United Methodist Magi

Even though most of our nativity scenes have them, the Wise Men aren’t usually the most popular characters in the Nativity. My wife, Nanci, has a Nativity set that she got several years ago. The pieces come separately, so for the last few Christmases she has received new pieces to complete the scene. The first year she got the centerpiece: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The next year she got a shepherd, some stars for the background, and even a sheep or two. This year she finally got the Wise Men. That is a little like how we treat the Wise Men in the Church. We get Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we get the shepherds; but, it’s hard to get the Wise Men. Even though they’re usually there at the manger, these three strangely dressed foreigners kneeling off to the side with their presents neatly in their arms and their camels waiting to skip town, sometimes they’re little more than window-dressing on the manger. Most of the time we don’t look to the Magi for any sort of spiritual or practical insight. Yet, today is Epiphany Sunday, a time we set aside once a year to remember their place in the story of Jesus Christ. I believe there is a lot more to the Wise Men than meets the eye. In fact, I think that we have a lot to learn from them, especially as United Methodists.

Everyone who has joined the United Methodist Church has taken membership vows signaling their commitment to be disciples of Jesus. When my family first transferred our membership to become United Methodists we had to respond to this same question, “As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries, by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service?” We said we would, and like everyone else who has ever said these words we didn’t give a single thought to the Wise Men as we said it. Yet, I think they serve as a perfect model to remind us of the magnitude of what we agree to when we commit to join the Church. We promise to faithfully participate in the Church’s ministries with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service – the same four things the Wise Men offered Jesus. Let me explain.

These foreign mystery men pop on the scene not long after Jesus’ birth. It is very likely that these Wise Men (or Magi) were royal priests from Persia (which we know as Iran). In this era of history, the birth of those destined for greatness was said to be accompanied by signs in the stars and heavens, and these men were highly regarded for their abilities to interpret just these sorts of things. Like many people who eventually end up in the Church, the Wise Men were seekers. They were people who weren’t happy with the status quo of their lives, and as a result searched in the only way they knew how for answers to life’s deepest and most important questions. Each night they searched the stars for any evidence of the mystery of the divine, and looked desperately for any spark that might help answer their most profound questions. One night as they examined their star charts and astrological tables, they saw something different. It appeared that there was a new King in Israel, a different kind of King than the world had ever known, one who would deliver his people. So they packed for the trip, and began a journey to be in the presence of this one to see if he was the answer. That’s what we promise to do when we agree to support the Church with our presence. We agree that there is something worth finding each time the Church meets to announce the Gospel, and we agree to simply be here. The Wise Men were the same way. They knew there was something worth finding in the presence of this newborn King and no distance or inconvenience could keep them away.

Once they arrived, they went through the streets of Jerusalem asking everyone where this new King was to be found. Obviously, they thought, such a miraculous and monumental birth would be common knowledge. Yet it seemed as if no one had heard anything. It appeared as if Jerusalem was going about business as usual. King Herod, who had been appointed by the Roman authorities as the official King, was still in charge. Of course, he wasn’t even an Israelite. In fact, he was an Edomite, one of the cultures most hated by Israel. So when Herod’s informants reported there were foreign dignitaries in town looking for a new King, he immediately sensed trouble. Like everyone else, he had heard the common hope for a King from David’s line, and if this had truly happened, his reign was in serious jeopardy. So he called for his Jewish cultural advisors. “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” he asked. They reminded him of the prophet Micah and assured him that it was clear that it would happen in Bethlehem.[1] So he called the Wise Men and sent them to Bethlehem under the pretense that he wanted to worship this new King. When they entered Bethlehem, led by the star, they entered the house where Mary and the child were and knelt down in worship before Jesus. There at the feet of Jesus, they embody our promise to support the work of God in the Church through our prayers. Prayer is both spoken and unspoken, but it can also be more than words. It can be the very posture we take at the feet of our Lord, like when we kneel when receiving Holy Communion. The Wise Men are a picture of the believer kneeling in humble prayer. When we enter fully into the life of the Church, we promise to submit our hearts, minds, and lives to Jesus in prayer.

