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Table Manners

Just four years ago the FBI was brought to our fair town to investigate claims that a woman was actively looking to hire an assassin. Ann Marie Linscott, aged 48, had developed an intimate relationship with a married man in California. Ann Marie, also married at the time, decided to take matters into her own hands and get rid of the competition. She placed an ad on craigslist under the heading Freelance and several people applied for the job. She asked them to “eradicate a 56-year-old female living in California.” The three applicants found it surreal that this was the job description but decided that she meant business. Each reported her to the police who then turned to the FBI to determine if it was a credible threat.

In her interview with the police she admitted to her plan. When asked what she meant by “eradication” her answer reflected an arrogance that didn’t fit the situation: “Duh. Well to have her killed.”

Which begs the question, who’s the dimwit here? Ann Marie judged that the law enforcement officers were not so bright but, in fact, she was the one under surveillance. Her selfish desire to go to whatever lengths necessary to be with her lover cost her her freedom and ended her career.

By the way, Ann Marie was a therapeutic massage therapist at Riverview Athletic Club in Grand Rapds. Their website offered this recommendation of their employee: “Ann Marie is here to serve you, and help reduce your everyday stress, aches and pains with massages to relieve stress and promote wellness.” Hmmmm.

Jesus taught, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14: 11)

group of people sitting on stairs
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Quite a few of our families have dropped kids off at college, helping them set up study areas and meeting their roommates. I attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota. On my corridor there was a triple room. I think it was originally intended as a double but enrollment numbers required that some freshmen add a person to their space. They slept on towering beds stacked three people high. There wasn’t enough room to sit up in the bed—you had to slide out, your life in peril if you were stuck with the top bunk! One of the “roomies” made a point of showing up as early as she was allowed. She let it be known that she wanted to grab the goods. Mind you, there wasn’t much to wrangle over but she had her choice of bed, closet and desk. By the time the other two students arrived, she was happily ensconced in the places of her choosing. It’s not that she got away with anything much better than the other two. What was apparent to the rest of us on the hall as she boasted of her early arrival, was that her ego was the driving force behind her place in the room. Fortunately for her, the other two were gentle souls who didn’t go against her selfishness and quietly took their places in the triple room. They were more readily embraced into dorm social life than the one who demonstrated that she was in it to win it!

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Do any of you have your name pieced together in stained glass? Probably not! Not too many new homes have stained glass windows painstakingly leaded together and on display in front parlors. But that used to be an esteemed way to honor a loved one. We are surrounded by names at the base of our sanctuary windows. On the rear-most window on the west side of the building two names are given: Henry and Horace Childs. I have wondered who they were and what role they played in the history of our congregation? In 1866 Henry bought a defunct mill along the Rogue River in the area where Bridgeway Church now gathers. He resurrected a dying business and the mill was humming along once again. That industry drew employees so homes and businesses grew up along with the mill. The area was named after Henry’s family—Childsdale. Eventually the train tracks were routed to go by the mill so that their product could be shipped. Henry deeded half the mill to his son, Horace who introduced new machinery into the production line. Horace and his wife, Frances, built a three-story, 30-room mansion overlooking Childsdale. Horace presented a striking image, remembered as one with flowing hair, a Prince Albert coat and sporting a black fedora. This was a success story until Horace fell in love with the postmistress, Maude, who worked out of the General Store of the village. Frances was furious and kicked him out. She took the kids and moved to Grand Rapids. The business declined and Horace ultimately lost his real estate holdings and his town’s respect. Former Rockford Squire journalist, Susie Fair, came into our sanctuary once to see whose names are on our windows. She laughed when she saw this father-son duo because they, apparently, used their means to make sure that their names were imprinted around our town. She described them as egotistical womanizers who had no involvement in the churches where their names still appear! (Rockford Squire, October 11, 2012, page 5)

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

What I love about Jesus’ stories are that they transcend cultures and time frames. They still speak to us today. We’ve all met folks who walk into a party and assume it’s all about them! Carly Simon captured it well in her song: “You walked in to the party like you were walking onto a yacht. Your hat strategically dipped below one eye. Your scarf it was apricot. You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte. And all the girls dreamed that they’d be your partner, they’d be your partner and you’re so vain. You probably think this song is about you….”

Who among us would seat ourselves at the head table at a wedding without an invitation to do so? The head table is understood to be privileged and assigned seating. But aren’t there turf wars at wedding receptions about who sits closest to the front, at the table with the parents, near the bathroom, with all the singles who come alone and don’t know anyone? Some folks come to a wedding or other important occasion ready to be offended if they aren’t treated right. We understand the common denominator in the stories about the Childs, the college roommate in a triple, the woman vying for her lover’s undivided attention: it’s ego, selfishness, a love for power.

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The story in Luke 14: 1-14 tells us that Jesus was being carefully watched by the Pharisees who were threatened by His popularity. They often asked Him questions aimed at stumping Him but He left them speechless. But it seems, as we dig beneath the surface of this dinner party, that the Pharisees and the other dinner guests—undoubtedly folks with clout in the town—were the ones whose behavior was being judged.

