Sunday, June 13, 2010

Meals and Eucharist, Debs too!

I want to talk about some meals and the Eucharist today.

In 1986 when I finished a year as a youth minister in a small town in Northern California, I  was invited by a local doctor and his artist wife to a posh private club for dinner. It was all quite grand: their Cadillac was whisked away by the parking attendant, we were led through marble halls and seated in the main dining room with great ceremony, the menus were huge and handed over with suitable flourishes, there was lots of very french-sounding food: but the conversation was forced, and at one point after a long pause, the wife said, “Aren’t we having fun?” And we weren’t! It was what kids used to call play-acting, The conversation and the company neither reached the ground nor came to life. And we lost touch not long after that. Meal number one.

Number Two was about 5 years ago on trip to San Francisco when I took a new friend to meet two old friends who have been together for over 20 years, had recently bought a new house and always provided easy simple and brilliant meals with conversation to match. But something was wrong here. The talk turned in strange directions, there were odd pauses, and finally, when they both left the room I turned to my friend and said, “What’s going on, there’s something happening here and I don’t know what it is!” When they came back they apologized and let us know that we had walked into the end of a major argument There was a bit of a pause there, but then the meal turned into a pretty good time with good company and I admired both their honesty and their willingness to let us into the inner workings of a long term marriage that has endured. They will likely see this sermon on Facebook and I hope to see them when I visit San Francisco in 2012.

The third meal never happened. I was on an afternoon off from campus ministry at the University of San Francisco and went into my favorite cheap Mexican restaurant for a good burrito followed by a wander through a good used bookstore and then a walk down Market Street towards the Embarcadero. Then I had a pain. Two words here: Kidney Stones. In 15 minutes I was on Market Street trying to get a taxicab and realizing I had to sit down on the sidewalk because I couldn’t stand with the pain. And when I did I became invisible: I was a large man sitting where I shouldn’t and making distressing noises I shouldn’t make and I was going nowhere in the middle of the path and people were going on their way, giving me more than enough space and looking elsewhere. The short end of story is that I got a cab and went to the emergency room of a hospital where some very kindly and professional people took me in hand, injected me with some great pain medicine, gave me lots of water, and the crisis and the pain passed with no further crisis.

Finally, the St Luke’s Debutante Ball and Supper in your Town Hall on Friday night was wonderful! I told someone that, as the official representatives I felt a bit like Anne and I were playing Camilla and Charles, but I’ll admit there was more. I felt a little like Jesus Christ! The privilege of witnessing so much love in the room. These kids were so nervous, taking it so seriously, you could see it in their brows, the way they moved, their lips pursed together in recollection and action: and they were so beautiful, and when they got to us we all nodded and said good things and smiled - with the parents and families and noisy boys yelling and all of us rightfully proud to be together in this moment of meeting and celebration. I will never forget last Friday night.

So let those four meetings be background music to the Gospel, this curious meal, with people making social conversation a bit over the top and the stranger, the crisis, the tension that’s always on the other side of town or the sidewalk sneaking into the scene. A medieval painting shows  the woman under the table, almost unseen, overlooked, unspoken, unwelcome, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiping them with her hair. Above daily life goes on, table conversation proceeds, social conventions observed; but underneath, secret stories are told, strange necessities disclosed, wrong roads are rited, returning children welcomed, sins forgiven, life begins again. “Aren’t we having fun?” Well, yes, but so much more than fun. For holiness and healing are happening here and we so often overlook it.

Twenty years of tertiary chaplaincy left me with some odd images for what the Kingdom of God, God’s reign, is about, and what we are doing here: but you have to meet people where they are and sometimes the strangest images can carry the most punch. So let me tell you about the giant cosmic pizza (and it works best if you visualize us meeting in a circle). We come together here, we came together Friday night,  all those kids,  all of us, like little pieces of pizza on a pan meeting in the center: all our individual histories spreading out widening out, like witnesses behind us, the people who put us forward, people who  stand behind us, the moments that made us who we are, the good and bad choices that continue to this moment, the effects that continue, must be endured, all spread out behind us like mountains of sausages, piles of cheese, mushrooms and capsicum, whatever, and here’s where it gets even stranger!

