THE TEXT WAS LUKE 14:1-14
Situations like this were not an uncommon occurrence in my upbringing:
The church ladies were serving up the dishes at the potluck. I got to the section that had potato salad and I pulled my plate back. “You don’t want any potato salad?” Mrs. Irwin asks.
“No, I hate potato salad. Blahh,” I responded.
It was at this point I would feel a firm hand on my shoulder, or a quick tap on the back of my head. “Son….MANNNERS”
“No thank you, Mrs. Irwin. I need to save room for your yummy chicken casserole,” I would respond.
“I am sorry,” my mom would say, “you try and teach them but….”
“I completely understand,” Mrs. Irwin would say, “I raised four of my own.”
Table manners. Keep your elbows off the table. Chew with mouth closed. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Ask to be excused from the table. Eat what you are served. Ask for someone to pass the food, don’t lunge across the table to get it. At least not in polite company.
Table manners were a little more lax when it came to Thanksgiving dinners in Alaska in high school. Someone would pray for the meal. At that point, one of the few meals that were prayed over. Perhaps everyone would share something they are thankful for. Then there was an announcement, usually from my uncle, which said something like this, “Get while the getting is good, because in this family we wait for one another like one pig waits for another.”
At this point people angled and made strategic alliances to get the food that they wanted in the order that they wanted it. Rarely was there a shortfall of food on holidays. There was usually at least a week’s worth of leftovers. But there was still was an ethic to suspend proper table manners for the first part of the meal in an attempt to make an aggressive move toward the grub you wanted. In the process there was lots of joy, laughter, and light-hearted teasing as we all ate.
Around that period of time, there is a story about a lack of table manners that is still in dispute to this day. It has to do with eating moose steak. It was a particularly good piece of meat as I remember, and I am not usually a steak guy. They had been cut into little strips and flavored. I had grabbed the last piece of meat before my cousin Casey. I was taunting him. Taking little bites of this strip of steak, moaning, talking about how good it was. So my Aunt Tammy came up behind me, grabbed my fork, pulled the remainder of the meat away from me (half of it was in my mouth), and ate herself. She denies this ever happened. I maintain that it did happen.
And when I got older, and was a youth pastor, I discovered a different kind of table manners among middle school teens. The girls, in some strange cooperative venture that I still have yet to understand, would unpack their lunches, with gobs of good food, and then share the food in some cooperative venture. Easily sharing with friends, freely grabbing a bite from a friend’s plate.
The boys on the other hand, created a little fortress around their food with their arms. They had to protect their meal from interlopers. Because if someone saw something they liked, they may dive in and grab a friends food without asking and eat it before they could do something. It was very primal.
Every culture has table manners. The table manners are not arbitrary. They are “relationship rules”, designed to help facilitate positive relationships and good feelings among those gathered around the table. They are also designed to create boundaries for behavior among the people who are gathered around the table, and those who are not. There are a lot of rules and traditions about the table.
In the parable we read, Jesus is invited to the home of a prominent Pharisee for a meal. This was a meal full of both religious and political import. The Pharisees were the religious rulers of Israel, spearheading a moral reform movement among the people. They tended to focus on following all the rules, and following their rules instead of focusing on loving relationships with God and others, however, and this put them in a conflict with Jesus.
At one point, Jesus begins to teach the people at the table. His teaching challenges and confronts them and the prejudices.
The first teaching has to do with their seating arrangements. He was noticing how the guests at the meal were jockeying for position with one another so that they could sit in the place of highest honor.
He reminds them of the ancient teaching, the teaching that goes back even to the book of Proverbs. He does so by telling a thinly veiled parable of attending a wedding feast. In The time of coming to the table is a time to be humble. Don’t jockey for position, trying to take the place of honor. That could really get you in trouble. Because if you start taking a seat of honor, you might be asked by the usher to move to the back. And you will be drug back to the cheap seats in front of everyone. Instead, take a position of humility, in the back. Then if someone thinks you need to be in a position of greater honor, you will be brought up to that position in front of everyone. Then people will understand that you are both humble and honorable. Jesus then says the key point: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
After he tells this story, Jesus launches into a teaching that builds upon what he has just said, this time from the perspective of the host of the party. He says when you throw a party, don’t just invite the folks that can do things for you, or people that are a part of the well-respected cool crowd. Instead, invite those folks that nobody included at that time to a fancy party. The poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame. The folks who can’t repay your invitation to your party to a party at their place…because they cannot afford a party at all. Invite the folks that are otherwise rejected, lonely, pushed aside, neglected. Invite those folks to your party that nobody else can put up with, that nobody else wants to love or deal with. That is what God wants you to do.
Jesus said earlier in Luke’s gospel, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32). He says that he has come to seek and save the lost (Luke 15). In this passage and others it is clear, Jesus intends to create a church that is a hospital for sinners, not a monument for the saints.
You see, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had many of their moral ideas right. But they had a tin man’s faith. Jesus was saying to them, “If you only had a heart, Pharisees, you would see that the gospel is about justice and compassion. Even more it is about redemption and renewal. It is about setting right the broken things in the world. It is about healing the broken. It is about helping sinners find faith and hope, life and love.
The Pharisees of that day forgot what we often forget as well. That the church is not simply a monument to the saints, or a place for good people to do good things. The church is a place where people who desperately need the life-changing, life-transforming healing power of Jesus can participate in the way of Jesus and find their life is renewed, transformed and changed by God’s grace.
There was a title of a book that I loved a few years back. It was a book about the church, and ideas about leading churches and leading people to faith in Jesus Christ. The book was called NO PERFECT PEOPLE ALLOWED and then the subheading in small letters said, “all others welcome”.
I have often dreamed of having that on a banner on the front of a church I lead: NO PERFECT PEOPLE ALLOWED: all others welcome. I would love to have this is NEON or something because it tells what the mission of the church is, a mission that we as church members and participants often forget.
The church is not about perfect people huddling up in order to hide from the rest of the world. The church is about being in the world to heal the world. Especially to heal the world from its sin-sickness, its lonliness, its aimlessness, its lostness.
This week, as we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream sermon, and it was a sermon, I think of a similar dream for God’s church. That God’s church would have open doors to addicts and refugees, the disabled and the disenfranchised, those that don’t seem to dress the right way, or smell the right way, or who don’t know what the ‘churchy’ thing to say is at the right time.
The church is not for people who think they have everything together and don’t have any struggles. The church is for people like you and I that sin and we know it. We need Jesus. We need Jesus in our lives to help us to stop being greedy and selfish, to stop from being bitter and mean. We need to be transformed. Because if we are left as we are, we are sunk.
And so we come here today, seeking hope. Seeking knowledge. Seeking support. Seeking to know that we are not alone in this world, with just us and our sin, but that God is with us. Restoring us. Reviving us. Redeeming us.
The table manners of the kingdom is that all are welcome, and none should be denied. The table manners of the kingdom tell us that we should not seek to be served but to serve. The call of the kingdom tells us that we are not supposed to build an institution by human standards, but that we are to be a part of the movement of the Holy Spirit that takes this old, broken world and makes it into a new world.
And, in the process, we are to acknowledge that we are among those who need to be rescued from sin. We are among those who need to be made whole by the savior. We are among those who need God to make us into a new creation. That it is not just them that need a redeemer, but it is me, Clint Walker, and you as well.
So won’t you come to Jesus today. Won’t you name yourself among the imperfect? Won’t you be made new? And won’t you join the church proclaiming to the world that this church, UNITED CHURCHES, is a healing place for wonderful imperfect folks like yourselves. I hope you will.