SERMON 9/1/19 Pentecost 12C Proper 17 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church
Downton Abbey and Table Manners
When we first moved to Naples and we lived in temporary housing, Terri and I bing-watched the entire six seasons of Downton Abbey. This PBS drama is a tale set in a fictional Yorkshire country estate between 1912 and 1926, which depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants. The character development is incredible, the drama intriguing, and the settings for the filming impeccable. Many of the scenes of the series centered around the dining table and shared meals. Whether it was informal breakfast, cucumber sandwiches at teatime, or the major formal dining affair in the evening, meals were the central event where the characters of Downton Abbey enacted their relationships and social standing.
These meals were much different from those we share with friends, family, and at church potlucks we share today. “Considerable thought and planning went into the seating protocol at the table to show respect to positions and titles and to promote conversation.” (3) Where one sat at the Crawley table spoke volumes about one’s place in the family, and one’s relationship to the Earl himself; the head of the household. Downton Abbey gives we modern folks a glimpse into the hierarchy of society in the early 20thcentury, and a foreshadowing of 21stcentury hierarchy today.
It was not that much different in first century Palestine and in Mediterranean culture, which we hear about in Jesus’ encounter at dinner in today’s gospel. “Greco-Roman meals often were set around a U-shaped arrangement of couches, where the closest seating to the host was reserved for those with the greatest status or honor, while those with less honor sat on the outside.” (1) Seating arrangements, dining protocols, and party guest lists have always indicated the imbalance of human social structure, the non-God’s Kingdom heirarchy, which Jesus teaches us about in today’s gospel reading.
Abundant Feast; Scarcity Mentality
Imagine for a moment you were at the dinner party Jesus attended, and you were there watching, standing beside him, as the jockeying for seating positions took place. Listen closely as he taught that table rituals practiced were a direct reflection of the social structures and relational dynamics found in society in the street. Listen closely as Jesus contrasted the dining table hierarchy to the radical nature of God’s Kingdom hierarchy. Listen to how Jesus turned the whole concept of human competitiveness and the “haves” and have nots” on its head.
Jesus made it simple and claimed that we create guest lists of people, to whom we invite into the experience of the perceived limited hospitality of our lives. Jesus taught alternatively that God’s Kingdom party invitations are not just sent out to a select few, to the uber faithful alone, to the holiest ones in the bunch. God sends invitations to all people, so we might come to God’s table of grace-filled hospitality, regardless of social status or the “what have I done for God lately” crew. God’s abundant grace has no bounds, requirements, or protocols, because grace is so abundant in God’s Kingdom.
If God’s Kingdom is so abundant and there is enough for all, why then do we live with a scarcity mentality? We still today, with animalistic “survival of the fittest” temperament, still jockeying for the best seats at God’s table of abundance. For instance, a small percentage of the people in the world hold a disproportionate amount of wealth, and even the richest country in the world cannot provide housing for homeless people on the street, or healthcare for the most vulnerable, or a decent wage for those who physically work the hardest.
God’s earth produces 2.2 billion metric tons of grain each year, and the total population consumes much less than that in order to sustain life. We do not have a supply problem in the world; we have a dispersal problem. In other words, in our pursuit of being first, the best, and attaining the right social status, some folks win and some lose. However, when it comes to God’s grace and the abundance of his table (the Kingdom of God) there is no supply problem but rather, a distribution problem and here is the key my sisters and brothers; as receivers of God’s grace, we are God’s grace distributors.
“Jesus’ table stories describe a revolutionary, redemptive kingdom that confronts the norms of upwardly mobile networking and competition. He eschews the expectations of polite society for a story of revolution. This is the nature of the kingdom.” (1) There is enough grace for all, there are enough resources for all, but we still want the best seats of honor at the table, and thus there is an inequality in the world that stands in opposition to God’s Kingdom. Honestly, we all are in the same boat together in this world.
