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Proper Protocol

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Sunny Davis worked as a cocktail waitress, at Lou's Safari Club. To compliment the African theme, her had to dress in animal costumes, On some nights she dressed as a zebra, others a giraffe, or an emus, a wingless bird. The pay was not very good, and had to spend an equal amount of time fending of crude jokes and unwelcome invitations, as well as drinks. But it was the only job she knew. One night her life changed when she thwarted an assassination attempt of a visiting Arab emir by wrestling with the gunman and taking a bullet in the derriere. Suddenly this unknown cocktail waitress enters the national spotlight for risking her life. Her face appears on the cover of every magazine. The prince reads about her heroics and tells the state department that he will not allow the US to build an air base in his country unless Sunny agrees to become his wife. Not wanting to risk strained diplomatic relationships with this strategic Arab county, the State Department conceives a plan to convince Sunny to marry the prince. They appoint her Special Assistant to the Ambassador of Protocol. Sunny is excited, but she is not sure what the word "protocol" means so she rushes into the house to look it up in the dictionary where she reads protocol,

The customs and regulations dealing with the ceremonies and etiquette of the diplomatic corps

While she is not certain what the job will require she accepts the invitation and begins her new career in the diplomatic corp. Her tenure is hilariously traumatic to both Sunny and the polished professionals of the State Department.

Washington protocol is a very important and demanding role in international politics. One of its functions is to determine where people sit at state dinners. More than one international crisis has been precipitated by putting some dignitary in the wrong place. People from various classes may mix freely in the classroom, on the playing filed, or in the movie theaters but at mealtime, even adults can behave like a bunch of JH students by demanding that they sit next to the important people and snubbing others. It's like their afraid they will get cuddies. 

The gospel lesson tell us that one night when Jesus was at the dinner table of a Pharisee he decided to seize the opportunity and give a lesson in proper protocol. 

Does it surprise you that I am talking about table manners? Certainly, other topics seem more important than table manners. Every day the newspapers contain the latest Palestinians and Israelis death toll. The Business sections focus on the economic warnings of signs of a pending recession. And the Secretary of Sate, Colin Powell, is boycotting a UN conference on racism. Any one of these would seem more important then dinner table protocol. My children are probably the most surprised by this sermon given their comments about my table manners.

Yet, there is really no reason to be surprised. That is the wonder of God, while he is involved in the grand affairs of nations, and at work in the spectacular wonder of creation, he is still very concerned with the common, seemingly insignificant affairs of our lives. And meals or should I say, our attitude and behavior at mealtime are very important components of those lives. How we eat and more importantly, with whom we eat are notably issues.

While Jesus was waiting for his meal, he noticed that the guests were vying for seats. They wanted to sit next to some of equal or greater social prominence. Their behavior revealed to him their attitude towards others. One author writes "Seeing how people behave in social circumstances gives us a window to their souls."1 How we treat one another reflects what we think about one another. At this dinner table, he saw people maneuvering and jockeying for position to put themselves in a superior or advantageous position. Everyone thought that they deserved the best seat in the house. Everyone wanted to sit next to a very important person. Everyone thought that they were more important than the next person. So, Jesus decided that they needed to hear a lesson in humility.

To fully appreciate his words, I think it is important to redirect our Lord's specific application. We as a congregation would not be accused of being pushy social climbers, or prestige seekers. I do not remember anyone shoving or maneuvering at the last potluck supper to get the best seat in the hall. We are down to earth people who are not impressed by status. Most of us think it's a bunch of nonsense. But we are still as guilty of the same lack of humility as those lawyers who sought the place of honor. We only do it in more subtle ways.

Allow me to ask a question for reflection? When you see someone in need, do you really consider that person to be your equal? Is the bag lady who walks the streets of downtown Detroit really your sister?

A story is told about a devastating famine in Russia that brought great misery and suffering. A beggar, weak and near death approached the famed Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy and asked for assistance. Tolstoy searched every pocket for money, but to his dismay discovered that he did not have even a single coin. He took the beggar by the hand and said, "Do not be angry with me my brother, I have nothing with me." The man's face light up as if an inner light had been turned on and he whispered in reply, "but sir, you called me 'brother' - that is the greatest gift you could give me."2 I ask the question again do we really see the downtrodden, the unemployed, the socially unacceptable street people as your brothers and sisters?

And what about the people in our neighborhood or the people with whom we work, do we really see them as our equals. In a recent survey, people were asked to rate their level of skill for their favorite recreational sport. Over 60% said better than average. How could 60% of the people have a better than average skill? At best only 49% should have responded? Either 10% of those people surveyed lied about their abilities or something else was taking place. I think that survey show that within each of us we would like to think that we are just a little bit better than the other person. Some how we are just one cut above the crowd, so we deserve special treatment. We do not have to wait in line! We do not have to jump through the same hoops as everyone else? We deserve VIP attention!

