Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Table Manners

Did your mother or father teach you table manners? In my family the rules were pretty much like everyone else’s: no elbows on the table, close your mouth when chew, don’t talk with food in your mouth, and so on.

One rule was especially important. We weren’t allowed to wear hats in the house, especially at the supper table. To this day I cringe at the sight of a man in a hat in a restaurant or any other meal table. I don't know why, but I’ve been programmed. It’s a rule. Period.

This Sunday’s Gospel lection is Luke 24.44-53. The context for this passage is a dining table. Jesus appeared to the disciples on that Easter evening, but they were scared to death of him, thinking they were seeing a ghost. He let them touch him, but they still didn’t believe it was him, so he ate a piece of broiled fish to prove he’s real. Ghosts don’t eat fish, did you know that?

He then gives a table talk. Around the meal he opens their eyes to the reality of the resurrection, then he opens their minds to the story of scripture, and then he opens their hearts to the world’s deep spiritual needs. Those three things served as the outline for a sermon I delivered at FBC Gaithersburg on April 26. And that table sets the context for what Jesus says next:

Luke 24 (NRSV)
24:44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you--that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled."
24:45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
24:46 and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,
24:47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
24:48 You are witnesses of these things.
24:49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
24:50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.
24:51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.
24:52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;
24:53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Jesus leaves the table, leading them out to Bethany.

But not all meals are so pleasant. Sometimes people leave the table in anger. Robin Williams describes Thanksgiving dinner in his Episcopalian home. “Dad has a few gin and tonics and then confesses, ‘You know I never loved you mother.’”

To which Williams responds, “No Dad, I didn’t know that. But she’s sitting right there, why don’t you tell her again.”

Ever been at a table with an argument going on? My whole gut seizes up and I can’t eat. The table is no longer a table, but torture. Some of my worst memories of childhood were flare ups around dinner that made me lose my appetite completely.

In Homiletics I read this related piece about a meal that went awry because of an argument:

In his book I Never Forget a Meal, actor Michael Tucker tells of an incident in his family that forever changed the way he looks at cooking and hospitality. When he was young, his extended family gathered for Passover. His mother and sisters, who worked very hard on preparing holiday meals, also tended to be emotional.

At this particular Passover, which took place at his uncle’s house, an argument broke out between his mother and his uncle over whether the Seder liturgy should be read in Hebrew or English. The tensions rose ever higher. Some people sought to defuse it with humor, to no avail.

His mother left the table.

His uncle, too, left in anger — getting into his car and driving away from his own house.

Tucker’s mother ran outside, into the night. While the men searched for her, the aunts wrapped up the uneaten food. The children sat there in awkward silence: scared for their mother, but also embarrassed by her “crazy” behavior.

From that day on, the family disintegrated. Never again was there a happy holiday meal involving the extended family.Tucker explains in his book that he now understands why he has a passion for cooking. He is trying to finish that meal, once and for all. It is “to finish that meal with grace and calm and convivial family conversation, with laughter and warmth,” he writes. “Mostly, I think about warmth; so that I can melt away the cold of that uneaten dinner.”— Michael Tucker, I Never Forget a Meal (Little Brown, 1995).

You’re probably wondering, how does this all tie together? It’s this: Jesus didn’t leave the table in anger, and in fact left us with the Holy Spirit as an aid to living and loving. Jesus didn’t split theological hairs at the table, he communicated, taught, and affirmed.

Jesus took care of some unfinished business at that table, but there is an unfinished meal for us Christians. The Lord’s supper is never finished, never complete.
  • Until we have made emotional, physical, and spiritual space for everyone at this table, the kingdom of God is just an abstract concept.
  • Until we can eat in peace with all those around us, the kingdom of God remains distant.
  • Until we can get over our petty differences with fellow Christians, there will be no dessert.
  • Until we get the table right, our families will be in disrepair, our lives will be a clumsy clunking, and our future will be hazy and uncertain.

The table is metaphor, of course. What we’re really talking about is your willingness to welcome the stranger, to feast with foe, and live at peace with the difficulties that all our human relations present us.

So here are some questions for reflection:

1. Who is at your table that wasn’t there a year ago? Last month? How can you work to make sure they are welcomed in an ongoing way?
2. Why did it take Jesus eating food for the disciples to see that he was real? What is the “magic” that happens around meals?
3. Who has tried to elbow their way to your table, but you thwarted their efforts? Is your exclusion a sin?
4. With whom would you be unwilling to share the table? Why? Will that ever change?


Cyarborough said...
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Cash said...

Posted a Huge comment. My computer froze up during postage and now the message is gone. I hope you got it cause it says i deleted the message on my computer and i dont know how i did that.