September 30, 2020

The Pastor: Waiting Tables

613EHnHjnfL._SL1076_Christianity is a meal fellowship.

And ministry is table service.

This is the focus and content of a remarkable chapter in Gordon W. Lathrop’s book, The Pastor: A Spirituality.

And this is the chapter that, most of all, sets the liturgical traditions apart from the free churches. This is what many of us who fled those non-liturgical congregations hungered and thirsted for. It wasn’t just that we wanted to celebrate communion more often or have a more structured form of worship. No, what Lathrop outlines in this chapter is a different vision of the Church, a contrasting culture, an entirely different mindset than what many of us experienced in free church evangelicalism.

Gordon Lathrop makes two simple points in this chapter:

To be the church means to come to the table together.

Christianity came into existence as a meal fellowship. Biblical images, some of them used in the early centuries of the faith, can help us understand the importance of this assertion. The food itself was now the very presence of Jesus, his encounterable body in our midst, his covenant-making blood on the lintels of our bodies. The meal was the taste of the feast on the mountain (Isaiah 25), the Spirit-given end of death itself, the gathering of all peoples to eat and to drink, like Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18), with the Holy Trinity. The gathering was now the qahal, the ekklesia, eating and drinking with God and sending portions to those for whom nothing was prepared, as in the account of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8).

To serve the church as a minister means to take up the role of a table-servant.

We would do well to recover the concrete meaning and the concrete connotations of “ministry.” Let the ministers be diakonoi. Let the gospel be set out as food, in the food, and in the relief for the poor. Christianity is a meal fellowship and diakonia is its unique idea about leadership. The words for this recovery, of course, are words from the heart of the Gospel tradition: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and table server of all” (Mark 9:35), and “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your table server, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. for the Son of Man came not to be served at table but to serve the table, and to give his life a ransom for the many” (Mark 10:43-45). Finally, the great table service of Christ to the world is the cross. There, by holy mercy, he is the server and the food, the very fruit from the tree of life for faith to receive and eat and live and also the very famine relief of God served up to all the needy world.

In all this, he is asserting the down-to-earth, lived reality of the Christian life and Church. Jesus introduced the Kingdom not so much in ideas as through incarnational action — by eating and drinking with people. Many of his sayings and stories reflect that, and come to us as examples of “table talk” that he shared around meals. Christianity, Lathrop says, is like that. It is a meeting, a meeting at table. Baptism is how we “wash for dinner.” When we gather, we not only share the nourishment of words and rituals, but also actual food and drink. Furthermore, recognizing that some of the family are unable to gather with us, we take them their meals and visit with them in Christian love. Also, knowing that many of our neighbors are hungry and short on resources, we take care to relieve the poor around us through sharing our bread and possessions with them.

The table service of the gospel belongs to the whole church, of course. But it is also the special calling of the ordained.

If someone asks me what I do, my proper answer should be, “I wait tables.”

I see to it that my family is fed and nourished and cared for.

I sit with them as one who is likewise hungry and thirsty and we break bread together.

At the table, we talk. We listen. We learn from each other.

We are fed.

Gordon Lathrop says, “When it is healthy, Christianity is a meal fellowship still.”

You can have your grand auditoriums, your preaching palaces, your gospel multiplexes, your all-purpose campuses that house every conceivable program.

I’ll be meeting with friends at the table.

* * *

This is part 4 of a series. Here are links to previous posts:

Part 1.

Part 2.

Part 3.

Comments

  1. Christiane says

    “The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way
    and how Jesus was made known to them
    in the breaking of the bread.”

    St. Luke is credited with both the writing of Acts as well as of his gospel.
    We remember this, when we read these, his accounts:

    “When He was at table with them, He took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him. (Luke 24:30-31)

    “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)

    The worship of the early Christians in community was eucharistic from the very beginning of the Church.

  2. I am curious as to why you have deleted Wine and Marble from the Blogroll, as I found the writer to be insightful in regard to women’s issues.

  3. Our son-in-law’s military responsibility sent him to South Korea for a year. We stayed with daughter and grandchildren as chauffeur, gardener, maintenance man and cook and housekeeper. But the Wesleyan Methodist Church became our community. Every week there were Wednesday, Saturday morning, and Sunday afternoon sit down meals. Beautiful group of people. Their mission went out to retirement communities and prisons with the same type meals. I would always go pledging to myself to only try small amounts of the different covered dishes and desserts brought and prepared. Fat chance, literally. Your fed with a whole lot more than food in that church.

  4. If someone asks me what I do, my proper answer should be, “I wait tables.”

    Oh my goodness. I love this.

    If this is the type of insight in this book, I shall definitely be acquiring and reading it. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Robert Capon spoke much the same way in chapt. 9 of The Parables of Grace;

    In the light of this text [luke 12:35ff], then, preachers of the Word labor under three distinct requirements. First, they are to be faithful (pistoi). They are called to believe, and they are called only to believe. They are not called to know, or to be clever, or to be proficient, or to be energetic, or to be talented, or to be well-adjusted. Their vocation is simply to be faithful waiters on the mystery of Jesus’ coming in death and resurrection. What the world needs to hear from them is not any of their ideas, bright or dim: none of those can save a single soul. Rather, it needs to hear—and above all to see—their own commitment to the ministry of waiting for, and waiting on, the only Lord who has the keys of death (Rev. 1:18).

