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Pilgrim Pines – The Great Banquet

by Paul Tellström

     We had been invited to a feast at the top of the hill and in the clearing of pines that was called “Vespers Point.”

     It was held on the last night of summer camp, and since I was the pastor-of-the-week at Pilgrim Pines, it was my job to organize, but not to lead.  There were 200 kids and 35 developmentally disabled adults, all of them uncertain about the usual things associated with camp, but in addition the kids had not been too sure about being away in the mountains with such a large crowd of adults who acted in many disturbing ways.

     The same issues that confronted us all when we were at church camp are still alive.  Will we be accepted?  Will we find friends?  Will we meet the person of our dreams?  Camp is a huge adventure, filled with worries and expectations, crushes that get crushed, new friends, and the opportunity to begin the process of opening up in a safe environment.  The awareness that faith is the overarching reason for being drawn together hangs in the air like the scent of mountain pine and s’mores.

     On the first morning, we sang camp songs.  A few dozen adults who looked different from most grown-ups were singing off-key and with their own tempo.  The looks some of the kids shot back contained elements of fear, embarrassment, and unacceptance.  For many young people this was the first time they were in the presence of developmentally disabled people.  Some were curious.  Some clearly felt that their camp experience would be marred by having to share the same space with these people who were in their own special group called “Pinesters.” 

     Tonight, the most disturbing one of all was leading us all up the hill.  Mario is about 55 and he is ready—so ready that he runs ahead, turns in a circle, and comes back to me to hurry me along.  Mario laughs, he points to the sky and says, “Jesus, God.  Jesus, God.”  He wants us to know to whose banquet we are heading.  He wants us to know what he knows; Mario, the man who needs help bathing, shaving, getting dressed, needs no help understanding God and appreciating the honor ahead.

     Every night at camp we climb this hill together.  On the first night, the older kids led us in Communion, and they took what little help the religious professional could give grudgingly.  They were born to create and reveal the kind of worship experience that adults have failed to see possible for millennia, and I, the minister, am a symbol of that egregious failure.  And that is as it should be.

     Next, we move down in age until every group has led worship at the top of the hill in that circle ringed by trees.  Every day the social gap between kids and Pinesters grows smaller, until tonight, some of the younger kids are leading these special grown-ups to Vespers Point.

     The last night of camp is “Pajama Night,” and the whole camp must dress in pajamas.  I know that I have to go along, but I feel foolish.  I do not want to climb a hill in pajamas with 235 people.  Yet, it is what is expected at this particular banquet, and so I find myself crashing about in the woods wearing blue cotton pajamas with white piping and black leather slippers.  My dignity has been dropped into a pile of metaphorical poison ivy as up the hill I go, dressed correctly with the best and the rest, for the banquet at the top.  Mario shouts, “Jesus, God, Jesus, God,” and I tell him not to forget the Holy Spirit, but clearly the Holy Spirit has not forgotten him.

     In the parable of the wedding banquet, the king invites some, but they fail to come.  The king sends out a reckless invitation that includes everyone and anyone, and tonight I believe that I know what that banquet might have looked like.  A bobbing, weaving, loudly singing sea of diversity dressed in Sponge-Bob stretch-wear, gingham nightgowns with lace, two-piece flannels with depictions of cups and saucers, or eggs and bacon, cows, dogs, even chenille bathrobes over jeans—all carefully prepared, all the proper dress for the banquet to which God was calling us, and at which the Pinesters would lead us.  We are almost there.

     Who are the guests who would not come, that we are so privileged?  I worry about our tepid faith, the spiritual dryness in our churches that makes me conjecture whether or not our people pray together at home, or venture past embarrassment in order to talk about their faith openly.  Some of our kids have been to camp—will they go back next year or the next after that?  Will they develop a faith rooted in the experience of the family as well as in the church?  Will they continue to answer the invitation to the banquet when it comes?

     The Pinesters have a solid faith.  They were clearly aware that they were set apart, but accepted themselves with a childlike innocence.  Some of them are institutionalized and some live in families.  This week of camp is the highlight of their year.  Sherol was one such young woman who lived at home with her grandmother.

     “I’m a miracle,” she told me.  She is a 24-year old African American woman, and had a smile that filled you with warmth, and fear in her eyes when she was uncomfortable that made you want to hold her.  She knew she was a miracle because for 18 years she did not speak.  In the past six years she has been emerging slowly into her personhood, and credits Jesus with helping her.  What I didn’t understand at first was that she actually meant that Jesus came to her every day and raised his arms at dawn, beckoning her into the day.  “Every day Jesus Christ comes to me.  I wake up just before dawn, and I get dressed just right and go to the window and wait for him.  Then, just when the sun starts to come up and the first birds start singing, I see his outline for a split second.  He smiles at me and lifts his hands to me.  Then I know that my day is going to be all right.”