They then offer Jesus gifts fit for royalty: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Over the years, Christian interpreters have attached a great deal of symbolic meaning to each of these gifts, but at their very simplest they are gifts fit for a king, the best money could buy. When we enter into a committed relationship with Christ and join the church, we promise to give Christ nothing but the best. We promise to offer Christ gifts fit for a king, and the most profound and personal gift we have to give is the gift of our lives: our time, our talents, our skills, and our wealth. The Wise Men were wise enough to give Jesus the very best, and we are truly wise when we do the same.

After their gifts, the Wise Men reached a point of decision. Who would they serve? Were they going to serve the King appointed by Rome (Herod) or the King appointed by God (the Christ Child)? Were they going to go back to Herod and report they had found the threat to his Kingdom or were they going to serve Christ and leave unannounced? We face these exact same moments of decision. Are we going to follow Jesus without fear, or are we going to continue to wait because of fear or hesitation for whatever reason? The Wise Men made their decision in service to Christ and left without responding to Herod. In spite of the possible consequences, they refused to serve the “so-called King” Herod, and served the true King Jesus. When we promise to support the Church with our service, we make a decision and a promise to God. In our membership vows, we commit our lives to choosing the true king over any other pretender. We commit our lives to choosing Christ in situations when any other choice might be safer or comfortable or more acceptable. That’s true service and it’s the commitment and promise we make.

Unfortunately, we never hear anything else about the Wise Men in the bible. They ride off into the sunset and are never seen again. It’s enough to make us wonder about the decisions they made once they returned home. Did they continue to live out this pattern of commitment to the new King? Did they try to share their experience with others and become witnesses to Jesus? The bible doesn’t answer this questions and I think I know why. We’re called today to answer these questions with our own lives. We’re called to finish the story of the Wise men. Our lives with Jesus are not over just because we answer yes to following Christ by supporting the Church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. We’re asked to continue to live in this four-fold promise of discipleship. We’re also called to invite everyone we know and love to help us finish the Wise Men’s story. Today each one of us has a choice for 2008. We can continue to live in commitment to Christ and the church through our presence and gifts, or we can choose to live only for ourselves. We can choose to follow Christ into new avenues of service and commitment or we can choose to be satisfied with resting on our laurels. I know the choice I want to make, I know the choice we most need to make, and I believe I know the choice we all want to make. In 2008, let’s commit to live up to the vows we’ve made, let’s decide to really follow Jesus, and let’s invite others to join us on this journey. When we offer this as our Epiphany gift to the Christ Child, God will continue to be powerfully in our midst, and will constantly challenge and transform us in the New Year ahead!

 


[1] Micah 5:2

Lessons from Craig Groeschel @ 40

At the ripe old age of 40, Craig Groeschel has had a series of posts on 40 things he wished he had been told at 20. I’m 10 years late, but maybe they’ll be worth hearing at 30! haha If any stand out to you as particularly important or insightful, make a note in the comments.

