that you shouldn’t invite to dinner those who can pay you back, but rather you should invite and welcome, “those who can’t pay you back, the poor, the disadvantaged.” Jesus disrupts the social order at the table, teaching that you shouldn’t take the place of most importance – even if you think you deserve it – you should humble yourself and take the least important seat. Jesus is turning the social order of the table – all its ins and outs – its hierarchy – upside down. And then Jesus says, “This, this chaotic crowded table is the new norm – this is the table to which people will come from East and West, and North and South to feast in the kin_dom of God.”


Jesus is turning the world rightside up – and the powers can’t stand it – because this threatens them, their power, and their world. It stops them from maintaining any sense of being on top, at the expense of keeping people down. So the grumbling keeps building, steadily, into an accusation that will carry with it the penalty of crucifixion – “This man, this man, he eats with sinners and tax collectors. This has got to stop.” The stakes are that high.


And in this morning’s Scripture, Jesus comes to Jericho – and he encounters Zaccheus. Scripture tells us three things about Zaccheus: Zaccheus is a tax collector; he is rich; and he is short of stature. Now it may not be obvious to our modern ears – but in Jesus’s day to be a tax collector is to be reviled. Tax collectors work for the Roman Empire. They pay the Romans for the right to collect exorbitant taxes from the people, and then they add a surcharge to the taxes, a surcharge that they pocket – that’s their business model.[6] And Zaccheus is very rich in a good-sized city – so we can expect that he has people working for him – shaking down the people of Jericho – everyone taking their cut. I won’t go so far as to call him the Tony Soprano of Jericho – but you get my drift. Zaccheus is extremely rich and extremely despised. He’s both part of the oppressive system, and he is himself an outcast.


And Zaccheus is short of stature – so when he hears that Jesus is coming, and when the crowds form – he has little chance of seeing Jesus – so he runs – he runs and scurries up a tree. And there he is hanging out in a tree – Zaccheus – undignified, despised, shunned. And Scripture says that Jesus walks by, looks up, and sees him, and Jesus says, “Zaccheus come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus not only invites him to the table – he says, Zaccheus, today I must stay with you, I must dwell with you. After miles and miles of traveling, after inviting and eating with outcasts and sinners and tax collectors again and again, Jesus invites Zaccheus to an already crowded table where they will feast and dwell together.


Now I got this notion of a “Crowded Table” from a song by the Highwomen – an all-woman super-group that’s turning part of the music world upside down.[7] The Highwomen are prominent artists in country, alternative, and folk music – they’ve come together as an all-woman group to sing songs from their point of view, as women. The first release – “Redesigning Women” – re-orders the world of patriarchy from the lived experience of women. The title release is a song that pays tribute to “Highwomen” – unsung women who have led and sacrificed in Freedom Rides, and for border-justice, and as women preachers and healers silenced by patriarchy. One of the edgier songs is a good ol’ country barroom song, in which a woman looks across the bar at a man, who is looking at her girlfriend, and she sings to him, “If she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you.” In their songs, The Highwomen are singing from points of view that have not been sung – or at least not centered in the dominant culture. They are turning the genre upside down. They are turning the world rightside up.[8]


At the heart of this album, there is this song, “Crowded Table.” And in it, the Highwomen sing of a crowded table, with a place for everyone, where we go out and take on the world, and then come back together when the day is done – where everyone is broken, and everyone belongs.


here is good news in that song – and good news in this scripture – good news of a crowded table where everyone of us belongs. And wonderfully crowded is just what that table is if Jesus is really inviting everybody. We’re not talking about a dinner party for 8, with a Martha Stewart tablescape (although those can be lovely). This is like a family table – a community table – a whole-world table – where everybody’s invited and everyone shows up – all the cousins, all the aunts and uncles, the long-lost kin, the neighbors, the folks you know, the folks you don’t know yet, the folks who as you drove down the street needed a meal. Everybody’s invited, and we all show up, and we bring all our stuff, and everyone has enough – and it’s loud, and maybe voices get raised – but the clamor, and the pulse, and the life at that table – it is music to God’s ears.


This congregation has extended that kind of welcome before. I know that. This congregation welcomed and called LGBTQ people to the life of the church – to serve as deacons and elders – to serve at table – back when the denomination had rules that said you shouldn’t. Amazing people like Virginia Thibeaux and Anne Towler. This is the congregation where Katie Morrison was ordained. The congregation where I was ordained. And now you’ve called me as interim pastor. And I don’t want to dwell on that, but I also don’t want to pass it on by without noticing. Because this is no small moment.

When we gather at that table, we embody Christ’s welcome to all people in a way that turns the world rightside up. That is always true of the communion table, throughout all time, and around the world. And that is true with particularity right here, right now. At that table, we say, with our bodies, as one body, that all are welcome to the crowded table, in the name of Jesus. All are welcome. You are welcome. At Christ’s table, you always have a place. It is as true for you, as it was for Zaccheus, and as it is for the whole wide world.


Now that’s some good news. But the Good News doesn’t stop there. And neither does the story of Zaccheus. The story doesn’t end with Jesus saying, “Zaccheus, I must stay with you today.” Zaccheus responds to the invitation. He hops out of the tree and gets to work – because here’s the thing – Jesus doesn’t only welcome us all to the table. Jesus welcomes us, and invites us into relationships of mutuality – and into the work of inviting others still – of making room – of turning the world rightside up. Our welcome to the table brings with it responsibility and work to do. And Zaccheus gets that. So, I want to look at Zaccheus’s response and notice three things about our working life at Jesus’s crowded table – three things about the table fellowship that Jesus invites us to join.