     Sherol’s days are more than all right.  She moves through them aware that she is slow, and aware that others see that this is so.  But Jesus comes to her in the early dawn outside her window, and she is whole.  She is a miracle.  She begins every day searching for God with all her heart, and every day she knows that she has been found.  She is serene and undisturbed by the unsure looks of children or others for that matter.

     Sherol was going to help lead worship tonight, and the sound of guitars heralded our arrival.  I had worked with these special adults for two days so that they could lead us all.  Now we were here, and their nerves ran high. 

     This was Communion.  We were at the banquet.  Sherol introduced the service.  She was very nervous.  They all were, as they had to stand up in front of the whole camp.  Two of the best readers read scripture with my prompting.  Another read a prayer, and two more introduced the songs that they picked out to sing.  They were scared, but exhilarated.  Then I gave the words of institution exactly as we do here today, and we divided the bread and the cup, and the eight least functioning adults broke off in pairs in each corner of the grove. 

     Two hundred children looked at these pairs of developmentally disabled adults, some of them bobbing and weaving, all of them standing in their pajamas and nightgowns and proudly holding the bread and the cup. 

     I spoke the words, “For where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  We looked for a moment at who had gathered in Jesus’ name, and we walked toward them in silence.  I didn’t think that the traditional words would make sense to these angels in nightgowns, so I asked them to say, “God is with us” to each person coming to them for Communion.  The air cracked with imperfect voices speaking this perfect phrase.  The children came and took bread from Darla, who gave a short outburst of breath and made an incoherent noise at each Communicant.  The children dipped bread into Mario’s cup; Mario, who could only point upwards and laugh as he said “Jesus-God, Jesus-God” so that they would know what he believed.  Six other men and women gave Communion in their own like manner, some with help from a counselor, some on their own.

     Some of the kids were nonplussed.  Some tried hard not to look disturbed.  And others wanted no part of it, and were unwilling to learn grace from those who in appearance only looked graceless.   A small group of older kids moved past the ring of trees into the outer darkness there.  If there was no wailing, there was at least bitter complaining and gnashing of orthodontia.  They had placed themselves outside of the circle.  I only felt sorry for these young people who refused Communion from people whose disabilities prevented them from doing anything except passing on God’s Grace in the bread and the cup.

     “For where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  Jesus doesn’t specify whom the two or more are.  They could have severe disabilities, and still get up before dawn like Sherol to wait for the split second when Jesus appears to her so that she can spend the rest of the day in bliss.  They could be children juggled between culture and race that feel suffocated in air too angry to breathe.  They could be two people who just can’t see eye-to-eye, yet share the bread and the cup knowing that we are in God’s presence and God loves us, even when we have trouble loving each other.  Everyone has been invited to God’s banquet—the invitation has been free and reckless, but by accepting it, we accept each other and give honor to the host that would invite us, such as we are.  And we come, bobbing and weaving, imperfect children still learning from each other what it means to be included so wantonly.

     After vespers, 200 children walked down the hill, and 35 very special people felt the glow of leading for the first time.  That night there was a talent show.  Several of these adults volunteered to sing or perform a short dance.  They performed about as you might imagine they might perform.  But something had happened.  Four nights after arriving, the same faces that looked over their shoulders with dread at these people now shouted encouragement to them as they took solo turns on the stage.  They called out their names and clapped for them as if they were rock stars and they had been transported to the greatest concert ever.  It’s amazing what can happen when so many different people accept the invitation to share in this faith with each other, and choose to honor the host.  I saw it happen.

     I won’t conjecture about the man in the parable who was caught without the correct wedding garment, but I can close by mentioning someone who has it ready and waiting every morning.

     Sherol has found God with all of her heart.  She gets up each morning and dresses for the Feast of Life.  However it happens, she sees Jesus in the dawn at her window when the first bird calls.  Our search is more complex, because we understand more about complexity and balance the shades of gray that come to us each morning at dawn, but still, I hope that our own search can also be with all of our hearts.  May all God’s children know that Christ is present in some way when we gather to do justice and peace in the name of the one in whose name we share this feast. 

(Matthew 22:1-14)

1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

     11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’  And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Copyright 2006, Paul Tellström

Comments

One Response to “Pilgrim Pines – The Great Banquet”
  1. Silvia Estabrook says:

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful, wonderful story! It warms my heart.

    Silvia Estabrook
    Los Alamitos CCUCC

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