Jesus and his friends were lacking in social graces – according to the table manners and table piety of their day. And for this — certain Pharisees called him on the carpet. “I can’t believe it! He did not wash his hands. There is dirt underneath his fingernails!”
My mother, my grandmother and her mother before her would have sided with the Pharisees. Jesus, didn’t your mama teach you to wash your hands before you eat? Apparently, Jesus did not listen very well to his elders. And yet he knew that people come to the table for more than food.
The Pharisees are not alone in being fussy about table manners.
Christians are no exception. Growing up, we observed a rhythm of fasting and feasting. On Friday, we would eat no meat. On special days we would fast from all meals until sundown. Every Sunday we would fast at least an hour before Mass and receiving communion. Our small sacrifices were to remind us of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. Ordinary reminders of the extraordinary God.
The good sisters at Holy Family were scrupulous in this regard. The nuns who had lunch time duty sniffed out each lunch bag and box to make sure it was kosher. I will never forget a Friday when I was in the first grade — just six years old. My mom had packed a bologna sandwich. A BOLOGNA SANDWICH! Possibly a mortal sin, my immortal soul was in danger. And so, my lunch was confiscated. A note was sent home chastising my parents’ lax regard for the Friday fast.
The sisters had reminded us of the rules. They laid down the law, but they had forgotten that we come to the table for more than food.
Christians are notorious for fighting over meals and especially notorious for fighting over God’s table. Is it an altar? Or a table? Should we kneel, or do we stand? What do we wear? White or black or rich brocade? Should we use wine, or do we use grape juice? Christians of many stripes and colors want to believe that their version of the Lord’s supper is THE version of the Lord’s Supper.
Family traditions are destined to clash at the dinner table.
Take the story of Raney and Charles, characters in a Clyde Edgerton novel. Raney and Charles are newlyweds. They live in North Carolina. Raney is a Free Will Baptist. Charles is an Episcopalian. One Saturday night over okra and fried chicken, they discuss where they will attend church the next morning. Charles hopes that Raney will attend the Eucharist with him at the Episcopal Church in town.
“I don’t think I could go to an Episcopal Church, ” Raney says.
“Why not?” counters Charles.
“They’re against some of the things we believe in the most. They serve real wine at the Lord’s Supper and they have priests. Don’t they?”
“Well, I don’t especially approve of the way priests drink.” Raney complains.
Charles reminds Raney that Jesus himself drank.
Raney scoffs, “I don’t think so.”
“Well, he turned water into wine at the wedding feast.”
“Yes,” Raney concedes, “but it wasn’t wine it was grape juice. If Jesus turned water into wine on the spot it had to be grape juice because it didn’t have time to ferment.”
There was a pause at this point in their conversation.
“If Jesus could make wine” says Charles, he could easily make it fermented as not, couldn’t he? Why should Jesus mess around with half a miracle?
Full stop. Continue.
“I’ve been going to the Bethel Free Will Baptist Church for twenty-four years now and the preachers there have been studying the Bible for all their lives and they say its grape juice. All together they have probably studied the Bible for over a hundred years. I’m not going to sit in my kitchen and go against that.”
So, like Raney and Charles, we squabble over the magic words. We argue about how the table is set. We quibble over the menu and the guest list.
Please don’t misunderstand me. These table traditions of Jews and Christians, Catholics and Protestants are to be honored. The Pharisees preaching of the kosher (kashrut) laws was not intended to be picayune.
The Jews have a wonderful word: “mitzvah”. A “mitzvah” is a grateful gesture to God even in the most mundane of circumstances: as you prepare the evening meal, as you wash your dishes, as you bathe the baby, as you tuck your children into bed.
Daily food was holy food. God sat down at each table and shared in each meal. But the Pharisees in Mark’s Gospel had forgotten this. They had forgotten that we come to the table for more than food.
Jesus, a marginal Jew, knew this, of course.
Have you ever attended a Passover Seder, a real one with a real Jewish family? The holy story of the Exodus is woven around a simple family meal. There are candles, special dishes and plates, symbolic foods and sumptuous courses. The Haggadah, the prayer book, is passed from hand to hand. Everyone has a part to play -– even the children.
“Why is this night so special?” the youngest asks.
The bitter herbs, the haroset, the lamb, the matzoh, and the wine make the rounds of the table. Each course is blessed with the telling of the story.
And this is just as true at Emmanuel’s holy table. I know that a hundred years ago, or so, the church purchased it. And I know that twenty some years ago, a vestry committee approved the rearrangement of the nave. And I know that the Altar Guild lovingly laid out the linen and the silver this Sunday — just as they have done hundreds and hundreds of Sundays.
But this table does not belong to Emmanuel. It does not belong to us. It belongs to God.
God decides who is welcome and God excludes no one. Technically only the baptized receive communion but that’s a church rule, a rule that God overrules. There is no checking your baptismal certificate at the altar rail.
At a nursing home service, the residents lean forward in their wheel chairs – regardless of whatever faith they came from. At baptisms, Jewish godparents are just as much a part of the family as the Christian ones. At a post 9/11 Eucharist, I remember a Muslim woman reaching out her hands in hope. On Christmas and Easter, when the church overflows, everyone is served.
We come for solace and for strength.
We come for pardon and for renewal.
We come in hope.
All God’s children come to the table for more than food.