Three Dinners

3/16/03
Lk. 22:14-30
Maundy Thursday

I want to talk to you about three dinners. As an aside I might note that when I was a child before we went out, or when I was taken some place, my mother would say, “Try to be good. Just try to be good.” Later, when I got married, and for the last forty years, my wife says before we go out, “Now, behave yourself.” Even Leander, our rector, says to me, when we are going to an event, “I can dress you up, but I can’t take you any where. Watch it!” Of course, he is trying to be funny. Even so there is a thread that seems to run between then and now, the past and the present.

Now to the dinners. First of all there is a group of notable dinners. I have in my young life had the occasion of sitting at the same table with persons of note. There was Henry Ford II, Walter Reuther, Walter Judd, Brooks Hayes, Martin Luther King, John Danforth, Joe Liberman and Gary Hart.

At such dinners there was a buzz, an unspoken sense of priorities, some sense of fellowship, a host and the stripping away of some of the formalities. Occasionally serious matters were discussed.

My second dinner occurred ten years ago. My wife had accepted an important job in Greenwich, and we were invited to a formal dinner. Some of the guests were PhD colleagues of hers, and were well off as well as having positions of power. The women were all size four and wore “the little black dress, or suit.” The host wore a dinner jacket. Hair had been coiffed and drinks served before dinner. I really did not want to be there. I had nothing in common with these people and the conversation was stilted. We were seated at a fine mahogany table covered with exquisite linen. The glasses were Waterford, the china Spoade, and the silver priceless. The main course was a small medallion of gray meet tastefully arranged among three thin stalks of asparagus. The host and hostess sat at either ends of the table. Across from me was a gorgeous woman with incredibly seductive eyes, and my dinner partner wore a white, long sleeved blouse of raw silk. (She had removed her suit jacket before dinner.)

After dessert we were served coffee in cups of very fine Bavarian china, which were the hostesses’ grandmother’s. I raised my cup, held gently by the handle between two fingers, with my pinky extended, and gazed into the eyes of the woman across from me. At that moment the cup separated from the handle! There I was, holding the handle alone in mid air. The cup dropped upside down in my lap, filling it with hot coffee. Fortunately I was wearing a wool sweater, which absorbed some of the coffee. However, coffee splashed on the sleeve of the white raw silk blouse. The woman stood up. Took off her blouse (she was wearing a slip underneath) and handed it to the hostess. “Here,” she said. “Put this in cold water immediately!” The host stood up, stripped off his dinner jackets, and proceeded to mop up the coffee under the table. He then went into the kitchen and returned with a pan of water and began to work on the spots on the white rug. My dinner partner, who had disappeared, returned wearing an old college sweatshirt. Pretense had been shattered. Priorities had been realigned, the buzz of the evening changed into a rumble of laughter. Two bottles of wine were opened. The host had become a servant and we all became friends.

We remained friends. Over the last ten years one person developed Parkinson’s, another spent four months in the hospital with crippling arthritis, one had a double mastectomy, another had cancer and several, including my wife, lost a parent. Throughout the last ten years we have been caring friends, helping one another as best we can. Each one of those persons has been prayed for at the altar of St. John’s at one time or another.

My third dinner took place when I was either a senior in college or in seminary. It was exam week, and I decided to go to the Methodist communion service, which was held in a small chapel at the base of Harkness Tower at Yale. (Later my wife and I were married in that chapel.) There was a slight buzz about the service, a sense of anticipation. Priorities were somewhat set. Jack Russell, the Methodist chaplain was our host. The events of the day were stripped away or set aside. There was a sense of the Holy Other. During the service Jack read a prayer, which held my attention. “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies, We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious a Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.” BCP p. 337. “Jack,” I said. “That is the most wonderful prayer I ever heard. Where did it come from?” “It is in the Methodist manual for communion. It is the Prayer of Humble Access from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. John Wesley was an Anglican priest, you know. It was carried over into our book.” As a result of hearing that prayer, I decided to learn more about The Book of Common Prayer and eventually became an Episcopalian and a priest.

Behind that communion service, which is a liturgical dinner, stands St. Luke’s story of The Last Super in the upper room on Maundy Thursday. It was Passover. The twelve disciples had gathered with Jesus to share the Paschal Lamb. There was a buzz of expectation and excitement. They felt somewhat important, for they had listened to Jesus’ teachings and had bonded together as disciples. Jesus took bread; broke it; and gave it to them, saying, “Take. Eat. This is my body of the new covenant, which is given for you.” He then took a cup of wine and said, “Drink this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you.” By that act, Jesus became identified with the Paschal Lamb. He then wrapped a towel around his waist, took a pan of water, and washed the feet of his disciples. The host became the servant. Through his servanthood, Jesus underlined that He was the Paschal Lamb that was to be sacrificed and foreshadowed His crucifixion. By martyrdom priorities are always changed. Captors always hold the trump card, which is the threat of death. Martyrdom calls the hand. The sacrifice of martyrs always changes things.

But Jesus’ death on the cross was more than a simple (if they ever are) martyrdom. His blood on the cross cannot be removed like coffee stains. It is God’s blood. Jesus’ martyrdom is a sacrifice, a replacement of the Paschal Lamb of the Jewish tradition and the assumption of the suffering servant of Isaiah. The one who suffers becomes the Messiah. Evil is no longer triumphant. It has no cards to play. Sin is banished through Jesus’ servant hood. We have tried to be good and failed. We have sought to behave ourselves and haven’t. Compassion and forgiveness change condemnation and guilt.

The event of the Last Supper in the Upper Room transcends almost two thousand years. It reaches down to the present. It is celebrated in this last Eucharist before Good Friday. There is a buzz, a sense of anticipation. What is important is redefined. Priorities are reset. There is a stripping away of what is unimportant. We even strip the altar in anticipation of Good Friday. We join with Christ in a sense of servant hood. We share with other Christians a certain kind of fellowship. Our relationship to God is forever changed. We come to the table saying in our hearts, and sometimes on our lips, “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy?.” Amen.