The Feast: Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

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Some weeks, a sermon comes together in a way that feels effortless, like it was simply waiting to write itself out of me.  Other weeks, it is harder than pulling teeth.  And then, there are times, and this was one of them, when preparing a sermon becomes an invitation to follow a path with absolutely no idea where I am going.  I finished reading the Gospel assigned for today early in the week.  The question that I was left with was, “what banquet would I want to be invited to as the honored guest?

I’ll freely admit that I am a shameless fan of Michelle Obama’s sense of style—I imagined a state dinner at the White House.  But I also imagined the banquet given annually in the Stockholm City Hall in honor of Nobel Prize winners—pretty cool to sit at the right hand of the King of Sweden after winning the coveted Nobel Prize, huh?  I would want to win the prize for literature and that made my mind wander away to the realization that I would love to be invited to the home of one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver or, if he were still alive, Pablo Neruda. To sit next to either one of them—what a mind-blowing honor.  And I would also love to be invited to Rowan Williams’ house.  Rowan Williams is the recently retired archbishop of Canterbury.  He made a mess of it in the Anglican Communion in many ways and he also combines the most amazing intellect with a profound spirituality.  To sit next to him, drinking a cup of tea and talking?  Breath-taking to consider

But because the mind—or at least mine can be so fickle and shallow, I veered back from the sublime to something quite trite.  Some people I know, more than acquaintances but less than friends, have a pretty amazing yacht they keep in the Caribbean except when their crew takes it to Cape Cod.  Not half shabby to sit at that table as an honored guest—for a whole lot of meals, as a matter of fact!

And then, somehow, as if my mind had simply gone shallow to try to go deep again, I realized I’d taken another unexpected shift.  The longer I reflected on whose table I’d like to sit at, the clearer it became that my desire is not to rub elbows with the rich and famous and especially not to get to sit at the place of honor in a party that is solely intended for those who want to see and be seen. My heart’s yearnings, it turns out, are different.  My younger brother and I have had a very strained relationship almost all our adult lives.  I would give anything to get to have a meal with him, his wife and daughter in their home, a meal with us reconciled to each other and able to stop walking on pins and needles, able to let go of carefully parsing our words and measuring each other’s reactions, in a state of red alert, ready to get defensive at the drop of a hat.

I could not think of that meal without imagining one that included my mom.  Or my dear friend Michael who died way too soon and before I could say good bye. There’s a fairly long list of people now who are no longer with us who would make the feast complete for me.  The gospel promises a banquet like that but if that promise is true, this is not a feast I will be invited to in the kind of time I know and live in.

Today’s Gospel tells us about the kinds of banquets we get glimpses of in the gossip rags and society pages of the newspaper.  Almost all the meals Jesus attended were distinctly different—they happened on the beach, or on the go, or around a camp fire.  I am convinced they are the meals that we are all invited to, still.

About 6 years ago, two of Sherod’s and my dearest friends, Mike and Mary, came to visit from Indiana.  El Centro was brand new.  We were using one bay in that little strip mall next to the Wings place on Davie—we were proud of our little chapel because there was such beauty in its ugliness.  We had hung a lovely cross from the ceiling with fishing line. For services on Saturday evening, we had the altar that’s here against the back wall now, close to the statue of Guadalupe.  We would sit in the white folding chairs that now grace the Parish Hall.  On Monday nights, we would reconfigure the chairs around a folding table and we’d have dinner together.  That particular Monday, I prepared my Lentejitas—a pot of lentils prepared in the simple, country style of Colombia—you serve it with rice and fried plantain.  Sherod, Mike and Mary joined us for that dinner.  Diana, Jaime and Angel were there.  So were about 5-6 other young people who helped start el Centro.

One of the joys of a storefront ministry on a busy street is you fling your doors wide to everyone.  There were a handful of men who basically lived on the streets close to us, all of them struggling with addictions—to drugs, to alcohol.  They were dirty and smelly and they made us all uneasy, but we could all see that coming in to join us for the liturgy or for dinner meant something really good for them. We simply could not close the door on them.  I am pretty sure that that night, Jorge, who had lost an eye, came staggering in and joined the party.  We laughed and talked and kept each other company late into the evening,  a small community of people struggling to get through to the next day who had stopped to eat a meal, literally at the foot of the cross.

I had a similar experience here at St Ambrose one Friday when I showed up to work on my day off.  The “Friday Lunch Bunch” was here, gathered at one of the round tables at the parish hall.  I think that is one of the hallmarks of the heavenly banquet—if there’s a table, it will be round, with no head or foot, just folks, gathered in a circle where the Holy Spirit can move easily.  That Friday, J was being her tart and sassy self.  ML had something she needed to fuss at me about—she does that you know; I need her to keep on the straight and narrow.  J and the brothers were there too and one of them dug around in his bag from Wendy’s and insisted I share a slightly mashed up chicken sandwich with him. We laughed, because you always laugh with the Lunch Bunch.  They had a really arcane question about their current Bible study that sent me scrambling to dig out old seminary text books.  M shared how G, her beloved husband had taken another bad turn under the dreaded shadow of advancing dementia.

I had a sense of belonging and belonging as myself without pretensions.  There was a place for us all at that table and  no one had to demonstrate how smart, rich, capable or above average they were.  I swear, as I blinked, or maybe it was out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young man sitting with us.

As I know life today, I will not get to partake in the heavenly banquet.  But I get foretastes—glimpses.  To be a community of faith means that we get to have lots of parties like these—not just around the altar every Sunday, but when we gather in fellowship.  In these circles of laughter, hope, and companionship, the Spirit of love moves among us, blesses us, builds us up, stretches and pushes and opens us, who are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, to do the work we have been entrusted with for the sake of the reign of God.

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