"Mind your manners"

Originally composed for Preston Hollow United Methodist Church, Dallas TX
Prophets: Isaiah 55.1-3 (non-lectionary), Gospel: Luke 14.1-14 (Proper 13, RCL Year C)

If you’ve somehow missed seeing, hearing about, or otherwise noticing,
the Olympic Games have been taking place in the last couple of weeks.
Even if you're one of the few, who, like me, don’t pay a lot of attention to sports,
we are still excited to see these people from all over the world join together,
and there’s a bit of pride when someone from our nation,
(showing the morning's paper with photo of gymnastics winner from Plano, the suburb where many of us live)
or even our community leaves with the gold medal.

But it’s not all glory and prizes.
We hear that some people want to win so badly that they try stimulants and other ways to gain an advantage.
Others have found opportunities to display their egos, or exploit their bodies in photos that we would certainly not find on the cover of our bulletin.

And there is always controversy about the calls of judges - -
Or controversy about the media coverage - -
because only one receives the gold medal - -
the result is controversy due to references in the same paper about some “substandard” performances.
One reply asks what happened to “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play”
and others note that everyone is a winner just by participating,
or by having reached this point at all
(Letters, Dallas Morning News, August 22, 2004, 3H).

In our sometimes overly-competitive, “I have to be first” society,
these kind of responses come like a breath of fresh air - -
and even an expression of grace.

It brings to mind today’s Gospel, where (once again),
Jesus teaches us what really matters,
and how different that can be from the world’s standards.
In this section of the gospel, Luke shows Jesus deliberately traveling to Jerusalem,
knowing that at the end, the cross awaits.
On this journey, Jesus was constantly eating with a group
(just like a good Methodist).

Sometimes, in the interviews with various "successful" people in this paper,
we read of some who say that one of the guests at their “dream meal” would be Jesus.
But I have to wonder if they’ve read the gospels very carefully –
For Jesus, it would seem –
!Did Not Mind His Manners!

Instead of the smooth compliments and witty sayings that would be expected of a distinguished visiting teacher,
he turns this and other dinners into a free-for-all.
Look at this story: first, he gets into an argument, and then he tells people they’re in the wrong seats,
and to close, he tells the host that he’s invited the wrong people!

At first, facing a group who were looking for the slightest slip-up to create an uproar,
he asked if it was allowed to heal on the Sabbath.
This is not the first time that Luke (or other evangelists) tell of this kind of situation,
or of the question: Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or destroy it?
(Luke 6.9, Matthew 12.9-13; Mark 3.4).
His reply – and action – was that the grace of God, driven by love for all,
reaches beyond human understanding of rules.
(A point reinforced in the next two parts).

Jesus then went on to tell people not to take a place up front,
where they could be seen as friends of the host, and gain status,
but rather, take the last space.

And then, he says that the host has invited all the wrong people.
Instead of your friends, invite these outcasts, these people whose purity is questionable–
and who, to boot, won’t be able to repay you.

And this last statement, so simple and yet so enigmatic...
do not invite your friends – why? –
we need to look closer at the Greek:
μηποτε και αντικαλεσωσιν σε και γενηται ανταποδομα σοι
it's an unusual construction, an emphatic “taking care lest”
as well as a sarcastic indirect question
“you wouldn’t invite others just so they return the favor, would you?”

That’s Jesus – when he speaks, he always says something unexpected,
whether it’s a puzzling saying or word,
or an answer that doesn’t fit what either of the “sides” expected him to give
(or, when you get down to it, what today’s “sides” would claim of him).
Yet – his answers are always exactly correct.

As followers of Jesus we stand in two worlds,
and he invites us to see what others do not.
We are those poor, blind sinners whom Jesus calls.
Mind your manners, he says,
and allow God’s grace to work in your life.
Let God invite you, and come freely to that meal that Isaiah describes as
“without price” – a meal that you can’t repay.

The Olympics in all their human variety and the words of Jesus remind me of some people whom Sherrie and I met a while ago. It came about because one of the requirements in seminary was to go on a trip that would take us out of our usual cultural system. We fulfilled this requirement by living in a L’Arche home for two weeks.

L’Arche (‘The Ark’) is a community of group homes founded by Henri Nouwen. Named for Noah’s Ark, which provided a shelter, the community provides permanent home for people who, because of various disabilities, cannot live alone.

In preparation for this time, we read some of Nouwen’s books and various descriptions of life in these homes. After all, if we were to mind our manners, we had to know what the manners ought to be. It was certainly amusing to read some of the stories–such as one member telling another as he served dinner that the person next to him did not eat meat, because he was a Presbyterian.

We quickly came to a test of how well we could mind our manners, for soon we went to one of the larger homes for dinner. With 8 residents, 2 assistants, and some visitors from other houses, there were about 15 all told. We arrived just as preparations were getting under way. It looked like chaos, but we soon found that there was almost-perfect organization behind it all, and, at the proper time, everything was ready.

After seeing the madhouse of preparation, I really wanted to sit out the meal in a corner, quietly, but we were treated as honored guests and placed right in the middle of it all. Charles Wesley, who wrote of the “Gospel Feast” (closing hymn) could not have imagined anything so gloriously, noisily and wholeheartedly extravagant [in the old sense]. It was an “Isaiah meal”: delightfully refreshing and something that no amount of money could have bought.

Writing about his own time in a L’Arche community, Henri Nouwen writes: "Trust that hiddenness will give you new eyes to see yourself, your world, and your God. People cannot give you new eyes, only the one who loves you without limits." (The Road to Daybreak, 26).

Jesus is not the sort of guest we might expect,
but he is also the best guest you could ever have.
Only when we truly mind our manners,
when we let the grace of God come inside,
when we love as Jesus loved,
only then can we really see.