The Faith We Sing: “Come Sinners to the Gospel Feast”
June 6, 2016
In my family, etiquette is a big deal. From the time I was a kid, my parents emphasized good manners. In middle school, I was forced, along with many of my classmates, to attend weekly etiquette classes. Because what every middle school student wants after a long day of school is to attend etiquette classes. These classes were one part ballroom dancing and one part table manners. Now, I’ve never been accused of being a particularly great dancer. I’m not awful, but it’s not my spiritual gift. When Kate and I watch our wedding video, we tend to fast forward through the first dance. We’d rather watch the parts that don’t make us cringe. She looks beautiful, but I bring the whole thing down with my lack of natural ability.
So, the dancing classes didn’t really help. Mainly because, in my case, I don’t think the teacher had much to work with. But, I could do the table manners part. Put four forks, three spoons, and two knives in front of me and I can at least pretend I know why you need nine pieces of silverware to eat a meal. Choosing silverware doesn’t require a lot of natural rhythm.
Have any of you ever wondered at times why certain things are considered proper etiquette?
Valerie Curtis is a behavioral scientist that has done research in the area of manners. She distinguishes between three categories of manners: hygiene manners, courtesy manners, and cultural norm manners. Hygiene manners are those practices that affect the transmission of disease. So, washing your hands after using the restroom. Not coughing in people’s faces.
The second category that Curtis identifies is courtesy manners. This is about governing the way we treat and interact with each other. So, learning to listen while someone is talking. Opening the door for someone. These courtesy manners provide a framework for social behavior. They encourage you to take into account the needs and experiences of others, rather than acting purely out of self-interest.
The third category that Curtis identifies is cultural norm manners. This gets more at those things that determine and reflect our social identifies. Fashion standards. Food choices. The ways we communicate. Body language. These things determine and reflect social identities. And, they tend to establish boundaries.
Cultural norms determine who is a part of a given culture, or group, or class and who is not. If I dress or talk a certain way, it associates me with a particular group. Cultural norms tend to draw lines. This isn’t inherently a problem. The problem is when those distinctions are left unexamined and some end up shaping our world and our lives in ways that are not in line with God’s intentions.
In the passage we read, Jesus is eating at the house of a leader of the Pharisees with other religious leaders. He spends the whole time questioning the etiquette standards, the cultural norms. Earlier in Chapter 14, he sees the dinner guests jockeying for the best seats, as certain seats reflected a certain social status. So, he calls them out on it. “Why do you spend so much time and energy trying to establish your status, relative to those around you?” It’s not a bad question for us. How much of our lives are spent trying to attain and exude a certain social status? To get a certain seat at the table? Jesus’ response to the dinner guests is, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus didn’t attend the same etiquette classes that I did, because I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to insult everyone else at the party. But, then he takes it a step further and asks the host, “why did you invite these people? Are they just the people you like? Or, maybe they’re just the people with the resources and connections to scratch your back, while you scratch theirs?”
You see what Ge’s doing, don’t you? He’s trying to throw them off balance. In the entire passage leading up to this parable, the religious leaders are watching Jesus. They’re waiting for Gim to make a misstep, so that they can use it against Him. But, He doesn’t stay on the defensive, He challenges them. He throws a left jab and right hook, putting them off balance before He comes in with the haymaker. Can you tell that I’ve been reading about Muhammad Ali this week?
So, once Jesus has effectively insulted everyone and thrown them off balance, He tells this parable. He talks about a great banquet, the dinner party of the century. All of these guests are invited, but a number of people decline the invitation, deciding to spend their time on other pursuits. So, the host sends the servant back out. “Invite the people on the streets--the poor, the marginalized, the unfavored.” The servant comes back and there’s still room at the table, so the master sends him back out. “Keep inviting people, invite everyone you meet. There is room for all that would respond to my invitation.”