All that stuff behind us is the past, the social graces, the wreckage of an old argument, the pain that’s getting worse, the glorious evening, but the future is coming too (and here’s where the image must break apart too); for what comes is the unimaginable future with unknown pains, new pleasures, forgiveness and renewal, grace and gut-wrenching glory. Remember those beautiful children Friday night, see them with their horizons stretching so far into the future. All that must be accepted, moved towards, endured, given thanks for. And these of us further on the way, facing the same, promises and pains and mystery, to be met in our travels, with that same face of grace, not Camilla and Charles, but Jesus Christ, who takes our incomplete journeys and bows to accompany us into his unfinished pilgrimage,that big and god-given future, where we too struggle to get the steps right, make the turns correctly, remember the music, keep with the rhythm, taking it with all the seriousness and the proper joy we know it deserves.

I like being here because this is a congregation that knows how to worship; and I see this is not only on Sunday morning but on Friday night and other times as well: to show up to worship and witness, to show how much it matters, how much there is to gain, how much there is to lose. It is hard work to make this ministry, these meetings happen: the dance given shape, the meal shared, to provides places for people to remember how high are our hopes, how wide our world, how good God’s grace.  As Philip Larkin writes at the end of his 1950s poem, Church Going”

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

I think that’s what Friday night and Sunday morning are about, and every other day too. We come here, in the midst of the living and the dying and so much more, to take the world more gracefully and more seriously, to recognize and robe up for our deepest destiny: to try great things, to stand in the middle of all the history and hope, all the pains and pretense and pleasure and  to recall, forgive, renew; to love the world in all its life,to dance with it all, as the friends and followers of the great lover, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to whom we give glory now and forever.  Amen.

Monday, June 07, 2010

St Augustine's Patron Day 6 June 2010

In the late sixth century, on their way from Rome to the wilds of Britain, Augustine and his companions paused on the way, lost their nerve a bit, and wanted very badly to turn back. then with the encouragement (and maybe more) of Gregory their Bishop of Rome, Augustine and his company of not very nervy missionaries and evangelists, they went on to arrive at Canterbury in 597 and stayed  to recall and reform and renew the English church from that time on.

But they started small, with some fear and trembling, some shakes on the way, and that gives me hope. Because Augustine’s call as a minister of Christ is so like ours, even though 1400 years separate us. It is found in today’s Gospel: a charge with four very basic facets: you look for welcome, you eat what you’re given, you cure the sick, and you say, “the kingdom of God has come near to you”.   The good news is that a very rich and satisfying ministry is found in welcoming, sharing nourishment, in the work of healing, and in proclaiming God’s good news. It Is a very big call, but we can do it, in fact we must do it, in very small ways.

Here’s my working answer on how.

First, you look for welcome by being a person of thanksgiving and mercy - and this can happen by getting two simple habits.
First, say thank you to God at least twenty times a day. Now that may sound simple, but it isn’t easy. Sometimes it feels uphill, but when I leave my home, walk out the door, I start giving some thanks; for the people walking or driving by, for fresh air, green trees,  small birds singing in the shrubbery and passing parrots proclaiming their own kind of Pentecost. And slowly or suddenly I begin to see again that, “the world is charged with the Glory of God”. It almost always works before I get to ten! And I recommend it as a spiritual practice for every occasion.

It is not too difficult: you can make it a kind of fireworks prayer ascending to heaven in thanksgiving for wiggling toes, hot water in the shower, good coffee, breakfast; fire up some thanks for friends, family, passing strangers, all through the day, from morning to night. Allow yourself to give thanks for every new facet of creation that catches your eye as a very helpful habit.

Then, to balance it, ask for mercy: say, “I’m sorry” 20 times a day as well. Not just for breaches in etiquette or falling short on your own personal potential or agenda, but for the fact that life is tough for everybody, it made Jesus cry, took him to the cross, has been painful for saints and strangers throughout biblical times, up to Augustine, and every day since. So accept sorrow, penitence and empathy, then move through to forgiveness and the mercy that is found there, and go back through grace to giving thanks again. That is the texture of our life and the shape of our ministry as the people of God.  Give thanks and call down mercy on the fragile world and on the friends of Jesus in all their distressing disguises.