  1. Life is short. Make every day count for God’s glory.
  2. Life is short. Don’t take it too seriously.
  3. Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.
  4. Jesus cares more about the church than you do.
  5. You can’t please everyone…so why try?
  6. People will criticize you. Quit whining. Get used to it.
  7. Three months from now, you won’t even remember most of the things that are bothering you today.
  8. You can’t do it all. Stop trying.
  9. God called you because He is good, not because you are.
  10. If you blame yourself for the bad results in ministry, you’ll likely also take credit for the good results.
  11. Become close friends with other pastors in your town (as many as you can).
  12. Your kids will be grown before you know it. Don’t sacrifice them on the altar of ministry.
  13. Your ministry isn’t your god. God is your God.
  14. You know how to give and how to minister to others. If you don’t learn how to receive, you’ll burn out and/or die.
  15. Studying for sermons doesn’t replace your personal time with God and in His word.
  16. Err on the side of generosity.
  17. Believe in people that others overlook.
  18. If you’re going to reach people that others aren’t, you’ll have to do things that others won’t.
  19. Your integrity matters more than you can imagine.
  20. Hire staff members that you like.
  21. When you have a tough decision to make, but you know it’s right, make it immediately. (Like pulling off a Band-Aid: do it fast, and all at once.)
  22. Hire slowly. Fire quickly.
  23. You can’t change people. Only God can.
  24. Don’t criticize others’ ministries. Yours isn’t nearly as perfect as you think it is.
  25. Take care of yourself. Eat right. Rest. Exercise. Take time off. No one else can do that for you.
  26. If you don’t take much time off, it’s because you’re proud, and you think you’re more necessary than you really are.
  27. Don’t just delegate responsibility. Delegate authority.
  28. Laugh frequently.
  29. People will leave your church. People you love and trust will leave your church. Don’t take it personally.
  30. When you suffer and hurt because of ministry, worship Jesus all the more.
  31. Talk about Jesus every time you preach.
  32. Be careful what you say. You’re being watched (and recorded).
  33. Don’t return emails when you’re angry.
  34. Check to make sure your microphone is turned off before you use the bathroom. Double-check.
  35. Check to make sure your zipper is zipped every time before you preach. Double-check.
  36. Love your wife more than you love the church. The church is Jesus’ bride, not yours.
  37. Always be caught speaking well of others.
  38. Compliment, encourage, and build up your staff and volunteers.
  39. Hand write thank you notes.
  40. Smile and look people in the eyes when you talk to them.

 

Sermon: Luke 18:9-14

This morning, my message was based around a reflection on the Luke passage from the lectionary combined with having just read the first chapter of Dan Kimball’s new book (which you can find here at Zondervan). I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but plan to buy it soon. After reading it, you’ll see that I borrowed liberally (with a few edits) from his opening chapter in my first paragraph. I was committed to preaching this passage from Luke in a way that stirred my own passions, and Dan’s book provided just the spark I needed to see this as an important passage about how we’re called to be if we’re interested in reaching non-Christians.

There’s a new book out about the church with a title that’s intentionally a little challenging. It’s called, They like Jesus, But Not the Church. The author of this book, Dan Kimball, got the idea for this book after an encounter in a gym. While he was there, a young lady was helping him get oriented with the weight equipment when they began to talk about some of the music she liked. As the conversation went on, Dan found out they had a lot of interests in common. As they were having this great conversation about music, movies, and so on, she finally finished showing him all the equipment and asked a final question, “So what do you do for a living,” to which he responded, “Oh, I’m the pastor at a church.” Her expression changed, she took two steps back, and nearly tripped over the leg of a machine as she said, “No way you’re a pastor, I don’t believe you!!” As he tells this story, Dan said it took several minutes to convince her that he was actually a pastor so he asked her what she thought pastors were like. Without hesitation she said, “Pastors are creepy…” To this girl, pastors were definitely not normal and Dan didn’t fit her expectation of what Christians, especially pastors, would be like. So Dan began to do some research. He struck up conversations everywhere he went with people who weren’t Christians and compiled these conversations in his book. Unfortunately for those of us who believe God deeply about the world the title is also the summary of his findings, They Like Jesus, but not the Church. This was a recurring theme. Almost everyone he met had interest in Jesus, but many of them were turned off by how they perceived Christians to be.

One of the recurring themes Dan found was the idea that Christians are angry and judgmental. Now, I can’t imagine where anyone would get an idea like that! If we weren’t part of the Church and based what we know about Christians solely on what we see on Television, or other bad examples we’ve seen, what would we think? It’s unfortunate, but there are times when those who are the worst representatives of what the Church is called to be are the most vocal and visible in the news. It is no wonder the caricature of the Church is that we just might be a tad bit angry and judgmental!

