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A Place at the Crowded Table

Karen Ware Jackson

Rev. Karen Ware Jackson is senior co-pastor, First Presbyterian Church Greenville, North Carolina, and co-editor of When Kids Ask Hard Questions: Faith-filled Responses for Tough Topics, Chalice Press (2019).

As a pastor, I mirror the words of Christ at the communion table, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matt. 26:26). We all learn from his pattern of blessing, breaking, sharing, and eating. In the same way the sensory elements of cooking a family meal remind us of beloved family members, actions at the communion table connect us to the communal memory of generations of Christians. If we listen closely, we might hear the Lord’s voice echo, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).

As important as it is to invite God to our family table, it’s equally important to welcome the whole family of God to the Lord’s Table.

In our Reformed tradition, the Word may be the center of our worship, but the meal is its heart. The Directory for Worship in the PC(USA) Book of Order says it this way, “The Lord’s Supper enacts and seals what the Word proclaims: God’s sustaining grace offered to all people. The Lord’s Supper is at once God’s gift of grace, God’s means of grace, and God’s call to respond to that grace.”

If your family table is anything like mine, it’s never clean. In order to eat (or write), you’ve got to make space in a place crowded with baseball cards, crafting supplies, stacks of mail, homework during the school year, goggles and spray sunscreen during the summer heat. Some of the mess is just passing through, dropped here due to exhaustion and the chaos of family life, but some of it belongs here just as much as dinner. It’s the best place in the house to spread out a big project, sit side by side working through a reading passage, play a round of UNO Attack, or even join a Zoom meeting while painting your nails.

Man, Alone ink on paper Jennifer Bunge

Man, Alone, ink on paper, Jennifer Bunge

Even when we aren’t setting out the silverware, for many of us the family table is the heart of the home. It centers and grounds our household life, giving us a place not only to eat but also to work and laugh and pray together. Whether we’re sorting through bills or passing the pasta, we’re united here in a common effort not so different from what we may find in a sanctuary. The Westminster Catechism tells us our purpose is to glorify and enjoy God forever.1 Jesus frames it as a call to love God and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).2 While the words are different, the family table and the communion table echo the same roots of love, service, and connection to God and one another.

Theologian and gastronomist Kendall Vanderslice points to the Last Supper as not just the first but also the central act of Christ in forming a new community: “When Jesus established his church, he did so around a table. He asked his followers to eat together in remembrance of him, knowing the process of sharing a meal communicates something vital about who we are and how we relate to God.”3 For Vanderslice and many Christian communities through the ages, the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion or mass continues as the central act of the church’s worship.4 It is the place where the Holy Spirit works so that we experience a mystical communion not only with Christ through his body broken in bread, but also with the church, Christ’s body re-membered in community. In the same way, the family5 dinner table calls us to a single place to share and connect, to remember our individual identities as we relate to one another in our shared life.

My co-pastor and I celebrate our most sacred meal every Sunday after church with our two children. I wish I could tell you that I pull a home-cooked roast out of the oven, ladle delicious stew from our hardworking crockpot, or even pick a bevy of salad greens from our backyard garden. But unfortunately, I don’t like to cook (and our “backyard garden” consists of a healthy basil plant, a few sprigs of volunteer dill and mint, and three anemic tomato plants). Our favorite family meal requires a drive through the popular North Carolina takeout chain Cook Out on our way home from church. The kids have to share their fries, but they get their very own chocolate milkshakes while the adults load up giant cups of diet soda in order to be properly caffeinated for Sunday evening meetings. It’s an informal meal, but one bound by rituals of love, grace, and connection.

As we settle around the table in our sunroom, we pass out the ketchup and spoons and straws, divvy up the fries, and debate whose turn it is to pray. We don’t eat before the prayer, and we don’t say the prayer until everyone is at the table and has food. Sometimes that means we’ve got someone hopping up soon after the prayer for the restroom or to change out of their church clothes. At least one child will spill their milkshake and end up with paper napkins stuffed down the front of their shirt lest the cold, wet cloth make contact with their skin (horror of horrors). But we enjoy at least a few moments with all of us eating around one table.

We like to ask each other about our “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” for the day so far. The delicious (and the less desirable) coffee hour snacks often make an appearance on the list, but sometimes the kids surprise us: “I liked the story Mommy told in church” or “I loved that we finally got real bread again for communion.” (Yes, even the kids are tired of pop-top communion.) Soon we move on to casual conversation: “Did you see Daddy splash the water out of the font? It was hilarious!” “Do I have to go to children’s choir this afternoon?” As the meal winds down, they’re asking to be excused and being reminded to throw away all their trash. We don’t tend to keep them at the table because these pastor-parents are exhausted and hoping for a sacred Sunday nap.

