Commensality. I introduced this word four weeks ago, on Easter, and I wanted to reflect about it with you further today. It’s from the Latin root for table. Commensality refers to the fact that who we take meals with, and how, is socially structured and recapitulates the overall social structure. I cited anthropologists Peter Farb and George Armelagos who wrote:
“In all societies, both simple and complex, eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships…. Once the anthropologist finds out where, when, and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among the society’s members....To know what, where, how, when, and with whom the people eat is to know the character of their society.”
Jesus taught a way of being – and being together – in which everyone had a place at the table, everyone would be fed, and equal.
“Open commensality is the symbol and embodiment of radical egalitarianism, of an absolute equality of people that denies the validity of any discrimination between them and negates the necessity of any hierarchy among them,”
writes the New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan.

In that Easter sermon, I mentioned two illustrations from the New Testament of Jesus teaching and exemplifying open commensality. One is the story of the loaves and fishes. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks for it (i.e. blesses it), breaks the bread (i.e. prepares it for sharing) and gives. I imagine most of those assembled had hidden away in bags or sleeves a little food for their own use, and under the influence of Jesus’ teaching example, they bring out what have and share it around. As Jesus models taking, giving thanks, preparing for sharing, and then sharing, those gathered then follow his model. Thus community of abundance is created, replacing fearful scarcity thinking. There is enough for everyone – abundantly – when we can but learn to trust its supply and pass it around. The miracle of the feeding of the multitude is the miracle of neighborliness, of our human power to form community. And in this case it is a community of radical equality: everyone equally giving and equally receiving.

As Crossan writes:
“Took, blessed, broke, and gave have profound symbolic connotations and may well stem from that inaugural open commensality itself. They indicate, first of all, a process of equal sharing, whereby whatever food is there is distributed alike to all. But they also indicate something even more important. The first two verbs, took and blessed, and especially the second, are the actions of the master; the last two, broke and gave, and especially the second, are the actions of the servant. Jesus, as master and host, performs the role of servant, and all share the same food as equals....Far from reclining and being served, Jesus himself serves, like any housewife, the same meal to all including himself.” (181)
The second illustration I mentioned is the parable Jesus tells about a man who sends out his servant to invite people to his banquet. ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ Such a dinner would be highly disruptive of the stratified society of Jesus time – but radical equality is the point.

We may now add that Jesus’ commitment to equality also shows up in his itinerancy. The more common model in those days for a healer and teacher would be to stay in one place, set up shop, as it were, and let the sick, and those to wished to hear his teaching, come to him. Thus he could have established a small center of power and influence. We recognize today that there is a power imbalance between teacher and student, and between doctor and patient, and it is important to recognize that that power is there, so that we can also be vigilant against abuse of that power.

But Jesus takes steps to minimize that power imbalance. He stays on the move. He goes to the people rather than having them come to him.

Compare and contrast Jesus approach to another school of itinerant teachers in those days – a school of Greek philosophy called the cynics. This school began with Antisthenes, who had been a pupil of Socrates in 5th century BCE. For the Cynics, the purpose of life is to live in virtue, gaining happiness by rigorous training, rejecting wealth, power, and fame, in favor of a simple life free from possessions. Cynicism began to decline after the 3rd century BCE, but it experienced a revival with the rise of the Roman Empire in the 1st century CE, so Jesus and his followers would have been aware of them. Cynics could be found begging and preaching throughout the cities of the empire, and the influence of this tradition can be seen in Jesus and in early Christianity.

The cynics traveled around with nothing but knapsack and staff, symbolizing their complete self-sufficiency. “The Jesus missionaries, in contrast, are told precisely to carry no knapsack and hold no staff in their hands,” writes Crossan. He then asks,
“Why this striking difference? Since a reciprocity of healing and eating is at the heart of the Jesus movement, the idea of no-staff and no-knapsack is symbolically correct for the Jesus missionaries. They are not urban like the Cynics, preaching at street corner and marketplace. They are rural, on a house mission to rebuild peasant society from the grass roots upward. Since commensality is not just a technique for support but a demonstration of message, they could not and should not dress to declare itinerant self-sufficiency, but rather communal dependency.”
In contrast to the cynics itinerant self-sufficiency, the Jesus movement modeled itinerant mutual dependency.

After Jesus’ death, the open and equal table was ritually re-enacted as the eucharist, the communion of wafer and wine. But the eucharist ceremony reflects and reinforces hierarchy and authority, as a sacrament that comes only through priestly authority. Thus, writes Crossan, “open commensality has been ritualized, which was probably inevitable, and ruined, which was not.”

All of this does connects to our theme of the month for May, which is happiness, and to that connection we now turn.

What you’ll find in this month’s issue of “On the Journey” is “The Reflection” by Christine Robinson and Alicia Hawkins, which stakes out happiness as the intertwining of mood and meaning.

