The sermon for week November 04, 2012
November 4, 2012
All Saints and Holy Communion
A few years ago I met several times with the members of the Diaconate of this church to consider the meaning and manner of celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion within our church's community of faith. We began our study with the table itself and gradually added the elements of the meal as we were encouraged to reflect in silence on our own experience of Communion over the years. Then we were invited to share the memories and feelings that emerged for us during the reflection. The stories we shared were as rich and varied as the religious traditions that gave rise to them. While the experience that supported our memories differed, there was a consensus among us that the images invoked by this meal informed and encouraged our faith in God's mercy and grace.
Holy Communion is a celebration of thanksgiving. With its scripture readings, hymns and prayers it is also a time to remember, to reflect on who we are in relationship to the One who invites us to this table. It is also a time to remember those with whom we have shared this table, and to thank God for the lives they have lived among us. To encourage our reflection and remembrance this morning I would like to share with you a story from a favorite author.
Isak Dinesen is, perhaps, best known for the memoir she wrote about the years she and her husband managed a coffee plantation in British East Africa entitled Out of Africa. During the 1980's one of her stories became something of a cult classic when it was made into a movie, entitled "Babette's Feast."
Ever since I saw this beautiful film, years ago, I have thought it had much to teach us about Holy Communion, the sacrament we celebrate this morning in fellowship with other churches throughout the Christian community. Perhaps you will agree that Dinesen's Danish tale has much to teach us about ourselves, our relationship to each other and about God's abundant grace.
The story takes place during the 19th century in Norre Vosburg, an impoverished fishing village on the coast of Denmark, a town of muddy streets and thatched-roof hovels. In this grim setting a white-bearded Dean leads a group of loyal worshipers. Theirs is an austere Lutheran sect that has renounced all worldly pleasures. They dress in black and their bland diet consists of boiled cod and a gruel made from boiling bread in water fortified with a splash of ale.
On the Sabbath the group meets together and the Dean leads them in singing songs about "Jerusalem, my happy home." Their eyes are fixed on the New Jerusalem. Their life on earth is endured as a means of getting there.
The elderly Dean is a widower with two teenage daughters, Martine and Philippa, named for Martin Luther and his disciple Philip Melanchthon. The two girls are radiantly beautiful, a quality that shines through even their black clothing's drab disguise.
Martine caught the eye of a dashing young cavalry officer. When she successfully resists his advances--after all, who would care for her aging father? The young man rode away to marry instead, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Sophia.
Her equally beautiful sister, Philippa, had the voice of a nightingale. When she sang about "Jerusalem my happy home", shimmering visions of the heavenly city seemed to appear. And so it happened that Philippa made the acquaintance of the most famous operatic singer of the day, the Frenchman, Achille Papin, who was spending some time on the Danish coast for his health. As he walked the dirt paths of this backwater town, Papin heard to his astonishment a voice worthy of the Grand Opera of Paris.
"Allow me to each you to sing properly," he urged Philippa, "and all of France will fall at your feet. Royalty will line up to meet you, and you will ride in a horse-drawn carriage to dine at the magnificent Cafe' Anglais."
Philippa consented to a few lessons, but only a few. Singing about love made her nervous, and the flutterings she felt inside for Papin troubled her further. When an aria from Don Giovanni ended with a kiss and an embrace, she knew beyond a doubt that these new pleasures must be renounced. Her father, the Dean, wrote a note declining all future lessons, and Achille Papin returned to Paris as disconsolate as if he misplaced a winning lottery ticket.
Now, fifteen years have passed and much has changed in the village. The two sisters are spinsters now. They have attempted to carry on the mission of their deceased father, but without his stern leadership the sect has splintered badly.
-One Brother bares a grudge against another concerning some business matter.
-Rumors spread about an affair involving two of the members.
-And a pair of old ladies have not spoken to each other for a decade.
Although the sect still meets on Sabbath and sings the old hymns, only a handful bother to attend, and the music has lost its luster.
Despite all these problems, the Dean's two daughters remain faithful, organizing the Sabbath service and boiling the bread for the toothless elders of the village.
When one night, a night too stormy for anyone to venture out on the muddy streets, the sisters heard a heavy thump at their door. When they opened it, a woman collapsed on their doorstep in a swoon. They revived her only to find she spoke no Danish! She handed the two sisters a letter from Achille Papin, the French opera star. At the sight of his name Philippa's face flushed and her hand trembled as she read a letter of introduction from Papin. The woman's name was Babette. She had lost her husband and son during the civil war in France. Her life was in danger, she was forced to flee. Papin had found her passage on a ship in hopes that the village of Norre Vosburg might show her mercy and hospitality. "Babette is willing to work and she can cook!" the letter concluded.
The sisters had no money to pay Babette and felt dubious about employing a maid in the first place. They distrusted French cooking. Didn't they eat horse meat and other strange things? But through gestures and pleading, Babette softened their hearts. She would do any chores in exchange for room and board.
For the next twelve years Babette worked for the sisters. The first time Martine showed her how to split a cod and cook the gruel, Babette's eyebrow shot upward and her nose wrinkled a little, but she never once questioned her assignments. She fed the poor people of the town and took over all housekeeping chores. She even helped the sisters with Sabbath services. Everyone agreed that Babette brought new life to the stagnant community.
Since Babette never referred to her past life in France, it came as a great surprise to Martine and Phillippa when one day, after twelve years, Babette received her very first letter. Babette read it, looked up to see the sisters staring at her, and announced matter-of-factly that a wonderful thing had happened to her. Each year a friend in Paris had renewed Babette's number in the French lottery. This year her ticket had won! Ten thousand francs!
