October 15 Sermon by Rev. Rilla Barrett

A week ago, we gathered to remember, to celebrate, to give thanks for Bill Howes. Family, community, word and sacrament lead to a banquet of unbelievable portions…. This is what we do as people of God.  We remember, we celebrate, we mourn, we come together over food…and we are, with God present, transformed…transformed, comforted, and fed, even in the midst of our deepest losses.

 There seems, just now, to be an abundance of loss…of tragedy, violence.  Rev. Bill’s fine sermon from last Sunday, which I was as pleased to read as you were to hear, calls us into the sure knowledge that God does not forget us, despite the violence and loss in our lives.

            Matthew’s gospel readings have featured parables for five weeks in a row. Parables were favorite teaching tools for Jesus, the inveterate teacher.  The word parable is, of course, from the Greek, and means something close to “to place or cast something side by side with the intention of making some sort of comparison.”  Jesus used these simple stories to make spiritual teachings, or to make analogies with things heavenly next to things earthly.  And so, we take the gifts of these parables, and, as Godly Play teaches our children, we open them to see what is hidden. However, it is hard to get past the initial story, for some seem, well…harsh. 

            Last week’s parable was the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, which featured dishonest tenants, beatings, killings and stonings.  The Sunday before was the Parable of the Two Sons, and in it, those who did not believe rightly were banished to follow the prostitutes and tax collectors into the kingdom of heaven. (They went to the end of the line.) Today’s gospel, much the same, I’m afraid, is the Parable of the Wedding Feast, in which, invited guests to the king’s son’s wedding do not show up, and then slaves are sent to round up the lax guests. But many shrugged them off and then others rounded up the slaves and killed them.  The enraged king sent troops to destroy those murderers, and burned their city. Then, calming down, the king must have thought, goodness, I have all this food, someone, anyone, go out into the main streets and invite everyone you see…tell them it’s a banquet…and for my son! Everyone is welcome! Well, they came, of course they came, wouldn’t you? and were enjoying themselves, until the king noticed the one who is not dressed in the proper attire, a wedding robe, and once again the king, in a fit of pique, orders the guest into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. So, this is the earthly part, and I ponder just what is the heavenly part.

 I have many questions about this parable…. Why wouldn’t guests, invited to a king’s son’s wedding banquet, not show up?  And why, when reminded, would they refuse to put on their finery and go?  Certainly, they’d have wanted to hang with a socially superior man, a king.  It could even have led to a promotion of some sort. And, when all in the streets are invited, how is it that everybody just happens to have a wedding robe on…except the one?  And wouldn’t the palace have an extra robe, like some fancy restaurants today have a couple of spare sports jackets and ties ready for those who make the faux pas of forgetting to dress for dinner?  Why cast the one into the outer darkness amongst all the teeth gnashers?  This is all far too much darkness for me, and it is hard to find the good news, or the heavenly part.  All this, of course, following on the heels of the worst mass shooting in our nations’ history, consuming forest fires in Northern California, and a whoop de doer of a hurricane season. Puerto Rico will be affected for months, if not years, and Florida and Texas are still mopping up parts of their state.  It is hard to come to terms with all of it. 

            Today’s parable, like many of the others in this series, have themes of vengeance, anger, and judgement, and all within the context of Jesus’ last week of life.  He has entered Jerusalem, and though we are reading this now, not in Lent, we feel his walk to the cross gaining speed.  As we move through the weeks ahead between now and Christ the King Sunday, the gospel lessons seem to ask, “What sort of God is this, and what power does God have?”  Will those with evil intentions get what’s coming…or not?

Isaiah tells of some darkness as well…”those with ill intentions, cities of ruthless nations will fear you,. . . the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place.” And the psalmist of this oh-so familiar 23rd Psalm speaks of walking through the darkest valley.  Certainly, reading the paper, we ask, “Where is God in all this?” 

It is almost enough to take us down if we didn’t notice something.  The feast, the banquet, the spreading of the table, the killing of the fatted calf, the roasted oxen, the marrow and tables laden with the finest meats, poultry, produce, fresh bread, vegetables and herbs… and pitchers of well-aged wine, mead, and ale, It is, it seems, that God’s response to the lousy decisions of God’s creation is to spread a table.  A banquet, with food…and, notice, the Psalmist says, “. . . in the presence of my enemies” and Isaiah says, “the feast will be for all peoples…all peoples”, and the King in Matthew, when rejected by those invited, then sent for everyone in the street to come…everyone.  This is the gift offered by God.  Enough for everyone to not be in want, enough to share in abundance, to indulge one’s self in God’s bounty and to feel satisfied and to belong.  Banquets are not a single-person event. 

