Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 28, 2016

Central United Methodist Church
Mind Your Manners
Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14
Pastor David L. Haley
August 28th, 2016

AFeastPrepared

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)

 

Etiquette: what is the state of it today? Where I grew up, we didn’t know it as etiquette, a word borrowed from the French, which is ironic that we should borrow such a word from a people who resisted bathtubs and invented perfume as a substitute. Instead of etiquette, we knew it more simply as manners, as in “Mind your manners,” which assumed that we had some to begin with. Although I was taught some manners, I can’t say Emily Post was a standard reference in our house.

Briefly defined, etiquette is “a code of behavior that defines expectation for social behavior according to contemporary conventional norms within a society, social class, or group.” Given this, what is right and polite changes according to time and place.

Since they change over time, it has always been the job of older generations to lament a lack of manners among the young.  As one elder put it: “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” That was Socrates, in 4th century B.C.E. Greece. Substitute “devices” in place of “chatter,” and it would fit today. Although I have to say I was impressed recently when I said “Thank you,” to a young woman, and instead of responding with the usual “No problem,” she said, “My pleasure.” Let’s hope this catches on!

Perhaps no place are manners (or the lack of them) more observable than at the dinner table: whether we eat alone or together, who sits where, when to eat and when to wait, which spoon or fork to use or the rudeness of using none at all, and now – when to put the iPhone away.

If that isn’t difficult enough – as I noted before – all these rules also vary according to place. In France, you sit so close to strangers it is unsettling, especially for us Americans who love our space. In China, I looked around to see how people eat shrimp with shells and head on; the answer is not with chopsticks, but with your fingers. In India, you only eat with your right hand, the left is used for personal hygiene. I’m sure, you could tell me many more, from where you grew up. Not knowing what the table manners are in any particular place, how are we to know other than by observing?

Such observation is exactly what is going on in the Gospel of Luke today, when Jesus is invited out to eat. Not only were they watching his every move, he was also observing them.

As we have seen over and again in the Gospel, the everyday activity of home and marketplace, farm and fishing boat provided Jesus not only insights into people’s character, but also opportunities to reveal life in God’s kingdom. Nowhere was this more true than around a dining table.

In Jesus’ world, table fellowship was laden with religious, social, and economic meaning. And so Jesus used such times to clarify kingdom etiquette; how we should behave in the Kingdom of God, not a kingdom to come but here on earth right now. And so Jesus has lessons for guests and lessons for hosts, which – at one time or another – all of us are.

When we are guests, whether in God’s house or someone else’s house, the appropriate virtue is humility. When Jesus observed people jockeying for the best seats at the head table, he warned them of the risks of inflated ambition. In a shame/honor culture such as theirs was, there was considerable risk/reward either way. The status and rank of individuals is legitimated by their inclusion on the guest list and their location on the seating chart. So how embarrassing would it be to sit at the front and be publicly called out. Instead of “moving on up,” you’d be “moving on back.”

As Jesus put it: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Eugene Peterson renders it this way: “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 for us, we may know such exaltation/deflation more from airline seating than lavish banquets. Father Dan Costello is the pastor of St. Joan of Arc Church here in Skokie. When we had our Thanksgiving Eve Service here at Central 2 years ago, Dan – who was our preacher – shared a story about getting on a plane. Being a priest, he hinted to the stewardess as he boarded how wonderful an upgrade would be, you know, for a man of the cloth. So he was thrilled when she came back a few minutes later invited him to first class, but less than thrilled when she added, “We’re having some weight distribution problems with the plane, and we’d like you up front to even it out.” I’ve rarely heard more prolonged laughter in our sanctuary. “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.”

Done with the appetizers, Jesus now turns to the entrée, a word to the hosts of the dinner; which – as a church and as families and as individuals, we are. In this case, the recommended kingdom virtue is not reciprocity (what they can do for us in return), but hospitality:

“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.”

According to Jesus, both synagogue and church are constitutionally committed to the care of the poor and the disabled. However, please note that here, Jesus is not calling us to provide for the needs of the poor and disabled, as he is calling us to invite them to dinner and eat with them. Nor does it mean sending food to someone; rather it means host and guest eating together. In God’s kingdom, the clearest sign of acceptance, of recognizing others as equals, of heart-to-heart fellowship, is eating together. Do you suppose Jesus was serious about opening church halls, homes, even our hearts in this way?