First, Jesus’s table fellowship responds to human need. Zaccheus receives the invitation and his first response is to say, “Half of everything I give to the poor.” Welcomed to the table, Zaccheus’s first and immediate impulse is that everyone should have enough – enough food, enough shelter – everyone should have enough.

We’ve seen that impulse in this past week – as so many were left vulnerable by fire, the threat of fire, and power blackouts – as neighbors checked in on neighbors – and as strangers welcomed evacuees. As firefighters risked their lives for the wellbeing of all. We wanted to make sure that everyone was OK; that everyone had enough.

At Jesus’s table, that impulse that we have in a crisis – the acute awareness of human need laid raw and bare –the impulse to help and to make sure everyone has enough – that impulse becomes a sustaining ethic – a sustaining way of life: If we are all to live together at this wonderfully crowded table, how shall we order our life together to make sure everyone has enough?[9]


Second, it’s not only about sharing resources, Jesus’s table fellowship requires -- what Herman Waetjen calls – a re-ordering of power. Zaccheus doesn’t stop at giving away half of what he owns, he then says, “If I have harmed anyone, I will pay back four times the amount.” Zaccheus recognizes the oppressive power relationships in the world, and sets about making them right. Zaccheus has benefitted from the systems of power-over that are at work in his world, and he recognizes his responsibility to set things right.


I’ll use an example that we’ll talk about more next week: We live in a nation that has been shaped for its entire history by systems of racism and white supremacy. When I move through our world white, with intention or not – I benefit from those systems – everything from the schools I attended through how I can walk down the streets of Marin without the hassle and threat and danger that my Black friends face every day. My place at our national table derives, in part, from American systems of racism. I benefit. If I am to take my place at Christ’s table, it means that I have responsibility to work to dismantle any system that keeps people from having enough – any system that keeps anyone from living freely into all that God has called them to be. Zaccheus says, “If I’ve profited from this, I will repay four-times the amount.” Zaccheus is speaking the language of reparation – a reparative, healing re-allocation of both resources and of power.


And that brings me to the third thing, Jesus’s table fellowship requires systemic change. Zaccheus’s response isn’t just a one-off act of repentance; he is shutting down the system of tax collection in Jericho. If he doesn’t take his cut, if he gives it back, the whole system shuts down. The business model crumbles. This is about ongoing, abundant life – at the crowded table – life where everyone has enough. That requires dismantling the systems that push people down and hold people back – and creating systems that sustain the fullness of life for everyone.


Last month, I spent a week at the CoInspire Conference with Presbyterians from around the country, thinking together about how we can work to eviscerate racism and embody imagination.[10] How we can name – and name again – the realities of how racism is at work in our life as the church and in the world—and how we can create something new. The conversations were hard. And worthy. At the closing worship, the lead convener and educator Jessica Vasquez Torres led communion, along with her wife Laura. The communion liturgy named folks who have been kept from the table both in the church and in the world – people of color, Black people, LatinX people, transgender people, people with disabilities – and as these communities were named, someone from the community would come forward, dip their hand in the baptismal font and claim their baptismal identity, and take a place at the table. One by one. And before our eyes, Christ’s crowded table was filled to overflowing – the table before us and the hundreds of folks in the room – a living embodiment – a glimpse of the table to which people will come, from East and West, and North and South – to feast – forever and ever – in the world of God.


I’m so excited to be here with you for these next 9 months or so. I know in my bones that it is always a blessing to gather at that table with you.


Thanks be to God that we all are invited to Christ’s own crowded table.


Thanks be to God that, at that table, we are invited to live into relationships of mutuality, and to live into a world where everyone has enough, where everyone can live free.


Thanks be to God, that we have worthy work to do together.

[1] Acts 17:1-9


[2] I searched for the origin of this turn of phrase – “Jesus is turning the world rightside up.” Although I couldn’t track down its origin, I did find that it is embraced and quoted by many, and notably, across the denominational and theological spectrum.


[3] The basic background and understanding of Jesus’s table fellowship in the Gospel of Luke are drawn from – Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreter’s Bible (NIB), vol. ix; Feasting on the Word (FOTW), Year C, Vol. 4, pp. 260-65; Joel Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, (Cambridge University Press, 1995). pp. 84-94.


[4] Robert Karris, Luke: Artist and Theologian, Luke’s Passion Account as Literature (New York: Paulist, 1985), quoted in Culpepper, NIB, p. 26.


[5] E. Elizabeth Johnson, FOTW, p. 263.


[6] See E. Elizabeth Johnson, FOTW, p. 261.


[7] The Highwomen are a “super-group” of four female artists: Brandi Carlisle, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires. Their self-titled album was released to critical acclaim on September 6, 2019.


[8] Post-preaching note: After preaching this, it occurred to me that I should also have named the strong liberative women’s voices that have long been a part of country music – particularly in artists like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, the Dixie Chicks, and so many others. The Highwomen claim and celebrate this tradition, and bring it center, and boldly so.


[9] Elizabeth Johnson describes Jesus’s table fellowship as “distributive justice.” FOTW, p.265.


[10] For more about the CoInspire conference, see https://montreat.org/events/micl-2019

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