Maybe you’ve experienced this in your own life. When I first began seminary, one of the first classes I took was a required course. Over the course of the semester, we were able to explore what it meant to be called into ministry and serve as a minister. One of the components of this class was to be involved in a small group of men and women who met weekly. In this small group, we’d come together and talk about our faith. We’d discuss how we practiced our spiritual disciplines like prayer and bible study and try to encourage one another in the faith. These kinds of groups are only as successful as the investment you make in them, and so I decided I was going to throw myself into the experience. In the first few weeks, we were talking about how we were doing spiritually and it was my turn to share. So I decided to be brutally honest and open with the group. We had just moved to Kentucky, our daughter was less than a year old, and we were just getting situated in our new home and life there. So I talked about this. I said, “You know, my spiritual life is pretty much at a standstill right now. I’m really tired and stressed and as a result I’m not reading my bible much at all and my prayer life is nowhere near what it should be. Most of the time I’m having a hard time praying” I had been a part of groups similar to these before, and so I kind of expected some support and encouragement. Instead, two of the other three people in the group looked at me like I had just revealed the most horrible thing they’d ever heard. One even said, “Wow…that’s really bad,” and I don’t remember if he said it or not but I got the distinct impression that he had never missed a day of praying or studying the bible in his entire life. Needless to say, I felt pretty condemned. Here I was, in a group that I had hoped would be a safe environment for sharing. At that point, I had been a Christian for nearly 20 years, I was in the middle of pursuing a clear call to ministry, and I felt totally judged and condemned. Now, after experiences like that, I can only imagine how someone might feel if an experience like this was their only image of the Church. I can only image what someone might think if their only image of Christianity is based on the condemnation and anger we sometimes see on TV.

That brings me to our Scripture for today addressing this very issue. Jesus tells the story of two men, and I think we can read it as two ways of being. Two men entered the temple of God. One of the men was a Pharisee, a religious official and one of the most respected types of people in that world. The other is a tax collector. In order to be a tax collector, you had to be affiliated in some way with Rome. At this point in history, Rome was occupying Israel, and as you might imagine the Romans were not popular folks with most people in Israel. So together before God, we have someone honored for their faith and discipline and someone rejected for being in cahoots with the occupying Roman regime. The Pharisee stood off by himself making sure he wouldn’t be “contaminated” by getting too close to the tax collector and loudly began to pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men– robbers, evildoers, adulterers– or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” Across the temple, too scared to approach the front and too ashamed to even look up to heaven, the tax collector began to pray as well, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Two very different men and two very different prayers; keep this image in mind the Pharisee at the front praising himself in front of God, and a tax collector in the back pleading for God’s mercy. With that image in mind, listen to Jesus’ words, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

That brings me back to the book I talked about in the beginning. The reason that some people like Jesus, but not the Church, is because of the times that we act more like the Pharisee in this story than the tax collector. If you’re like me, then you’re never just one or the other, sometimes you’re both. I have to rely totally on Jesus to avoid being the Pharisee, just as I have to rely totally on Jesus to understand I need mercy just like the tax collector. When we rely totally on Jesus’ grace & love, we’ll be the ones going home justified – in a right relationship with God.

In my story about the small group, there was another person I didn’t mention. Daniel Kim (name changed :-)) was a Methodist from South Korea pursuing his doctorate in missiology (the study of missions). The South Koreans on campus had the reputation as being the kind of people who prayed for hours, studied the bible passionately, and had a deep abiding love for Jesus. Daniel was a leader among the international students. After the small group where I shared how I was struggling spiritually was over, he came up to me. He said, “You know…I understand how you feel. I’ve been there too. I’ll pray for you.” In that moment, I didn’t feel judged, I didn’t feel condemned….instead in his gentle words, I knew God’s love. In that moment, I knew I wasn’t alone and I felt encouragement that that time of struggle would pass. In that moment, Daniel could have very easily been just another Pharisee. Instead, he was a fellow tax collector…and out of his own experience with God’s mercy, he shared that mercy with me.

What kind of Christian do we want to be? Do we want to pat ourselves on the back thanking God we’re not adulterers, evildoers, robbers, or tax collectors (or any of the other the sins we conveniently don’t participate in)? Or are we confident enough in God’s grace to know better…do we know the kind of God who receives those who bow humbly pleading for mercy?

