I will confess to being gently raised. I have vivid memories of my mother, sitting at her writing desk, carefully preparing place cards for dinner parties or family holiday celebrations. She gave as much thought to seating her guests in our home as the Social Secretary at the White House might expend for a State Dinner. I was still a little girl when I learned the rules about who sits where. When I was a little older, I read Emily Post’s Etiquette from cover to cover. If you ever need advice about how to throw a socially correct wedding on a minimal budget, see me, for I remember that chapter vividly thirty years later.
I still feel more secure when I know exactly what is expected of me, when I know where I belong. And don’t we all? Why else would we gravitate toward the same pew over and over again?
Yesterday I found myself in a strange place, Yankee Stadium. The last time I saw the Yankees play at home, I was a teenager, and they were in the old stadium that is now a park. Although the trip was a birthday gift for my mother-in-law, who hoped to see Derek Jeter play, it was also a big day for our 8-year-old. When he got dressed yesterday morning he put on the ball cap for his favorite team, the Baltimore Orioles. Guess who the Yankees were playing?
You never know how fans will feel about the Away Team. They may not be friendly hosts. And everyone knows Orioles fans are noisy enthusiasts, no matter where the team is playing. You can spot them all over the stadium, shouting “O” during the National Anthem.
We urged him to wear his Upper Allen Little League cap instead.
After some banter in the parable about not placing yourself too high in social situations, Jesus turns to the role of the host. When you give a party, don’t invite your social equals and betters, don’t invite your relatives. “Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” (Luke 14:13b, NRSV)
He might as well have said, “Invite the Orioles fans.”
Jesus preached a radical hospitality that shocked his listeners. The poor and the disabled were the dregs of society, not the people who would ever be included at a banquet. They had no place in the world of repaying social obligations, because living on the margins they could not return the gift of hospitality in equal measure. Let’s not kid ourselves. Things haven’t changed that much. All human systems create new categories of outsiders the moment community norms are established.
On a summer Sunday, a woman in the middle years of life decided to visit a church in Maine. She came through the rather formal entrance from the main street in town, the only door a person would readily find open, and a well-dressed couple greeted her. As she looked around, she became more and more uncomfortable, because everyone else was equally well-dressed. Although summer in Maine is a casual season, she felt her difference. She was wearing Bermuda shorts. Later she asked the pastor – me – if the church had a dress code.
When we talked, I tried to explain people who dress up for church, a group that includes me. I also think it doesn’t really matter; it’s more important to be in church than to dress a certain way. On balance I think this makes me a moderate on dressing up for church, but I also realize I’m showing something other than I’m telling. I believe everyone ought to be welcome, and in ways it mattered, everyone was welcome in that church: welcome to come into the sanctuary, welcome to worship God, welcome to be baptized and welcome to come to the table. But I could see why it didn’t feel like a place where a lady in Bermuda shorts belonged, and I appreciate the direct way she questioned our values and whether they amounted to anything more than upper middle class etiquette.
I wish I could tell you that we reached a mutual understanding, that the lady in Bermuda shorts came back week after week, enjoyed staying for coffee hour, made some new friends, signed up to help with a mission project and eventually joined the church. What I can tell you is this: her visit spurred a sincere effort to identify the ways that church might work to set a table where all people feel welcome to sit.
When my daughter went to Montessori kindergarten, she learned to set the table at lunchtime. Each placemat had a picture of the silverware drawn on it, to help the children learn where to place the fork, the knife and the spoon. When a parent came to lunch as a guest, the young host or hostess had a special responsibility while setting the table, to put a festive flowerpot on the corner of the guest’s placemat. On my day, the children beamed as they told me their favorite stories. They had learned their Montessori etiquette.
They made their guests feel welcomed.
Now Lucy is a first year college student, learning to negotiate a new set of social expectations. The first days are hard for everyone, but outgoing people have an advantage over quiet ones when it comes to making those first connections. Here’s the text I sent to her on the second full day:
“Keep your eye out for others who seem shy and be friendly to them. Put your camp counselor hat on.”
Sometimes even when we are new, we’re called to give the feeling of welcome and inclusion to others.
And I’ll tell you a secret about my mother and her place cards. She wasn’t auditioning for White House Social Secretary. She was shy herself; she knew how hard it was to find a place to feel safe in a new and strange social situation. She used the rules to make others comfortable and welcome.
Many people today think of Christians as bound by difficult rules for behavior, or worse, that Christians preach strict rules but don’t live by them. The rules the world knows revolve around purity of self and community. But Jesus gave us a different guide to etiquette. He said:
- Welcome everyone.
- Actively include those you wouldn’t, usually.
- Make a special effort to reach out to the people not judged important or acceptable in the world’s eyes – or yours.
- Give those people the best seats at the table.
- Find your satisfaction in God’s pleasure, not in your own place at the table or the favors you might receive in return for your generosity.
Sound simple? No?
If Jesus’ social mores makes us uncomfortable, we are no different from the people who heard his story the first time. Jesus came to upset the old ways of the human system; people keep sliding back into them. Jesus challenged human nature and urged us to see each other with the eyes of the Divine.
Last Saturday police in Raleigh, North Carolina, threatened to arrest representatives of Love Wins, a ministry that serves the homeless and economically marginalized. Love Wins has been feeding homeless people in a public park every Saturday and Sunday for the last six years. For reasons no one could explain, the police arrived to enforce an ordinance that prevents feeding people in public.
Love Wins had to stop that morning, but after a week of challenging elected officials, yesterday they fed people again. Today they are feeding people. The sanitation department even made they sure they have new and adequate trash receptacles. This good news comes thanks to social media and face-to-face communication and a refusal to give up on setting the table for everyone, because Jesus told us to do it.
We are all dear and precious guests at Christ’s table. He set that table for us with his life, his death and his resurrection. When we break the bread and share the cup, we remember his love, abiding with us in all times and places, whoever gathers at his table.
Believing in his love, believing we are welcomed, let us follow the rules of Jesus Christ’s Etiquette. Let us go out and find the people who would never expect an invitation from us. Let us seek out the lame and the blind and the poor, the hungry and the homeless, the fans of the Away team and the lonely freshmen and the ladies in Bermuda shorts. Let us set out the festive flowerpot and beam at them, our guests and Christ’s guests. Surely we will be blessed. In the name of the One who invites us all to His table. Amen.
(A sermon for Pentecost 15C, Luke 14:1, 7-14.)