Benediction Online

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Table Manners

Proverbs 25:6-7Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

My father was a stickler for manners. I know he would be horrified if he saw me now. I don’t use my knife and fork together. Occasionally I put my elbows on the table. Sometimes I even eat standing up! At first glance today’s gospel might appear to be Jesus’ version of Miss Manners – how to behave at the table. And in a way it is, but it’s also something much bigger.

It has been said that what characterized Jesus’ ministry was that he was willing to eat anything with anyone anywhere. The central mystery of our faith is expressed in the language of food, of banquets, of feasting, of bread and wine. So the way we behave at table becomes an important metaphor for the way we live our spiritual life.

In Jesus’ time, people didn’t rank each other in terms of how much they made, how big their house was or what sort of car they drove. They ranked families according to honor and those who came from more honorable families got preferential treatment at weddings, banquets and other social gatherings. So Jesus tells his followers that they should follow the verse we heard from Proverbs and choose a place of lower honor. Then they might be asked to move up higher rather than being asked to take a lower position.
I don’t think we’re meant to take this literally any more than I think that we are expected to throw parties for homeless and disabled people we don’t know and never invite our friends and family to dinner. So when we have our gratitude dinner on the auspicious Friday 13th, I don’t expect that we’ll all be fighting to sit at the least honorable table!!

Jesus is not a Miss Manners talking about how to avoid social embarrassment by sitting in the wrong place. The point that he is making is that we should never think that we are better than another, because we are all equal in God’s eyes. Just because we have academic degrees or we have a special artistic gift or we have a particular role in society or we have surmounted some particular problem does not make us better or give us a right to judge anyone else. Jesus was just as happy to eat gourmet food with the rich as to eat cornmeal with the poor because both are just as important. Next Saturday we have the opportunity to serve food for those who are homeless or living on the edge and as followers of Jesus we welcome this not just as an occasion of service but also as an opportunity to meet God’s beloved.

As the writer to the Hebrews says, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” And today we have to add, “Remember those who are living in fear in Syria, as though you yourselves were there.”

I am sure we are all deeply troubled by the horrors of civil war that we have been witnessing in Syria for two and a half years. Yet I cannot believe that for the US to intervene militarily will bring less suffering. It may be time for us to send humanitarian aid, to airlift massive quantities of gas masks into Damascus, to put pressure on the Arab League to press for diplomatic solutions. But we have seen in Iraq and in Afghanistan that war is not the solution… it just multiplies the problems. But on the other hand, can we stand idly by while others are being slaughtered?

These are big questions.

We have them in smaller ways in our own community when we see someone in difficulty and say “Something should be done about this…” “his family should do something…” “her pastor should do something…”. But it is very difficult to intervene effectively in another adult’s life. And when we start to try to give advice and take responsibility for decisions which are theirs to make, we get ourselves into deep water very quickly. It is as though we are seating ourselves too far up the table, actually at the head of the table and playing God.
I do not know what is best for you anymore than you know what is best for me. If you see me doing something which is damaging to myself or others I do hope that you will take me to one side and quietly let me know what you see. But I may disagree with you. And if I am not such a danger to myself or someone else that you need to call the sheriff, then you will have to live with my decisions and my behavior. To say that you know better than another competent adult how they should live is a form of hubris.

We can and do influence each other all the time, but it is the Holy Spirit who uses that influence to change hearts and minds. When we are dealing with each other we get to do so with a deep respect for each other’s integrity and limitations and mindset. We need to hold each other with a mutual love that allows space, that allows independent action, that allows change and growth and even occasionally crazy behavior. I can never get fully inside your head and know what motivates you and what trips you up. Only God can go there.
Which is not to say that we should be uncaring, saying “Oh well, it’s her life” and walking away. We can still support people with loving detachment – allowing them to make their own choices, to develop their own relationship with God. Our job is to continue to love them and to support them in prayer and perhaps find other ways to meet their needs.

Military intervention in Syria seems likely to cause more problems than it solves. One million Syrian children are now refugees and in need of help. Their homes have been reduced to rubble, their lives destroyed. You and I can help them with safe water, latrines and other critical supplies. Organizations like Oxfam are working to support the millions of refugees but what is needed is peace. Our job is to urge our leaders to work for peace, to pray for a peaceful solution and to do what we can to support the victims of this conflict.

I am more and more convinced that non-violence is the heart of the gospel. It is not the wimpy option. To resist nonviolently is often much harder than to be aggressive and to fight. To resist non-violently is not to turn away and pretend it isn’t happening but to resist aggression peacefully. How we do that internationally I don’t know. But I do know that we can disarm ourselves and I do know that one part of doing that is to come to the realization that everyone has a place at the table and that everyone has an equal place so there is no-one that I am better than, there is no one that is less honorable than I.

In fact, we serve the one who taught us that we are to be servants. And the servant always takes the lowest place.


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