Even though we all have moments of both, my friend Daniel had chosen to make the latter the dominant pattern of his life. He was a man who knew a God of grace and forgiveness….he bowed humbly before God pleading for mercy, and that fact seeped out of every pore of his being. If the people Dan Kimball interviewed could meet a few more Christians like him, I believe they would be different. They just might be able, by God’s grace, to like Jesus and the Church.

I want us to commit to being that kind of Christian. I want us to commit to being that kind of Church. I want us to be the kind of people who are so transformed by the merciful love of Jesus that we can’t help but show it. The world is hungry for us to do that very thing. They’re hungry for us to show them what being a follower of Christ really means. This week, let’s refuse to be the Pharisee, trusting in our own goodness. Let’s be the kind of people who not only like Jesus, but love him so much that we become like him drawing others to the foot of the cross to receive the same mercy, grace, and forgiveness we all so desperately need – the very grace that makes both Pharisee and Tax Collector right before God.

Searching the Lectionary

LectionarySo…does anyone know why I’ve received so many hits for a lectionary passage the week after it appears in the lectionary? I’ve had several hits from people searching for Luke 14:1, 7-14.

The same thing happened the last time I posted a sermon based on a passage from the lectionary, and it always happens a week late. Anyone else have the same experience? Any clue as to why this happens? Are there folks out there who preach a week behind so they can get fresh stuff from blogs etc? 😉

Sunday Sermon: Luke 14:1, 7-14 – God’s Table Etiquette

In recent years many people have criticized the decline of etiquette and manners in our world. To many, it seems that society has grown accustomed to things that would have been considered incredibly rude only a decade or so before. My Grandma was always in charge of patrolling this area for my family. Even though Grandma and Grandpa didn’t have much in the way of material things, this was by no means an excuse to be uncivilized! There would be no elbows on the table, the forks were always on the left, and you most certainly did not come inside the house without taking off your hat or cap! So this morning, in memory of my Grandma Pauline, I want to give you a little reminder of some important Table Manners. So, here are ten simple table manners from Emily Post’s daughter Lizzie, who has updated them just a bit for this generation: 1.) Chew with your mouth shut. 2.) Avoid slurping, smacking, blowing your nose, or other gross noises. (If necessary, excuse yourself to take care of whatever it is you need to take care of.) 3.) Don’t use your utensils like a shovel or as if you’ve just stabbed the food you’re about to eat. 4.) Don’t pick your teeth at the table. 5.) Remember to use your napkin at all times (contrary to popular belief, this is not the reason shirt sleeves were invented – that addition is from Grandma). 6.) Wait until you’re done chewing to sip or swallow a drink. (The exception is if you’re choking.) 7.) Cut only one piece of food at a time. 8.) Avoid slouching and don’t place your elbows on the table while eating (though it is okay to prop your elbows on the table while conversing between courses.) 9.) Instead of reaching across the table for something, ask for it to be passed to you. 10.) Always say ‘excuse me’ whenever you leave the table.

We won’t take a poll on how many of those you all follow, because today I want to talk about a different kind of table etiquette – a kind that comes from a significantly higher authority than Emily Post’s daughter! Someone once said that in the book of Luke you always find Jesus coming to a meal, at a meal, or leaving a meal, and that is true in this passage. Jesus had been invited to the home of one of the leading Pharisees, but it wasn’t just your average social occasion. The passage shares the real reason for the invitation – they were watching Jesus closely.

This group of Pharisees and religious scholars probably wanted to give Jesus a very thorough test, but in a surprising twist, the only observations made at the table came from Jesus himself, as he began to comment on their table manners. You see, the religious and social culture of that day had very strict and well-developed list of social rules for eating together, and there were an incredible number of do’s and don’ts. The ways you interacted in these settings were very much tied to your social standing and your place in society. The place you sat at the table was incredibly important and determined your social rank, so we may not be surprised to find that as they sat down to eat, there was a great deal of jockeying for position.

