When I think of Labor Day Weekend, I think of the last hurrah of long childhood summers before the beginning of school. I’ve got my school clothes, my pencils are sharpened, and I’m sporting my fashionable Scoobie Doo lunchbox. I’m ready. I’m excited. I actually loved school as a kid – for the most part.
But there was one thing about the start of school that I dreaded: walking into the lunchroom and looking around at the tables and wondering: Where am I going to sit? Who is going to sit with me?
I was a smart kid, but I was not in the inner circle of popular kids. I was not one of those kids who’s invitation to my birthday party or to sit with me at lunch determined who was popular and who was not. I could hope to be included, anxiously scoping the lay of the land to find out my place, but I wasn’t one of the kids who decided.
And so I began each year with those same burning questions: Where am I going to sit? Who is going to sit with me? Those questions stayed with me pretty much all year long because, as Heidi Klum says on Project Runway, “One day you’re in and the next day, you’re out.” I was the kind of kid who could definitely go in or out of fashion.
Now, some kids just seemed to feel entitled to be at the best table. They just took it for granted that the best table would be wherever they sat. I never felt entitled, but I wanted to at least have the security and influence that came from sitting near the popular kids. But I never really felt secure – even when I was at their table. Being at the best table didn’t seem to deliver on what it promised.
By the time I was in middle school I just avoided the whole question. My grandparents lived across the street from the junior and senior high school in my hometown – so I went there for lunch pretty much every day during the school year for five years. There, my hosts were always delighted to see me. I was the most popular kid at the table, and I never doubted that for one minute.
Now, I wish I could tell you that once we are grown-up we don’t have to worry about these questions: Where am I going to sit? Who is going to sit with me? I wish I could say you’ll grow out of it. It will get easier. But the truth is that the process of sorting, comparing, evaluating and grading – the process of choosing who is in and who is out – that begins in school gets a little more complicated as we grow older, but it doesn’t end. There are always people who feel entitled to pick the winners and losers. There are always those who want to have the best seats, to be close to the action, to feel popular and influential; or, at least, safe.
Jesus noticed how much people struggle with these big questions: Where am I going to sit? Who is going to sit with me? He noticed how some people felt entitled to decide who gets invited to the table. He noticed how anxious people can be to get a good seat.
So Jesus gave us two pieces of advice, and then he gave us an example to follow. First, to those of us who are anxious about where we are going to sit, he says, “Just choose a seat in the back and don’t worry about it. It doesn’t really matter. Other people are just as worried as you are about finding a good seat, so make space for them to get one. Once you start thinking about others, you’ll find you spend a whole lot less time worrying about yourself.”
Second, to those who are hosts, those who have the power to invite people to the good seats at the table, he says, “Invite the outsiders to sit with you – the people that nobody else likes or accepts. They may not have influence or be able to repay you – in fact, sitting with them may make you less popular. But you’ll have an even greater reward – you will be among the people who do the right thing.
Finally, Jesus gave us an example to follow. He started the practice of sharing a meal where everyone is invited and everyone has a place at the table. It is a funny kind of meal, where the host actually acts like a servant and treats everyone else as a person of honor.
We follow Jesus’ example every Sunday here at St. James. I might dress like the host – as if I were really important – but I actually serve you the meal. I’m just the waiter! You are the special guests of honor. Each one of you. You don’t have to be popular or smart or worthy in any way. You are already, always invited. You don’t have to worry. There is always a place at this table for you.
Here is the hard part. The hard part is to go back to school and to work and to the rest of our lives each week, trusting the love we’ve shared around this table enough to give us the courage to make all the tables where we sit a place of welcome for all people – whether in the lunchroom, or the boardroom, or at our kitchen table.
In the world that Jesus is creating with us, no one ever has to worry, “Where will I sit? Who will sit with me?” Jesus has said, “There is a place for everyone at my table. Come, and eat with me.” Amen.