I’m still learning. A week ago Saturday, Mae texted me to say someone was coming to my door. I thought it was her, so I was surprised when I opened the door and a man was standing, there, a fast and loud talking man who greeted me like an old friend. He said his father lived on the corner, named his name, said I’d probably seen him out walking the dog. While I’m racking my brain, he said that his father had had a stroke and was in the hospital, could I do him a favor. I’m thinking he wants me to go see him, but he says that his car has been towed, they want $120 and they only take cash, and he’s got $100, could I loan him $20. Soon as he gets his car and goes to the ATM, he’ll pay me back (those words again) in an hour. Guess what, I’m still waiting! Did I show hospitality, or was I just scammed? That’s grace, says Jesus. Giving to people, even invited them to dinner, when you know they can’t pay you back. After all, isn’t that what God has done for us?

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

PeterMarshallLong before I went into the ministry, a movie which had an impact upon me was the 1955 movie, “A Man Called Peter,” the story of Scots immigrant Peter Marshall, who was the Pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. from 1937 to 1949, until his sudden death of a heart attack at the age of 46. Can you believe there was a time when they made movies about preachers?

One of his sermons which I read afterwards is a sermon called, “By Invitation of Jesus,” based upon this text, which I’ve never forgotten. In this sermon, Marshall imagined a rich man in Washington who read this text, and decided to put it into action. So he had a card made which read:

Jesus of Nazareth
Requests the honor of your presence
at a banquet honoring
The Sons of Want
on Friday evening, in a home on Massachusetts Avenue
Cars will await you at the Central Union Mission
at six o’clock

When the time, came he sent cars to the Mission, to pick them up: the unshaven, the disabled, the hungry and homeless. Once they arrived, the host stood and said, “My friends, let us ask the blessing.”

“If this is pleasing to Thee, O Lord, bless us as we sit around this table, and bless the food that we are about to receive. “Bless these men. You know who they are, and what they need. And help us to do what you want us to do. Accept our thanks, in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

As they ate – for they were hungry – their host looked around and reflected what an amazing thing it was that he didn’t know the name of a single man! His guests had no credentials, no social recommendations, no particular graces – so far as he could see.

As he sat there, the stories in the Gospels kept coming back to him, and he could almost imagine that the house was one in Jerusalem. It seemed to him that these men would be the very ones that Jesus would have gathered around Him – the legion of the world’s wounded, the fraternity of the friendless, pieces of broken human earthenware.

After the meal was over, someone came in and sat down at the piano, and they begin to sing, old favorites, men who had not sung for months. After the singing, the host said

“I know you men are wondering what all this means. I can tell you very simply. But, first, let me read you something.” He read from the Gospels stories of One who moved among the sick, the outcasts, the despised and the friendless, how He healed this one, cured that one, spoke kindly words of infinite meaning to another, how He visited the ostracized, and what He promised to all who believed in Him.

“Now I haven’t done much tonight for you, but it has made me very happy to have you here in my home. I hope you have enjoyed it half as much as I have. If I have given you one evening of happiness, I shall be forever glad to remember it, and you are under no obligation to me. This is not my party. It is His! I have merely lent Him this house. He was your Host. He is your Friend. And He has given me the honor of speaking for Him. “He wants you all to have a good time. He is sad when you are. He hurts when you do. He weeps when you weep. He wants to help you, if you will let Him.

“I’m going to give each of you His Book of Instructions. I have marked certain passages in it that you will find helpful when you are sick and in pain when you are lonely and discouraged, when you are blue and bitter and hopeless and when you lose a loved one. He will speak a message of hope and courage and faith.

“Then I shall see each one of you tomorrow where I saw you today, and we’ll have a talk together to see just how I can help you most.”

When they had gone, the man sat again by the fire and looked at the dying embers, until the feeling became overwhelming again that there was Someone in the room. He could never tell anyone how he knew this, but he knew that He was smiling and that He approved. And that night, on Massachusetts Avenue, a rich man smiled in his sleep. And one who stood in the shadows smiled too, because some of the least of these had been treated like brothers for His sake.” (Peter Marshall, “By Invitation of Jesus, Mr. Jones, Meet the Master: Sermons and prayers of Peter Marshall, 1973)
To “mind our manners,” what are we supposed to do? In this case, let’s not look around us, but to these words of Jesus, and then we shall know what to do. Amen.

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