With kids’ activities and church meetings quickly rebounding from pandemic pause, it may be days before we eat together again. While my family is not quite as excited for my culinary efforts as they are for french fries and milkshakes, these meals follow much the same fashion—the preparation, the prayer, the meal, and the cleaning up. We have our own set of norms for how these actions proceed. I can imagine this basic pattern is not all that different for families the world over. At the communion table, too, we follow a pattern of preparation, prayer, celebration, and sending that unites us as a Christian community. While the language and liturgy may vary, when we sit at the Lord’s Table, we connect our table to the one Jesus set for his disciples on the night he was arrested; we connect our table to those early Christian feasts where the words became an institution; we connect our table to disciples across denominations for the holy meal.

The Preparation

“Alexa, make an announcement” (me, speaking to our Amazon Echo device on any given night of the week. She is always listening).

“Okay, what’s the announcement?” (Alexa, from inside the Amazon Echo device, her synthetic voice perpetually calm yet curious).

“It’s time for dinner!” (me).

“It’s time for dinner!” (Alexa, echoing my recorded voice through every device in the house. If you know, you know).

I’ve already established that I am not the most eager or adept of cooks, but there is more to preparing a family meal than chopping vegetables and watching the grill. Vanderslice posits that cooking tells “embodied stories, allowing future generations to physically take part in the continuation of a memory.”6 Growing up, my twin sister and I loved to bake alongside our mother and grandmother. We learned how to measure and mix as we eagerly waited to lick the beaters once the batter was complete. My own daughter likes to knead and shape bread but isn’t interested in cookies and cakes. It’s my son who revels in knowing the *secret ingredient* we use in almost every recipe. As I help him hold the measuring cup steady, I can almost feel my Nana’s arms wrapped around me, mirroring the same practiced movements. I remember what she taught me not just about baking, but about life, and I remember how she made me feel: strong, capable, brilliant, and deeply loved.

As a pastor, I mirror the words of Christ at the communion table, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matt. 26:26). We all learn from his pattern of blessing, breaking, sharing, and eating. In the same way the sensory elements of cooking a family meal remind us of beloved family members, actions at the communion table connect us to the communal memory of generations of Christians. If we listen closely, we might hear the Lord’s voice echo, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).

As we consider the connections between the communion table and the dinner table, it’s important to note that, as sacred as family meals may be, they are not a sacrament. Even without the specific liturgy, theology, practices, and ordering of various Christian denominations and communities, the power of the family meal lies in its intimacy. Many families do invite neighbors, friends, and hungry newcomers to their table. Some families remember loved ones who cannot be present. A family may use the meal to be mindful of and grateful for all the people whose labor allows them to eat. But even the most welcoming household is still limited in their ability to invite all people to the table. The same might be said of any single Christian church, but it is vital to note that the reconciliation and sharing that occurs within a family meal is only a fraction of that demanded by the Eucharist.7 That’s okay! The more we practice the hard tasks of love with those closest to us, the more open we may be to larger work of justice and connection in the world.

Once the meal is prepared, we call everyone to the table. My family of introverts is often scattered to their respective hidey holes, so we tend to rely on our faithful Echo (Alexa) to broadcast the invitation. We put down our books, turn off the television, rouse ourselves from the end-of-day stupor, and make our way to the kitchen to complete the final preparations, filling glasses, setting out utensils, and carrying dishes to the table. Even when we haven’t made the meal together (and let’s be honest, we usually don’t), there is always a moment of chaotic togetherness before we finally find ourselves at rest at the table. While it doesn’t always immediately precede the Lord’s Supper, I think the passing of the peace most closely resembles this gathering moment. Congregants move throughout the sanctuary greeting friends and visitors, grabbing extra bulletins and all too often dropping vital pieces of information to their distracted pastor as they settle into the shared experience of worship.

The Prayer

“Who wants to pray?” (the adults).

“Me!” (hungry children, eager to dig in).

“God is great. God is good. Let us thank God for our food. Amen.” (all).

Despite our best efforts to expose our children to different forms of mealtime prayer (songs, chants, prayer cubes, extemporaneous prayer, even silence), our nine- and eleven-year-old inevitably choose the Protestant classic. It’s not quite the Great Thanksgiving appropriate for the Eucharist, but it covers the bases of praise and thanksgiving quickly and efficiently. The prayer may be the place where the similarities and differences between the two tables show up most clearly. Both cover praise and thanksgiving. Both typically point to God as the creator of the world, the one who makes the meal. It’s common for mealtime and communion prayers to include some sense of the meal’s purpose—to bless, to remember, to sustain, to connect.

