notre dame montreal

A parable of manners

Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
2 September 2001

Second Bible Reading   Luke Chapter 14:1,7-14
"One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: "When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, 'Give this man your seat.' Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honoured in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Then Jesus said to his host, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 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." (This is the word of the Lord  -  Thanks be to God)



I wonder if you have ever been to a very posh dinner, somewhere where there are many different kinds of cutlery laid out in front of you. I was told by Bill Lavery this morning that he was once responsible for setting out such banquets when he was in army. He also told me of once being invited to a very upmarket place when he was in his regiment and the person he was with drank from a bowl laid out at the side of the plate. On doing so the person remarked that the liquid was bitter, to be told by Bill that this was understandable since the bowl was for washing one's fingers, not for drinking. Of course we learn rules, that we use the cutlery on the outside and work in and if we are not sure we can always watch the host for a clue of what to do. When I was in Hong King recently I used chopsticks many times and learned how to have a go at eating with them. Of course this is always a bit messy, but as long as you do not stick them into the food and use them as a cocktail stick nobody seems too concerned.

There are all sorts of table manners,

     Do not eat with your mouth open
     Do not start until the host tells you and everybody is ready
     Remember your pleases and thank you's

All these manners are a part of being a civilised society and they show respect and polite conduct. There are many more manners and I read yesterday from Debretts about manners, Debretts which prides itself on being the place to learn such things. I learned that there are now Emanners, for those who use Email.

This is what they said -

The basics of good writing and manners should remain, especially for formal or business correspondence. In such instances, try to use correct forms of address and sign-off, such as 'Dear Mrs Jones' and 'Regards' or 'Yours sincerely' where appropriate.

Consider the occasion. Whilst it may be commonplace to invite or thank a friend for dinner via e-mail, e-condolences or wedding invitations may not be so readily accepted and can appear insensitive.

Set the right tone. Over-familiarity can be off-putting and seen as unprofessional in a business context. Always use correct grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Avoid excessive use of fonts and colours as they can appear childish and detract from the message.

Be careful when sending sensitive information, both of a business and personal nature. Online communication is not as secure as you might think and will more than likely be read by someone other than the intended recipient.

Finally, check before you send. E-mails are intended to be a quick and easy form of communication, but that doesn't excuse spelling mistakes. Try thinking of it as a letter: would you really want to put your name to it?

I also learned about mobile telephones.

Lady Celestria Noel, author of Debrett's Guide to the season and former Social Editor of Harpers & Queen said

Always remember to switch your phone off when at a social gathering or in a hospital

Consider those around you. As Lady Celestria Noel commented "At its most basic level, all rudeness is selfishness. With mobile phones this most commonly takes the form of thinking that you are moving around in an impenetrable bubble."

Do be aware that other people can overhear you. Exercise discretion when discussing personal or sensitive business conversations in a public place. Don't text with your keypad tone set on loud, or pass time on the train by going through your entire ring tone collection.

Do not pay too much attention to your phone, especially when out on a dinner date. Accepting calls or spending the entire time with yours eyes firmly fixed on your phone as you send yet another text message is extremely rude.

And finally, take care when using your phone in the street and remember to look where you're going!

I wonder how many people have a mobile telephone in church this morning, now I wonder how many of you have them left switched on? According to Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners, we should not engage in mobile telephone conversations in a bar, bus or train or have phones switched on in a church, theatre or cinema.

All of this is very good probably, manners maketh the man, and we should all learn to be considerate to others. But as I read on in Debretts it is not all so obvious. There are lessons in how we should behave towards other people. For example royals should never be offered a hand to shake, they should either be bowed or curtsied to. Then there are a whole load of ways in which we should address and pay deference to people who are higher up the social hierarchy than we are.

