September 1, 2019 Sermon
"The Protocol of Protocol"
Old Testament Scripture: Jeremiah 2:4-13
Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, "Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?"
I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, "Where is the LORD?" Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore once more I accuse you, says the LORD, and I accuse your children's children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
New Testament Scripture: Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place', and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
He said also to the one who had invited him, "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."
Sermon: "The Protocol of Protocol"
Protocol. I’m no good at Protocol. Protocol is the formal system of etiquette that governs behavior between people who have no relationship, and I’m just terrible at things like etiquette, formality, that sort of thing.
The word protocol, of course, is derived from the Greek words, 'protos' which means 'first' and 'kol' which means 'glue' or 'paste' or 'connection'. In other words, you know, English words, it refers to those things, those needful actions, which bind two objects that up to this point have had no mutual frame of reference.
And I’m really bad at it. There have been too many times to count when I’ve found myself in a very formal situation, and in my attempts to play it cool, I instead played the fool, and did or said something so stupid that I’m still embarrassed about it.
I was, and am, a natural when it comes to being a gigantic doofus when required to observe very formal customs or procedures. I don't know if there is something within me that is simply broken, or is deliberately sabotaging me, but, I can never seem to get it right.
I just don't get protocol.
So maybe that’s why I appreciate the advice that Jesus is giving these folks in today's scripture. It's sort of like "Dinner party seating arrangements for dummies."
It's for people who have a knack for being idiots around VIP's. It's a handy guide to sitting down in the correct chair, when you don't know what the correct chair is. Just take the lowest ranking place, Jesus says, and wait to be invited up the social ladder. That way you avoid being embarrassed in front of everybody. Good advice.
And this sort of advice was really pretty important in Jesus’ time. The story in today's passage reminds us that Jesus lived during the Roman occupation of Palestine, and that even the Jews followed Roman customs for showing proper honor to dinner guests. It was common for hosts of that era to invite important figures in the community to dinner, I guess like folks still do today, I wouldn’t know. The dinner party was judged to be a success if the guests were a diverse group of government officials, religious figures, philosophers, academics, and businessmen.
Actually, it was an honor that Jesus, an itinerant preacher from the sticks of Galilee, was even present at this particular party. The host must have wanted something from Jesus. I wonder what that was? Jesus had no connections to plug him into. Jesus had no business contacts. Jesus was not a part of the governing bureaucracy, or of the religious leadership. What did this pharisee want from Jesus?
Or maybe, he was trying to convince Jesus of something. Was he trying to convince Jesus of the pharisee's own importance? Of his own standing in the community? Was he trying to impress Jesus with his collection of the hoi-polloi in his house, subtly reminding Jesus of his influence and power?
We can never know the circumstances of why Jesus was invited to this dinner, but in any case, this was an important meal. Jesus was under a microscope. His every action was being scrutinized, his every word discussed, dissected, debated. There was a great deal of pressure on Jesus to perform, and to perform gracefully.
Now, if it had been me, I can guarantee that I would have committed a social lapse of catastrophic proportions. I see myself sitting in the wrong chair, then suffering the indignity of needing to move to a position of lesser honor, then standing up and overturning the table, sending matzo balls and Mogen David right down the neckline of the mayor's wife's toga. Yes, it's pretty clear how I would've handled this test of etiquette.
But how does Jesus handle it? What is Jesus' response to the social niceties and protocols demanded by this meal?
Well, it's interesting. Jesus actually affirms the practice of showing honor to people. He doesn't condemn the idea of a place of respect, which surprises me. I suppose I would have expected Jesus to be a bit more egalitarian, and a bit less, um what's the word, tactful in his response. But he isn't. He holds the idea of granting honor and respect in pretty high regard.
It's the idea that we are entitled to respect, or are in a position to demand honor that he destroys.
He begins dismantling this attitude by mocking those who would have to be re-seated if they sat in the wrong spot. How humiliating it would be if a person assumed that they were deserving of the honored chair, but then were asked to leave. In front of all these people, no less.
Remember, these folks aren't sitting around a dining room table with the sort of upright chairs that we are used to in today's households. They're lounging, on cushions and pillows, eating food from large platters that were just inches off the ground. It would be quite the embarrassing process for a person who had just settled in for the meal to have to get up and walk across and around all of the various spread out legs, bodies, feet, plates, bowls, glasses, pets, etc.
