Sermon prepared by Rev. Roger Van Harn, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Congregation of Christ: I heard it when I was growing up. Didn't you? I was getting ready to go to a birthday party, to a cousin's house,or to a Sunday School event. The last thing I heard at the door as I was leaving was this: Mind your manners!
I knew what it meant. It meant that I should behave myself at the party in ways I was taught at home. It meant that I should act in ways that would not embarrass myself, hurt other people, or bring disgrace on our family. Manners were important because values were important. The way we behaved toward other people showed our values. If we valued family, friends, and our relationship to others, we would act in ways that were respectful, courteous, mannerly.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus was the dinner guest in the house of a religious leader. The host and the guests were watching what went on. Jesus observed the manners that were being practiced there at the meal and he saw the values that were being played out. Jesus interrupted the party to do some teaching about values and manners. He taught about values that belonged to the kingdom of God and said to all in the house: Mind your manners!
You may know from reading the Bible that whenever Jesus was at someone's table for a meal or a party, we can expect something important to happen. That is how it is in all the gospels. Jesus' table fellowship was always the occasion for important things to happen. And this lesson today is no exception. Jesus saw what was going on in the house. He watched their values being played out in the way they were behaving. And Jesus interrupted the party to teach some new values and manners in the kingdom of God. Without being asked to do so, Jesus taught them about righteousness, rank, and rewards in his kingdom.
A. Jesus taught a new kind of righteousness there in that house. He overturned their view of righteousness and taught them a new kind.
1. It wasn't all that unusual — this dinner party on the sabbath. The food, of course, was all prepared the day before so that they would not break sabbath laws. But the dinner itself wasn't all that unusual. This one was in the house of a prominent religious leader;he is called a prominent Pharisee. That meant that he was a guardian of the tradition and interpreter of the laws of Moses. These sabbath dinners happened often, and they all expected a good discussion about religion.
But there was something unusual about that party. Listen: "There in front of him was a man suffering from dropsy." Do you hear a touch of surprise in that? There was a sick man at the party. Dropsy, they say, was a condition that made parts of the body swell up. It was an uncomfortable and unsightly illness. What is this sick man doing at this party? It is quite obvious that he cannot stay for dinner. No law or custom would permit him to stay. He will have to leave. But why is he there in the first place?
I suppose it is possible that the man just wandered in. Such parties were often in the open court of a house and they were exposed to the street. He may have just wandered in for lack of better things to do — although he knew he could not stay. My own best guess from the language of the lesson is that he was planted there: he was being carefully watched. Some of the religious leaders brought him there to see what Jesus would do. Jesus was being baited. They were watching. What will Jesus do with this sick man who is out of place at a sabbath dinner party?
2. Jesus also saw the host and the guests at the party. He knew what they were about. He knew that they cared about doing what is right. Don't misunderstand them. They cared about righteousness. They studied and debated the laws of Moses and the tradition all the time. Their sabbath laws distinguished them from their neighbors. Who else among the nations had a sabbath like theirs? No one. Keeping sabbath was so important to preserving their identity as God's covenant people that the leaders paid special attention to sabbath laws.
Giving in a little here and a little there, before long the sabbath would disappear from the life of God's people and they would not remember who they were, where they had come from, and where they were going. And so they made laws for keeping the sabbath, laws for bending the laws, and laws for those cases where they could get around the laws. They were serious about it. They were serious about doing what was right according to the law.
3. It was a setup. The teachers of the law, Jesus, and the sick man all together at the sabbath dinner party. The party hasn't started yet. They are just in the gathering stage. And the sick man will have to leave. But what will Jesus do? He is on trial before the religious laws.
Jesus raised his hand to get their attention. "I have a question," he said. "Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath, or not?" Silence. "Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath, or not?" That is a party-stopping question if I ever heard one. It had the same effect as if someone came to a dinner party here in church, got everyone's attention, and shouted out: "What do you people think of assisted suicide?" Or: "Is abortion ever permissible?" Those would be shocking questions at a social gathering. Jesus asked, "Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath, or not?" And a hush fell over the room. They were silent.
I wish we knew what they were thinking. I think it was something like this. "Jesus, we have you on trial. But you are putting us on trial instead. You are a rather rude guest, don't you think? You ask us if it is lawful to heal on the sabbath right in front of this sick man who is standing here. Let us send him away, get him out of here. Then after dinner we can take up your question and discuss it the way we always do. It is a good question, Jesus, but we want you to answer it later. We are not going to answer while he is still standing here."
In the silence of their thoughts, Jesus took the sick man, healed him, and let him go. Yes, Jesus let him go, but not until he had set him free from his illness and from their abuse of him.
Then Jesus added the clincher with another party-stopping question: "If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath say, will you not immediately pull him out? You know how to interpret and apply the law to your own advantage when a need arises. What about applying it to the advantage and healing of people?" And again, they were silent. They could make no reply.