You know, in Matthew’s version of this parable, it’s a wedding banquet. Any of you that have ever planned a wedding know that one of the worst parts of the process is setting the guest list. It’s just awful. I hated it. You have to figure out, based upon your budget and your venue, who you’re going to invite. You have to choose between friends. You worry about hurting people’s feelings. You worry about forgetting someone. It’s just awful. Ask Kate, I was horrible at making the guest list. I wanted to invite everyone. But, the numbers just don’t work that way. You have finite resources and space. There is limited space at the table.
That is the type of mindset that we tend to operate out of at times. There is limited space at the table. Sometimes, the size of our table is determined by availability of resources. There’s only so much to go around. And, if you don’t make it to the table fast enough...well, maybe there will be some scraps left over.
Sometimes, the size of our table is determined by our sense of comfort. We’re only comfortable being at the table with those that look like me, or act like me, or think like me. And, if you don’t fit those checkboxes...well, there are other tables.
Sometimes, the size of our table is determined by our complacency. We feel pretty good about the current size of the table and, you know, it’d take a lot of work to add more places and invite more people. So, we’ll let another table worry about making space for those without a spot.
The thing is, Jesus’ parable tells us that God’s table isn’t limited. You know, in our history as the church, we have shown a tendency to forget that it’s not our table. We are not the hosts; we are the guests. We are not the ones that decide whether or not there is room at the table. If God has invited them to the table and they respond to the invitation, then they are welcome to eat. With this parable, Jesus tells the religious leaders, “You’re spending so much time trying to set the guest list and guard the back door that you don’t realize that the host has thrown the front doors wide open and there is a feast going on.” Jesus replaces the etiquette of the religious leaders with the etiquette of God.
Now, I’m not trashing etiquette. You know, I like that you--hopefully--wash your hands after using the restroom. Because I end up shaking a whole lot of them. I like that we know how to use forks, because I have an eleven month old that can’t and, let me tell you, it makes every meal a messy experience. And, I like that we have some fashion standards. I imagine it would make things a little awkward if you could get up each morning and decide, “You know, I don’t think I feel like wearing clothes today.” As for you telecommuters, I guess what we don’t know doesn’t hurt us...
Certain pieces of etiquette have their place. But, not those that conflict with God’s etiquette. The religious leaders in this story had established these cultural norms that determined who was in and who was out. They had limited the size of the table and chalked it up to God’s will. But, Jesus tells them that God’s table is open to everyone.
You know, that’s one of the things I’ve always loved about the Methodist Church. We are a tradition with an open table. This means a couple of things. First, it means that, when we take communion, anyone is welcome. It’s not about membership or worthiness. It’s about everyone having the opportunity to respond to the invitation of God. Second, our tradition has always proclaimed that salvation is available to all people, not just a select few chosen by God. God offers grace to all people, God invites all people to find wholeness and love in Christ. It’s just up to us to respond.
This series is all about hymns written by Charles Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement. I realize that I haven’t said anything about the hymn. It’s called, “Come Sinners to the Gospel Feast.” The reality is, the whole message is about the hymn. The band is going to lead us in it during our communion and prayer time.
So, as we consider what it means to be invited to God’s table, to a table that is not our own, alongside people that are like us and not like us, and as we actually come to the table this morning, I’d invite you to reflect upon the words in the song written by Charles Wesley over two hundred years ago. Let the words be your prayer, as we, who are sinners, come to the gospel feast.
- Did you ever take any sort of etiquette class? Talk about it. What good things did you learn? What did you find silly about it?
- What cultural norms do you see in our society that are a good thing?
- What cultural norms tend to create harmful boundaries?
- When or where have you seen the size of the table subjected to limitations? What created these limits? Was it of God?
- What does it mean for us that God’s table always has room? Do we ever need to be reminded that it’s not our table? Explain.
- What does it mean to respond to God’s invitation to the gospel feast?
- How do we help share that invitation with others? Be specific.