That is the attitude that Jesus was aiming at! That's the attitude that he hoped to remove from the mind set of his disciples. He wanted them to realize, that even if they are better than others, to never show it, never expect preferential treatment and always put the needs, desires and wants of other people first by allowing them to have the VIP service.

A spirit of humility sees every other person as greater than themselves.

After telling the parable about seating arrangements, Jesus turns his attention to the host. Jesus undoubtedly realized that the guest list was a "Whose Who" list of the city's rich and famous. Luke records that most of them were lawyers. They may have been business acquaintances that the host was trying to impress. Jesus tells the man 

"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.3"

We have difficulty fully appreciating the anger Jesus feels toward the dinner shenanigans. Hospitality is a dying practice in our culture. People seldom invite others to their home except to entertain and impress. In ancient culture, hospitality was the responsibility of every citizen. Opening a restaurant or hotel would have guaranteed bankruptcy. To withhold hospitality especially toward a stranger was considered a grave insult. But Jesus saw that the Pharisee's hospitality and degenerated into self-serving entertainment. He told him that rather invite people who can repay you with their dinner invitation or a business deal you should invite those who cannot.

Hospitality strips away pride because it allows others into our home even when we have not cleaned the house. It permits others to see our clutter. Hospitality puts people before things because it extends an invitation even before the new china is purchased or the dinning room redecorated. Hospitality is the visible display of God's love. It requires time and effort.

I believe that we as a congregation need to recapture the spirit of hospitality. While visitor may say that we are a very warm and friendly church on Sunday morning that for me that is not the true litmus test for a church. The true measure of a church's hospitality toward its visitor is not measured on Sunday morning but from Monday to Saturday. I would hope that we become known both for our friendliness on Sunday morning and our gracious, caring hospitality during the week in. There are a number of ways to do this. 

You could set a goal to invite someone to dinner, not someone you already know or have had over for dinner a long time ago, but someone you do not know, a new member, or someone you have never done much with. In one church I served, the moderator of the Deacons had each of the widowers over for dinner nearly once a month on separate nights. What a wonder gift of love by an eighty year old woman.

Carol and I hope to start this fall inviting people over for desert. We try to invite a few long-term members of the church along with a few newcomers over on a Friday or Saturday night.

Each Sunday those of you who go out to lunch together have the opportunity to show your hospitality toward visitors by inviting them to join you and paying for their meal.

You may think of another more practical thing you could do that fits your style. But to truly obey Jesus admonition we must remember that the only reason we have for doing what we are doing is to extend our gift of love. We are not taking people out to dinner to recruit new church members. We are not inviting people to our home to draft new volunteers. That is not the purpose of hospitality.

I still remember the challenge that Mrs. Olmstead, my 9th grade Algebra teacher gave to a group of Christian students. She told us that when you go to lunch some day, instead of sitting with your friends, sit with someone who is eating alone, someone who is not a member of any group, maybe even someone who everyone else thinks is rather queer. Well, no one ever took her up on that challenge, but I have tried to apply her message in my ministry. I have tried to spend time with every person in the congregations I have served. Whether the person is a church leader or not, whether or not they contributed their time or finances to the church, whether I enjoy talking to them or not. I have sought out those who are on the social fringes. I confess that my efforts have been rather minimal. I am not bragging about my achievements but rather confessing that the difficulty of the responsibility. However, no matter how demanding the task, we are called to not only be hospitable but to be hospitable to the outcast and the downtrodden.

The State Department soon discovered that while they could promote Sunny Davis to Special Assistant to the Ambassador of Protocol they could not use her to advance their foreign policy agenda. She saw through their façade. She discovered their ulterior motive. She refused to participate in their hypocrisy. If we try to be hospitable to others for ulterior reasons people will see through our insincerity. People do not want to be used. People do not want to be manipulated. 

There is a deep loneliness in our nation. People are looking for a church that will truly be a community that displays that love and gracious of God. We cannot do that by living behind our closed doors in our isolated homes. We cannot do that if we are only inviting our friends to eat with us. We cannot do that if we are neglecting the hurting, the downtrodden, and the outcast. 

May we become a community that offers God's gracious hospitality!

1 William H. Willimon, "Mind Your Manners," Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, No. 3, p.35.
2 Glendon E. Harris, "This is the Moment", Pulpit Resource, Vol. 17, No. 3, p.35.
3 Luke 14:12-14, (The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.)

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