4. Jesus stopped the party with two questions and taught them something about doing right under the rule of God. Jesus healed the man right then and there. He was not required to heal him by law. He did it freely in love. He showed a righteousness based not on the law of Moses but on the grace of God. Whenever law — religious or otherwise — is interpreted and applied to our advantage but lets our neighbor stand there shivering and sick, something has gone wrong with our righteousness. Whenever law — religious or otherwise — is allowed to squeeze love for our neighbor out of life, then something has gone wrong with our righteousness. In that house Jesus showed a righteousness that goes far beyond laws: it is the rightness of freely acting out the love of God. That is the righteousness God wants.
As Jesus said in Matthew 5:20, "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
B. Jesus had more to say about their manners and values. This time it was about rank.
1. Jesus noticed something as he watched the guests gathering for the dinner party. Picture a U-shaped table. At the center of the table was the place where the host would sit. The closer the guests could sit to the host, the better. If there were 25 seats at the table, everyone had a mental picture of how the seats were ranked in importance: 12 to the right and 12 to the left of the host. So the guests watched and circled. They watched who was there and who was coming. They picked out a possible place and were checking out in their minds if they dared move to a higher place. If a guest had seat 10 last time, would he dare try number 8 this time? It was a game they were playing. Jesus saw their behavior and knew what was behind it.
If I meet you here at church and strike this pose (make fists poised to strike), what would that manner of meeting mean? If I meet you here at church and raise or extend my hand like this with an open palm, what would that mean? Way back in history, the raised or extended hand was a sign of friendship and peace. It was a way of showing that you had no weapon in your hand and you came in peace.
Manners express values. When we cross cultural lines, we need to be especially careful with our manners lest we misunderstand or are misunderstood. Manners may mean different things in different cultures. A North American guest in a South American village sat down to eat a meal with a host family. Everyone had to wait until the father in the family finished eating his meal before they were invited to eat. The guest interpreted that manner to mean that the father was greedy, self-centered and chauvinistic until someone explained to him that it was a gesture of hospitality. In a climate where food often spoiled before it could be prepared, the host would eat first to show family and guests that the food could be trusted. What looked like greed in one culture was actually an expression of hospitality in another.
2. Their values were showing through their behavior. They valued rank and privilege above others. Their desire for the highest places of honor was part of the way of life. That is what they valued and that is how they behaved at the dinner party. They had a system of ranking people from the highest to the lowest in about six categories. Where you fit in the ranking system was important to them. Jesus saw the values at work in the behavior of the guests. They were jockeying for the highest place of honor they could manage. Becoming number one in a sports league can be innocent and even entertaining. But when it controls life and values it is dangerous.
3. Jesus stopped the party and gave the guests a lesson in humility. He did it in two parts: a humorous part and a serious part.
a. In the humorous part, Jesus played along with their game of jockeying for the highest places of honor. He said that if they really wanted to be honored in public at a feast, they should take the lowest place. That way, he said, you will avoid the embarrassment of being tapped on the shoulder and moved to a lower place. And the possibility exists that the host will call you up to the highest place. Do you see what Jesus is doing? He is coaching them at their own game and exposing their values with a sense of humor.
b. But then he became serious about it. "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." Jesus is talking here about God. God humbles the proud and exalts the humble. Let God take care of rank and honor. Trust that the grace of God accepts you and assigns you a place of honor in his family and at his table that you could never manage to manipulate by yourself.
4. Jesus stopped the party again. They care about rank and honor; Jesus taught them humility. In our old catechism books there were lessons about the "states" of Christ. They were called the state of humiliation and the state of exaltation. Jesus humbled himself. He was born, he suffered, died, was buried, and he descended into hell. Then he was exalted. He arose, ascended, is seated at God's right hand and is coming again. Jesus did it. He humbled himself and was exalted.
But what is humility for us? It is trusting that we are accepted by God. People who know the good news of Jesus Christ know that we are accepted by God. Humility is the art of practicing being accepted by God. In spite of our failures and limitations, and apart from our noble accomplishments and virtues, God accepts us in Christ. Humility is practicing being accepted by God in Christ no matter where we sit at the table.
Humble people do not have to circle the table to achieve the highest rank among others. Humble people do not have to put others down in order to raise themselves up. Humble people do not let others put them down because God has already raised them up.Humble people accept God's acceptance of them in Christ and let God take care of rank and honor.
Humility is a slippery virtue. People who parade their humility so others will say, "Look at how humble he is" have already lost it. That is why bishop Fulton Sheen once said on national television that humility is like underwear; it should be worn, but not seen.
