Table Manners

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church (Stone Harbor, NJ)
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Proper 17C

Those of you who have already had the opportunity to eat a meal with me can say with certainty that I lack certain table manners. To be sure, I know to put my napkin in my lap, to avoid chewing with my mouth open, and to resist the temptation to reach across my dining companions in an effort to get another helping of potato salad – even if they are persisting in talking, completely oblivious to my desire for seconds! Yes, I’ve got the bare minimum covered; but, if you are looking for expertise on what to do with the myriad forks that often appear at formal dining events or a quick guide to which bread plate is yours – the one to your right or the one to your left, rest assured, you’ll be much better off asking anyone but me!

There was a time when we were all a bit more cultured and, no doubt, there are many here today who longingly wish such times were upon us once again. But alas, with the advent of fast food dining and the near elimination of the daily family gathering around the dinner table, I suspect those days will not be returning any time soon – if at all. You’ll have a better chance to observe good etiquette watching reruns of “Leave it to Beaver” on TVLAND (channel 37 at my house), than you will in most American homes.

So, given our lack of propriety around meals, is it any surprise that we encounter so many questions and sticky-spots when we come together to celebrate the Eucharist – the central feast of the Christian faith? Is the flat surface an altar or a table? Should we use hosts or a loaf of bread? What kind of wine are we supposed to use? Who should receive communion – all who have been baptized, including infants; only Episcopalians; only adults who “understand” the full meaning of the Eucharist? Speaking of which, is the Eucharist a memorial? A sacrifice or an offering? And who should serve the bread and the wine? What should be done with the leftover consecrated wine? The list of questions goes on and on.

In Jesus’ time, table rules were well-understood. Everyone knew who should be on the guest list and the most honored guest knew precisely where they should sit. Likewise everyone knew who would not or, in any case, who should not be invited to the table – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. In fact, the book of Leviticus singles out this group in some detail.[i] Here’s a bit of that colorful passage:

“No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs . . .”[ii]
and so forth. A couple of verses later, some clarification is offered that these persons may, in fact, “eat the food of his God;” however, it is to be done away from the altar so that they do “not profane” God’s sanctuary.[iii] In some of those early Jewish communities – notably the community at Qumran - these persons were not even allowed entry into the community – let alone the opportunity to share a common meal. So, it not hard to imagine that there may have been people in Jesus’ time who had never enjoyed a grand meal like the described in this morning’s gospel lesson.

This then is the backdrop against which Jesus’ words are spoken: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors. . . But when you give a banquet invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”[iv] In light of the admonition in Leviticus and the clear understanding of social status in the culture, just imagine the outrage this statement must have caused – issuing such a statement against decades – perhaps centuries – of “common wisdom”! What host, if he were a good host, would even think of inviting these outcasts to enter their home – let alone to dine with them at the table? And, yet, that is precisely what Jesus tells them they are to do. What’s more, he tells them that in doing so, they will be blessed – to be sure, this blessing will not come from the host’s relatives, rich neighbors, and friends – but, in fact, by God “at the resurrection of the righteous.” And, in talking about the meal they are about to share on that Sabbath day in terms of the heavenly banquet to which we all will be invited, Jesus makes vivid the connection between that future time of God’s inclusive reign and the time in which we find ourselves to day. Laurence Stookey, a seminary professor in Washington DC, describes the Eucharistic feast as a meal in which you and I are united across time – connected with one another and with all the faithful who have gone before us. [v] So the Eucharist connects the past with the present and with that future time in which God’s reign will be fully upon us.

Yet, when we celebrate the feast, it is not merely a memorial meal nor is it simply a matter of looking forward, expectantly waiting for an even better meal. Rather it is an opportunity and an invitation to live as if God’s reign is fully upon us now. To dine together as if God’s radical inclusivity – an inclusivity which breaks down all boundaries and divisions - is already a part of who we are today. Who are we called to welcome to the feast? Who are the blind, the lame, the crippled and the poor in our time and in our communities? And how will we invite them in? As we are all full members of the body of Christ, which of us should issue the invitations? And when these others join us, how will they be received? Will the seat of honor be given to them, or will they be asked to sit in the back where they won’t perhaps be quite as noticeable? These are the questions about table manners that we, as the Body of Christ, are invited to consider each time we gather to eat the bread and drink from the common cup. And in this way we are being “faithful to the heavenly vision (no matter how incomplete the result)” and offering “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” [vi]

[i] Thanks to R. Alan Culpepper for pointing out this passage in light of the gospel reading in “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. IX (Luke / John), (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995), 287.
[ii] Leviticus 21:17b-20.
[iii] Leviticus 21:22-23.
[iv] Luke 14:12b-13.
[v] Laurence Hull Stookey, Eucharist: Christ’s Feast with the Whole Church, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1993), 107-8.
[vi] Stookey, 107-8.


Raisin said…
Loved the sermon! And the photos are just great. Here's mine from the same day (click on "Recent Sermons"):