Then of course there are ways to help us to speak so that we get everything pronounced correctly and so that we do not make a show of ourselves. Names and pronunciations are very important, even though they seem to change. I find it hard that we now have to pronounce Ralph Vaughn Williams the composer now as 'RAIFE'. Fortunately Debretts is on hand to help us pronounce such things as

Blenheim  —  Blen-im
Cholmondeley  —  Chum-li
Theobald  —  Tibbald
St John  —  Sinjun

I am going to find it exceptionally difficult to think of reading the lesson for the Gospel according to Sinjun, instead of St John.

Manners are an encouragement to kind and considerate behaviour. I am sure that we would all agree that the world would be a much better place if we all tried harder to be polite courteous and considerate of others. That is good, but some of the social graces can be more about wrong footing others. They say that the upper classes are equally at home with a duke or a dustman, and this is usually mistaken for putting other people at their ease. In reality, their social graces are busy wrong-footing everybody else in the politest possible way. The true reason the upper classes feel have felt at home anywhere is that they are at home anywhere - the world is their home, they own it. They are comfortable talking to anyone because they feel superior to everyone.

Of course whether you are bothered about being wrong-footed by your social superiors depends on whether you aspire to be accepted by them. Hence manners have been a particular preoccupation of the middle classes, where even today your position in a tight pecking order could rest on how you pronounce certain vowel sounds. I would be regarded as particularly out of order in my northern pronunciation of 'path', 'bath' and which to a simple Liverpool lad such as myself always seem to have an 'r' in them when pronounced in the South of England.


Continuous assessment—a life on trial

In the bible story today we see that Jesus has gone to dinner with a Pharisee We read that everything Jesus does is being carefully watched. This is happening not because people want to copy Jesus, he is being critically watched, and there is a hope that he can be caught out. Life for Jesus is a test, he is on show, those people who perhaps like school teachers have been assessed and monitored as a part of their work will know what it is like to have somebody critically looking at how you do things and making reports on you.

So this is no innocent invitation to dinner. It has been set up to try and trap Jesus, and he knows it, all too well. What is striking is the cool, humorous authority with which he handles the trap. You might think that Jesus began teaching how to get yourself elevated to better seats at dinner functions. Rather like somebody who tells you the best way to get yourself upgraded to a better class seat on an aeroplane.

Jesus watches as the guests jostle for position, you can probably imagine how they choose their chairs and perhaps put garments over them to reserve them! But if we look closely we see that Jesus is not giving advice on table manners or on how to be upgraded. Jesus is telling them a parable, and at the end of the passage we read that his teaching fundamentally is concerned with where we sit not at human tables, but at God's banqueting table.

Over and over again in the Gospels, we see people coming to Jesus with the same kind of questions about hierarchy and position; about how to measure and order their world and find the best place for themselves in it. And, over and over again, Jesus simply refuses to answer in those terms. Any of the guests who were still under the impression that these stories of Jesus's were actually about dinner-parties is suddenly disillusioned in v. 14. With this mention of the 'resurrection of the righteous', it becomes perfectly clear that the party which Jesus is bothered about is God's party, the Kingdom.


God's guest list

Jesus tells his distinguished audience that they have no idea at all of the criteria that God is using to send out his invitations. No amount of working your way up the religious hierarchical ladder is going to guarantee admission, and, if you do get invited, you may find yourself in some very strange company. God seems intent on spoiling the guest list, surely if he includes everybody that devalues my own invitation?

The principles of God's kingdom are so much different from ours. There are no other's better than us, no dukes and dustmen. Nobody any better or any worse than us. It should not upset us that God invites the humble poor, we ourselves have done remarkably little to earn our own invitation, so why should we be resentful about God's grace to others?

When the poet George Herbert took up the theme of God as host, he reminded us that the banquet is about God's generosity, not our merit. When invited to the feast, the guest in the poem hangs back, suddenly aware of how dusty he is, and how he has come to the party unprepared, ungrateful and unkind. But Love, the host, is under no illusions about his guests. He knows what he is doing:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
    If I lack'd anything.

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
    Love said, you shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful: Ah, my dear,
    I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
    Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
    Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
    My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.
    So I did sit and eat.

George Herbert