Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Last Last Suppers

Our last two suppers before we retire and move, one on Friday and one on Sunday, were held in the parish church sanctuary. Both were overseen by Christ, Host of the Christian faith; both were holy banquets.

We and all honored guests arrived Friday night to see the entire sanctuary set up as a feast, our penultimate last supper. Space had been made for milling and spilling. Tables and the altar itself were laden with every kind of delicious food and our choir’s baritone soloed as bar tender serving wine and soft drinks. Acolytes in black circled and weaved their way in and out with serving trays and little paper napkin/purificators (the name for the white cloth used to wipe the chalice as it is passes from communicant to communicant at Communion.)

A grand swell of organ music like a shofar summoned the people to be seated for a tasteful, funny and dear program. No one had to say “The Lord is with you.” We knew it. We all sat in prayer with unbowed heads. The parish comic acted as emcee; a parishioner guitarist, his young son at his feet playing air guitar, played his favorite Beatles song; and a poet with eloquence read “Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver. The wardens, a boy one and a girl one, gave brief tributes as Dick and I reached for the Kleenex.

Carol presented a beautiful book stand made by parish woodworkers to serve as perch for a huge Memory Book in which every parish individual or family created a page. Usually one puts a Bible on such a stand but for now this Book will be our bible of remembrance and thanksgiving. It represents a people who know how to be eucharist, how to give thanks for all things, how to remember and honor the best and the worst of times, and above all how to come regularly to dine at God’s holy dining room table for better or worse to receive the grace of God. The Church at its gracious unconditional best.

Rick presented us with a purse. I half expected him to lift up a small purse like the one Queen Elizabeth always has draped over her arm. But instead he held aloft an envelope. Suspense rose as in the academy awards while he slowly opened the envelope and announced in solemn tones, “There’s a check here for $42.50. Oops, move that decimal point over two.” The Magi never had such treasure, such richness of heart.

Dick and I gave our celebrative thanks. I don’t remember what either of us said, only that I asked Jesus to hold onto my tears so I could speak my gratitude without blubbering. But we both choked up.

To be known just as you are and loved just as you are is grace.

It was tribute enough to see that all our teaching and preaching over the years about being a eucharistic community, about bringing God into the middle of our lives on Sunday and every day, of not being afraid to let the sanctuary be holy all the time and filled with Spirit and joy whatever event was going on there. Just like a cathedral!

The second last supper at the parish was the regular Sunday liturgy for the third Sunday after Pentecost. Many of the same people returned for the second banquet, the altar still dressed up for a celebration. We priests wore red vestments, the color of the Holy Spirit— She who would not be called He.

The Sunday Mass/Holy Eucharist was as alive and vibrant with Presence divine and human as it was on Friday night and, for me and my personal Jewish roots as well as the roots of Christianity, connected Friday Shabbat holy meal with our Sunday Eucharist.

The reading from the Old Testament (I Kings) was a long story about King Ahab lusting over the vineyard of Naboth who refused to sell in spite of over the top royal purchase offers. Never mind, said Ahab’s wife Jezebel, I will get you the vineyard. She did by an elaborate ruse that included murder. Naboth dead the vineyard was now Ahab’s. What some women will do for their husbands! BUT of course God intervened with disapproval and Ahab and Jezebel suffered dire consequences for their crimes. There are consequences for everything and I can believe that God’s justice in the human soul sparks human action and conscience.

The lector read the whole drama with particular animation and a bass voice. Half way through the amazing but sadly true to human nature plot he interjected without missing a beat, “I’m not making this up you know.” And the people, already full of amused shock and awe, broke into open laughter. The place was alive, alert and authentic, as down to earth and true in fact as all Old Testament stories.

The gospel reading was from Luke 7, the story of the woman sinner, reputed to be Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus had healed of seven demons. Grateful for her wholeness she anointed him with perfumed oil of blessing as she kissed his feet and wiped them with her hair. A romantic gesture to be sure. Still, I can imagine someone feeling such gratitude and humility after healing by whatever means. But today such an extravagant gesture would be eschewed by doctors, therapists or clergy— bad professional boundaries.

What price boundaries when love is the message? I wonder.

I couldn’t resist a little post-homily (Dick's) addendum: Notice who gets to go down in history over centuries with the bad reputations! I had to keep up my feminist rant. Later I thanked everyone for their amused acceptance of my politics. For some it was to humor me; for some it was genuine appreciation, and for a few I’m sure it was teeth-gritting tolerance. Still I felt loved. Even when I met a former parishioner in the elevator at the hospital who asked me, “Is he gone yet?” I could tell him “not quite” and chuckle, he having no idea who I was as a priest, woman, spouse of the "real" priest.

Later as I presented the children with Bible quotes. I told them these wouldn’t mean much now but to keep them and one day they would dig them up and discover some spiritual wisdom. The Word in the words. I have heard many adults in this work tell me that they had received such a quote at Confirmation or something and years later found it hidden in a dresser drawer and suddenly light shone.

After the Holy Eucharist banquet was over and everyone had been fed Dick and I offered brief closing remarks. I thanked for many things, most importantly for this community having given me over the years an opportunity to blossom and grow into the fullness of myself as a woman priest. With very few exceptions I have never felt like a sidekick or some kind of subsidiary priest at St John’s. It is a gift of unimaginable blessing to me.

My exit line went something like: This parish is full of amazing creativity, musicians, artists, poets, dancers, writers, orators, woodworkers, liturgists and the unsung beauty of just plain good humor and kindness. I firmly believe that the arts will restore the world to its natural beauty and god-given goodness But now........get out there and recruit some corporate types. You need money.”

Then Dick with his own art of oratory made an elegant tribute, presented a flow chart of who will take care of what, said fear not in many ways, announced the end of his rectorship and our priestly ministry here, then said with a brief sob. “We will no longer be your priests and pastors, but we will always be your friends.”

We should have sold little tissue packets for an almighty sum as a last fund raiser as Dick suggested on Friday!

Dick then read a formal proclamation that officially turned full ecclesiastical authority over to the wardens until such time as the 21st rector of St. John’s parish church was elected to begin a new chapter in the life of Christ at St. John’s.

As our gift to the parish we had framed and gave them a blessing we have frequently used. Dick graciously invited honored guest, the Rev. Claude G. Hopper, the only grasshopper with a clerical collar, ordained as an Episcopal priest by the late Blair McElroy, to join us. Claude hopped between us as we said the final blessing together.

Life is short.

We do not have much time to gladden the hearts and minds of those who travel the way with us. So be swift to love and make haste to be kind.
And the blessing of God Almighty, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit be upon you and remain with you always. AMEN.

PS Just one more holy banquet, a festive coffee hour with just the right amount of too much food.