Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
This Sunday was our first week back to Sunday School for the program year. The kids, the teachers, and some of the grown-ups talked about their hopes for the coming Sunday School year. The kids really liked that they were able to be teachers sometimes. They want to do more of that this year. They also really hope that there will be snacks.
You Go After That One Lost One? Luke 15:1-10
"Martine, I'm worried about this." So says, Fillipa, one of the two sisters at the center of the story in the film, Babette's Feast. "Martine, I'm worried about this." What exactly is she worried about, you might ask? A meal, a feast, in fact, that their friend Babette has offered to cook for them in honor of anniversary of their belated father's birth. Initially, their primary concern had been the time and expense such a meal would incur. They had always offered only a simple meal at this commemoration. They were hesitant to allow her to cook something more because they had never done it that way before. But, Babette, who had lived with them for fourteen years since fleeing France during the civil war, insisted. She said, have I ever asked you for anything? And, they agree, she hasn't. She has cooked for them, and for the other elderly members of their isolated Danish religious community, for years with no compensation beyond their companionship and a roof over her head. How could they not allow Babette to prepare this meal for them using her own lottery winnings? They could receive this kind gesture from her, especially since they assumed that she would soon take those winnings and return to France.
They grew concerned, though, as the time for the celebratory meal grew closer. As Babette began to gather a sumptuous and astounding variety of foods for the meal, Martine began to have nightmares of hellish flames burning up the rich foods and devils dancing into the feast. She and Filippa began to see this meal not as an act of love but as a temptation, a wholesale assault on their faith by way of earthly extravagance. Martine, in a hushed apology to the others in her small community, shared that she feared that they have exposed themselves to sin by virtue of this meal. The others agreed. They'd seen the rich food and drink that Babette had delivered to the settlement. They usually lived on salted fish and gravy-thick ale-bread soup. They have come to see the deprivations that they endure in such a rural settlement as symbols of their faith. Their simple food, simple homes, and hardscrabble life was not just bad luck, but it was a sacrifice they endured in order to be closer to God. This feast, un vrai diner francais, a true French dinner, as Babette calls it, cannot possibly reflect a proper relationship with God. It is simply too much... to much meat, too much wine, too many exotic fruits from far away places. They knew that God was with them in their lean meals, offering sustenance beyond what they could afford. They were not at all sure that God was present in un vrai diner francais. It was so extravagant.
They were right about one thing... the meal was extravagant. Four kinds of wine and champagne, all of which were of the highest quality and some of which were quite rare. Caviar and tropical fruits graced their tables, with the fruit being particularly rare and difficult to bring to rural Denmark in 1885. The entrée was quail stuffed with pate and some other delicious stuff that I couldn't identify cooked with figs and wine and baked in a crispy crust. There was some amazing cake that looked to be soaked with brandy. And, more wine. Babette cooked and cooked and served course after course of beautiful food. All the while, her eleven friends, the people she had helped tend to for nearly a decade and a half, said not one word about how great it tasted. That's right. Not one word as course after beautiful course is laid in front of them. Well, that's not exactly true. They did talk. They talked about the weather and share stories about Martine and Fillipa's father. He had been the religious community's pastor and was beloved by everyone around the table. However, they say not one word about their meal. Despite the obvious looks of pleasure on their faces with each bite and sip, they say nothing of the meal in hopes that their silence will save their souls.
There is only one person sharing the dinner who speaks of the beauty of the food, a general named Lorens. As a young man and struggling soldier, he had worshiped in the isolated community and had fallen in love with Martine. However, after months of pining for her attention and being rebuffed, and months of hearing sermons about a powerful and unsparing God, he had grown disconsolable. He said that he had learned that life is hard and cruel and that some things are simply impossible. He left the community, and the woman he loved, and poured all of his attention into his work. While he flourished professionally, eventually marrying and gaining a regular place on the royal court, he felt like his life had been unnecessarily hardened because of his time in the midst of this religious community. However, in spite of his wordly success, he was not sure that his spirit had been tended to properly. He had traveled back to the small community to settle an old argument with himself, to see if he had truly made the right choices in his life. He became the twelfth guest at this rich and surprising dinner.
