A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 1 September 2019 [Proper 17]:
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Hebrews13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Mind Your Manners
In our family, my mother was the one who primarily taught us manners. There were the basics, such as saying “please” and “thank you.” She assiduously taught us boys to cover our mouths when we sneezed and to put the toilet seat down. (Being the only female in a household of six with one bathroom, that requirement may have also included a bit of self-preservation!)
Greeting people, especially when they spoke to us, was another one of Mom’s manners. We were to stand and look the person in the eye and say “hello”. I know that I gained self-confidence from this requirement, as it gave me the experience of not being afraid of adults. In fact, it was actually pretty cool to realize that many of the grown ups were interested in greeting me and even in talking to me.
Since we as a family ate dinner together almost every night, table manners were the most prevalent among us. A subset of our table manners was that no one left the table until the meal was completed or unless some extreme situation surfaced. We four boys tended to eat like locusts: devour and run. This table rule was difficult to maintain for all of us, but later in life I realized that this bit of “manners” allowed for conversation and what I would eventually recognize as Communion at the family table.
Then there came that period in my life when I was a “sophomore”. The term “sophomore” means, “wise fool,” and I apply this word to myself beyond the years when I was in tenth grade or my second year of college. This is to say that I became “wise” enough to realize that good manners were too often a cover for a lack of substance in a person. And in this recognition I was also “foolish” enough (that is, not mature enough) to avoid throwing the manners baby out with the bathwater of hypocrisy. Added to this were the times. The 1960’s notoriously rejected many things that were hypocritically practiced (things like manners), yet too often in this sophomoric culture we failed to see beyond the functional shallowness to recognize and honor the purposeful principle.
You see, true manners, manners that flow from integrity, can become outward expressions of an inward and graceful orientation. For instance, holding a door for someone can be an expression of kindness, not to mention helpfulness for another in need. Asking to be pardoned when we accidently bump into another recognizes our mutual existence. Even standing to be introduced when another enters the room signifies respect as the default position.
Manners can be and often are dismissed as quaint or worse as elitist; but when manners are seen as practices in which we acknowledge one another as human beings, not to mention as children of God, the opportunity emerges for a sacredness to be manifest in the space between us. How much of the cries in our own time for “civility” in what is said and done are rooted in an abandonment of manners and what manners are meant to represent: namely, space for God between us?
In this morning’s gospel, Luke reports on a scene in which Jesus was invited to a formal Sabbath meal. The meal occurred in the house of a Pharisee, one of the Jewish community leaders. From the tense tone of Luke’s description and from the number of people invited as guests, it was surely not a potluck supper. In fact, as Luke tells us, everyone was looking at Jesus –perhaps to see if he was well mannered.
Did this populist rabbi from a hick town put his napkin in his lap? Did he chew his food with his mouth closed? Or did he know which spoon was for the soup? And if he did exhibit the proper manners for the occasion, would he be “good enough” to pass the test and be judged as acceptable, one of “us”, not one of “them”?
Yet it was in noticing how the other guests clamored to sit near their host in order to be seen as the important and more honored visitors that the Lord offered a parable on all this unmannered social climbing.
Now folks like us who pay attention to Jesus and to what he says already know that when the Lord offers a parable, the given message entails much more than an interesting story. And this is alarmingly true in the case of this hoity-toity Sabbath meal. What on the surface appears to be some practical wisdom concerning social etiquette (manners) turns out to be something much deeper. One might even say that Jesus’ parable contains some important theology, some significant insight into what it means to be engaged with the God-life. The truth is, that’s what all of Jesus’ parables do.
So, what is Jesus’ point in today’s gospel? What do table manners have to do with God and what it takes to sit at God’s Table?
My first job after seminary was as a member of a boarding school faculty. When I interviewed for this position, the process included having breakfast with the headmaster in the school dining hall. With students and faculty sitting at their respective tables, awakening for the upcoming day with a breakfast meal, the Headmaster’s table (as it was known) was placed at the end of the large hall, parallel to where the fireplace sat, with its large wooden mantle outlining the black open mouth of the hearth. The
Headmaster sat at the end of the Headmaster’s Table, with other students and selected faculty spread out, away from him, down the long table. I was guided to the seat immediately to the Headmaster’s left, and we ate our breakfast, chatting amiably and without difficulty through the low-key interview.
Breakfast was brought to the table. There was, of course, coffee, orange juice, toast, and soft-boiled eggs. The eggs were nestled in a serving dish and passed around for those who wished to include them in their meal. Silently, I channeled my mother and her guidance on table manners because (if you don’t know it) eating soft-boiled eggs can be tricky.
Whenever soft-boiled eggs were a part of our breakfasts at home (and when we were old enough to have the required dexterity), we were taught to crack the shell open and gently take a small spoon and scoop the contents out into a bowl. But I also eventually learned that in the strictest formalities, one received a soft-boiled egg and placed it in an eggcup, whereupon one took one’s knife and removed the top of the egg. Then, taking a small spoon, one neatly and carefully ate the soft-boiled egg from the shell.
