Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 29, 2010

2010.08.29 “Kingdom Etiquette” Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

Central United Methodist Church

“Kingdom Etiquette”

Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

Pastor David L. Haley

August 29th, 2010

“One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move.

He went on to tell a story to the guests around the table. Noticing how each had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left.

“When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’ That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I’m saying is, If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Then he turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be — and experience — a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned — oh, how it will be returned! — at the resurrection of God’s people.”  (Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)

 

      It was this weekend in 2004, I had just returned from a vacation, and had to get back to work by officiating at a Saturday afternoon wedding. As usual, I was also stewing on Sunday’s sermon, which was the Gospel we just read. Saturday night at the wedding banquet, I decided to try it out.

      First, I let all the guests have it, chiding them for jockeying to get the good seats at the head table, with the wedding party, rather than back near the bathroom with me. We sent some of those social climbers back to sit with the flower girls, and opened up a few seats at the front, which we filled with people previously stuck near the back.

      Then I started in on the hosts, the parents of the bride, good friends of mine: “Look, when you have a wedding party, don’t just invite people like me, serving up all this steak and dessert stuff, invite the people who really need it. Did you see those people sitting forlornly there in the bar, or that coat check girl?  How about those obviously homeless people we passed on the way here? Those are the kind of people you ought to invite, people who never get a chance to come to parties like this.  

      As I said, they were good friends of mine; not so much after this.

      Of course you know, I didn’t really say that. But if I had, I would only have done what Jesus did, at a dinner party where he was the guest of some Pharisees.  

      What’s going on here? Well, one thing that’s clear is that you might want to think twice about inviting Jesus to dinner.  Apparently that’s worse than inviting the preacher. 

      From this story and others, there’s no doubt that Jesus could sometimes be a disturbing, even rude, guest. But if he upset standard etiquette, it was for the purpose of revealing Kingdom Etiquette, life as he believed God would have it be. At the risk of finding ourselves “flat on our face,” or red-faced, as the case may be, let’s take a look.

      In the first section, Jesus elaborates what might be called the kingdom principle for “getting ahead:” “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

The saying describes what might be called an “Upside-Down Kingdom:” a polar reversal of life as we know it. It’s not just that the exalted will be humbled; we know about that from the Old Testament story of Job. Nor is it that the humble will be exalted; we know about that from the Old Testament story of Joseph. No, what Jesus is talking about is a complete reversal in which God will exalt the humble, and humble those who are exalted. 

In Chicago, we’re not so sure life could ever work like this.  More often, what we see is the high and mighty patting each other’s backs and lining each other pockets.  The Rod Blagojevich tapes – as over the top as they were – only illustrate a principle that’s governed the circles of Illinois power from before most of us were born.  It is that principle elaborated most clearly long ago by 19th century New York Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkett: “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.” Sometimes they were legal and sometimes they weren’t; sometimes they got caught, and sometimes they didn’t.  In Rod Blagojevich case, I guess we (and he) will have to wait until next year – and Episode 3? – to find out.

      So it’s hard for us – even sitting in church – to imagine taking the attitude recommended by Jesus, characterized by humility, rather than reciprocity. That’s why the way Peterson puts it is so illuminating: “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” As many of our parents would have put it: “Don’t be puttin’ on airs!”

      One of my seminary roommates used to chuckle over a story of a husband and wife – maybe even a preacher – coming home from a dinner where the husband had spoken.  “Honey,” he said, “Wasn’t that a great sermon?” “Yes,” she said, “it was pretty good.”  “Honey,” he said, “there sure are a lot of great men in the world.” “Honey,” she said, “there’s one less than you think.”  Every time I used to get – shall we say – hyperinflated, my roommate would remind me: “Dave, there’s one less than you think.”

      But it’s in the second section of the story where Jesus pushes the limits, when he turns to the host who invited him:

      “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be — and experience — a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned — oh, how it will be returned! — at the resurrection of God’s people.”

      Why the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind? These are not only beyond the usual categories of family, friends, and rich neighbors; they are by Jewish law “unclean.”  But, as is clear from the Parable of the Great Feast which follows this reading, these outsiders are the ones who end up being the insiders at the Great Feast which God throws. (14:21) They are Jesus’ favorites, his kind of people. Because he likes them, we – his followers – cannot ignore them.