A communion prayer will reflect the vital theology of those gathered, including but not limited to God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. The Directory for Worship outlines the prayer to a triune God, “giving thanks for God’s creative power, providential care, and covenant faithfulness, along with particular blessings of the day; remembering God’s acts of salvation through Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return, as well as Jesus’ institution of the Sacrament (if not otherwise spoken at the invitation to the table or the breaking of the bread); and calling on the Holy Spirit to draw worshipers into the presence of the risen Lord, nourish them in the body and blood of Christ, unite them with Christ in the communion of saints and the Church in every place, and send them in mission to the world.”8

Only my grandfather, renowned for his extensive prayers at large family gatherings, might cover the ground at the dinner table we expect before a communion meal, but most mealtime prayers, however short, will similarly reflect what is most important to those gathered. A family that offers thanksgiving for farmers and day laborers who harvested produce may have a strong connection to the land or a desire to be conscious of food justice. A family that offers specific prayers of thanksgiving or supplication for those seated at the table may hold togetherness in high regard, may have specific needs they want to keep in mind, or might just want each person to feel recognized and blessed. Sung prayers common to summer camps and youth groups (the Superman Blessing, anyone?) reflect the joy and energy of the space.

The Meal

In the poem “God Made Spaghetti,” the poet Cynthia Rylant imagines God preparing a meal alone—struggling to determine if the noodles are cooked just right, filling up a big bowl, and sitting down to eat with just a copy of The New Yorker for company. The poem goes on:

And He would actually
have liked somebody
to talk to
(He didn’t like eating alone),
but most people
think God
lives on air
(apparently they’ve not noticed
all the food He’s created),
so nobody ever,
invites him over
unless it’s Communion
and that’s always
such a letdown.
God’s gotten used
to one place at the table.
He lights a candle anyway.9

I wonder how often we invite God to eat with us at our family tables, to linger beyond the Amen and join in the cacophony of conversation, the gentle back and forth of curiosity and care, even the companionable silence wrought by busy mouths and busy minds. How might our meal be different if we set a place for the Lord or lit a candle to remind us of Christ’s presence or the Spirit’s fire in our midst? In a sermon titled “Taste and See” preached at the 2022 Worship and Music Conference at Montreat, Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson reminds us that “the tables we set offer a tangible embodiment of love.”10 When we gather in a home, we hope our love for those around the table is visible and evident, even as the chatter often revolves around sharing the events of our days, chewing on new ideas, and digesting the news of the world. There are many ways to be more intentional about discussions of faith as part of these conversations. Some families read a Scripture or a storybook Bible around the table. Big Ideas in Youth Ministry has created a set of cards called Word Teasers, Faith Edition with a question, definition, and Scripture to help folks build a faith vocabulary. The Muddle Fork makes simple Pray and Play cards that are fun for younger children.11 These and similar products can be a fun and lively way to keep God in the conversation.12 But inviting God to the meal can be as simple as asking the question, “Where did you see God today?” Our conversations about faith can be woven into those about our daily life. This can be especially helpful for more concrete thinkers. We start with “What is something beautiful you saw today? When did you feel happy and loved today?” and then help them make the connection that God created the beauty in the world, the people, places, activities, and relationships that bring us joy.

As important as it is to invite God to our family table, it’s equally important to welcome the whole family of God to the Lord’s Table. We do this verbally with our invitation and physically by making sure that everyone can access the elements safely (allergen free, non-alcoholic, within reach of all), but I fear some of our traditional liturgical practices put more focus on the personal spirituality of the meal to the detriment of the communal power of the shared experience. The last few years, most of us have been sitting in our pews and quietly peeling one cellophane for the “bread” and another for the juice, but even when we come forward to receive or pass the plates down the rows, it can feel more like a private practice done in public, similar to what we might experience in a silent prayer of confession or a time of meditation after the sermon. It’s easy for communion to slant towards personal devotion. After all, eating is inherently an individual act in that we cannot taste the bread or drink the thimbleful of juice for another person. We receive the elements as individuals, but in that moment we are not alone. We are connected to Christ and to one another. In receiving and remembering Christ, we re-member or make whole the body of Christ that is the church.

