A couple of years ago a friend clued me in to “Table Topics.” I don’t know if any of you have run across these? They are cards—there are several sets available now—and they are designed to help to stimulate conversation around the table. Here are a few samples:
“Which famous athlete would you love to meet?”
“How did your grandparents meet and fall in love?”
“What will be the best thing about leaving home and what will be the scariest?” (That’s from the “Teen” version.)
“What is the best and worst thing about being a man or a woman?”
The cards were created by a woman who wanted to have sparkling conversation at her cocktail parties. My friend uses these cards in her work as a chaplain with folks in assisted living and nursing facilities. But if you look at the website (and take note of the fact that there are versions targeting teens, married couples, book club members and more), it’s clear their use is intended to be much broader than that. The fact that there’s a set called “the Family Gathering Edition” tells us that these cards are being called upon to do something pretty fundamental. “Table Topics” were created in order to help people talk to one another, specifically, talk to one another while they are breaking bread together.
But why? Why does it matter that we have good conversation around the table? Don’t we come to the table to eat, for heaven’s sake? Isn’t the point of the table the food we set on it? But then I suppose, we could ask, what is the purpose of that food? There is certainly good reason to believe, from a scientific and evolutionary standpoint, that the purpose of food and eating is to provide fuel for the machine that is the body. And if that were it, the end of the story, I suppose each of us could get through the day with injections of perfectly engineered combinations of proteins, carbohydrates and fats, like something out of a science fiction movie. But that doesn’t really appeal to us, so that must not be the end of the story. Even if it is, fundamentally, fuel, food signifies much more than that. Food is not simply, only food. There are layers of meaning around food, like the layers of a delicious orange marmalade cake. It’s complicated, just how it is and why it is that we sit down together at the table.
We are picking up John’s gospel immediately after his retelling of the feeding of the multitudes, and I’ll remind you quickly that we read Mark’s version of that story last week. So, it’s kind of like we’re watching the life of Jesus, by viewing the first part of “Godspell,” and then, in the middle, switching over to “King of Kings.” It’s the same story, but it feels pretty different. I’ve talked a little bit about the gospel of John and how it stands in such stark contrast to the other three gospels. Chapter 6 of John is a great illustration of that contrast. The other three gospels tell the story of the feeding of the 5000, and then they, pretty much, continue on with the action of the story. “Immediately [Jesus] made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side,” Mark tells us, and just like that, they’re off on more adventures. John, on the other hand, spends the rest of chapter 6—the longest chapter in the gospel, a whopping 71 verses!—explaining exactly what just happened. There are questions, and answers, and disagreements, and arguments, all in the service of making sure that we understand exactly what was going on when all those people were able to eat all that food. That’s John, a gospel of words and explanations, and very overt, very un-subtle theological reflections.
Right from the first verses of our reading, Jesus lets us know that there’s someone who does not understand what has just happened. There is someone who, apparently, mistook that food for… food. “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” [6:26]. Jesus seems to be scolding the people for following him, because, they seem to think the important thing that just happened is that they were hungry, and now they have been fed. Well, that’s kind of what I thought, too. I believe I actually mentioned that point in my sermon last week.
Jesus continues, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal” [6:27]. There is food, Jesus says, and then, there is food. There is food that will feed your bodies… fuel for these wondrous machines God has created… and then there’s food for your soul. That is what I am about, Jesus says: the food that endures for eternal life.
In her book Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner attempts to reconcile her Jewish upbringing with the Christian faith she has found as an adult. In one chapter she says:
Because I kept kosher (the word comes from the Hebrew for “fit” or “appropriate”), I thought about the food I ate. I thought about what I was going to eat, and where I was going to procure it, and how I was going to prepare it… Only after I stopped keeping kosher did I fully appreciate that [that practice] had shaped more than my grocery lists. It also shaped my spiritual life. Keeping kosher transforms eating from a mere nutritional necessity into an act of faithfulness. If you keep kosher, the protagonist of your meal is not you; it is God.
There is food, and then there is food. There is eating, and then there is eating. What good is it, Jesus seems to be saying, if your stomachs are full if you have no idea who is the author of the feast? What good is it if you settle for full stomachs, when you also have the option of full souls?
I suspect this is, in the end, the motivation behind “Table Topics”… this idea that there’s no point feeding our bodies if our souls and intellects are left to starve. And we are starving for lack of knowing one another. Every time we eat dinner in front of the TV or the computer, rather than looking one another in the eyes and truly being present to one another, we are starving ourselves of the deep and meaning-filled relationships we could have. Yes, by all means, feast on the bread, Jesus says. But don’t forget to feast on me! Don’t forget to feast on the one who comes in me and through me.
Every month we lay the table for a meal, and it’s funny kind of a meal. A tiny piece of bread—or more, if you can tear it off yourself and are hungry for a larger hunk. A small sip of juice, or whatever your bread can soak up. A funny, tiny, almost insignificant kind of a meal. Early on in the church, they gathered for much larger meals—banquets! People fought for the chance to get to the early seating, so that they could be sure to fill their stomachs. And then, at a certain point in our history, someone decided that those meals, rather than pointing towards God, were actually turning the people’s focus in the wrong direction. And so the custom of bread and the fruit of the vine, a small meal, a symbolic meal, yet one so full of relationship it might as well be a feast… that custom was born. That is the custom we carry forward today. Bread that is so much more than bread. Fruit of the vine that is so much more than the fruit of the vine. Food that is so much more than food, because it draws our attention beyond the food to the creator of the food. A meal that is simultaneously so much less than a meal (as defined by our super-sized appetites), and yet so much more than a meal (as defined by the love of the one who serves it to us).
There is food, Jesus says, and then, there is food. There is food that will feed your bodies… fuel for these wondrous machines God has created… and then there’s food for your soul. That is what I am about, Jesus says: the food that endures for eternal life. We gather around tables. This table, the table in your dining room, the picnic table in your backyard, the table in the Fellowship Hall. We gather around tables and we hunger to be filled… with bread, and with the bread of life. The table we gather around today offers a meal that is served with the abundance that only Christ offers us. A feast that satisfies not only our bodies but our souls. Bread and fruit of the vine that fills not only stomachs but us as people. Come and feast on the gifts of God for the people of God and thanks be to God for the feast! Amen.
With thanks to KnittinPreacher! You know how to get a girl out of a jam.