Southern Etiquette

Southern Etiquette

Luke 14.1, 7-14

A friend of mine has a mixed marriage. She is from here in Kentucky and she married a man from Wisconsin. I know – I know, I warned them. It is a mixed culture marriage and while I am all for diversity, it has caused a lot of problems through the years. While she loves her in-laws, she really does, – they are Midwesterners through and through. They don’t know how to cook without cream of mushroom soup and crackers. They talk through their noses and it is difficult to understand them. And they just know nothing about hospitality. People can say what they want against the south but we know hospitality, we know etiquette, we know manners. After driving 12 hours the day after Christmas to WI, my friend arrived with her family to the in-laws house to discover that they had not been to the store in a week and there was nothing to eat. There was no pitcher of iced tea on the table, there were no finger sandwiches or pieces of fruit for them, and there was no tray of cookies. If they wanted to eat, they would have to get back in the car and go to a restaurant. That would never happen in Kentucky. We have southern hospitality.

I love the fact that I have grown up in the south. For those of you who did not, I am sorry – but you are just going to have to let it go – there is nothing we can do about it now. There are so many things to love about the south – the beauty, excellent food, and the fact that people talk slowly and we can understand each other. And in the south we have manners. Sometimes when I travel outside of the south, I forget that not everyone has manners or is friendly. When I smile and say “hello” to people on the street, they look at me like I am a freak and want to rob them. And heaven forbid if you need to ask someone for directions.

Etiquette is important, it helps everyone know how to act and what to expect. I once taught a summer etiquette course for children at what was then, Lexington Community College. Those kids were pleased as punch, I tell you, to be in an etiquette class while all their friends were swimming at the pool or riding their bikes. They did not appreciate the lessons as children, but I bet as adults, they are so glad they know which fork to use and how to act a social functions.  While John-Mark and I did not send our children to etiquette school, we did threaten to a few times. What children and teenagers (and some adults) need to understand is that following the rules of etiquette actually makes you life nicer – people want to be your friends, teachers believe you when you say your dog at your homework, and employers want to hire you.

My friend Lisa answered the phone last week to a neighbor in distress. Her garage door was off its track and she could not get her car out of the garage to pick up her kids from school. Lisa loaned her a car. Lisa’s husband went to try to fix the garage door and Lisa offered to babysit the neighbor’s children. Southern Hospitality is what that it. But when the children seemed to be tearing up house because of youthful energy, Lisa said, “children, it is a beautiful day, please get on your shoes, we are going to move our playtime outside.”— I want you to know those children looked at her in the eyes and said, “No.” Lisa left the room for a minute because she does not know these children. After some prayer and deep breaths, Lisa got the kids outside. When her neighbor arrived to pick up the children after Lisa’s husband had fixed the garage door, the little boy walked up to Lisa carrying a not-yet-ripe tomato from her garden. He held up the tomato to Lisa and in front of his mother said, “I ought to smash this in your face.” That family is not from here or anywhere in the south and you can tell. That child will not be invited to Lisa’s house again. His teacher will not believe him when he tells her his dog ate his homework and he will probably have to live with his parents for the rest of his life because no one will hire him with an attitude like that. He needs some manners, that young man.

In the Gospel of Luke, it is the Sabbath again. We know that there is going to be trouble because this is the fourth Sabbath controversy (Luke 6.1;  6.6; 13.10). It’s no wonder that they “were watching him closely.” The first time, Jesus and the Disciples were walking through a field on the Sabbath and picked some heads of wheat and ate them. Evidently, that constituted work. The second time Jesus healed a man with a withered hand. The third time was last week’s text: Jesus healed the woman who had been bent over for 18 years. So, on this Sabbath, they are watching Jesus closely. That is probably why the Pharisee invited Jesus over in the first place, to keep an eye on him. But when Jesus arrives for the Sabbath dinner, it is like a Southerner arriving for a dinner party at my friend’s in-laws house, they had no etiquette, the other guests were acting like they had been raised in a barn. —

In the south, you never visit someone’s home without being offered a glass of iced tea and something to eat. We say please and thank you and yes ma’am and no sir. Younger people stand and offer their seat when someone older arrives. People include new comers into the conversation, letting them know the topic so they are not lost, men open doors, take off hats and walk on the street side of the sidewalk.

