Palmer Cantler: Table Etiquette


The past eight months I have been planning the trickiest, most time-consuming event I will probably ever plan: my wedding. By the end of this month, I will get to marry the love of my life. However, I do not know if I am looking forward more to marrying him or being done with wedding planning. When we first got engaged back in January, my mom gifted me a couple of things to help with the process. The first gift was a binder to hold all of the contracts, the second gift a notebook to keep track of to-dos and thank you notes, and the last gift was a wedding etiquette manual by Emily Post. As much as I have appreciated and used each of these gifts, the last is as useful as it is stress-inducing. Emily Post's legacy is answering any question that you might ever have, and some you would never have thought of, with regards to etiquette. Her manual has taught me the proper way to address inner and outer envelopes, choose flowers and write thank you notes. Every time we came across a dilemma or were unsure of the traditions, Emily was there to answer my questions. While we have not always followed her guidance, it has been reassuring to have this manual to fall back on.

So when I read today's scripture, I could not help but look over at my Emily Post manual sitting on the table. Jesus' instructions to these Pharisees feel reminiscent of chapter 16: Planning Your Reception. On the surface, Jesus gives the Pharisees instructions on how to conduct themselves at a dinner party as well as who should be on the guest list. His guidance comes in the form of what not to do. Do not sit in the seat of highest honor. Do not invite the guests who will be able to return the invitation. Jesus is a killjoy of a dinner guest. Yet, for his plain language instructions, Jesus is actually teaching an important lesson.

The beginning of Luke chapter 14 gives us the necessary background to understand Jesus' actions. These Pharisees he is dining with are closely watching him.  They have witnessed Jesus heal a man on the Sabbath. Despite their love of the law, these Pharisees remained silent in the face of Jesus' question of the legality of healing on the Sabbath. The great teacher knows his student's learning style and poses exacting questions to the legalistic Pharisees. Jesus' instructions on table etiquette are offered as plain instructions on what not to do. The instructions are simple in their form, but confusing in their purpose. Since when does Jesus care about etiquette and dinner invitations?

It's not actually about table etiquette, is it though? The heart of the instructions goes much deeper than seating charts and invitation lists. For Emily Post, the heart of wedding etiquette is about respect. A good wedding is reflective of the couple and considerate of guests. Processional orders, invitation wording and types of showers provide a guideline from which to begin. But the etiquette is just a guideline. The heart of the instructions is to give a couple a framework to make their own in celebrating the heart of the wedding: love. Their love for one another and their community is the heart of a wedding, not etiquette.

It's the heart of Jesus' parables that we miss, if we only read them as table etiquette. While the parables feel plain and straight-forward, Jesus opens up the heart of the instructions with each last line. First, he tells the Pharisees to not immediately claim the seat of highest honor, but sit in a lower seat that they might be invited higher. "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." Jesus is not focused on helping avoid embarrassment by being asked to move to a place of lower honor. This lesson is on the Kingdom of God. Jesus' words are not instructions on seating charts, but a breaking open of our need to feel exalted for a lesson on humility. It is not table etiquette, but table fellowship. And Jesus' second parable follows in the same vein. He is not solely critiquing his host's guest list. The lesson is on the Kingdom of God. The host who invites "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, . . . will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." In the Kingdom of God, the lowly will be exalted.  Jesus sets up table fellowship as an example of the Kingdom of God.

We talk often about the Table: making room for people, who is welcome and gathering around together. But what happens around the Table is important, as Jesus teaches the Pharisees. Growing up, my parents were adamant about family dinners. In the midst of crazy schedules, we would sit down multiple times a week to have dinner as a family. It did not matter if the phone rang or you did not like what we were having for dinner, we sat at the table as a family. And when my brother and I became grouchy teenagers who didn't want to talk, my mom would pull out her Table Topics cards with random conversation starters. She taught that the Table is a place of connection. At the Table, you notice things about the people you eat with. Do they mind if their food touches? Have they separated all the peas out of the chicken pot pie? At the Table, you relax into relationships through conversation and laughter. Mom's Table Topics would have us yelling about who came up with the better super power, or sharing a moment during the day where we saw God. At the Table, we gather shoulder to shoulder, and yet, can look in the eye of our tablemates. The Table is both intimate and equalizing.

These parables do not make up "A Guide to Table Etiquette" by Jesus Christ. They teach that at the Table, we find a lesson on the Kingdom of God. Jesus teaches the Pharisees that who you invite matters, because the Kingdom of God is more inclusive than our invitation lists. The Kingdom of God makes sure that the hungry have something to eat and the lonely have friends. The Kingdom of God is a wedding where the host invites guests who will fully join in the celebration, not just be able to return the invitation.

Today, on the first Sunday of September, my church will celebrate Holy Communion. We will begin the liturgy of the Great Thanksgiving by remembering that "Christ invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another." (The United Methodist Book of Worship, United Methodist Publishing House, 1992, 35) The wording might be different, but the lesson on table fellowship is just the same. The Kingdom of God brings together all who love Christ, earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. Throughout the liturgy, we remember how Christ modeled the Kingdom of God for us in his life, death and resurrection. Christ taught true table fellowship in eating with sinners, inviting himself to Zacchaeus' house, and sharing his last meal with his betrayer. As we celebrate Communion and come to the Table, we not only encounter God's grace for ourselves, but learn how to share in the Kingdom of God.

The best lesson for me this year on table fellowship and hospitality has not come in wedding planning. On Valentine's Day 2019, the volunteers of my congregation's Soup Kitchen decided to host a special banquet. The Soup Kitchen has been serving lunch every Thursday for 35 years. Each week, a group of dedicated volunteers make lunch, prepare to-go sandwiches, and serve a hot meal with a smile and dignity to over 100 guests. Generations of volunteers have paid for the Soup Kitchen through bequests and memorials. So, when a long-time volunteer passed, his widow wanted to remember his life through the Soup Kitchen.

At first, John was a rather reluctant volunteer. His wife had been helping for a few years, before John started showing up on Thursdays to serve. When he was tapped to start picking up the 20 lbs of ground beef, John made another volunteer go with him for 4 weeks before he would do it alone. But John soon became a champion for this ministry. When the church kitchen needed to be renovated, he worked with the neighboring Baptist church so that our Methodist Soup Kitchen would not miss a week. After his death, Soup Kitchen volunteers and friends donated to the ministry in his memory and gave his widow an idea: we would have a special banquet.

It was a perfect storm of timing. The church was completing the renovation of its Parish Hall, the usual location for our Thursday meal, and would be returning to the new space after a brief exile to the gym. Valentines Day was on a Thursday and we like to call Soup Kitchen, love on a plate. It was a special day. Past and present Soup Kitchen volunteers served a plated dinner to over 230 of our guests. There were people squeezed in every corner of the Parish Hall, sharing a meal of roast beef, twice baked potatoes and red velvet cake. We barely had enough food for the huge turnout and it took forever to serve everyone.

It was not a memorial banquet with your typical guests; I know that many of our Soup Kitchen friends and regulars had never met John. Yet, they showered love on his widow that day. I think we were all blessed by this glimpse at the Kingdom of God. And for this lesson on table fellowship, thanks be to God.

Will you pray with me? Loving God, your son Jesus Christ extended grace and an invitation to his Table that we would rather forget. Inspire us to find ways to open our tables wider and share in Christ-like table fellowship. Through your Holy Spirit, may we work for your Kingdom in all we do. In Christ's holy name, amen.