Lest you think we’re above this kind of behavior, and social ranking has nothing to do with your seating, just think about your last family Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering. Maybe your family has a “kids table” that still has thirty and forty year olds sitting at it?! At Nanci’s family gatherings, those of us who are the younger adults in the family had to wait until we had enough kids to populate the kids table with grandkids in order to get to sit with the adults! In my family, my Dad sat in the same spot at the table for as long as I can remember! And even though we might think these kinds of things don’t really matter in our day and age, it was a little bit awkward the first Thanksgiving after my Dad’s death, because no one else had ever sat in that place.

Jesus noticed how the people put a great deal of effort as they jostled for position at the table, so he began to teach through a parable. He told the people gathering around the table the best way to go about choosing a seat. “If you’re invited to a banquet, don’t simply sit in the place of honor. You just might not be the most honored person there, and it will be incredibly humiliating when your host asks you to give up your seat and you have to traipse back down to the children’s table…” Instead, Jesus says, “Sit at the least honorable place, so that your host can invite you to the higher place. Then you’ll receive a great honor.”

Now what happened next is the most surprising, because Jesus doesn’t stop with what may have been accepted as reasonable and practical advice. Instead he challenged the very notion of what honor and privilege were all about as he turned to look at the host and challenged the practical wisdom and etiquette of the day.

Meals like this one were not just occasions to gather, eat, and talk; they were occasions to build your own reputation and connections. Gifts, such as an invitation to a meal, weren’t free but were tied to obligations to those who accepted the invitation. If you gave out an invitation, you expected to receive one in return. In a way, these dinner invitations were a lot like political rallies. You’re invited to attend, but there are expectations that are tied to the invitation. But Jesus turned this on its head when he said, “When you have a big meal, don’t invite all the people you’d normally think of inviting, just because they can invite you in return and pay you back. Instead, when you throw a party, invite the poor, cripples, lame, and blind because they can’t repay you. And in the end, you’ll receive your reward, not from them, but at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Jesus gave them, and he gives us, a completely different kind of table etiquette. In those days, common wisdom and social etiquette said jockey for position. Jesus said God’s etiquette calls for something completely different – all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. In those days, common wisdom and social etiquette was to invite those who can give in return. Jesus said that God’s etiquette reminds us to invite the very least: the poor, lame, and blind. And when we show generosity to those who can never give in return, Jesus says that we’ll find out something incredible. You won’t be repaid in the usual way, but you’ll be repaid by the very God who created every man, woman, and child. God himself will be the one who gives in return for those who are unable in the resurrection of the righteous.

Jesus shows us that God’s table etiquette operates with an entirely different way of looking at the world, and I believe that is directly connected today with our celebration of Holy Communion today. At God’s table, everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, able or disabled, young or old, white, black, Asian, or Hispanic. As we kneel at Christ’s table today, we are shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow with people from all walks of life. Because around Christ’s table, we are all one receiving the very same grace, love, and forgiveness that only God can give. Kneeling at the feet of Jesus Christ, we are all loved, we are all cared for, and we have all been offered the same gift of forgiveness and Salvation. As we prepare our hearts and minds for communion today, let us pray that God will give us the grace to practice the kind of etiquette we learn at God’s table outside these walls in our daily lives – that’s the kind of etiquette that will truly be rewarded…

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

 

Sunday Sermon: Luke 14:1, 7-14 – God’s Table Etiquette

In recent years many people have criticized the decline of etiquette and manners in our world. To many, it seems that society has grown accustomed to things that would have been considered incredibly rude only a decade or so before. My Grandma was always in charge of patrolling this area for my family. Even though Grandma and Grandpa didn’t have much in the way of material things, this was by no means an excuse to be uncivilized! There would be no elbows on the table, the forks were always on the left, and you most certainly did not come inside the house without taking off your hat or cap! So this morning, in memory of my Grandma Pauline, I want to give you a little reminder of some important Table Manners. So, here are ten simple table manners from Emily Post’s daughter Lizzie, who has updated them just a bit for this generation: 1.) Chew with your mouth shut. 2.) Avoid slurping, smacking, blowing your nose, or other gross noises. (If necessary, excuse yourself to take care of whatever it is you need to take care of.) 3.) Don’t use your utensils like a shovel or as if you’ve just stabbed the food you’re about to eat. 4.) Don’t pick your teeth at the table. 5.) Remember to use your napkin at all times (contrary to popular belief, this is not the reason shirt sleeves were invented – that addition is from Grandma). 6.) Wait until you’re done chewing to sip or swallow a drink. (The exception is if you’re choking.) 7.) Cut only one piece of food at a time. 8.) Avoid slouching and don’t place your elbows on the table while eating (though it is okay to prop your elbows on the table while conversing between courses.) 9.) Instead of reaching across the table for something, ask for it to be passed to you. 10.) Always say ‘excuse me’ whenever you leave the table.