In the south we are polite in our conversation, not loud and brash. We shake hands and introduce each other. We put our napkins in our laps, do not slurp our drinks, chew with our mouths closed and start with the forks and spoons furthest away from the plate.

This is one text to which we Southerners can relate. If the mother’s of the men in this story were from the south and observed their behavior, you can bet they would have something to say: Take off your hat, say please and thank you, compliment the hostess, keep your voice down, walk gently, stand up straight, shake hands, take a hostess gift, offer your seat to late comers and send a thank you note.

Food and mealtime is important to southern families. Even if it is only a simple meal of soup and sandwiches, we gather at the table as a family, give thanks to God and eat together. We eat, what is now called, “family style” where serving dishes are placed on the table and passed. Other eating styles are “cafeteria style,” where people make their own plates from the stove or “Mom style,” where the mother makes each person’s plate for them. The dinner table is a place that children learn and we all practice etiquette. Only take a little the first time around to make sure there is enough for everyone. Don’t let your eyes be bigger than your stomach. Say please and thank you, ask to be excused from the table, compliment the cook and say nothing if you do not like a food. It is where we learn to keep our voices down, to take turns in conversation, to not interrupt, to listen and ask questions. The dinner table is where we learn to put our napkins on our laps, to not slurp our drinks or our soup, to keep our elbows off the table and to cut our food with a knife – not eat like a savage.

In the south, when most families sit down to eat dinner, the father sits at a place of honor at the end of the table and the mother sits at the other end. When guests come to dinner, they wait to be told where they should sit. Some dinner parties have place cards at the seats with names on them. At a very large dinner party that John-Mark and I attended in Louisville, we each drew a card from a basket which had our table assignment on it. But at smaller dinner parties, the host will say, “sit anywhere you like.” — But humble guests never choose the ends of the table.

I assume that for the average family in Jesus’ time, regular meals at home were not as formal as banquets. But for more formal meals, everyone would recline on benches with cushions around a low table and honored guests were offered the best seats.  Just like here in Kentucky, if you were seated at the table and a someone else arrived late, you would get up and offer your seat, especially if that person was older or in some way prominent.

The Sabbath begins Friday evening with a meal. The Pharisee invited friends to a Shabbat meal of bread and olive oil, fish, soup, vegetables and fruits. Their seats would have been benches with cushions at a low table. But as they arrived, Jesus noticed that some of the guests had not grown up with southern etiquette. They did not say, “where would you like me to sit?” They were sitting at the equivalent of the head of the table. So Jesus reminded them of the words of Exodus 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.” He reminds them of the Proverbs passage through a parable and then summed it up with this, now famous, quote: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This is the basis for Southern hospitality. We live in the Bible belt were Scriptures are traditionally the basis of our lives and are definitely the basis of our rules of etiquette – humility is the foundation of all those rules, those rules that for some young people, seem silly. It is humble to take off your hat, to open the door for another person, to stand when someone enters the room, and to sit in the least desirable place at the table, those who humble themselves will be exalted.

But then Jesus continues. He just can’t leave well enough alone. It is not enough to sit in the humble seat when we are the guests. He goes on to say, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors…invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”—

The one who was born in a stable because there was “no place for them in the inn” reminds us that God exalts the humble, God lifts up the lowly to the place of royalty.

The one, who sat at the table, for fellowship, for instructing, and for remembering, uses the table (again) as a metaphor for God’s kingdom, a place of INCLUSION not exclusion.

The one who touched the lepers, forgave sins, healed the rich and the poor and included women and children, beggars and Samaritans in his circle asks us to do the same.

The one who ate with sinners and tax collectors asks us to eat with them as well.

The one who made manifest all his teachings, his life and his ministry, when he died on a cross between two criminals, commands us to simply invite the people who cannot repay us to our luncheons, our dinner parties and our banquets. That my friends is where Southern Hospitality becomes Christian Hospitality.