Monday, August 30, 2010

14 Pentecost, Year C, August 29, 2010

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Sitting in the right place, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

It sure looks like the question of the day is “who should sit next to whom?” Mary Killen gives the following advice in April 2001 article in The Atlantic

“In sophisticated circles there is no question of seating a married couple next to each other. There is an old upper-class joke: ‘I had to marry her. It was the only way I could avoid having to sit next to her at dinner.’

Well bred women are trained to chat first with the gentleman on her left and then, during the next course, to the gentleman on her right. "If you run out of things to say, ask them if they have a dog," mother advises. "Whether the answer is yes or no, that's always good for at least five minutes' conversation." I have a friend who told me recently that a good one is “tell me about the house you grew up in.” Even the most backward conversationalist can manage that and even if they are boring, you don’t have to do the heavy lifting.

Another fixed rule is: "Always put husbands and wives out of each other's earshot; otherwise they keep correcting each other's stories. When they're too near each other, it also stops flirting, which is very important for the chemistry of a dinner party."

It is, of course, stuffy and pompous to want equal numbers of males and females. But, as I never tire of saying, even where it is highly unlikely that any romantic liaisons might spring up at your party, it is more fun if they are theoretically possible between those seated next to each other.

Seating has gotten harder these days. Guests say: "Please don't introduce us to new people—we haven't got time to process the friends we already have. If we are to meet new people, please may we sit next to someone who might be a likely marriage partner, someone famous, someone who will supply us with good anecdotal material that we can later recycle in our own conversational repertoires, or someone who will be of use to us in our careers?"

We move from upper class mores in 21st century England to first century Palestine. Jesus goes to the home of a leader of the Pharisees on the Sabbath. Everyone is watching him closely, eager as always to find fault when he makes a mistake. Jesus ventures into Martha Stewart land and dares to give lessons in etiquette right at the dinner table! Already in the first third of the first century of the Common Era guests are jostling for the prestige places at the table.

Then as now, places of honor were doled out with meticulous planning for the right effect. Then as now when someone moved a place card so they can sit with the right people significant dishonor can result. The gospel writer accuses the Pharisees, the keepers of religious propriety, with this kind of blatant social climbing.

Jesus response to this behavior is not just an etiquette lesson. Nor is he offering a Machiavellian plot on how to vault over the lower echelons of society with one hand tied behind one’s back. No, this is gospel business.

Jesus is describing how God would have it be. He wants us to know how it will be when God’s will is finally fully in place. Jesus is offering a glimpse of the great reversal of accepted values which the kingdom will bring. God is the one who invites us to the table; God is the one who assigns seating; God is the one who measures who is who and what is what. Most important, God uses standards which are different from those we would use left to our own devices.

Having dispensed with social climbing on the part of guests, Jesus starts in on what Kingdom hosting is like. As always hosting is a time for friendliness, kindness, hospitality and concern for others. A self-serving host expects some type of "return" for being nice. There are lots of strings hanging off this gift. If someone can’t be used for payback - cross ‘em off the list.

Jesus offers kingdom behavior instead. Jesus does not suggest merely providing charity for the poor, which was recognized as an honorable thing to do. Jesus pushes the acceptable norm even further: What would it be like simply to be generous for generosity’s sake? What would it be like simply to offer a gift with no expectation of any return?

A couple of years ago I met a law student from Korea. He is here in this country all by himself. He speaks quite adequate English although he struggles with our local idioms.
My heart goes out to him. I can see that this is an alien and lonely experience for him. I am not much help since I talk so fast. He tells me he only gets about one half of what I say. I have been trying to slow down for his benefit. I am aware that when I slow down I can begin to sound patronizing. All this is hard work. And yet I want to know him better. I want his experience in Athens to be more accommodating and less lonely. I am trying to figure out how to offer him hospitality in our home. Truth be told, I see a lot of myself in him.

Meeting this person feels like a gospel encounter, a gospel moment, to me. There is no social cachet involved. Oh, sure, if I manage to be genuinely hospitable I will feel good about my own generosity, but no one else will care. Jesus is offering me a friend. That is worth caring about.

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