The members of Community in Christ Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, practice communion in a way that reflects some of these sensitivities and focuses on the sacrament as a communal meal. The congregation comes up in small groups to form a circle around the table, passing the bread and cup from hand to hand, smiling at one another as they wait patiently to serve and receive. When everyone in the group has received the elements, the officiant offers a brief prayer with the circle followed by a resounding “Amen.” I’ll admit, it is not quick. The worship service tends to take longer than an hour when it includes communion, but isn’t this a powerful, communal moment worth the time? As we begin to reconnect and reimagine worship in a COVID-endemic world, perhaps communion should hold more space in our worship life. It’s difficult and not always wise to change the sacramental rhythms of a community, but we can investigate why they are powerful in a particular congregation. It might be that receiving communion in small groups limits our exposure, answering two concerns of the current season at once. Even if this particular practice would not be a helpful change in your context, there are other ways for our actions at table to focus us toward the community. Some congregations make an effort to receive the elements all together, synchronously, to symbolize their unity with one another and the larger church, for example.

The Cleaning Up

“Can I be excused?” (children, seeking to move on to the next activity).

“Yes, but be sure to take your plate,” (adults seeking to instill a sense of common purpose in the household—and also desperately needing a break).

A family table does not clean itself. There are no bus-persons waiting in the wings to whisk the plates to the dishwashing crew. Whether empty plates, partially-completed home improvement projects, or laptop computers clutter the table, it’s got to be cleared to make way for its next use—cleared by the family for the family. The same is true in the sanctuary. A large part of living in community is caring for the communal spaces. It’s not just about spreading the load. It’s about spreading the love. When we work together, stacking chairs, recycling bulletins, or clearing away the bread and juice, we connect for a common purpose.

A few months ago our church shared homemade bread during communion for the first time in over two years. It was gloriously delicious, but it was also messy! After worship, I walked down a crumb-strewn aisle offering giant hunks of leftover bread to any who desired. Two of our youngest members, a four- and five-year-old brother and sister, joined the church mid-pandemic and have never known anything but tasteless wafers. They reached out their hands, eyes wide. “We can have all of this? WOW!” This was a win not only for delighted children but also for good theology and right practice, with elements being consumed or returned to the earth.13 By the time I got to the narthex, two industrious folks had plugged in the vacuums and were making their way to the sanctuary to clean up what was left of our meal. Going from a vacuum bin to a trash can is not quite the holy end we hoped for those morsels, but the way they were gathered—with joy and care for our common life—was holy.

In our Reformed tradition, the Word may be the center of our worship, but the meal is its heart. The Directory for Worship in the PC(USA) Book of Order says it this way, “The Lord’s Supper enacts and seals what the Word proclaims: God’s sustaining grace offered to all people. The Lord’s Supper is at once God’s gift of grace, God’s means of grace, and God’s call to respond to that grace.”14 We see these echoes of grace around every crowded table where people share a meal—the holy gift of daily bread, prepared with care and broken for all, for the good of all.

In their country hit “Crowded Table,” The Highwomen offer a cozy vision of the kin’dom of heaven when they describe the kind of house they want to inhabit. They sing, “I want a house with a crowded table and a place by the fire for everyone.” The song gives attention to the ethics of interior space, but it does not neglect the calling beyond this space, either, as they croon, “Let us take on the world while we’re young and able and bring us back together when the day is done.”15 There is a reason Jesus spent so much of his ministry gathering people around a table to share the same expanse of level space, to speak and listen, to hold with tender courage what makes us broken, and to seek a wholeness beyond what we can imagine. We bless; we break; we take; we eat; we love. “Everyone’s a little broken and everyone belongs.”


  1. Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1.
  2. Mark 12:29–31; Matthew 22:34–40; Luke 10:26–28.
  3. Kendall Vanderslice, We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2019), 168.
  4. “The Institution of the Eucharist,” Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982).
  5. Throughout this essay, the word family is used to describe those with close personal relationships and often, those who share a household. It is not limited to genetic or legal relationships.
  6. Vanderslice, We Will Feast, 20.
  7. “The Meaning of the Eucharist: D. The Eucharist as Communion of the Faithful,” Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, paragraph 20.
  8. “Great Thanksgiving,” Directory for Worship, Book of Order (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, 2019), W-3.0412.
  9. Cynthia Rylant, “God Made Spaghetti,” God Went to Beauty School (New York: HarperTempest, 2003).
  10. Aisha Brooks-Johnson, “Taste and See” (sermon, 2022 Worship and Music Conference, Montreat, NC, June 28, 2022).
  11. Pray and Play Cards,
  12. Word Teasers, Faith Edition,
  13. “Communion,” Directory for Worship, W-3.0414.
  14. “Theology of the Lord’s Supper,” Directory for Worship, W-3.0409/.
  15. Highwomen, “Crowded Table,” Genius, 2022,


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