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Table Manners

Because my maternal grandparents were hyper-vigilant to correct any cultural ignorance resulting from my upbringing as the firstborn son of the mixed marriage between their Swedish daughter and my Gentile father, on most Sundays of my childhood the three living generations of our family gathered to eat around Grandpa Johnson’s dinner table. To be perfectly honest, the liturgy of those Sunday dinners was completely predictable. For instance, the hungry herd that assembled weekly at Grandma’s creaking, reproduction Duncan Phyfe table never gave a second thought to the fact that our hostess was required to stay home from church each Sunday morning to prepare the hand-trimmed roast from Keener’s Meat Market along with steaming boats of rich gravy and her signature mashed potatoes, whipped fluffy as clouds. That was merely what we were going to be eating every weekend, hearty but simple food seasoned with the kind of loving but snarky conversation that can percolate among family members who know each other well.

In my family, we had an abundance of both love and snark available on most occasions, mixed in roughly equal proportions. As it turns out, when people who know one another quite well get together regularly, sometimes they may choose to push one another’s buttons just for the sheer sport of doing so. So at some Sunday dinners, the real dessert turned out to be some good-natured ribbing that my uncles aimed at Grandpa for the way he had of pulling his Eating Pants up around his neck. I guess you can explain this by saying that each of my uncles possessed the Spiritual Gift of Teasing, but perhaps I should also admit that my Grandpa Johnson’s preference for wearing his trousers with both suspenders and a belt does in fact count as clear evidence of his conservatism. So on other Sundays, it might also be Grandpa who would seize the moment to demonstrate his own Spiritual Gift of Immaculate Perception by laying down The Final Word of Family Judgment on some topic under discussion. On those occasions, I often picked up some of the finer points of Grandpa’s rather colorful command of dinner table Swedish when he would dig in and raise his horns to take on the younger bulls who had been loudly bellowing forth about those Capital Letter subjects that were of interest to us all (usually some variation on perennial fighting words like Politics, Family, or Religion). But in the end, it seemed there was always something new to learn at the dinner table occupied by my extended family, even if Grandma never did think it necessary to change a single item in her Sunday dinner menu. In retrospect, it just strikes me now that so much of what my family holds to be most deeply true, beautiful, and significant about life came almost imperceptibly into my possession simply because I managed to hang around long enough at that dinner table where my clan gathered to eat every Sunday. To borrow from the observation of that old Middle Eastern proverb: I saw them eating, and I knew who they were. You might say that learning how to eat with my family seems to have instilled in me a deep sense of identity and vocation in the world.

Now had I been paying closer attention to the New Testament, I suppose very little of this would have come as a surprise to me. As Fred Craddock, one of my preaching professors used to tell us, “Nothing is more serious than a dining table.” What Dr. Craddock was trying to help us remember becomes fairly obvious once you start watching closely what happens whenever Jesus shows up around a table at meal time. Sure, there were a few awkward moments when he was criticized sharply over his choice of dining companions. But I’m guessing this remains one of the central challenges for religious folks even to this day given that Jesus always seems to be insistent on eating good food with bad people. So while the conventionally religious often center their criticisms on the conspicuous way Jesus enjoys eating and drinking with the wrong folks in all the wrong places, the New Testament simply reports another obvious truth: Jesus is the friend of sinners. That the Church now bearing his name often proves rather amnesiac regarding that fact probably explains why so many people seem to profess love for Jesus while simultaneously loathing religious institutions. Who knows? Maybe if we were really willing to follow the lead of Jesus in offering others some maneuvering room to make the necessary course corrections at God’s own patient grace pace, they might even begin imagining that they could be free to let a meaningful change take hold.

This first weekend of October we join with disciples of Jesus from around the globe to share the Bread and Cup of the Lord’s Table in observing World Communion Sunday. But I do not intend that to sound superficial, soft, and sentimental, especially after tragic shooting deaths resulting in heightened racial tension in places like El Cajon, California; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charlotte, North Carolina. In a world where differences are both real and deeply felt, all of us may be groping for legitimate ways to reconstruct communities where reconciliation and justice is actually practiced in concrete actions of substance. But rather than the familiar flurry of banal Twitter hashtags, lip-biting photo-ops, and the usual political posturing from leaders seeking to turn someone else’s mourning and loss into a marketable bump at the polls, perhaps the way we gather at the Table has something of significance to say. Let me remind you again regarding the wisdom of the proverb: I saw them eating, and I knew who they were.

Several years ago in a conference at Duke University, I met Michael Curry, who serves now as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States. In preaching, Bishop Curry often tells the story of a young woman who converted in the 1940s to the Episcopal faith and invited the man she had been dating to join her for Sunday morning worship at an Episcopal Church in the heart of what was then the segregated South. They were both African Americans, and the young man was more than a bit uncomfortable waiting in the pews while the rest of an all-white congregation moved forward to receive Communion by drinking from a common Cup. Having never before seen black people and white people drink from the same water fountain or eat together in a restaurant, his anxiety continued to rise as his girlfriend went to the front of that sanctuary to receive the elements of Communion from the rector of the church. Curry says that when the young man saw the Episcopal priest lower the Communion chalice to the lips of his African American girlfriend while intoning the Words of Institution, “The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee,” something changed forever within his own heart. That young man told his girlfriend, “Any church where black and white drink from the same cup has discovered something powerful, something that I want to be a part of.” And that is how Bishop Michael Curry eventually became the first African American Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States, for that young couple turned out to be his parents.

In her book Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans comments on the kind of scandal and personal discomfort that is bound to occur if we are going to engage in this type of radically open Communion. I love the honesty of her frank confession: “On a given Sunday morning I might spot six or seven people who have wronged or hurt me, people whose politics, theology, or personalities drive me crazy. The church is positively crawling with people who don’t deserve to be here . . . starting with me. But the Table can transform even our enemies into companions. The Table reminds us that, as brothers and sisters adopted into God’s family and invited to God’s banquet, we’re stuck with each other; we’re family. We might as well make peace. The Table teaches us that faith isn’t about being right or good or in agreement. Faith is about feeding and being fed. . . . I’ve often felt that if I could just find the right denomination or the right congregation, if I could just become the right person or believe the right things, then my search would be over at last. But right’s got nothing to do with it. Waiting around for right will leave you waiting around forever. The Church is God saying: ‘I’m throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine.’” 

That sounds about right. But if you’re still waiting around for the benediction, all I really know to say is, “Bon appétit.”

Jeff Crosno