A Letter from Blue Grass: The Joyful Feast
Rev. Timothy Haut
Deep River Congregational Church
A Letter from Blue Grass: The Joyful Feast
Read by the Rev. Timothy Haut
at the First Congregational Church
Deep River, Connecticut
September 1, 2019
Life goes on in Blue Grass, and it is a good life. Here on the far edge of summer, I am caught in the glory. The other day we took a drive down along the river toward Muscatine to get a melon or two, and your Uncle Arnold and I took the back county gravel roads just to enjoy the beauty of this Iowa day. We drove past Roger Kretschmar's farm, where the Holsteins were swishing their tails in the field near the old hickory grove where, as kids, we used to collect nuts right about this time of year. The air smelled sweet as earth, ripe with the aroma of the tall tasseled corn rising high over the black soil, and the sweet scent of wild grapes climbing the barbed-wire fencing. The roadsides were festooned with bright orange tiger lilies and Queen Anne's lace tossing in the breeze, and up on the edge of the gravel swallowtail butterflies sunbathed on the chicory flowers, which were as bright and blue as the summer sky. Swallows darted back and forth overhead to feast on the bugs that were scattered aloft by our passing car.
Behind us a great cloud of white dust bloomed like a great cloud, and even though Arnold grumbled that he would have to wash the car when we got home, I felt nothing but joy--as if in that gravel dust we might actually be "trailing clouds of glory,” to quote Wordsworth's old poem. That great old poet wrote that our life in this world is set into motion in another, eternal realm before our birth, and that we carry ancient memories of that heavenly kingdom with us. Those memories are triggered by the beauties and surprises that occur all around us. Listen to these words:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home
So we got home in a pleasant mood, and my goodness I don't think we had a single argument along the way, mostly because I was driving and Arnold snoozed like a baby in the passenger seat. But by then it was almost noon, and some thunderclouds had pushed their way into our sunny day. As we carried our melons into the house the first raindrops pattered on us, and Arnold thought he might not have to wash the car after all because Mother Nature would take care of it for him. He hurried out to the garden to pick a few tomatoes for lunch and figured it would be a good afternoon to sit on the porch and listen to the Cubs, who were starting an important series against Milwaukee. Just then I heard a banging on the back screen door and the high-pitched caterwauling of our next-door neighbor Ruby McCullough.
"Tillie!" she cried. "Tillie dear! Oh my, it's starting to rain and I can't find Mustard."
I made my way to the door and let her in. "Just a minute, and I'll get you some mustard. The yellow kind, or the spicy brown kind?"
"No, no! Not that! Mustard, our old orange cat! She's blind in one eye, and mercy, she got out this morning, and I thought I'd let the old girl lay in the sun for a while, and then I forgot she was out, and now I'm afraid that I've seen the last of her. She hasn't showed up here, has she?"
I sat her down at the kitchen table and heated up a cup of this morning's coffee for her. "Just take a deep breath," I told her, which always seemed like pretty good advice no matter what the situation was. "Your cat will show up. She's probably hiding somewhere till the rain lets up."
She was just taking a first slurp of the coffee when the door swung open again. Wally Gottschalk's face appeared, and the rain had caused his bad comb-over to drip mournfully to one side of his bald spot, as he pushed his way into the kitchen with his arms loaded. "Is Arnold home?" he asked crankily, dumping the soggy bag onto the counter. Arnold entered from the living room, having turned up the radio to listen to the pre-game show.
"What's up Wally?" he asked glancing at the wet bag.
"Norma's cleaning house," he explained, wiping his forehead. "You know we're moving to Florida next year, and so she's decided to have a sale with all the stuff that's been packed away in the basement and attic. And this bag of stuff is yours."
Arnold looked puzzled. He was unhappy that his friend was planning to leave town, but so far he hadn't been able to talk him out of it. "What stuff?" Arnold asked, peering into the sack, which was slowly dissolving into a puddle on the counter.
Wally shook his head. "I couldn't remember if it was a slide rule that I borrowed from you a while ago, or a slide projector. One of those things is yours, but you can have 'em both. In fact you can come over and take anything else you want, too." Arnold just stared at the two objects, obviously unable to remember ever loaning them to Wally in the first place, and certain that he had no need of either thing.
"And by the way, there's a couple of nice tomatoes in there, too. Mortgage Lifters, I think. Norma won't be canning this year and we can't eat all the ones we're picking in our garden." He pulled up a chair next to Ruby and took his wet shirt off , hanging it on the back of the chair. "You got any more of that coffee," he asked me, not too eager to head home in the rain to help with more cleaning. I got out a mug and poured him a cupful.