Fear of Losing Our Place
We all show up to the party of God’s grace equally. We all have backpacks filled with spiritual and emotional junk, hidden sin, and the things we don’t wish others to know about. Even the socialite, royals of Downton Abbey, despite such sophisticated ways, show up to God’s grace-filled dinner party with their fears and uncertainties of where their place at God’s table stood. For instance, The Earl of Grantham had an emotional affair with a house maiden, and his wife Lady Grantham, a wealthy American, also had an emotional fling with another man. Daughter Lady Mary had a premarital tryst with a weekend visitor to the estate. Daughter Lady Edith gave birth to a child out of wedlock. Daughter Lady Sibil married a commoner Irishman Tom Branson.
Despite the outer appearances, the fine upstanding Crawley’s had their own issues, family secrets, and sin-filled lives and yet, they shared a common table where God’s grace flowed abundantly and equally upon all, despite the inequitable lives they led. We, like the Crawleys, put on masks that hide the broken lives that we each lead, and maybe that is why we think we have to jockey for positions of honor. Could it be that we are afraid of losing our place at the table of grace? I wonder if the reason we strive for social status, economic acquisition, honorable accolades, and power-wielding influence is because somewhere in the recesses of our hearts, those areas of fear, none of us are willing to let other see, we find that we are truly afraid of loss. We are afraid of being stripped bare of what hides the reality of our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
Humility: Secure in God
We live in fear and we create structures of imbalance to protect our place and yet, God promises, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” If we recognize that in our vulnerability and humanity that we are able to discover our true place of honor at God’s table, what then do we have to fear.
“When our security and identity rest in God, it is LESSdifficult to choose the way of humility.” (2) Our identity in the Kingdom of God is not reliant on a title: Earl, Duke, professor, priest, doctor, business executive, wealthy entrepreneur, teacher, etc. etc. Our identity and place at God’s table is based on the only title that matters, “Child of God.” As written in Sirach, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord.” We must abandon pride and choose humility, so we can find confidence in our place at God’s table.
Nothing else matters, not bank account, the car we drive, the designer clothes we wear, the brand of wine we drink, nor the status we carry in the community. We can be secure in our place at God’s abundant table of grace, when we can accept God’s place and the place of our neighbor at the table of hospitality of our very lives. When we find our relationship to God and each other on the right footing, we find security in our place at the table. Our Table/Your Table/God’s Table
When Terri and I worked with the homeless in Fort Myers years ago, we shared a life changing experience of sitting at the table and sharing a meal with people, who really were no different from us and yet, they lived each day in absolute poverty. Somehow over that meal the walls of division fall and you discover a sister or brother there with you. You begin to see that we all are on the same level of God’s Kingdom, and all that stands between those at the table together are mere fleshly economic, circumstantial, and social imbalances of culture.
Do not get me wrong I am not putting out there a radical economic system change where there is no reward for hard work. What I am saying is that God’s Kingdom is so abundant, God’s creation produces so abundantly, and the grace each of us carries is so abundant, that we Christians must in our daily lives, strive to tilt the scales in favor of those who are without, who are forgotten, and who live each day in fear, destitution, and injustice. I bet God’s Kingdom tilts the scales that way.
Jesus said, “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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” I believe Jesus is teaching us about a whole lot more than just our little social dinner parties. He is instructing his followers to remember that every moment of our lives is an opportunity for us to show radical hospitality Jesus style. We are called to serve the least, lost, and lonely with a grace that has been poured out to us so freely and abundantly.
When our security is found in God, in Jesus who is “the same yesterday and today and forever,” we can deal with the unpredictability and the risks of seeking righteousness. We can show hospitality to needy strangers, spend time with prisoners and share our resources with the poor because God has promised never to forsake us.” (2) We must remove our Downton Abbey titles, our fear induced masks of false identity, and stop “worrying about position and recognition, which will keep us susceptible to the latest version of status-seeking and a fear of losing our place.”(2) The place of honor set aside for each of us awaits, and at this table all gather on the same level. So come, leave behind those things that bring about fear, set aside those things you want to hide, take off those masks that you no longer want to wear. Come and join the great feast of our Lord where the “first shall be last, and the last, shall be first.”
(1) Conder, Tim. “Table Manners.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 17, Aug. 2007, p. 18.
(2) Pohl, Christine D. “Risky Business.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 23, Aug. 2001, p. 16