Monday, January 26, 2015

January 25, Ordination of Rachel Daley, "A Feast of Rich Food"

Isaiah 25:6-9

Psalm 104

Luke 14:15-24

Hospital food.

Not your favorite cuisine!

What you would not get in a hospital is a feast of rich food and well-aged wines. But why not? Really, considering all the other expense and all the other risky fluids that hospital patients take in, why not?

When I was in my third congregation, in Hoboken, one of my elderly parishioners was a patient at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. She was from India, and so every day my people took turns delivering homemade Gujurati food to her.

Of course hospital food is only a symptom of the dispiriting dehumanization of the health care system in our nation, which is why Rachel’s ministry is so necessary—not for just spirituality, but for plain humanity, to help the patients be fully human beings, whether they live or die. In this connection are the other remarkable images from Isaiah’s prophecy, the shroud and the sheet. The shroud overshadows the patients and even the staff, and the sheet is spread over all the people, the dark shroud and the white sheet that is death. We go to hospital to get well and we go to hospital to die.

And yet this prophecy of Isaiah contains one of the first hints of eternal life in the Bible. Let me remind you that there is absolutely no interest in eternal life in all the books of Moses, nor in the historical books from Joshua to Chronicles. Only one or two of the Psalms hint at salvation from death, and from the prophets, only a couple passages, of which this is the first and the strongest, that God “will swallow up death forever.” 

God will pull back the sheet that covers our dead faces. God will remove the shroud, which means both death itself and the shadow of death upon our lives before we die.

Can we combine these images for the sake of your ministry, Rachel, that even though we all have to die, you have something to set on the table before us which removes the shadow of death? Will you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemy, my final enemy?

The marvelous feast of rich food which God will set before us is for the future, for eternal life, the celestial banquet, but is it not also for now, are we not already in it, partially perhaps, not yet fully so, for God has not yet “wiped away every tear,” so it’s a promise for which we wait, but can you not already set rich food on the tables of those whom you serve, in hospital or in church or the street?

Yes, sometimes we need no more than baby food, or clear broth in times of spiritual sickness, or sometimes simple comfort food, but we believe that a minister of the Word and sacraments can set before the people of God a table rich with nourishment and flavor and spice and delight.

What a shame that we reject the feast of such rich food. You see that in the parable in the Gospel. We are invited to the feast, and we decline the invitation. We’re busy, so we’ll just get take-out. The rich feast means sitting down and waiting. To enjoy the rich feast means you have to give up what you were doing and sit down, and be served, and give in to your host’s agenda for a while. But you’re too busy, or too self-involved, or too proud, or too afraid, or both, and you’d rather keep control and just go where you can get on line and look up at the menu selections and order the happy meal you want for-here-or-to-go. “I cannot come,” they all repeat, “I can’t, I just can’t.”

You can avoid God yourself but you can’t stop God from having God’s own good pleasure, and it’s God’s party. So that God’s house may be full, God invites the uninvited. Okay, so then you go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. Do that today and you will find those people mostly in clinics and emergency rooms and waiting rooms and nursing homes and institutions and hospices and hospitals.

I can imagine why they might say, “I cannot come.” I can’t go anywhere, I can’t do anything, I’m stuck here. They’re stuck, right, for a few days, for a few years? So, Rachel, you’ve got a captive audience. I wonder, does their captivity make them less open or more open to your invitation to come to the table you are setting before them right there in their captivity? In the very presence of their enemy, their ailment, their disability, their death? Well, I guess that’s your mission, to find out.

If this parable has any modern relevance, then it seems to me that a modern hospital is place not just for ministry but mission. I doubt that Rachel has been telling people that she is going to be a missionary, and I’m not talking about her using her captive audience to sign up new Christians. But listen, the Reformed Church in America defines the word “missions” to mean “crossing cultural boundaries to witness in word and deed to the Kingdom of God,” and it is very true that a modern American hospital has a distinct and peculiar culture, and to enter the doors of a hospital is to cross a cultural boundary, and if you cross that boundary to witness in the particular words and deeds of chaplaincy to the Kingdom of God, then it’s mission.

I am saying that a hospital chaplain is a missionary in terms of this parable. Your mission is not recruiting, for your people have already been recruited by their ailments. Their illnesses and disabilities have already gathered them from all the streets and lanes of the town. It’s now your job to set the table before them, lavishly and recklessly. It’s your job to set them a bountiful table of rich food and well-aged wines.

You knew that already, Rachel, or you felt it, which is why you chose these passages. So now, what is this rich food? I mean beyond the obvious food and wine of Holy Communion? How do these rich images suggest your ministry? Well, the images in Isaiah are both positive and negative, the positive offered and the negative removed, the offering of the feast and the removal of the shroud and the sheet of death.

So let me suggest that the offering of the positive is your ministry of the Word and sacraments. You know, the objective gift of the promises of God and the means of grace. The reading of the gospel and the recitation of the Psalter. The Psalms in the ear, the oil on the skin, the bread and wine within the mouth. These all the feed the soul and nourish and strengthen and comfort it.

And then let me suggest that the removal of the negative is your ministry of presence, your person, your body and your soul within the room, your personal light and your personal hope and the example of your faith. You pull back the sheet. Your own hope pulls back the shroud. So you have these two things to offer. The good news and your own life. Your life for the good news.

In just a few minutes, just after we lay hands on you, you will read out loud the Declaration for Ministers. It’s one of the most wonderful treasures of the Reformed Church. We don’t exactly know who wrote it. Some committee. The church wrote it. When you read that Declaration, you will say that you "pledge your life to the good news of salvation in Christ." That is a reckless and lavish and audacious pledge. Your life. It could be said that you are throwing away your life. Losing it to gain it.

If I think about your life, I think about that great and marvelous landscape of your mind and soul inside you. Into that great landscape your parents planted very many different kinds of seeds. Others did too, but your parents mostly. And those seeds have sprouted and grown and are bearing much fruit within you, sixty fold, a hundred fold. And you take that bounty into the kitchen of your mind and then you come back out with dishes of rich food to set upon the tray-tables of your people.

Is it hospital food? Yes, but it’s rich because it is a medium. It’s portions and pieces of God.

I mean, isn’t that what’s at stake, especially in a hospital, the question of God? Why would God let this happen to me? If there’s a God, why is God allowing this? Is this all God has for me at the end of my life? Why would I even believe in God anymore? Rachel, you have to be a theologian in your job. It’s God you represent as much as comfort and hope and healing. The food you set is the pieces of God’s self, it’s the food of love, because if at these times of trial and sickness, if people can still believe in love, then they can believe in God, and if they believe in God, then they can believe in love.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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