Jesus reminds the guests that this shameful fate awaits anyone who assumes too much about their importance, and he gently encourages them to think about their stature in a more humble fashion.
But then he sticks in the knife.
He turns to the host, and questions his reasons for inviting these particular guests: What does he have to gain from them? Isn't he showing hospitality simply to get something in return? Doesn't everybody know the game here? You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours. We know the score.
But this is not hospitality! This is a business transaction, and nothing more. There is no relationship, no connection, no sacrificial giving on the part of the host, rather, there is the expectation of a return on his investment. Far from showing honor to his guests, he is treating them like stocks and bonds, financial instruments promising a healthy yield, if treated with the right kind of respect.
Hardly a friendly get-together. Hence the protocols.
And now, having revealed the host's intentions for the party, he turns again to the guests, and defines for them what true hospitality, honor and respect might look like.
You see, if the host had really wanted to show genuine, heartfelt hospitality, a hospitality that reaches out with no expectation of return, he wouldn't have even singled out these particular guests for an invitation. The host would have chosen the poor, the lame, the blind, the hungry for this meal.
In essence, Jesus tells the guests at the party that they are not in any way worthy of the honor the the host is showing them, with their complicated systems of protocol and etiquette. In fact, they are not even worthy of being at the party.
And, oh, this is a hard word. This is a word that not many of us are ready to hear. No one wants to hear that they are not deserving of the honor, the respect that they have earned. We are not ready to hear that those who are on the margins of society, the poor, the homeless, the dependent, are more welcome at the banquet table than the upright, the wealthy, the self-sufficient.
This perhaps is the hardest word that Jesus speaks in the Bible.
It's this word that gets him killed.
Jesus was not tortured because he went around telling folks that they should just love each other. Jesus was not put on the cross because he was an excellent teacher. He was not crucified simply because he wanted everybody to get along.
He ended up up on Calvary because he turned the social customs of this world upside down. His life and death and resurrection call into question our every assumption about power, respect, dignity, and honor. His words subvert our understanding of how the world works, and his authority speaks to us from beyond the status quo, from above the power of kings and political ideologies.
And we don't want to hear this word. We really don't. We don't want to be moved from our seats of honor. We can't fathom what it would mean to give up our positions of respect. Especially to give them up to people who are so obviously below us in stature.
How can Jesus expect this of us? Does he not know who we are, what we've accomplished? Does he not care about how we've lived our lives? What is the payoff, if we're not even invited to the party? Does Jesus not know the protocol? Isn't he aware of how the game is played?
But, you know, I think he is aware. I think he knows perfectly well the rules of the game.
He just thinks that we ought to be playing a different game. With different stakes, with different rules, and a different pay-off.
He is showing us the protocol of a different kingdom.
And this protocol asks us to give up our seat for others. Whether it's a seat of tradition, or privilege, or class, or political power, he's telling us to move over. Let others sit in the front of the bus. Let others have a seat at the table. Give them some room to eat. Let their ideas enter the dialogue.
This protocol doesn't recognize the hard work of the rich, the powerful, the well-educated. It doesn't reward hard work or rugged individuality. It doesn't give a fig for reputation, success, or achievement.
It's a protocol that is entirely strange to us, foreign, hard to understand. We could spend years trying to wrap our minds around it, and not fully comprehend the ramifications it might have for our lives.
But it's the protocol that Jesus is suggesting for us.
This is the sort of protocol that caused riots in the south during the 60s. This is the sort of protocol that caused civil war in South Africa. This is the sort of protocol that got Martin Luther King assassinated, that Mahatma Ghandi felt was worth starving for, the sort of protocol that imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 27 years.
This is an uncomfortable and dangerous protocol. But those who are willing to embrace it are blessed. In fact, I have it on good authority that those who are willing to give up their seat for someone else will be exalted, they will be lifted up, they will be honored by God.
And this isn't something that the guests in today's story were able to do. You see, they hung on to their seats. They hung on to their traditions, to their places of honor. They were not willing to engage a new protocol, one that challenged their sense of importance or entitlement. And that's a shame, really.
Because it's a gift to be able to move, to be able to give up one's claim for respect and honor. And the reward is worth the effort. God promises us that we will be exalted if we give up our place.
And after all, the table is certainly big enough to accommodate everyone, there is enough food for all, and the host is always inviting more and more people to the feast.
The question is, are we will willing to move over and make room?
Thanks be to God.