I listen to podcasts. All the time. And nearly every morning, on my bike ride to the Cathedral, I put one on to prepare for my day. One of my favourite shows—the program I come back to time and again—is OnBeing, hosted by Krista Tippett. Ms. Tippett begins each interview with this simple, evocative question:
Tell me about the religious or spiritual background of your childhood.
And each respondent, whether scientist, poet, chef, peacebuilder, writer, businessperson, theologian, or activist, and regardless of their current faith (or lack thereof), thoughtfully responds in ways that bear witness to the depth and heart of their own human experience.
Now I don’t have my own podcast, but should it ever happen, I’ve got an opening question that I’ve been working on. For now, I will rely on you, my live studio audience, to indulge me.
What story would you tell if I asked you about your favourite memory of a shared meal?
As you turn your mind to your own story in the silence of your heart, what first enters your mind? What do you hear? What do you smell? As you look around in that scene, what do you see?
Who are you with? Is everyone familiar? Are there people there you’ve only just met? Perhaps there are people who—even today—you wish you had gotten to know. What do you talk about? Is there a conversation you wish you’d had?
As you remember that story, your favourite memory of a shared meal, I wonder what that experience feels like for you. What do you notice about the energy in the room? The interaction between other people? What does it feel like in your own body?
I’ve had a chance to ask this question in a number of different venues over the last four years. Since being invited to work with the Cathedral community in transforming the Maundy Café, I’ve asked this question of our guests, of volunteers, and of my colleagues. I’ve asked this question at dinner parties I’ve attended, and in rooms as large as this one, but filled with complete strangers.
There’s this surprising thing that happens. When I’ve asked people to enter into a memory of their favourite experience of a meal shared, the stories are always rich. Impressions. Emotions. Atmosphere. As long as I’ve been asking this question, my conversation partners have touched on the food, but tended to focus on how that experience felt. They’ve talked about warmth. Contentedness. Energy. Excitement. Spark. Sometimes they speak about the way in which time bends or slows. They speak about community and connection. Of feeling seen. Of being heard. Of being held in love.
That impressionistic rendering is what we have before us in today’s gospel. Not so much in the way of detail, but a whole lot of affect. Today’s gospel is atmospheric, moody. Light and shadow, excitement, fear, and overwhelming awe culminating in “This is my child, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Listen. Listen to him.” And so we should. He’s up there chatting with two of the foremost prophets in the tradition, the ones who—like Jesus—repeatedly call God’s people to tend to those the dominant culture has pushed to the margins.
What fascinates me is that in this gospel scene—as with people’s memories of their favourite shared meals—many details are backgrounded to bring the richness of human connection to the fore.
The table had to be set. The food needed to be of sufficient quality not to distract from everything else. But the stories I’ve heard have been about a range of meals: picnics and potlucks and five course meals with perfect wine pairings. Across each of these stories, food wasn’t the point. It was the excuse for, and the vehicle to connection.
I find this all so fascinating. As a resident of our lonely city who has—over the course of the past few years—worked with volunteers and staff to invite those facing extreme poverty to share meals at the Maundy Café, it should be no surprise that food and connection are important to me. Throw into the mix the fact that my brother is a chef, and you’ll know that the passion for good food runs deep in my blood.
Over the past few years, the Maundy Café has seen an incredible transformation. We instigated a number of changes in the Spring of 2017, hired Alberto later that summer, and started five day a week sit-down meals in the fall. Through this transformation, the Cathedral’s food programs have evolved into real community with many interconnected circles. Like the communities that gather up here at 8.00, 10.30, 5.30, and 8.00 every Sunday, real relationships are growing in, and extending well beyond the Cathedral’s doors.
In the fall of 2017, a few weeks into the Café’s new life in the Park Room, I asked one of our regulars what she thought of the change in location. “It feels bigger in here,” she said. “It’s airier. Brighter. I can breathe here. I feel safe.” The Park Room is half the size of the Parish Hall, and yet the physical geography was not the point. There was something about the space, the windows, the visual access to the outside that set this woman at ease. Hers is not the only such story I’ve heard along the way.
The room needs to be hospitable. The table has to be set, and the food prepared. But it’s what happens at the table that is most powerful.