    Second, the clergy are to be wise (phronimoi). They are not to be fools, rich or poor, who think that salvation can come to anyone as a result of living. The world is already drowning in its efforts at life; it does not need lifeguards who swim to it carrying the barbells of their own moral and spiritual efforts. Preachers are to come honestly empty-handed to the world, because anyone who comes bearing more than the folly of the kerygma—of the preaching of the word of the cross (1 Cor. 1:21,18)—has missed completely the foolishness (moron) of God that is wiser (sophoteron) than men. The wise (phronimos) steward, therefore, is the one who knows that God has stood all known values on their heads—that, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 1:26ff., he has not chosen the wise, or the mighty, or the socially adept, but rather that he has chosen what the world considers nonsense (ta mora) in order to shame the wise (sophous), and what the world considers weak (ta asthene) in order to shame the strong. The clergy are worth their salt only if they understand that God deals out salvation solely through the klutzes (to, agene) and the nobodies (ta exouthenemena) of the world—through, in short, the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead. If they think God is waiting for them to provide them with classier help, they should do everybody a favor and get out of the preaching business. Let them do less foolish work. Let them sell junk bonds.

    But it is the third of these clerical requirements that strikes me as the most telling: preachers are stewards whom the Lord has “set over his household servants to provide them with food at the proper time.” After all the years the church has suffered under forceful preachers and winning orators, under compelling pulpiteers and clerical bigmouths with egos to match, how nice to hear that Jesus expects preachers in their congregations to be nothing more than faithful household cooks. Not gourmet chefs, not banquet managers, not caterers to thousands, just Gospel pot-rattlers who can turn out a decent, nourishing meal once a week. And not even a whole meal, perhaps; only the right food at the proper time. On most Sundays, maybe all it has to be is meat, pasta, and a vegetable. Not every sermon needs to be prefaced by a cocktail hour full of the homiletical equivalent of Vienna sausages and bacon-wrapped water chestnuts; nor need nourishing preaching always be dramatically concluded with a dessert of flambéed sentiment and soufléed prose. The preacher has only to deliver food, not flash; Gospel, not uplift. And the preacher’s congregational family doesn’t even have to like it. If it’s good food at the right time, they can bellyache all they want: as long as they get enough death and resurrection, some day they may even realize they’ve been well fed.

    CM, as my table servant you would be a blessing. I’m assured of that because you regularly spread an abundant feast here for us.

    • “…God deals out salvation solely through the klutzes… the nobodies…. the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead.”

      Now here is a word of encouragement I can hear, since I fit this description to a tee.

  6. Richard Rohr’s meditation from today. It’s a loose association but what the heck:

    The Mystery of Presence
    Meditation 24 of 52

    The Eucharistic body and blood of Christ is a place we must come to
    again and again to find our own face, to find our deepest name, and our
    absolute identity in God. It takes years for this to sink in. It is too
    big a truth for any one moment, too grand and wonderful for our small
    hearts and minds.

    So we keep eating this mystery that is simultaneously the joy of God and
    the suffering of God packed into one meal. (Some have seen the
    body/bread as eating the joy and the blood/wine as drinking the
    suffering.) All we can really do is to be present ourselves, because we
    cannot ever rationally understand this. Presence cannot really be
    explained.

    When the two presences meet, Jesus and the soul, then we have what
    Catholics brilliantly call “the Real Presence.” We did maintain the
    objective end of the presence from God’s side rather well, but we
    seldom taught people the subjective way of how to be present themselves!
    Presence is a relational concept, and both sides must be there, or there
    is no real presence.

  7. Al Streett says

    I would like to encourage blog followers to read “SUBVERSIVE MEALS:an Analysis of the Lord’s Supper in First Century under Roman Domination.” Endorsed by major scholars. Read reviews on Amazon. Takes Lord’s Supper research to next level. Makes the case that the meal was 3-4 hours long and includes ministry opportunities. The church should be more like a supper club than a lecture hall.

  8. Christiane says

    You have to respect a religion where Christ the Kyrios sends His male disciples among the five thousand to serve them bread and fish, and then sends a woman to announce His Resurrection to the disciples.

    When I think about this, I am more than sure that we need to re-examine the roles He intended for men and for women as His servants and messengers.

    slightly ‘off-topic’ ? . . . maybe not . . . think about this:

    we, who have so very much, take our food as a ‘given’
    . . . but in those days, and today in many parts of the world today, a meal of bread makes the difference between life and death . . . to ‘nurture’ with bread is to offer life and that reality is somewhat lost in our world where much is made over the latest diet fad . . .

    when people think ‘nurture’ and begin to associate it with ‘life’,
    then they see more deeply into what Our Lord was about . . .
    and they can begin to imagine the impact of a simple meal of bread to someone like this:
    http://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2009/08/12/vulture-stalking-a-child/

  9. Christiane says