Mealtime establishes the rhythm of our days.  We have breakfast foods – cereals, fruit, protein.  We have working lunches – sandwiches and salads, and we have dinners back home with the family, or picnics at the side of the practice field when the children are at soccer practice.  Meals nourish us on a regular schedule, but are usually and often the place we gather with those whom we love and integrate the happenings of their day with ours.  Food is the common element.  And mealtime is much more evident on a grander scale, during the holidays.  Thinking about Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners, we eat more lavishly, and usually with more people, elastic waistlines welcomed.  Further, mealtimes are often integral parts of milestones, like weddings and funerals. These meals center around life’s larger story, changing life’s direction and meaning – not only for those most intimately involved, but for the larger family unit and community as well.  Mealtime is more than food, and I think we are often transformed in the act of sharing food with others and the conversations that may occur.

Two sisters lived with their father in a remote village in Denmark in the 19th century.  The father was a pastor of his own church, a pious and austere sect, but when he died, the congregation began to dwindle, even as the aging sisters tried to keep it going. 

In their youth, the two, young and beautiful sisters had many courters, but their father, who eschewed marriage, rejected each beau, and the dutiful sisters sadly clung loyally to their father, determining they would not leave him nor the small village. Years later, following their father’s death, and with them responsible for each other, and the faithful of the small church, a refugee from Paris arrived. The young woman had been involved in political dissonance and she showed up at their door with a letter of recommendation that she might serve with them as a housekeeper.  Alas, the sisters could not afford such luxury, but the young refugee offered to work for free. She cooked and cleaned for the sisters and their congregation, serving only the blandest of food, aligning with their austere practices, and slowly gained the trust of their very inward community. The refugee’s only contact with her former life was a lottery ticket, which she owned and renewed each year.

One day news reached her that she has won the lottery…10,000 francs, but instead of using the money to return to Paris, she decided she would cook a meal of sumptuous foods, for the sisters and their congregation, and in honor of the founding pastor’s hundredth birthday.  The feast would be an outpouring of her appreciation and somewhat an act of self-sacrifice.  She told no one that she was spending her entire winnings on the meal. She dispatched her nephew to go to Paris and purchase plentiful and exotic and sumptuous foods, and when he returned with them, the sisters begin to worry that the meal would be a sinful display of sensual luxury – or even some sort of devilry. Because they respected the servant and saw that she had gone through a great deal in preparing for the meal, they decided to take part in it, but determined that they would not speak of any pleasure in the food, nor talk about the food as they ate.

One of the sister’s former suitors was invited, as he was married to a member of the queen’s court.  Not knowing of the sisters’ austere ways, he regaled his table mates with his estimation of the scrumptious foods…very much like those he had eaten in fancy restaurants in Paris.  But it is the gifts of the servant, Babette, and her feast, were that they that broke down the walls of fear and distrust that had kept them all separated. Babette's gifts of food, of feast and banquet, broke down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them physically and spiritually. Conversations began that ran deep. Old wrongs were forgotten, ancient loves were rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settled over the table.

When the pots and plates are cleaned and the real celebration complete, the sisters thanked Babette, the servant who had served them for 14 years, and said that they understood that she would, no doubt, now return to her home in Paris, but Babette was at home in the village among the community.  Her gifts of gathering and serving, all around food, had transformed their isolation and their fears.  They will feast again…perhaps not at that level, but they would feast again, even amid darkness in the world.

Food, family, community are a good combination.  Think of your own family gatherings and the prominent nature of food – especially feasts during the holidays.  We often leave fully sated, vowing to meet again, and soon.  And that is, I believe, another gift in this parable.

Jesus often dined with tax collectors and sinners, symbolizing what life in God’s kingdom will be like.  Talking about banquets and feasting is to remember the arduous nature of the feast in the upper room, how they continued to dine on the reassurance and grace of that meal through the hard times that followed.  Matthew may be saying to us, “remember how it felt at that table… remember how food and fellowship transformed us and fed us, and sent us…. for what we needed to endure after….” Remember it, even with societal misdeeds and evil intentions swirling around us.  Remember how it felt to feast at that table.   Because, despite everything…. We will feast again. 

Lord of the feast,

you have prepared a table before all peoples

and poured out life with such abundance

that death cannot claim the triumph over your universe.

Call us again to your banquet

where we may receive your holy food,

and strengthened by what is honorable, just, and pure,

be transformed into a people of righteousness and peace.  Amen