Rev. Louis Timberlake
In my family, etiquette is a big deal. Growing up, my parents demanded good manners. I had to sit up straight at the table, say “yes sir” and “no ma’am,” be on my best behavior at other people’s houses. In middle school, I was forced, along with many of my classmates, to attend weekly cotillion classes. If you grew up in the south, you may know what I mean. These classes were one part ballroom dancing and one part table manners, which is exactly what every middle school student wants to do after a long day of school. Now, I’ve never been accused of being a particularly great dancer. I’m not awful, but it’s just not my gift. You have to have some natural rhythm and I just don’t. When Kate and I watch our wedding video, we tend to fast forward through the first dance. We’d rather watch the parts that don’t make us cringe. She looks beautiful, but I bring the whole thing down with my lack of ability.
So, the dancing classes didn’t really stick--mainly because, in my case, the teacher didn’t have much to work with. But, I could do the table manners part. Put four forks, three spoons, and two knives in front of me and I can at least pretend I know why you need nine pieces of silverware to eat a meal.
Have any of you ever wondered at times why certain things are considered proper etiquette? My wife has one of those big Emily Post etiquette books and, while there are some good things in there, half of it just feels like people making up rules just to make the rest of us jump through hoops.
Valerie Curtis is a behavioral scientist that has done research in the area of manners. She distinguishes between three categories of manners: hygiene manners, courtesy manners, and cultural norm manners.1 Hygiene manners are those practices that affect the transmission of disease. So, washing your hands after using the restroom. Not coughing in people’s faces.
The second category that Curtis identifies is courtesy manners. This is about governing the way we treat and interact with each other. So, learning to listen while someone is talking. Opening the door for somebody. Courtesy manners provide a framework for social behavior. They encourage you to take into account the needs and experiences of others, rather than acting purely out of self-interest.
The third category that Curtis identifies is cultural norm manners. This gets more at those things that determine and reflect our social identifies. Fashion standards. Food choices. The ways we communicate. Body language. And, they can establish social boundaries. Cultural norms determine who is a part of a given culture, or group, or class and who is not. If I dress or talk a certain way, it associates me with a particular group. I come from Athens, GA. It’s the land of bow ties, seersucker, and pants with patterns on them. If you wear those in certain parts of our country and talk with a bit of a drawl, people make assumptions about you. Cultural norms tend to draw lines. This isn’t inherently a problem.
The distinction between certain shades of blue in this state isn’t a bad thing. Being from SEC country, we get very passionate about our football teams. And, this isn’t inherently a bad thing either. We celebrate our cultural identities. The problem is when those distinctions are left unexamined and when they end up shaping our world and our lives in ways that God does not intend.
In the passage we read, Jesus is eating at house of a leader of the Pharisees with other religious leaders. And, he spends the whole time questioning the cultural norms. Earlier in Chapter 14, he sees the dinner guests jockeying for the best seats, as certain seats reflected a certain social status. So, he calls them out on it. “Why do you spend so much time and energy trying to establish your status?” It’s not a bad question for us. How much of our lives are spent trying to attain or exude a certain status? To get a certain seat at the table? Jesus tells the dinner guests, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus didn’t attend the same etiquette classes that I did, because I know you’re not supposed to insult everyone at the party. But, he takes it a step further and asks the host in front of everyone else, “Why did you invite these people?” That’s a little presumptuous. He keeps going, “Are they just the people you like? Or, maybe they’re just the people with the resources and connections to scratch your back, while you scratch theirs?”
You see what he’s doing, don’t you? He’s trying to throw them off balance. In the entire passage leading up to this parable, the religious leaders are watching Jesus. They’re waiting for him to make a mistake, so that they can use it against him. But, he doesn’t shy away from the issue, he challenges them. He provokes them. He gets under their skin. And, they are all worked up. And, then, he tells a parable.
He talks about a great banquet, the dinner party of the century. It’s like a royal wedding. All of these guests are invited, but most people decline the invitation. Can you imagine if you got an invitation to the royal wedding and said, “Eh, I’ve got other stuff to do.” And, not just you, but everyone. All of the A-listers. So, the host sends the servant back out. “Invite the people on the streets--the poor, the marginalized, the unfavored.” Those people that no one would invite to a party. The servant comes back and there’s still room at the table, so the master sends him back out. “Keep inviting people, invite everyone you meet. There is room for all that would respond to my invitation.”
