“A Feast of Grace”

July 22, 2018 + Pentecost 9B

Psalm 23

“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” “You prepare a table before me.” “My cup overflows.” “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.”


The Twenty-Third Psalm speaks of a “Good Shepherd” that leads his flock to a “Feast of Grace!”  A grand everlasting banquet made up of the richest foods; the “Bread of Life,” and the best wine, with cups filled to overflowing. It is the feast that celebrates God’s victory over death!  We often only hear the Twenty-Third Psalm read aloud at funeral services, a very appropriate time to be reminded of the promises it proclaims, but today, here on this Sunday in the season of Pentecost, a season also referred to as “Ordinary Time,” we are reminded that Psalm 23 is not just for Funerals, it’s a promise for every day!  It’s a reminder that every time we gather we celebrate a “feast of grace,” a feast that is incredibly full and filled to overflowing, a reminder that life in Christ Jesus is never ordinary, but rather always extra-ordinary!  Today we are invited to once gather, “This is the feast of victory for our God, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!” “To come and taste and see that the Lord is good!”


Unfortunately, life doesn’t always appear to us as a feast of grace, sometimes we just can’t see it, sometimes we can’t seem to choose it, and sometimes we even deny ourselves a seat at this heavenly banquet.


This morning I would like to share with you the story of “Babette’s Feast,” as re-told in the movie of the same name.  The movie, a cult classic of the 1980’s, takes place in Denmark in the late 19thcentury, but the original story took place in Norway amongst an austere Lutheran sect.  (Close to home)


This sect all wore black, they ate boiled cod and gruel made from boiling bread with a splash of ale.  They occupied themselves not with the things of this world but only with the hopes and dreams of the new heavenly Jerusalem, they just tolerated life on earth as a way to get there.  They often remarked that food and drink was meant only to sustain the body in order that we might do the will of God, eating and drinking was not to be enjoyed.


When the strong leader of this group dies, his two daughters take over the life of the community.  They continue with the austere life, boiled cod, gruel, and the toleration of life on earth until the New Jerusalem arrives.  Yet without their father’s stern leadership the group began to fall apart.  There was a dispute over a business matter, the rumor of a sexual affair, some people stopped speaking to one another.  Yet through it all the two spinster sisters remained faithful, organizing the worship services, preparing the cod, and boiling the bread.


It is to this community that Babette arrives. One stormy night she came unexpected to their door, she was fleeing the civil war in France where she had lost her son and her husband, she could not speak their language, all she had was a letter of introduction from an acquaintance of the community.  The letter begged the people of the village to show her mercy, to take her in, and added that Babette can cook!


Well the sisters had no money, they did not want a maid, and they distrusted her cooking ability.  Didn’t the French eat horses and frogs?  But Babette pleaded and softened their hearts. For the next fourteen years Babette worked for the sisters in exchange for a place to live.  She learned how to split a cod and cook the gruel. 


One day news came from France that Babette had won the French Lottery, 10,000 Francs! (A considerable amount of money) The sisters shook Babette’s hand in congratulations but inwardly their hearts sank. They had grown attached to her but knew that with the money Babette would soon be leaving, she would be able to return home.


As it happened, Babette’s winning the lottery coincided with the very time that the sisters and the worshipping community were discussing a celebration to honor the hundredth anniversary of their father’s birth, the beloved former leader of the sect.  Babette asked the sisters if she could cook them all a real French meal as part of the anniversary.  The sisters had misgivings about the plan, (French Food?) but Babette had never asked for anything - so they agreed.


As soon as Babette’s “prize money” arrived she went to work ordering the food for the banquet.  Strange and incredible things begin arriving at the village; Crates of small birds, cases of champagne and wine, the head of a cow, fresh vegetables, truffles, pheasants, hams, strange creatures that lived in the sea, a huge tortoise.


The “Austere Lutherans” began to be very, very worried about this feast. It seemed wicked!  Remember, “Tongues were meant for praise and thanksgiving not indulging in exotic tastes.”  They talked it over and decided they didn’t like it but that they would eat it for the sake of Babette.  No matter what happened they would be silent about the meal and prayerfully let their concerns pass.