I heard a car pull into the driveway and saw Ellen Torgeson crawl out and make her way up the walk. "Oh dear," I thought. "What now?" I know Ellen from the Ladies Improvement Society over to the Methodist Church, and that woman can talk. Her husband died a few years ago, so she hasn't had anybody else to talk to for quite a while, and she's been making up for lost time with me. I figured she probably was here to sign me up for some project to make money for the church, maybe the big Ham and Bean supper we do every September.
She burst into the kitchen without knocking and threw herself into my arms, oblivious of the other people sitting around the table. "Oh, Tillie, Tillie, Tillie. I'm doomed," she wailed, I patted her on the back and helped her into a chair at the kitchen table. She seemed defeated but she pressed on. "I just got back from the doctor's office and they told me I've got some terrible disease, but I can't remember the name. It's like hypochondriitis or something. I think it’s in my thyroid," she said the word as if it were a death sentence.
"I may lose my hair," she said, throwing her hands in the air. I poured another cup of coffee, as she opened her purse and extracted two big tomatoes. "I might as well share them with you," she cried. "I probably won't live long enough to enjoy them."
rnold snickered, because he knew how Ellen always figured out how to make a mountain out of a molehill. I didn't have time to give him the evil eye, though, because the doorbell rang. He turned to go and answer it, and a few minutes later came back with a dripping young man with a briefcase in hand, wearing a suit that was apparently a few sizes too big.
"Hello," he said, staring at the crowd in the kitchen. "I'm Delmar Schwartz, from Muscatine." He fumbled with the clasp on the briefcase, and pulled out a sheaf of papers. He stuttered an explanation. "I'm visiting people in town here who might like to be saved." He pulled out a battered black Bible with sticky notes marking several pages.
Wally banged his coffee mug on the table and said, "Well, young man, I'd sure like to be saved. Maybe you'd like to come over to my house and help empty out the basement."
"Have you seen a big orange cat with one eye?" Ruby inquired.
And Ellen bawled, "Yes, yes, yes. I'm dying and I want to make sure I go to heaven. And I know you people say only 144,000 get in!!"
"That would be the Jehovah Witnesses," Delmar answered politely. "I'm just Christian and Missionary Alliance."
"I'm hungry," Arnold interrupted, "and we haven't eaten lunch yet. He slapped Delmar on the back and pushed him into a kitchen chair. "You look like you could eat something too, maybe fill out that suit a little more. And I don't suppose you brought tomatoes, too."
Delmar reached into the briefcase. "Funny you should ask. A few houses ago, a lady gave me a couple of these purple-colored tomatoes, said the Lord would be glad if I ate them before the fruit flies did." He hefted a couple of bulging purple tomatoes onto the table.
"Well, tomato sandwiches it is," I concluded, and as people sat there around the table while the rain fell outside the window, I got a loaf of white bread out of the cupboard and the mayonnaise from the refrigerator and made a platter full of the juiciest, most delicious, tomato sandwiches you can imagine.
As I set them in the middle of the table, one more voice added to the confusion. "Meow," we heard at the back door, a long lament from Mustard the cat who was wet and desperate. Ruby jumped up and flung the door open, then gathered up her beloved in her arms, wet as she was. "Oh, thank you, God!" she cried. And then, around the table, we joined hands to say the same thing.
Delmar felt the call of the Spirit and began to sing:
"Be present at our table, Lord,
Be here and everywhere adored,
These mercies bless and grant that we
May feast in paradise with thee."
For the next few minutes there were no words, only the contented chewing of our remarkable lunch. You know, Timothy, somewhere in the Bible it says that we should show hospitality to strangers because they might be angels in disguise. That's how I felt in our kitchen, sharing such a sweet, simple meal. Pastor Metcalf down at the Methodist Church stops before Communion and points at the table where little shot glasses of grape juice and cubes of Wonder Bread are waiting to be passed around our congregation. And then he says, "This is the joyful feast of the people of God, gathered around the table of the Lord." You know, Timothy, I don't always feel that it's such a big deal to look at that bread and juice and imagine that it's a joyful feast.
But yesterday in our kitchen, I understood that feasts are not always defined by the quantity of food, or the fanciness of it. There in my kitchen I felt it deep in my bones. These were not saints, or even my best friends, sitting there with tomato running down their chins and drinking day-old coffee. But somehow it was a miracle, a place where love was, a moment when God's children sat together trailing clouds of glory. Even Mustard, under the table, seemed to know that--purring like crazy. Arnold smiled, and told Ellen not to worry about her thyroid. “Love will get you through,” he said, patting her arm. And by God, I think it will.
Have a tomato sandwich for lunch today, Timothy. Watch for the strangers at the door, even the ones who are not wearing halos. Keep us in your prayers as we keep you in ours.
Love, Aunt Tillie