Salvation al Fresco

There are certain phrases in dining in other languages that we use for aspects of dining here in the United States in ways that are very different from their literal meaning. Pie “à la mode,” for example, means pie with ice cream here. But “à la mode” in French really means “in the fashion,” so what you’re literally ordering is “fashionable pie.” Which sounds tasty, and could very well include ice cream, but if you simply ordered “fashionable pie,” you’d probably get a strange look. There are actually a whole set of myths about who began associating that phrase with ice cream in the United States, which boil down to the idea that someone simply ordered ice cream on their pie, which blew the minds of the waiters, and the diner replied by declaring it “à la mode,” fashionable, despite the fact that they were apparently inventing it on the spot. A lot of fashion is just confidence, I suppose.

Calling our main course an “entrée” is even more puzzling, because “entrée” in French means “entrance,” which by definition the main course is not. It comes from the fact that fine dining in the United States once consisted of fifteen courses, and the “entrée” was the course that came just before the roast meat and was considered a prelude to it; hence, the entrée. But by the 1920s, people were no longer associating wealth or attractiveness with having a large girth, and dining service was shortened from fifteen courses down to five. The term entrée was kept on the menu, though, because restaurants wanted something French on their menus as a sign of quality, so they went with entrée basically because it made the meal sound fancy to U.S. ears regardless of its actual meaning.

Then there’s al fresco dining. This time the language is Italian, and it’s used in the United States to mean eating outside. Which actually is at least somewhat connected to the literal meaning of the Italian phrase, which is “in the coolness” or even “in the chill;” before air conditioning, dining al fresco would have been cooler in many cases than inside a cramped restaurant in the summer months. But if you go to Italy, don’t ever ask someone where you can dine al fresco. That’s because Italians use the phrase “al fresco” as a euphemism for “in prison,” a bit like how prison is sometimes called “the cooler” in English. So you’re likely to get some strange reactions if you tell people that you just love to eat in prison and can they point you in the right direction?

This scene that the prophet Isaiah describes is intended to be a particularly enticing description of what we sometimes call Judgment Day, the end of the world. But as you heard, this is nothing like the typical depictions of Judgment Day that we’re familiar with. There are no moons turning into blood or seas boiling, no earthquakes or volcanos, not even any dogs and cats living together. Instead, we get “salvation al fresco,” with God hosting a sumptuous feast outside on the slopes of Mount Zion, God’s holy mountain in Jerusalem where the Temple once stood: “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” This is what God’s day of salvation will be like, Isaiah says: better than the greatest meal you’ve ever had. It will be like fine dining outside, in the fresh cool air, with everyone eating better than a king ever did, with the richest food you can imagine and wines so well-aged that you have to strain out the sediment first to savor them.

And it will be on Mount Zion, the place where God’s house once stood until the Babylonian armies destroyed it not long before this prophecy happened, an event so devastating that it shook the faith of the Jewish people to the foundations. That’s because the Temple was considered the unique dwelling-place of God, the place where God promised to meet God’s covenantal people and be reconciled with them through the worship life of the church. For that Temple to be destroyed, it followed, God must have abandoned it or it could have never fallen; and if God abandoned it, then God must have abandoned the people, as well. That’s why it is so significant that Isaiah’s vision of salvation is al fresco here, rather than inside a rebuilt Temple. Isaiah is telling the people that neither they nor God need the Temple to experience God’s direct presence and receive God’s gracious salvation; the Temple was a means to an end, not an end unto itself.

Sometimes we get confused about that, whether we’re talking about buildings or even the act of worship itself. We begin to think about church buildings or worship services as places that contain God rather than ways we can reliably encounter God. But this church building is not holy, is not sacred, in and of itself; it is holy because of what happens here. And what happens here is always ultimately about the presence and initiative and action of God and then our response to that; the building and the worship service are simply the means through which we experience. To lose sight of that means that we are worshipping al fresco in the Italian sense: turning what should be an experience of freshness and openness into a kind of prison in which we try to constrain and regulate God’s presence and movement according to the ways we would prefer to experience it.

Which is why it’s important to understand that the most radical thing about Isaiah’s vision isn’t just that it’s outside the Temple, but that it’s for “all peoples.” It reminds me of the first time that I preached in Zimbabwe, where my previous church had a mission partnership. When Sunday came, I was invited to preach at one of the congregations in our partnership, which was in a rural area outside the capital city of Harare. We drove there early, and found a small and simple church building in a good-sized field that shone as the sun glinted off the morning dew. The building itself probably had enough room for 200 people, but when I began to walk toward it, my host called me back. “No, no,” he said laughing, “the building is too small to hold God’s people,” and gestured to the field: “This will be our sanctuary today.” Sure enough, almost 900 people showed up for worship, some walking as far as 25 miles on foot to get there, and my host translated my sermon line-by-line so that those who spoke only the Shona language would be able to hear it. And we sang and prayed and danced and preached and ate together out in the coolness of the grass as a fresh breeze moved through it. Worship, quite literally, could not be imprisoned in the building; to be open to everyone, it had to be al fresco.

Whenever we gather in worship, whether there are 900 or 9 people, it is always supposed to be a foretaste, an appetizer, of God’s “salvation al fresco” that Isaiah is describing, in which all peoples finally gather around God’s table for a feast the likes of which has never been seen before. No Temple or sanctuary can hold it; no walls can guard it; no barriers can divide it, not even the shroud of death itself, which is especially fitting to remember on All Saints’ Day. So as we gather around the Lord’s table on this All Saints’ Day, “with all the faithful of every time and place” as the Communion Prayer says, consider how we here at First Presbyterian of Bethlehem are called not simply to be guests at the table, but waiters; not simply those who receive but those who serve. Because it is our calling and mission not just to enjoy this holy meal, but to help all those who are hungry to find a seat, and take a plate, and share in God’s grace together, the richest of foods and the best-aged of wines, until everyone is filled, and satisfied in the freshness of God’s unfailing love.


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