We won’t take a poll on how many of those you all follow, because today I want to talk about a different kind of table etiquette – a kind that comes from a significantly higher authority than Emily Post’s daughter! Someone once said that in the book of Luke you always find Jesus coming to a meal, at a meal, or leaving a meal, and that is true in this passage. Jesus had been invited to the home of one of the leading Pharisees, but it wasn’t just your average social occasion. The passage shares the real reason for the invitation – they were watching Jesus closely.

This group of Pharisees and religious scholars probably wanted to give Jesus a very thorough test, but in a surprising twist, the only observations made at the table came from Jesus himself, as he began to comment on their table manners. You see, the religious and social culture of that day had very strict and well-developed list of social rules for eating together, and there were an incredible number of do’s and don’ts. The ways you interacted in these settings were very much tied to your social standing and your place in society. The place you sat at the table was incredibly important and determined your social rank, so we may not be surprised to find that as they sat down to eat, there was a great deal of jockeying for position.

Lest you think we’re above this kind of behavior, and social ranking has nothing to do with your seating, just think about your last family Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering. Maybe your family has a “kids table” that still has thirty and forty year olds sitting at it?! At Nanci’s family gatherings, those of us who are the younger adults in the family had to wait until we had enough kids to populate the kids table with grandkids in order to get to sit with the adults! In my family, my Dad sat in the same spot at the table for as long as I can remember! And even though we might think these kinds of things don’t really matter in our day and age, it was a little bit awkward the first Thanksgiving after my Dad’s death, because no one else had ever sat in that place.

Jesus noticed how the people put a great deal of effort as they jostled for position at the table, so he began to teach through a parable. He told the people gathering around the table the best way to go about choosing a seat. “If you’re invited to a banquet, don’t simply sit in the place of honor. You just might not be the most honored person there, and it will be incredibly humiliating when your host asks you to give up your seat and you have to traipse back down to the children’s table…” Instead, Jesus says, “Sit at the least honorable place, so that your host can invite you to the higher place. Then you’ll receive a great honor.”

Now what happened next is the most surprising, because Jesus doesn’t stop with what may have been accepted as reasonable and practical advice. Instead he challenged the very notion of what honor and privilege were all about as he turned to look at the host and challenged the practical wisdom and etiquette of the day.

Meals like this one were not just occasions to gather, eat, and talk; they were occasions to build your own reputation and connections. Gifts, such as an invitation to a meal, weren’t free but were tied to obligations to those who accepted the invitation. If you gave out an invitation, you expected to receive one in return. In a way, these dinner invitations were a lot like political rallies. You’re invited to attend, but there are expectations that are tied to the invitation. But Jesus turned this on its head when he said, “When you have a big meal, don’t invite all the people you’d normally think of inviting, just because they can invite you in return and pay you back. Instead, when you throw a party, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind because they can’t repay you. And in the end, you’ll receive your reward, not from them, but at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Jesus gave them, and he gives us, a completely different kind of table etiquette. In those days, common wisdom and social etiquette said jockey for position. Jesus said God’s etiquette calls for something completely different – all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. In those days, common wisdom and social etiquette was to invite those who can give in return. Jesus said that God’s etiquette reminds us to invite the very least: the poor, lame, and blind. And when we show generosity to those who can never give in return, Jesus says that we’ll find out something incredible. You won’t be repaid in the usual way, but you’ll be repaid by the very God who created every man, woman, and child. God himself will be the one who gives in return for those who are unable in the resurrection of the righteous.