      So what starts out as a breach of etiquette at a dinner party ends up as an agenda for radical spiritual and social change, which – according to Jesus – God has initiated.  Jesus’ word still speaks clearly to a world, a church, and to us as individuals, as an enduring vision of God’s Kingdom, life the way God would have it be.

      I think one of the great tensions in our society is between those who remember our country the way “it was” – mostly older white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant; and those who see our country the way it is, and is increasingly going to be, made up of diverse peoples of color, mostly young, practicing different religions and values than our own.

      I only have to look at myself to see this:  I grew up in a small town in Western Kentucky in the fifties and sixties.  It was mostly white, mostly evangelical Protestant. Not only did I not know any Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or Jews, I hardly knew any Catholics. Lutherans were exotic.

      Thankfully, that was long ago and far away, and now I rejoice to live in one of the most diverse cities in Illinois (and maybe in the country). I rejoice to be pastor of a diverse congregation. Why is that?  Well, partially, because these stories of Jesus which have now worked on me for all these years: the image of a God who’s bringing the outsiders in, and giving us a seat in the kingdom of God.

      Given this, you might think that the Church would be the most heterogeneous, most diverse group in society, reflective of Jesus’ radically inclusive fellowship.

Sadly, we know that’s not the case.  According to one study, 92.5% of Catholic and Protestant churches are “monoracial”; only 7.5% can be described as multi-racial. That 7.5% includes only 12% of Catholic churches, less than 5% of Evangelical churches, and only 2.5% of mainline Protestant churches). My guess is that in terms of generation and gender, the numbers would be equally skewed. In light of this, do you understand what a gift we have here in our congregation?

      But if Jesus’ words were challenging to his hosts and his guests, so are they still for us, as individuals.  Because too often, we are like those dinner guests, people who live within rigid religious, social, and personal boundaries which we rarely – if ever – go beyond. Mostly, we are people who have a hard time moving beyond our comfort zones to practice hospitality toward those “not like us.”

      Let’s face it, most of the time it is easier to find a group of people who look like we do and think like we do, and thus, not be challenged. Join a perpetual dinner party of people whose friends we are and whose rules we know. But as I read this Gospel, that doesn’t sound like what Jesus had in mind.

      To make these words of Jesus real and not just a fantasy, whether in our nation, our congregation, or in our lives, we have to do what Gandhi challenged us to do: “You must be the change which you wish to see in the world.”

      I believe a lot of the misunderstandings in the world today could be resolved, by practicing kingdom etiquette:  by sitting down and talking with – eating meals with – people unlike ourselves: people of different backgrounds, color and culture, people of different religions.  Are we willing to give it a try?

      Naïve, maybe. But I know it’s possible, because I’ve seen it happen. 

      As I’ve told you before, like many churches across the country, my previous church had a P.A.D.S. (People Acting to Deliver Shelter, aka People Actually Doing Something) homeless shelter on Thursday nights. I worked the 5 am “breakfast shift” on Friday mornings, the first and fifth Thursday of every month. During that time we woke up our “guests”, picked up their bedding, fed them breakfast, and sent them on their way, turning our fellowship hall from a bunkroom and a dining room back into a “church.” I don’t want to romanticize it; sometimes it was sometimes difficult, dirty and smelly, and sometimes the guests got into fights and we had to call the police.

      But they were the kind of people Jesus was talking about: “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind;” as Peterson puts it, “the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks.” A elderly man with a pegleg.  Mothers with new babies.  Viet Nam vets.  Big Jimmy, who could trash a bathroom like nobody you’ve ever seen. Teenagers kicked out of their homes. Guys who left early to get to their jobs, but just didn’t make enough to live indoors.  And yes, some who struggled with mental illness, drugs, alcohol, and the law: all some mother’s child.  All of us who worked with them, from my church and other churches, learned something about the lives they lived, and learned greater understanding, empathy, and compassion.

      There were times – especially in the light of today’s Gospel – when I wondered if our church wasn’t more Jesus’ church on Thursday nights, with those guests sleeping in the floor, than it was on Sunday morning, with worshipers sitting in the pews.  Because we were doing what Jesus suggested, so long ago:

      “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be — and experience — a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned — oh, how it will be returned! — at the resurrection of God’s people.”

      Practice Kingdom etiquette.  Go be – and experience – a blessing.  Amen.

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