Smiling outwardly but with an inward anxiety, I took a soft-boiled egg for breakfast, all the while keeping a peripheral eye on the Headmaster to see what he would do with his egg. Even though there were no eggcups on the table, I still hesitated so as not to risk being out of place.
The Headmaster (an obvious New England Brahman) took his soft-boiled egg and cracked it open with his knife and emptied its contents into a monkey bowl. Breathing a sigh of relief, I confidently did the same – just as my mother had taught me to do.
The telling piece of this breakfast story is that, as the Headmaster was preparing his soft-boiled egg, his face twinged with a bit of edgy amusement. As he scooped out his breakfast and without raising his eyes, he told me that when the founder of the school (an idiosyncratic, Episcopal priest/monk of mythical renown) – when he interviewed prospective faculty, he did so over breakfast. The meal always included soft-boiled eggs, and there were eggcups at each place. Continuing to focus on his soft-boiled egg, the Headmaster knowingly smiled, looked up at me, and said, “If the prospective teacher did not know how to eat the soft-boiled egg properly from the eggcup, he didn’t get the job.”
The Headmaster and I finished our soft-boiled eggs, rose from the table, and shook hands. I got the job; but before I left the table, I also very conscious wiped my mouth with the cloth table napkin; and then looking at the Headmaster with a gentle smile I neatly folded it and returned it to my place.
As in the case of the gospel scene’s meal (and by implication, my encounter with the soft-boiled egg breakfast), manners and their usage can be about manipulation and egotism: As I say, manners can be covers for a lack of substance in a person. The Pharisee’s invitation, Luke makes certain we realize, is about social etiquette as manipulation and control. The Pharisee’s guests clamored to be near the head of the table so as to assure themselves and to demonstrate to the others how important they were, how “in” they were with the powerful host. Yet, in Jesus’ telling there are two pieces of advice about such behavior.
On the very practical side of things, Jesus’ parable reminds those in its hearing that in the world that is based upon competition and personal success as a measure of worth, of the “what have you done for me lately?” ethic, behavior that opens doors for others or acknowledges thoughtfully the presence of an other can seem naïve or, at least, very idealistic.
Given all this, in terms of social advice, Jesus’ parable warns against being so self-absorbed that we arrogantly risk suffering the humiliating embarrassment of being supplanted by someone else in front of those gathered. This is to say that in terms of social advice, Jesus seems to be saying first know what do to with your soft-boiled egg and wait for the headmaster to make the first move – just to be safe. Be careful about being manipulated.
Yet (of course), Jesus’ parable has another level, a deeper level of meaning, one that speaks to what life with God is like. The parable’s deeper point, I think, says that “manners” are meant to express what is between us in life and what is between us is meant to be of God.
One of the manners in our experience of church, one that has always made an impression on me about worship in the Episcopal Church is the custom many of us have of entering the church, finding a seat, and kneeling down for a prayer. Seeing folks participate in this form of church manners touches me because it is an outward signification of the purpose of our presence. Specifically, that what worship in the church is essentially and fundamentally about is paying attention to God. In my experience paying attention to God takes some concentrated effort. So it is that coming to church for worship, one of the very first things we do is kneel down and offer ourselves to this time of Communion with a short, personal prayer. Manners. Church manners. God-manners.
Another bit of church manners gets exhibited at the time of Communion. People come to receive in various ways, but no one seems to be oblivious to the fact that in moving toward God’s altar we wordlessly make what amounts to the most profound proclamation of our lives.
Think of it: At the time of receiving Communion, what do we do? What does it all mean?
At the appropriate time, we get up from our seats and move from where we have conveniently chosen to sit to the altar, that space that represents God’s presence among us. In doing this, we have made a large (albeit, wordless) confession: namely, that we are not self-sufficient. We are in need of that which we cannot provide for ourselves, and what we need is life that, in fact, only comes from God. Whereas in the gospel scene there is jostling for position in response to the implicit manipulation and control, coming to God’s Table (surprisingly, shockingly) turns out to be an experience of being a personally invited guest of the Creator of heaven and earth.
And so it is that in response to this unexpected status (and once again without words), we kneel (that is, those of us who can kneel) to receive the gift, extending our hands openly, as if to say just as our mothers taught us, “please”. Tellingly, with the gifts of God in our hands, the only word that we speak is the humble, trusting confirmation: “Amen” – “so be it!”. “Thank you.”
Whereas pride and arrogance were at play at the Pharisee’s table, God’s Table offers pure gift: the food of which is the sign of the Holy One’s unremitting commitment and love for all who honestly hunger for the God-life.
Of course, receiving a gift and being thankful for the gift rightly moves us, not to hoard, but to share what we have been given. It’s good manners; and if our manners are reminders that God is in the mix, then we are in the right place, doing the right thing.
So, mind your manners! Amen.