You know, in Matthew’s version of this parable, it’s a wedding banquet. Any of you that have ever planned a wedding know that one of the worst parts of the process is setting the guest list. It’s just awful. I hated it. You have to figure out, based upon your budget and your venue, who you’re going to invite. You have to choose between friends. You worry about hurting people’s feelings. You worry about forgetting someone. It’s just awful. Ask Kate, I was horrible at making the guest list. I wanted to invite everyone. But, the numbers just don’t work that way. You have finite resources and space. There is limited space at the table.
That is the type of mindset that we tend to operate out of, at times. There is limited space at the table. Sometimes, the size of our table is determined by availability of resources. There’s only so much to go around. And, if you don’t make it to the table fast enough...well, maybe there will be some scraps left over. The most clever, the fastest, the strong who can elbow their way through. Those are the ones who find a seat.
Sometimes, the size of our table is determined by our sense of comfort. We’re only comfortable being at the table with those that look like me, or act like me, or think like me. And, if you don’t fit those checkboxes...well, there are other tables. And, we support those other tables. We fight for those other tables to exist. We say, all people should have a table. But, when it comes to mixing up the people at our table...well, that gets a little uncomfortable.
Sometimes, the size of our table is determined by our complacency. We feel pretty good about the current size of the table and, you know, it’d take a lot of work to add more places and invite more people. We’d be happy for there to be more people at the table, but not if we have to rearrange things and pull up chairs. That’s too much work, too much change. I’m sure there’s space at another table. Whew, that’s a tough one for us, as the Church. We love all people, we want all people to have a space, but, gosh, if it requires us to change, that’s just a little too much to ask.
The thing is, Jesus’ parable tells us that God’s table isn’t limited. You know, in our history as the Church, we have shown a tendency to forget that it’s not our table. We are not the hosts, we are the guests. We are not the ones that decide whether or not there is room at the table. If God has invited them to the table and they respond to the invitation, then they are welcome to eat.
With this parable, Jesus tells the religious leaders, “You’re spending so much time trying to monitor the guest list and guard the back door that you don’t realize that the host has thrown the front doors wide open and there is a feast going on.” In God’s etiquette, things get a little bit messy, a little bit rowdy. All kinds of people are gathered around the table--laughing, eating, drinking. Using the wrong forks, sitting in the wrong seats. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you’re welcome at the table. You belong. That is God’s etiquette.
Now, I’m not trashing good manners. You know, I like that you--hopefully--wash your hands after using the restroom. Because I end up shaking a lot of hands on Sundays. I like that we know how to use forks, because it makes cleanup a lot easier. And, I like that we have some fashion standards. I imagine it would make things a little awkward if you could get up each morning and decide, “you know, I don’t think I feel like wearing clothes today.”
Certain pieces of etiquette have their place. But, sometimes we get it all wrong. The religious leaders in this story had established cultural norms that determined who was in and who was out. They had limited the size of the table and called it God’s will. But, Jesus reminds them that this is God’s table. And God’s table is open to everyone.
That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about the Methodist Church. We are a tradition with an open table. This means a couple of things. First, it means that, when we take communion, anyone is welcome. It’s not about membership or worthiness. It’s about everyone having the opportunity to respond to the invitation of God. It also means we proclaim that salvation is available to all people, not just a select few chosen by God. God offers grace to all people, God invites all people to find wholeness and love in Christ. It’s just up to us to respond.
One last thing that I think this parable tells us about being an open table church, it’s that only part of it is welcoming those who show up. I think we all would like to think that we do that, right? The other part, the one we struggle with sometimes, is the command of the host to go out into the streets and tell everyone you meet that there’s a feast, the party to end all parties, and they are invited. We aren’t just guests at the party, we are the servants sent out to spread the good news that God’s table is open to everyone. And that, at God’s table, you will never be hungry. Amen.
1 Valerie Curtis, Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, Don’t Eat: The Science Behind Revulsion