Table Manners

Scripture: Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
October 4, 2015 (World Communion Sunday)

As I look at this beautiful table covered with breads from around the world, I reflect upon meals I have had, bread broken, in different parts of the world.  In particular, I am reminded of an exquisite meal in Paris.  On the occasion of Karen’s 50th year of life, we enjoyed an elegant, once in a lifetime dinner in the esteemed restaurant located in the Eiffel Tower.  We savored each bite as we gazed upon the City of Lights.  

The table was set to perfection.  The liquids on the right – water goblet, red wine glass, white wine glass.  The bread plate on the left.  If you are ever setting a table and can’t remember where to put the bread plate and where to put the glasses, there is a clever way to remember:  Make “OK” signs with both of your hands.  The left hand makes the letter “b” for bread.  The right hand makes the letter “d” for drinks.

We, then, used our utensils, “beginning from the outside and working our way in”.    The salad fork and the dinner fork on the left.  The knife and spoon on the right.  Remember, in setting a table, the knife is always turned inward facing the plate.  Why?  Way back when, the first and only utensil was the dagger. A blade pointed outward was a sign that you wished the person across from you harm.  So, we place the knife inward.  

Of course, during any elegant dinner most of us try to use our best table manners.  General table etiquette says this:  

  1. Upon being seated, unfold the napkin and place it in your lap.  The napkin remains on the lap (except for use) until the end of the meal.  If you are leaving the table temporarily you may place the napkin in your chair as a signal to the waiter that you will be returning.  This is also showing respect for the other diners who won’t have to look at the soiled napkin on the table. At the conclusion of the meal, place the napkin partly folded, never crumpled at the left of your plate.  Even a paper napkin should never be crushed and tossed into your plate.
  2. In gatherings of six or less people, you can begin eating only after everyone is served. At a banquet, eating begins as soon as those on either side of you are served.
  3. Once silverware is picked up from the table it never touches the table again.  When you are “resting” from eating, but are not yet finished, the knife and fork should be placed on the plate, overlapping one another at 4 and 8 if you can imagine a clock face. When you are finished, the knife (blade turned inward) and fork are placed next to each other diagonally at 11 and 5.
  4. Salt and pepper are always passed together, even if someone asks only for the salt.  They are married.
  5. Hold a stemmed glass only by the stem.
  6. When someone offers a toast to you, do not drink to yourself.
  7. Eat quietly – never scraping your plate, smacking your food, or slurping your soup.
  8. The “no elbows on the table” rule only applies when eating.  When no utensils are being used, putting your elbows on the table is acceptable.

I imagine that in our scripture passage today, the guests were using their very best table etiquette.  Jesus is at a Pharisee’s house for a party.  It was a nice affair.  It was in the backyard, catered (Beef Wellington, creamed cauliflower, Don Perion champagne), lawn sloping down to the water’s edge.  Only the finest china and crystal are used. Orchids cascading down the center of the table. The guest list is made of the crème de la crème – the ladies with their strings of pearls draped around their evening gowns and the men looking stately in their purple linens with their gold rings displayed prominently on their fingers.  There was small talk that goes with sophisticated parties as everyone sought to be witty and ever so clever.  And Jesus stands up and taps his goblet with his spoon in order to get the guests attention.  And he says, “Excuse me.  This is a lovely party, but next time let’s invite some other friends.  Some of the prostitutes?  The homeless?  The widows over at the nursing home?  The street kids?  The crippled person, hand outstretched, begging?  Yes, I believe we need to expand the guest list next time.”   Welcome to the misfit kingdom.  What the world throws out, God throws in.  

I imagine that the host, the Pharisee pursed his lips, furled his brow and took a quick sip of water.  He probably thought to himself, “This is the last time I will ever invite Jesus to dinner.  He has no manners.  No sense of etiquette.  He will never be invited to one of my parties again.”   And according to the gospel of Luke, this is actually one of the last times that Jesus is invited to the home of a Pharisee.

Meals were a very important social symbol in antiquity, even more so than today.  Eating together was a sign of the willingness to be open to another.  By eating a meal with another, a person was saying that they were willing to be vulnerable, they understood themselves to be bonded together.  In order to follow the Jewish law, those considered “clean” would never dream of eating with those considered to be “unclean.”  But here comes Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, who intentionally goes outside the holiness code and often ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, the sick, the dying – all sorts of folks from across the landscape of society.

It reminds me of the story about a woman and her fiancée went to book their reception at the Hyatt Hotel.  They had very expensive taste and their bill came to tens of thousands of dollars.  At the last minute the fiancée backed out, but the contract at the Hyatt Hotel was still binding.  So, she decided to go ahead with the banquet.  She had been homeless 10 years before and decided to treat the down-and-out to a night on the town.  The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken, in honor of the groom.  She sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters.  The people who were used to peeling half-gnawed pizza off cardboard boxes dined instead on chicken cordon bleu.  Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’oeuvres to the down-n-out, some who were propped up on crutches.  Bag ladies and vagrants took one night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and ate chocolate wedding cake and danced to big band melodies late into the night.  

That is the Kingdom / the Kindom of Heaven on earth.  It requires an entirely different set of table manners.  Table manners that call for us to throw open the doors of the banquet hall for all people.  Instead of building walls between us, we claim this space for building relationships.  Instead of creating a world of division, we gather around the table for reconciliation.

In this banquet hall, in this sanctuary, seated across from us around this great communion table, I would like for us to create a space for the abused and hurting, as well as the abuser, who feels alienated and troubled.  I would like to see seated at this table the poor of the poor, the homeless teen on the street as well as the wealthy; those who are from the LGBT community and our very important straight allies;  those who question and doubt and those who are rock solid in their faith.  I would love to see a greater rainbow of color around this table as well as people of all ages – from the newborn baby to the elderly who hobble along with a cane; those with physical and/or mental challenges holding hands with those whose body and mind are in impeccable shape. And in keeping in line with whom Jesus shared table fellowship, may we set a place for the prostitute and even the IRS, the modern day tax collectors.  Yes, may we welcome all kinds of people to this table and may we always make room for one more for God loves a full house.   

Invitation to the Communion Table

There are already place cards at this table with your name on it.  They read “Treasured One”, “Precious Child”, “Light of the World”.  Yes, there is already a place reserved just for you.  In your bulletin, you will find a place card.   I would like for you to think of a specific person or a group of people whom you would like to see here at the Great Banquet gathered with this congregation around this table.  Who is missing from our table?  Who are the people who may yet to feel welcomed at the table of love?  How can this table better reflect the realm of God in today’s scripture passage?  Then, carry the card with you to communion and place it on the table.  

Jesus gathered with a diverse group of disciples around the table.   They had opposite temperaments:  There was impulsive Peter who couldn’t keep his foot out of his mouth, right next to James, the Lesser who was humble and meek.  The disciples had different ideologies:  There was Simon the Zealot who wanted to overthrow the Romans by force right next to Matthew, who collected taxes for the Roman Government.  There were opposite mindsets:  introverted skeptics like Thomas and Nathaniel right next to passionate, bold advocates like James and John, who were known as the “sons of thunder”.  Jesus embraced diversity.  On this World Communion Sunday, we, too, embrace unity in the midst of great diversity.  As we come forward, may we bring our very best table manners.