Once, for a quiet day in Melbourne, I told people to go to a nearby tram stop and look for hidden friends of Jesus; people with sore back and bum legs, with worried eyes and furrowed brows, and prayerfully offer God’s mercy for those beloved companions on the way. I recommend this to anyone, you can do it anywhere (even facing the mirror!), and it will open your heart to find the places where God is welcome. I guarantee that!

Now sharing food means company, not just company for dinner, having friends in to share substance and spirit, though that is certainly part of it: but company as in a group of people, many, different, working together in separate ways that come together in a common cause. The Eucharist fits here. This simple meal is a sign of community. For bread and wine means grapes and water: yeast and fat and oil and wheat mixed and kneaded, work of human hands, to be taken away to warm and transform, to rest and rise. All this before it comes to the table to be broken and shared. Like the Eucharist, all food has been touched, gathered, lifted up by workers in the fields, harvesters, processors, moved to market by many hands holding, refining the food from the land; bringing it all together.

 And there are so many different foods so many different tastes!  To share people’s food means to meet them where they are, to honor the way they spice up their life and season their existence. It can be a surprise but it can open us to new and better ways of being in the world. I have been in Australia for 10 years now, and I still remember the first time I found there was an egg in my hamburger. At first it seemed wrong, not the way we did things at home, now it is my preferred option. I have others. I still like peanut butter and jelly with bananas on toast, and that turns many native born Australians pale. So maybe we all have something to learn from one another

And Jesus says, “This is my body, this is my blood!” Jesus says I am willing to be known in this Eucharist, and I tell you I will be here, but prepare to meet me in the entire world, in sharing food with all people, because in my love I have taken up with the body and blood of all humankind and all creation. This bread and wine are means of my love to you, but I mean to love you in everywhere, in everything, in everyone! So in sharing food, eating what’s put in front of us, giving thanks for it, calling down mercy occasionally at some meals, we experience and celebrate God’s good taste in new ways and in new company. And the world is better for it.

Then the big one. Jesus calls us to cure the sick, and I admit that most of us do not have the gift of healing to any great extent,‘though some do, and I thank God for their ministry. But I also think that almost all of us underestimate the amount of healing we can do this in so often wounded world and, again, it can start in a very simple way.

First we accept our own need for healing, then we share the journey with others who need healing, then we do what we can in sharing both vulnerability and vitality. That can be surprisingly healing in a world where so many are lonely and hurting.

For people are in pain and need, and Christ’s mandate is that people need to be served, cared for, honored, and our lives must be shared. For this work we need to be very small saints who are willing to bless the meek, meet the poor, celebrate in solidarity the very fragility of humankind. And this is a tender ministry. But the good news and the paradox is that  we are just asked to participate in God’s healing ministry, asked to begin, we don’t have to know that much about how it will end.

Have you ever had someone come to you and say, “When you said this (or did this) it meant so much to me!” And you don’t remember doing it? So many easily forgettable moments of sharing and caring can blossom in the lives of other people in ways we can never foresee and need not remember. We do need to be present to win but we don’t have to keep accounts. God’s work of healing can continue with our compassion and cooperation on the way. All we have to do is put ourselves out there.  All we have to do is begin, and that is why we’re here. You all know these words:

“We offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.”

We just have to begin, And we are not alone. Maybe that’s what Augustine found in France. Maybe that was gave him the heart to continue the journey to England to begin that great work: that in Christ God has come into the very middle of this fragile human journey, will precede us, follow us, accompany us all the way, has, in fact, been here already, “The Kingdom of God has come near!” In that call we live out our call: there’s a great paradox here; that it doesn’t depend on us, but we can depend on it: that the spirit will help us begin, that we shall see the heart and face and the God on the way and Christ will bring us home at the last. And that is our good news.