Mood is one of the factors. Sometimes we’re in a happy mood – and that feels good. Some of us are genetically predisposed to a sunny temperament, and are in a happy mood almost all the time. Others of us are genetically predisposed to inhabit more pensive or sadder moods. Those who aren’t so constantly happy, maybe, sometimes, find those people who are annoying. Actually, though, having cheerful people around usually helps us feel more cheerful. The more common response is to be attracted toward cheerfulness. We like to be around a little sunny optimism.

On those relatively rare occasions when cheerfulness may be annoying, I suspect that would be because a sunny outlook feels like a challenge to the more dour outlook with which we have come to feel identified. There is more to happiness than a happy mood, and maybe sometimes some of us can get a little resentful of a someone else having a relentlessly happy mood if the other factor of happiness is not evident.

The other factor of happiness is meaning. A happy life is one of meaning. Meaning comes from a sense of contributing to a whole greater than ourselves. Fellowship and community – connection with others – is a crucial part of our well-being, and not just because of what we receive from others, but from the chance to contribute to them, to the whole of which we and they are a part.

Consider for instance Robert F. Kennedy’s words from his 1968 campaign:
“Fellowship, community, shared patriotism – these essential values of our civilization do not come from just buying and consuming goods together.”
They come from
“dignified employment at decent pay, the kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, ‘I helped to build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures.’”
That was 55 years ago, and maybe these days it’s harder to see contribution to nation as very important in life’s meaning – and that is a loss. With that source of meaning diminished, it’s harder to feel satisfied, happy – and, indeed, our politics today is consequently dominated by anger and rage. (Of course, there was anger and rage in 1968, too, and that was connected to people being shut out from the chance at dignified employment at decent pay and the chance to be a welcomed participant in our country’s great public ventures. The dearth of contributive justice – honoring everyone’s right and need to contribute to some big “us” – plays out in a rather different dynamic today, but generates frustration and anger just the same.)

With less role for national identity, we look to other ways to contribute to something bigger than ourselves – family, faith community, possibly work community.

If a pill were to become available, as cheap as aspirin, and not addictive, without any negative side-effects, and simply by taking this pill once a day, you would be blissfully happy, would you take it? I might try it – if the evidence were pretty solid that it really was safe. But the prospect of living that way – taking the happy pill along with my daily vitamin every morning – does not appeal to me -- as long as I wouldn't need such medication to fend off depression.

I want my happiness to be real – and what “real” means when it comes to happiness, is that component of meaningfulness – that component of contributing to something bigger than me. I don’t want to be blissfully or ecstatically happy while the world falls apart around me. If the world is falling apart, I want to be engaged in shoring it up. I’d feel ashamed if I thought I was turning my back on everyone, withdrawing into a private bubble of my own bliss.

We need meaning, we need to be able to contribute. We need respect – which, in its best form, is the recognition that we are meaningfully contributing as we are able to the good of others. So happiness cannot be a matter of the pharmaceutical companies finding a more perfect anti-depressant.

On the one hand, yes, serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins are crucial, but we can’t really be happy unless our lives are real, not self-centered, self-enclosed. To be really happy we need to feel there’s a reason to be happy – a purpose we are serving, a greater good to which we are contributing – and to which our very happiness itself helps us contribute.

And that brings us back to the model of commensality, of the open table, of serving and being served. You see, what I’ve been leading up to this whole time is this: we just had a pledge drive. Rather than hoarding our treasures, we have trusted their supply and passed them around. We have manifested abundance, and manifested community, for community IS abundance.

Our annual canvass is concluded – though you can still get in your pledge, or revise it – the forms are in the lobby. And we are celebrating today the way that we come together and sustain ourselves as a community. We’re having a literal open table today at the brunch after the service, and we thereby embody together serving and being served. And the literal welcome table we lay serves for us as a symbol representing everything about us: how we sustain each other, how we stand to each other in a relation of equality, how here we contribute to something bigger than ourselves. And we know this contribution is meaningful, because we are also the recipients of others’ similar contribution, so we feel directly how meaningful each contribution is, and that must include our own.

One other thing I mentioned four weeks ago on Easter was that John the Baptist was into fasting, while Jesus was more into feasting – and the open table, for him, showed us the way to feast. Fasting is what you do to prepare – to spiritually prepare for some revelation or dispensation or post-apocalyptic vision. Feasting is what you do to celebrate what is already here. Indeed, Jesus did tell us that the kingdom of God – the kin-dom of God – is here now. The kin-dom of God is within you and among you, he said.

We meet then at the welcome table in recognition of the fact that we have never truly been anywhere else. Therefore, as it is writ in the Gospel According to Wayne’s World: "Party on, Wayne." "Party on, Garth."


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