Sermon for September 16: Table Manners

Table Manners

Pentecost XVII (O. T. 24)

Luke 14:12-15

Jesus had terrible table manners. I want to tell you a little more about the story you just heard and then we can see if you agree with me.

Jesus was a dinner guest at the home of one of the leaders of the group known as Pharisees, strict keepers of the religious law. Luke says that the others were watching Jesus closely; he doesn't say why they were watching him closely, but I suspect the "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" in the story is they are all looking for Jesus to do or say something to embarrass himself. It was the Sabbath meal, so there are certain things that you do and don't do; among those is that you don't do any work beyond the basics of getting the food to the table. You don't even cook the food on the Sabbath; you cook it the day before and keep it.

Among those present was a man with painful fluid accumulations and Jesus thought he ought to heal him. But first he asked a question: "Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not?" (14:3) All the legal eagles in the room didn't answer, so Jesus pushed the cold roast aside and put the man up on the table in front of everyone, prayed for him, and healed him, and sent him on home. Then Jesus asked them, "If your child or your ox falls into a well on the Sabbath, you will rescue it right away, won't you?" They still didn't say anything.

So Jesus starts the dinner party by insulting his host and his guests and by pushing the Sabbath rules in front of people who care about such things. Nice. He then scolded them for jockeying for the best seat. And then he says this bit that I read to you: when you give a dinner party, don't invite people who can invite you in return. Invite those who will not be able to invite you to dinner. Some cynic might say he's setting up his host, because Jesus is certainly in no position to throw a dinner party in return. Yes: in this story, Jesus is the one who is the guest that the man invited to dinner and who will not reciprocate.

He insults the host, he disrupts the dinner, he scolds the guests, and he gives unwanted advice. Does any of that sound like good manners to you?

It all makes me uncomfortable. Okay, to be honest, pretty much everything Jesus says and does makes me uncomfortable. That's because I'm concerned with my own comfort and Jesus is concerned with God's truth. I love to host dinner parties and invite people in; I'm not looking for reciprocation, but I am looking for people that I want to spend time with. Jesus doesn't explicitly say that's a bad thing, but it's implied. The point is that Jesus is more concerned with our being hospitable than he is concerned with our being comfortable.

The only time in my life that I can remember doing anything like this was when I was a bachelor living in Trenton, New Jersey. I was volunteering at a church in my neighborhood while working elsewhere. The Music Director and I were good friends and we would occasionally make dinner together in my apartment. And there was a homeless man who attended our church; Jim and I would invite him to dinner sometimes. He was an interesting man. But I can't recall that I've tried hard to follow Jesus' advice since then.

I love the fact that some churches host dinners from time to time to which they invite anyone who wants to come. There was a church in Cincinnati that gave these dinners four times a year, I recall. Those days included holidays that most folks don't want to spend alone: Thanksgiving, Fathers' Day, and others. People would come to the church and make dinner and anyone who wanted to could come. It wasn't just for church members, and nobody had to be vetted by Social Services. The door was open; come in and have dinner. I know there are other churches who do that. And yes, folks, I think we could do that with our lovely new kitchen and Fellowship Hall. We certainly should continue to have our own family dinners, but you and I can also give up some time and energy and food, even on a holiday, to make dinners for neighbors and others who would like to eat with others.

Although the theme for today is "Invitation to the Table," I'm supposed to say something about the second part of the communion prayer. I said last week that the communion prayer – called the "Great Thanksgiving" – is not random but has a structure. The first part of the prayer gives thanks to God for giving us life and all things, for being our Creator. The second part of the prayer gives thanks to God for the life and work of Jesus Christ: his teaching and healing, his atoning death, his saving resurrection, and the hope of his coming again.

Now I have to admit that I was lying when I said that Jesus was the guest who could not reciprocate his host's invitation. For the Pharisee is invited to be Jesus' guest at the Holy Table; the Pharisee, the sinner, the athlete, the disabled, the faithful, the questioning, the comfortable, the homeless: all are invited to the Table. That is part of the work of Jesus: to bring us together around the table, both the Holy Table and the dinner table.

Yes, it is bad manners to insult your host and to disrupt the dinner party. We can all keep a governor on our tongue and our behavior; we don't need to insult people, just for effect. But Jesus' teaching shows something even better than good manners: hospitality, the hospitality of God and the hospitality of God's people. The dinner guest got it right: "Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!" (14:15) Eat the bread, share the bread, and be blessed.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska

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