Jesus shows us that God’s table etiquette operates with an entirely different way of looking at the world, and I believe that is directly connected today with our celebration of Holy Communion today. At God’s table, everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, able or disabled, young or old, white, black, Asian, or Hispanic. As we kneel at Christ’s table today, we are shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow with people from all walks of life. Because around Christ’s table, we are all one receiving the very same grace, love, and forgiveness that only God can give. Kneeling at the feet of Jesus Christ, we are all loved, we are all cared for, and we have all been offered the same gift of forgiveness and Salvation. As we prepare our hearts and minds for communion today, let us pray that God will give us the grace to practice the kind of etiquette we learn at God’s table outside these walls in our daily lives – that’s the kind of etiquette that will truly be rewarded…

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

 

Elightening Children’s Sermon

L.L. Bean FlashlightSome of my best children’s messages come at the last moment as I’m walking out the door, and I think, “Oh man, I need something to say to the kids this morning!!” This morning, I had an idea that went with the L.L. Bean Wind ‘N Go flashlight that I had sitting above my computer desk.

My kids had been playing with this flashlight and left it on all night long. After a long night on the shelf, the light was about as dim as it could possibly be while still being on. In a way, it looked a little like I felt! All of a sudden, I had a spark of enlightenment.

I took the flashlight to Church this morning, and showed it to the kids, asking them what was wrong. With a little direction, they correctly answered that the battery had gone dead. At that point, I showed them that it was a special kind of flashlight that we could recharge by winding the crank. As you may have guessed, I made the analogy with the way we sometimes lose our light and run out of steam and feel like we’re not connected with God (O.K. smarty-pants, I know this was over the heads of all but about three kids – children’s messages are for the adults & pastor too, you know!).

I then gave each of them a turn at the crank while I said things like, “We pray, we study the bible or listen to bible stories from our parents or grandparents, we go to Church, we sing songs,” and then I wound the thing like crazy while I said, “We listen to the sermon!” You can kind of hear the light whir pretty loudly, so this got a big laugh here from the adults.

I then pushed the on button and the thing nearly blinded the poor girl sitting in front of me! Two of the smaller kids yelled, “There’s a light!” There was a slight “Ohhh…” in the crowd, and I said, “Don’t get ahead of me now!” I then talked about how all these things we do help us be closer to God, and when we do we become lights in the world – shining out the message of God’s love. Trust me, it was much better than my sermon!

Elightening Children’s Sermon

L.L. Bean FlashlightSome of my best children’s messages come at the last moment as I’m walking out the door, and I think, “Oh man, I need something to say to the kids this morning!!” This morning, I had an idea that went with the L.L. Bean Wind ‘N Go flashlight that I had sitting above my computer desk.

My kids had been playing with this flashlight and left it on all night long. After a long night on the shelf, the light was about as dim as it could possibly be while still being on. In a way, it looked a little like I felt! All of a sudden, I had a spark of enlightenment.

I took the flashlight to Church this morning, and showed it to the kids, asking them what was wrong. With a little direction, they correctly answered that the battery had gone dead. At that point, I showed them that it was a special kind of flashlight that we could recharge by winding the crank. As you may have guessed, I made the analogy with the way we sometimes lose our light and run out of steam and feel like we’re not connected with God (O.K. smarty-pants, I know this was over the heads of all but about three kids – children’s messages are for the adults & pastor too, you know!).

I then gave each of them a turn at the crank while I said things like, “We pray, we study the bible or listen to bible stories from our parents or grandparents, we go to Church, we sing songs,” and then I wound the thing like crazy while I said, “We listen to the sermon!” You can kind of hear the light whir pretty loudly, so this got a big laugh here from the adults.

I then pushed the on button and the thing nearly blinded the poor girl sitting in front of me! Two of the smaller kids yelled, “There’s a light!” There was a slight “Ohhh…” in the crowd, and I said, “Don’t get ahead of me now!” I then talked about how all these things we do help us be closer to God, and when we do we become lights in the world – shining out the message of God’s love. Trust me, it was much better than my sermon!