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.