He loved it. He delighted in the rare wines and complicated hors d'oeuvres. He was overjoyed by the turtle soup, tipping the small bowl up into his mouth so that he would not miss even one drop. Even though he participated in the storytelling about their pastor, he did so not as a distraction from temptation, but as a participant in a holy meal, using the stories to connect to the people around him. As the entrée was placed before him, he tasted it and smiled. He shared one more story, this time of his days in the military when he was once invited to the best restaurant in Paris. He ate an amazing feast there, all cooked by a chef who he was surprised to learn was a woman. She was a genius, a true artist who's palette was food, not paint or charcoal. He had been told that every meal was an expression of love, making no distinction between bodily and spiritual appetite, sharing with all who came to her restaurant a little piece of the Divine with every bite. One dish in particular shined above the rest, quail lovingly and richly prepared. The dish that they were eating was that quail. Quite suddenly, anyone watching the film realizes that Babette was that chef. When one of the other diners whispers "hallelujah," we agree. Another diner quotes the pastor, "The only things we take from this life on earth are the things we give away." And, suddenly, it seems clear why Babette has made this great meal. And, why, we would soon find out, she spent every cent she had on it... $10, 000 francs.
Jesus once said that God is like a shepherd who foolishly leaves ninety-nine sheep vulnerable in the wilderness while he goes looking for the one who has wandered away. When he finds the silly sheep, he runs home and calls all of his buddies in for a party to help him celebrate. He has found his lost sheep. He must rejoice. Jesus also said that God is like a woman who has lost a day's wages somewhere in her home. It's a fair amount of money, but, it's not all she has. She has another nine days wages stored up. Still, she searches for what has been lost. She turns over every couch cushion and checks in the washing machine. When she finds the cash balled up in a lonesome sock at the back of one of her drawers, she calls all of her friends to come over for a party. She has found the coin she was looking for and wants to celebrate. She then spends more than the coin was worth to throw the party. I wonder if Jesus might also say that God is like a refugee chef who feeds the best food in the world to people who thought they only deserved salted fish. How foolish... and extravagant... and loving... and divine.
God who is foolish and extravagant and loving... that is the God that we have come to know through Jesus. This is God who loves enough to follow after each person when they are lost... extravagant enough to waste more than what was lost in the search... foolish enough to chase after every single lost one, even when ninety-nine more are back in the woods just waiting to go back to the barn for grain. God is always seeking and always celebrating the ones who have been lost but now are found. But, God will keep on doing it anyway, looking right past the ones who have already been found, to the next one who is lost.
In the film, the extravagance in the food and love in the stories shared, finally seems to do the holy work of seeking out the ones who need to be tended to. Babette is finally able to soften the fears of the diners, helping them to live into a faith that had become rigid and stale. We see inklings of renewed divine relationship as they finish their meal. People who had been arguing make amends. Everyone sings in praise to God together. At last, they begin to offer thanks for the wonderful food. They return to their simple homes, saying "God bless you" to one another as they leave. Even Lorens, who once saw the world as a cold, hard place, saw a new vision of a world of blessing where "anything is possible." The sisters even thank Babette for her extravagant, delicious, and foolish gift. And, as it turns out she won't be going back to Paris. She knows that she is home. And, thanks to her meal, her neighbors know something more about God's extravagant, unconditional grace. I pray that we can all remember this kind of loving extravagance. And, I pray that we can be like Babette and pass some of that grace along to people who need it.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
David Schnasa Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2959
Pulpit fiction podcast: http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/184-proper-19c-september-11-2016
The film Babette's Feast, directed by Gabriel Axel: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092603/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.