In Luke’s Gospel the table is featured frequently as a gathering place. Jesus took the opportunity around the dinner table to do some teaching. The best way to make a point is to teach it in the very setting of the story. What Jesus described to these stuffy diners is barrier-breaking hospitality. As a follower of Jesus, we are to act with humility. Make no presumption that you are a guest of elevated importance. Take the seat at the table in the back of the room near the bathroom. If the host wants to honor you and put you in a place of prominence, he will find you, she will invite you to move up. You know what’s endearing about celebrities that common folks like us meet? Their humility. We tell someone else, “He’s so down to earth!” “She was so nice and regular!” We expect bigwigs to be snooty and demanding. Humility is winsome. Rodney Sadler writes, “Verses 7-11 bear witness to the nature of life under God’s reign, where presumptions of privilege—not only those of individuals, but those of groups, things like ‘race,’ ethnicity, class, gender, nationality, and native tongue—do not ‘distinguish’ us; but if we allow them to define us, they will certainly ‘disgrace’ us.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, page 25) Ronald Byars states that underestimating, rather than overestimating ourselves, may be challenging to some but it is “potent medicine for those too impressed by their own resume.”  (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, page 23)

The wisdom of King Solomon gives similar advice in Proverbs 25: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

Check your resume at the door and put aside your witty conversation. Present yourself as a servant to those around you—even (and maybe particularly) to the most overlooked person present! In that way you will be used by Jesus as a blessing. In submitting to the needs of others, you will be blessed. This doesn’t make sense through the lens of our culture that tells us to be assertive, stand above others, make a name for yourself, reach for the stars. But Jesus’ ministry was characterized by breaking barriers so that the least of these would be honored above Presidents and Pontiffs.

So let’s think about our own tables for a moment. What happens around your table? Do you eat with family members at the table. Do you share meaningfully or do you look at your phone? Do you enjoy the food or just inhale it to get to the next meeting, game or lesson? Do you invite people over—whether it’s to your house or to join you at a restaurant? As the host, do you take genuine interest in your guests? Do you listen more than you talk? Are you so busy thinking about what you will say next to impress the others that you don’t hear the longing in their voices to be accepted and loved? Have you invited folks to join you who don’t receive dinner invites from others? Have stereotypical barriers been broken around your table because you have extended the love of Christ to an unlikely mix of people? Have you asked someone without family, without table manners or friends or tact to join the warmth of your table fellowship on Christmas or Easter or some other cherished holiday? Or do we reserve the special occasions for pre-selected guests only, those who can repay our hospitality in kind? What happens around our own tables?

Part of the lesson Jesus was teaching around the astonished Pharisee’s table is what it means to be blessed. Beginning at verse 13 it says, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” What does it mean to be blessed? We interpret it differently at unique stages of our lives. As a child, to be blessed means we get the x-box game system we asked for (which translates from the shiny red wagon of yesteryear!). As a teenager, to be blessed is to be given the keys to the car for a football game or to get a paycheck for the first job ever worked. As life rolls on we dig into the deeper meaning of our circumstances. Hardships have a way of teaching us what matters.

In the trenches of life we discover that blessing comes from an ever-deepening relationship with God. The storms rage around us but God keeps us steady. A good friend dismisses us, hurting our feelings, but God reminds us that we are lovable. We learn that we cannot earn God’s good graces. When we surrender the reins, God surprises us by showing up and our priorities shift. It turns out that the “cool girls”, in whose awesome presence we yearn to dwell, are actually “mean girls” whose acceptance of us is whimsical and conditional! The ones who stand up in our weddings are the ones who were kind, who listened, who had room in their lives for us, our stories, our joys, our deepest sorrows. Emilie Townes writes, “Being a blessing, living righteousness in our daily lives, draws us into relationship with those who have less than we do, yet are the true representatives of God’s countless blessings in our lives and in the lives of others.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, page 24)

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In the New Testament the banquet symbolizes the Realm of God. We continue to eat around a table with Jesus as the Host when we share in communion. Five years ago members of our congregation worked together on a project entitled “Open Table?” We chose 12 categories of people who are often excluded from table fellowship in the Church and decorated a chair to represent that population. We put them around a long, hand-crafted table with the Jesus chair in the middle. It stood as a visual reminder that our God extends a blessing to all people around the table through the Son, Jesus Christ. Our table manners are challenged in this scripture passage. Byars writes, “Jesus’ challenge reaches across boundaries of place and time, calling us to be more aware of those from whom we are inclined to avert our eyes, and to follow him rather than those who baptize common prejudices as virtues.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, page 25)

“For those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

We see on the news daily stories of common prejudices at work, introducing hurt into our communities. Michigan gained coverage on CNN a couple of weeks ago when Jean Cramer ran for City Council in Marysville. Her pitch as she tried to earn votes? She stated that she wants a “white community as much as possible.” Seriously!? She said that out loud? Fortunately, it made headlines as negative news and Jean ended up dropping out of the race. There are those who baptize common prejudices as virtues and we have to call that out! What happens around our tables can make a difference—in our own attitudes, the shaping of values in our children, the message of acceptance to the overlooked who sit with us and enjoy our hospitality. What happens around the communion table that brings us together each month? We invite Jesus in and nothing is the same again. I promise. And that’s a good thing! In fact, it’s a blessing.

By preachinglife

My father was a military chaplain so I moved around quite a bit growing up. I have always gone to church! Even when we traveled we went somewhere to church. I met and married my husband, Garrett, at Chicago Theological Seminary where I earned a Masters of Divinity degree. He and I were ordained together at the First Church of Lombard, United Church of Christ in Lombard, Illinois on June 14, 1987. My first act as an ordained minister at the end of a tremendously hot ordination ceremony was to baptize my daughter, Lisa Marian! We added two sons and a daughter to the mix: James, Joseph and Maria. We have girls on either end and two boys one year apart in the middle. They range in age from 33 to almost 22. I love them!

I have been in the parish ministry for 35 years, serving at three different churches. I have joyfully served the people at the First Congregational Church of Rockford, United Church of Christ in Rockford, Michigan for 24 years.

We live on family land about 3 miles from the church. In random free moments I enjoy cooking good meals, reading, writing, gardening, traveling and spending time with my family. I am blessed!

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