I made my way to the exit row because I’m still fit enough to help in an emergency but, more than that, there’s extra leg room. I asked the man sitting on the aisle seat if the seat next to him was taken and he said, “It is now – it’s yours.” This prompted the flight attendant to say, “Well, now here’s a good sign! You’ll put in a good word, right?” I said, “Sure but you know there’s no immediate response guarantee. Look how long we had to pray for the Cubbies to win the World Series.”
So my seatmate and I struck up a conversation. I asked him where he was headed. “Back home to ‘Lou-ee-ville’.” I said, “That’s not your home! Nobody from Louisville says it that way. Where are you originally from?” Turns out he was from Maryland, and had lived in Los Angeles. So we compared notes on those locales. His name was Chip and he was in the print and digital media business as a kind of sales engineer but his passion was photography – “I just haven’t had the guts to take the leap to do it full-time.” But he did have the guts to buy a storefront in a working class neighborhood in Louisville – a part of the city which was stretching him out of his comfort zone (“I’m kind of a suburban guy – this is really different for me.”). He renovated the space so the front half was his studio and the back half an apartment. He put a little table and chair out on the sidewalk in front of the studio and he’d sit there with a book and smoke a cigar. I told him we did the same in Brunswick – we call it a “porch hang” and I paint icons doing that. He told me how he was meeting people in the community and observing what went on as people went by. We talked at length about the need for community and connection in our increasingly fracture, polarized and hate-filled world. He shared a deep desire to connect with this neighborhood, in spite of it taking him out of his comfort zone.
Chip then told me about his first close encounter of the city kind. About a week into his time there, while still renovating the space, he came out one morning to find the dumpster he had rented as part of his renovation project had been graffitied. The neighbors were all mad and wanted to clean it off for him but Chip stopped them. “Wait … that’s … me!” It seems the aspiring graffiti artist had created a likeness of Chip, replete with his short spikey hair and cigar, on the side of the dumpster. I said, “Oh man! He tagged you! Did you find out who did it?” He said, “Not yet, but I took pictures of it before they cleaned it off.” I said, “Pictures? Hmm … how about you blow one of those pictures up really big and put it in your storefront? Put the story you just told me underneath it.” Chip lit up and said, “Wow! I hadn’t thought of that – that’s a great idea.” “You know,” I said, “Whoever did this sent you a message. He (or she) sees you. I mean really sees you. If you post that big picture, it’s a way of saying, ‘I see you back.’ Who knows? Maybe you’ll meet … and just think what could happen.”
I see you. Isn’t that the deepest longing of our heart – to be seen? Known? Loved? But if we think about it, God is the original graffiti artist. Each one of us is tagged with the image of God. Each of us bears the imprint of Original Love and our lifelong faith pilgrimage is our way of being seen by God through the community and responding, “I see you back.” God says, “Tag … you’re it!” and that isn’t a bad thing … it’s a holy thing because it means you are sent.
When Canon Dan Webster called me just over 6 years ago on a Friday evening, because clearly he had nothing better to do, and asked me to do some long-term supply at Grace Church, I’ve come to realize he was bearing a message from God: the message, “I see you. Tag, you’re it!” Six years ago I preached on these exact same lectionary texts. I preached a series that fall of 2011, working the congregation through Paul’s letter to the Philippians – a letter where he tells them he really sees them and appreciates their ministry. Back then, there was Shirley Shores, Teeny Phillips, Charlotte Barnhouse, Nancy Smith (she wasn’t Hughes back then), Ginny Dinterman and Susan Mann, David Shurland, Virginia Danner, Wendy Davis, The Whitehursts, Janet Roberts, Bill George, Orel Orvis, and Bill and Lila Wenner – 18 people. People who were thankful I had arrived and who, in three weeks, would ask me to stay. It’s been the best supply gig a priest could ask for.
The readings this morning are an amazing reflection of our 6 years of ministry together. In them, God reaches through time and says, “I see you. Tag … you’re it!” The first two readings from Isaiah 25 and Psalm 23 are commonly read at funerals. In our time together, I have preached and taught about death and resurrection: not just the final “Big D” death when we step into the “Big R” resurrection in the Divine Mystery of God, but the many “little d” deaths and “little r” resurrections we experience throughout life as we grow more and more into the likeness of Christ. It seems fitting because today is a “funeral” of sorts – it marks the end of our ministry together as priest and people in this particular place. So to hear the comforting words of Psalm 23 of God as shepherd of our souls – the one who will provide a rich feast in the presence of those who trouble us, anoint us with oil, and be the source of our calm when surrounded by death – is quite appropriate and comforting. In the Hebrew, the phrase “surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me” renders more like “surely your goodness and mercy shall pursue me” and I think that’s an image to hold this day. God’s goodness and mercy are not passively following – they are chasing you down jack! Why? Because God sees you and will not let you go.
The promise of the heavenly banquet in Isaiah is given to the people in the midst of absolute calamity – the Babylonian deportations in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem. “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah’s words ring out to the people then and to us today – Do not be afraid! God SEES YOU! You are not forsaken. I’ve tagged you … I’m not letting you go.
Pulling from Isaiah’s imagery is Jesus’ parable of the heavenly banquet – yes … another parable! Now I have preached on the last little tweak of judgement he throws in, but today let’s focus on the invitation. The king invites all the “A-listers” – the “Who’s Who” of society – all of whom blow his invitation off. His response is to tell his servants to go out and find a better class of riff-raff – the good and the bad: the sick, suffering, posers, hodads, and all the shady characters that would never get this kind of swanky invitation and bring them in to fill the hall. Imagine being one of those shady characters receiving this invitation (because honestly you and I are those shady characters!)… and realize the king SEES YOU. You’ve been tagged! What grace … what amazing grace. This image has become a touchstone for you – the people of Grace Church. From the welcome statement our vestry shamelessly ripped off and riffed to make it Brunswick specific that says all are welcome here, to going on the record as a Believe Out Loud congregation welcoming the LGBTQ community and being part of Frederick PRIDE, to reaching out to people on the margins through the Food Forest, and providing space for the Recovery communities of AA, Grace has been telling this community and the world, “God SEES YOU … and God loves you … and you are welcome here.” This is living into the teachings of Jesus and you have done it well. Keep doing it and teach Spencer+ how you do what you do when she gets here.
Finally, I end where I began six years ago with Philippians. There is no question when you read this letter in its entirety that Paul really, really sees and deeply loves this community. In this letter, I find reflected my deep affection for you. He says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” His words today are my prayer for you. Do not worry about anything: God has tagged you and will not let you go. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Keep in the forefront of your ministry here at Grace the things which are just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. Keep welcoming all as Christ in the Benedictine spirit which was here before I arrived. Keep remembering God has tagged you and sees you, and tell others the good news that they are seen and known and loved too. “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Tag … you’re it!