C. Jesus had more to teach. This time he taught about reward.
1. The party is about to begin now. Jesus has tended to the sick man, and he has spoken to the guests about humility. Now Jesus pays attention to the host of the party. Jesus is watching him. The host was watching the guests come in. Who would come? Who would not come? Would some people slight his invitation? He was watching to see who should sit in which seats of honor. He had some paying back to do. He would not want to seat a guest in a place lower than he had at his party. He would like to seat some people in high places of honor so that when he goes to their parties, they will move him to higher places. The guests had their games to play; they wanted rank. But the host had his game to play; he wanted reward. Reward them and they will reward me.
2. So Jesus stopped the party and had something to say to the host about the reward game. Jesus said that he saw what the host was doing. You are inviting people who can invite you back. You are looking for rewards for giving this dinner. I'll tell you something, Mr. Host. If you really want a reward, then invite people who cannot pay you back. Invite the poor, the lame, the blind. If you put on a fine dinner party and all you get in return is a bunch of invitations, so what? That will not last long. But if you invite people who cannot pay you back, then God will reward you and you will have something for keeps. Do you see what Jesus is doing with the host? He is coaching him at his own game and is turning his life upside down. To the guests he said: If you want to be honored, take the lowest place. To the host he said: If you want a reward, then invite people who cannot pay you back.
3. Reward is a powerful motivation in life. It is easy to live for rewards. Everyone does it. We can invest ourselves in demanding decisions and duties as long as there is something in it for us. That is the way the world is put together. That is the way life works. Parents and teachers know how to use reward to encourage good values and behaviors. But there is something seductive and dangerous about that. So Jesus says to the host and to us that it is time to do something for someone who cannot pay us back. Can we get beyond the mere quest for rewards? How about just trusting that God has his own way and time for passing out rewards? How about trusting God's generosity? How about inviting someone into your life who cannot pay you back? You will find, of course, that God's rewards are far better than you could ever have figured out on your computer. But trust him. And don't worry about paying back and getting paid back with every party you give.
Q & A 63 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, How can you say that the good we do doesn’t earn anything when God promises to reward it in this life and the next? It answers: This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.
4. There is a story about someone who did something when there was apparently nothing in it for him. Bill was a new Christian and a college student. He has wild hair, wears a T-shirt with holes in it, jeans, and no shoes. This was his wardrobe for his entire four years of college. He was brilliant, kind of eccentric, and very bright.
Across the street from the campus was a well-dressed, very conservative church. One day Bill decided to go there. He walked in with no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair. The service had already started, and so Bill started down the aisle looking for a seat. People began to look uncomfortable, but no one said anything.
Bill got closer and closer to the pulpit, and when he realized that there were no seats, he just squatted down right on the carpet. He was used to doing this in his college fellowship, but this had never happened in this church before.
The people became uptight, and the tension in the air was thick. Just then, way from the back of the church an elder slowly made his way toward Bill. The elder was in his 80s, had silver-grey hair, and wore a three-piece suit. He was a godly man, very elegant, dignified, and courtly. He walked with a cane. As he walked toward Bill, everyone thought to themselves that you can’t blame him for doing what he is going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and background to understand some college kid on the floor?
It took a long time for the elder to reach Bill. The church was utterly silent except for the clicking of the elder’s cane. All eyes were focused on him. You couldn’t even hear anyone breathing. The minister couldn’t preach until the elder did what he had to do. The elder then dropped his cane on the floor. Then, with great difficulty, he lowered himself and sat down next to Bill and worshiped with him so he wouldn’t be alone.
Everyone was choked up. As the minister began, he said, "What I am about to preach, you will never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget."
Brothers and sisters, Jesus stopped the party to teach something about life in God's kingdom. Do you want to do what is right? Then show the wild, extravagant love of God as I did when I healed the sick man. Do you want a high rank in life? Then accept God's acceptance of you and take the lowest place. He will take care of the rest. Do you want rewards in life? Then stop paying attention to the rewards and do something for once when there is nothing in it for you that you can see. You will be surprised at the rewards for that.
The next time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, remember Jesus’ table fellowship. This is the table that celebrates the reality of the kingdom of God among us. This is the party that is going on here in this church, and that shapes our values and our manners. And that is the party that will be going on when all the other parties are over.
Proposed Order of Service
Call to Worship: Psalm 100
Hymn: PH#246: "Come, Thou Almighty King"
God’s Greeting: Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Call to Repentance: Luke 15:11-20a
Hymn: #254: "Remember Not, O God"
Assurance of Forgiveness: Luke 15:20b-24
Hymn #462: "Amazing Grace"
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Lessons: Proverbs 25:6, 7;
Text: Luke 14:1-14
Hymn #282: "Break Now the Bread of Life"
Sermon: "Mind Your Manners!"
Hymn #473: "To God Be the Glory"
The Congregational Prayer
The Offering of Gifts
The Benediction: Go in peace, and may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,be with you all. Amen.