“Manners make the man” – or do they?

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on August 28, 2016, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 15/Proper 17).

Collect: Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Sirach 10:12-18, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

“Manners make the man,” or so they used to say. But manners have gotten a bad rap lately. They’ve fallen out of fashion in favor of “the honest truth” — by which we usually mean raw opinion, unfiltered by any kind of consideration or restraint. We don’t like manners because we don’t know if we can trust them. So often they are merely a pleasant veneer over an ugly core, or an elegant mask covering malicious intent. It is a truism of contemporary society that manners don’t matter: all things considered we’d rather have the unfiltered version, the director’s cut, uncensored. Maybe that will render us unfit for polite society, but then maybe polite society should just go fly a kite.

It’s a little bit troubling, then, that in today’s Gospel Jesus seems intent on teaching a lesson in manners. No matter your own personal rank or desert, when you are invited to a dinner party, take the lowest place. Yield to those who may be beneath you. Have some manners! If your host sees fit to raise you higher, then so be it. If they don’t, then don’t sweat it.

This has to be one of the most practical lessons Jesus ever taught. “You are the salt of the earth” can be hard to figure out; how do we do that? But “take the least honorable place at a dinner party” is pretty straightforward. And every one of us, at one moment or another, on a large scale or small, will have opportunity to practice this lesson.

“But there’s just one thing, Jesus,” we can hear the Pharisees saying. “What if we actually are the most honorable personage present at a particular gathering? Shouldn’t we by right take the place that belongs to us? Anything less would lower my own dignity; and even if I could surrender my own dignity, I must certainly look after the dignity of my office (whatever that might be.). No Jesus I’m sorry, I really ought to be the one sitting at your right hand at this dinner; I really ought to be the one honored here. And if I know I’m the most honorable present, then what good does it do to put myself in the lowest spot starting off? Doesn’t that call even more attention to myself when you inevitably ask me to sit up higher? No it really is best if I take the best spot to begin with, less trouble that way all around, really it is.”

The Pharisees in today’s Gospel seem to have taken a page out of our own 21st century book. They have no time for niceties, no time for manners. They insist on the honest truth, and getting on with the facts of social stratification as they know and live them. But Jesus insists, to them and to us, that there is another way, a better way.  

Manners: in this episode, Jesus sums up the whole project of manners in a word: yield the right of way to someone else, even and especially when you know it belongs to you, whether or not you’re feeling particularly generous. Jesus teaches us this morning that manners mean yielding the right of way to someone else, even and especially when you know it belongs to you, whether or not you’re feeling particularly generous.

Why? Why bother? Why does Jesus ask this of us? Doesn’t it mean, on occasion, that we will have to be less than truthful about how we’re actually feeling towards our neighbors or our fellow dinner guests? Yes, that’s exactly what it means. How does that square with the Gospel? Aren’t we always supposed to be truthful? At the very least, manners allow that our moral accountability rests in a higher law, a higher condition, a higher promise, than the sum total of our feelings at any given moment. Manners, together with its cousin Courtesy, assert that there is a higher world above this one, which it is our privilege to imitate on earth, and our chief hope finally one day to enter and dwell there.

A higher world: the kingdom of heaven — in which no one takes what is not first given freely, no one claims what is not first offered without cost, and the discipline of virtue does not limit our horizons but expands them continuously until we are brought face to face with the Sun of Righteousness himself, Jesus Christ, who surrendered all the trappings and deserving of divinity itself in order to seek and serve you and me. Manners belong to this higher world, and no matter how they might be abused or manipulated, their sheer existence bears witness to that heavenly kingdom.

What if we don’t feel like exercising virtue, or yielding right of way to those who might be clearly in the wrong? By behaving as if we did, we remind ourselves of this higher world, whose prince laid aside far more right, far more honor than we will ever earn no matter how high a place we reach. Furthermore, by behaving with manners, even in direct contradiction to our prevailing attitude or desire, we make small steps towards that world in which we will actually love and desire the Good above our own flawed self-interest.

I’ll never forget a sermon I heard in seminary, in which one of our crustiest and most lovable professors finally snapped a bit at our class. The year was dragging on and we were starting to feel tired, and maybe even a little bit sorry for ourselves about all the work we still had to do. He said, “I don’t care if you’re tired, I don’t care if you feel like it. I’ve heard one too many times that you all think you need “selfcare” more than you need to show up in church and pray. You don’t feel like it? So what? Fake it! Get on your damn knees, and fake it.”

It was a scolding, and a scolding we deserved, no doubt. But he made a very good, very Christian point: fake it! Your feelings are not the final arbiter of truth. In fact, they are the least reliable arbiter of truth out there. Faking it, in spite of our feelings, according the higher standard of the kingdom of God, is a lot more truthful than whatever unpleasant venom you might want to spit just now. Faking our way into the kingdom of heaven, is much more reliable than waiting for our feelings to change or for some kind of sudden, transformative religious experience.

When it comes to manners and our moral and ethical behavior, the same holds true. If you wait for your feelings to change before acting according to Christian conviction, you’ll be waiting a long time. Rather, start now, by giving way to those you think are lower than you, giving way to those you think are in the wrong. Take the lowest place yourself. The Son of God did no less, and quite a bit more, taking the form not even of a guest, though he was the host, but a servant. He did not take the form of vassal, though he was the King of all, but rather that of a criminal condemned to die. He did not claim his own righteousness or innocence before Pilate, Herod, the crowds, or anyone else, but suffered misunderstanding and death.  

His was an ignominious life, full of dishonor and injustice, which he could easily have avoided had he only spoken and acted according to his true status as the king of kings and lord of lords. And yet he didn’t. So great was Jesus’ courtesy, so genuine were his humble manners, that he suffered death rather than correct his accusers or prove his innocence. And what was the result? That the power of death is destroyed for ever; you and I are freed from the the bondage of sin; and we are made citizens of His kingdom forever.

No, manners really do make the man, even if they will never vindicate him before the world this side of death. Whether or not we feel particularly inclined, let us likewise exercise gentleness with one another, not claiming our due but giving it away at every occasion. Let us fake it if we have to, having confidence that our actions will speak louder than our feelings. So may we find that our feelings start following our wills rather than the other way around. So may we finally be fit for the place Jesus reserves for us at the table in his heavenly home.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.