A year ago, on a Spring day, I biked down Dunsmuir, up Hornby, hopped across a few lanes of traffic, ducked into the alleyway behind Hy’s and nosed my way up towards the Cathedral. Office couriers were smoking and gossiping before their morning deliveries. But that Friday morning, something was missing. The tarp structure that had housed Jimmy, our long-time neighbour, was gone. The only remaining evidence of his existence were the piles of dust and dirt that had accumulated where the pallet’s slats—once a bed—had been. By the time I returned on Sunday, even that had been swept away.
What happens at the table is most powerful. Sometimes it’s nearly inexplicable. The shifts in the Maundy Café: our space, our approach, our service style, not to mention the Cathedral Food Philosophy that informs it all, have helped us to focus more on the relationships made possible by our new configuration. As we’ve come to know Café guests, we’ve been able to hear their stories and to share ours. As trust has been built, some guests have shared details about their situations. Some stories have been hard to hear. I imagine that most of them are even harder to tell, let alone relive.
There’s something about coming together around a shared meal. There was something about conversation over Maylene’s Malaysian Chicken Curry that led to a different kind of discussion with Jimmy, that led our volunteer team to reach out to partners at the Carnegie, that led to a housing consultant coming by one day, that led to Jimmy landing a spot in one of those new Temporary Modular Housing units last spring. A place to call home after nearly a decade living behind the church. That piece of wall even got a fresh coat of paint. Resurrection stories all around. And we get to be a part of that story. It may start with a shared meal, but it doesn’t end there.
It starts with a meal and moves towards mutual transformation. My life is being transformed. The lives of our staff, volunteers, and guests are being transformed by Holy encounters with God in one another. It’s around the table where Jesus is the host and we all are guests that we are finally able to see our shared humanity, no matter how central or marginal we are to the way society currently organises itself.
Which brings me back to those shared meals that we envisioned off the top.
All too often—when we think of the kind of food programs that churches provide—we start with a soup kitchen or food bank lineup and we tweak the model from there. But how does our approach change—how do we change if we start from a memory, a vision, an icon of a shared meal that we just can’t shake? How might we be transformed if we start with an experience of joy, electricity, and connection that resonates deeply every time we reflect on it? How might that change the way we live in the world? I think about Peter, James, and John on the mountaintop, and how that moment changes everything for them.
Here at the Cathedral, we’re seeking to live into that same kind of transforming vision. We’re harnessing the power of good food, to be sure. But more than that, we’re harnessing the experience and feeling of the best shared meals to enact the kind of prophetic vision that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah point towards on that mountaintop. As we join Jesus on that road to the reality of our shared, frail humanity later this week on Ash Wednesday, we need to keep these mountaintops in sight.
The road for Jesus and his friends would be long and hard. It would have more twists and turns than they could imagine. But that moment, filled with mystery, wonder, and awe, set a direction. It was in itself a direction and a signpost that the disciples would feel in their bones long after they’d descended from the mountaintop. Long after the meal had ended. That gives me hope.
Because even now, people in this city remain hungry. Income inequality is increasing. People are being forced into impossible choices about which bills to pay. Structural injustice is everywhere. Some days it seems as though the Maundy Café plays only one small, seemingly insignificant role in alleviating poverty in this town.
And yet, it too has become a sign, a vision, an icon of God’s dream for a better world. For some, this is the one place that they hear—in words and in action—“you are my child, my beloved. In you I am well pleased.” And this year we have an opportunity to deepen this ministry and expand its reach.
The Maundy Café has inspired another meal like it in Kitsilano organized by a cluster of churches. Our experience is being turned into a toolkit for faith communities starting or re-envisioning community meals with a justice lens. Just two days ago, Cathedral staff convened the third gathering of stakeholders invested in dignified food access for residents of the city. In June, an article I wrote about the café will be published in a new collection of theological essays focused on themes of home and homecoming. We continue to press into this work. And we do so, inspired by our encounters with Jesus on the mountaintop and at the table.
From the personal to the systemic, this Cathedral church is bringing its own experience of that mountaintop gospel vision and the hospitality of this table to the streets, church basements, kitchens, and boardrooms of the city. And each time we enter a new room, we have the opportunity to ask those who we meet:
What story would you tell if I asked you about your favourite memory of a shared meal?