Finally, the day arrived, the meal began, and the members of the sect sat reluctantly and uncomfortably around the table, remembering that they agreed to go ahead with this feast despite their reservations about it.  Silently they ate!  Finally, a guest of honor, not from the sect, a general in the army, exclaimed his marvel at the food.  “Incredible,” “amazing,” “unbelievable,” he raved.  Although no one else spoke of the food or drink, gradually the banquet worked a magical effect on the old churlish sect.  Their blood warmed, their tongues loosened, and they talked about the old days. And those who were feuding with each other made up; those who were not talking to each other broke the silence, a woman “burped aloud” and a man exclaimed “Hallelujah!”  And through it all the general could not stop talking about the meal; he was so amazed to find this meal in this place, he exclaimed that only once had he seen such a great meal, only one othe time in his life had he experienced such a menu of delight.  He reminisced about a very similar meal he once had at a famous restaurant in France, an establishment known for its highly accomplished and very treasured - female chef!


The meal ends with the members of the sect once again singing the songs of faith, but with a newfound freedom, with a new passion, with a  robust love for life, here and now, in the present moment.  Babette’s feast had opened the gates to their stubborn hearts and grace had poured in.


The final scene of the movie takes place in the kitchen.  Babette sits there surrounded by pots and pans, exhausted from all of her work. The sisters decide to break their vow and speak about the dinner, “It was quite a nice dinner Babette.”  After a time, Babette reveals, “I was the woman chef at the café the general spoke about.”  “We will all remember this evening long after you have gone back to Paris,” one of the sisters replied.   Babette then tells them that she will not be going back to Paris.  All her friends and relatives have been killed or imprisoned, and besides it would be too expensive.  “But what about the 10,000 francs?” the sisters ask.  Then Babette drops the bombshell; “I spent every bit of the money on the meal we just had!”


As good Lutherans they had heard sermons on grace almost every Sunday but until Babette’s excessive, over the top feast, that cost everything, they had never allowed themselves to “receive” such grace. 


I suppose the question for us today is, “Have we been to this great banquet?”  “Have we ever opened up and truly experienced the feast of grace?”


It seems that sometimes we think of this great banquet as only a future event.  We are like the people who lived at the time of the prophets, only able to look forward to that day when God will appear.  We have relegated Psalm 23 as text to be used only at funerals, a text about the end of life, and not a promise about everyday life, right here and right now.


Yet today our liturgy proclaims just the opposite.  Let the vineyards be fruitful, Lord, and fill to the brim our cup of blessing.  Gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown, that we may be fed with the bread of life.” “Grace our table with your presence.”  Do we not realize that today all is ready for us, the table is set, the banquet is ready, the food is served, and the wine is being poured to overflowing?


Perhaps we too have misunderstood the feast?  Perhaps we have become preoccupied with our work, the realities and pressures of the so called “real world?”  Perhaps we don’t believe that we really deserve a feast?  Perhaps our outlook on faith and life has become “austere,” “rigid,” “somber,” and even“grim?”  Perhaps we have somehow become disconnected with hope and joy?  Perhaps sometimes because of the simplicity of the meal that sits on our altar, a piece of bread dipped into wine, we forget how much the meal costs?  


Yet in this simple meal God spends everything; it is bread, a body broken; and wine, blood poured out. It is a meal marked by God’s excessive passion, God’s incredible love for us, for you, for me, for friend, for neighbor, and for stranger.  A love that sets us free to see life in a totally different way, in a way that truly sets us free, and in a way that shows us how to truly live! 


Yes, “Now is the feast and celebration.”  Soon this table will be prepared, and you will be invited.  Don’t under estimate what might happen here, come and be transformed by the excessive love of God for you in Christ Jesus!  And in that costly love, the great feast poured out for you, find freedom, peace, hope, and love; a passion for life, the heavenly Jerusalem here and now; “The Way, The Truth, and The Life;”Your place in the kingdom, and your call to live in and out of the abundant passionate life of faith.  Amen.


Psalm 23


The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.