The sisters pressed Babette's hands in congratulations, but inwardly their hearts sank. They knew that soon Babette would be leaving.
As it happened, Babette's winning the lottery coincided with the very time the sisters were discussing a celebration to honor the hundredth anniversary of their father's birth. Babette came to them with a request. "In twelve years I have asked nothing of you," she began, they nodded. "But now I have a request: I would like to prepare the meal for the anniversary service. I would like to cook for you a real French dinner."
Although the sisters had grave misgivings about this plan, Babette was certainly right that she had asked no favors in twelve years. They reluctantly agreed to Babette's request.
When the money arrived from France, Babette went away briefly to make arrangements for the dinner. Over the next few weeks after her return, the residents of Norre Vosburg were treated to one amazing sight after another as boats docked to unload provisions for Babette's kitchen. Workmen pushed wheelbarrows loaded with crates of small birds. Cases of champagne-champagne! and wine soon followed. Then the entire head of a cow, fresh vegetables, truffles, pheasants, ham, strange creatures that lived in the sea, a huge tortoise still alive and moving his snakelike head from side to side-all these ended up in the sisters' kitchen now firmly ruled by Babette.
Martine and Phillippa grew increasingly alarmed over this apparent witch's brew. They explained their predicament to the members of the sect, now old and gray and only eleven in number. Everyone clucked in sympathy. After some discussion they agreed to eat the French meal, withholding comment about it lest Babette get the wrong impression. After all, tongues were meant for praise and thanksgiving, not for indulging in exotic tastes!
It snowed on December 15th, the day of the dinner, brightening the dull village with a gloss of white. The sisters were pleased to learn that an unexpected guest would join them: 90-year old Miss Loewenhielm would be escorted by her nephew, the cavalry officer who had courted Martine so long ago, now a general serving in the royal palace.
Babette had somehow scrounged enough china and crystal and had decorated the room with candles and evergreens. Her table looked lovely. When the meal began all the villagers remembered their agreement and sat mute, like turtles around a pond. Only the general remarked on the food and drink. "Amontillado!" he exclaimed when he raised the first glass. "And the finest Amontillado I have ever tasted,” he swooned.
When he sipped the first spoonful of soup, the general could have sworn it was turtle soup, but how could such a thing be found on the coast of Jutland?
"Incredible!" said the general when he tasted the next course. "It is Blinis Demidoff!" All the other guests, their faces puckered with deep wrinkles were eating the same rare delicacy without expression or comment. When the general rhapsodized about the champagne, a Veuve Cliquot 1860, Babette ordered her kitchen boy to keep the general's glass filled at all times. He alone seemed to appreciate what was set before him.
Although no one else spoke of the food or drink, gradually the banquet worked a magical effect upon the churlish villagers. Their blood warmed. Their tongues loosened. They spoke of the old days when the Dean was alive and of Christmas the year the bay froze. The Brother who had cheated another on a business deal finally confessed and the two women who had feuded found themselves conversing again. A woman burped, and the Brother seated next to her said without thinking, "Hallelujah!"
The general, though, could speak of nothing but the meal. When the kitchen boy brought oust the coup de grace, baby quail prepared en Sarcophage, the general exclaimed that he had seen such a dish in only one place in Europe, the famous Cafe' Anglais in Paris, the restaurant once renowned for its female chef.
Heady with wine, his senses sated, and unable to contain himself, the general rose to make a speech. "Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together," he began. "Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another." And then the general had to pause, for he was in the habit of forming his speeches with care, conscious of his purpose, but here, in the midst of the Dean's simple congregation, it was as if the whole figure of General Loewenhielm, his chest covered with decoration, were but a backdrop for the message meant to be brought forth. The general's message was grace.
The Brothers and Sisters of the sect did not fully comprehend the general's speech, at the moment, so lost were they on their own reflections of this wondrous night; and soon the little company broke up and went outside into a town coated with glistening snow under a sky ablaze with stars.
"Babette's Feast" ends with two scenes. Outside, the old-timers join hands around the town's historic fountain and lustily sing the old songs of faith. It is a communion scene. It was as though Babette's feast had opened the gate and grace stole in. "They felt," adds Isak Dinesen, "as if they had, indeed, had their sins washed white as wool, and in this regained innocent attire, they were gamboling like little lambs."
The final scene takes place inside, in the wreck of a kitchen piled high with unwashed dishes, greasy pots, shells, gristly bones, broken crates, vegetable trimmings, and empty bottles. Babette sits amid the mess, looking as wasted as the night she arrived in the village twelve years ago. Suddenly the sisters realized that, in accordance with the vow of silence, no one has spoken a word to Babette about the dinner.
"It was quite a nice dinner, Babette,” Martine says tentatively.
Babette seemed far away. After a time she said, "I was once the cook at the Cafe' Anglais."
"We will all remember this evening when you have gone back to Paris, Babette,” Martine adds, as if not hearing her.
Babette told them that she would not be going back to Paris. All her friends and relatives there had been killed or imprisoned. And, of course, it would be expensive to return to Paris.
"But what about the 10,000 francs?" the sisters asked.
Then Babette dropped the bombshell. She had spent her winnings, every last franc of the 10,000 she won, on the feast they had just devoured. "Don't be shocked,” she told them, that is what a proper dinner for twelve costs at the Cafe' Anglais."
In the general's speech, Isak Dinesen leaves no doubt that she wrote "Babett's Feast" not simply as a story of a fine meal but as a parable of grace: a gift that cost everything for the giver and nothing for the recipient. This is what General Loewenhielm told the grim-faced parishioners gathered around him at Babette's table:
"We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. In our human foolishness and shortsightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite... but the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it with gratitude."
Twelve years before, Babette had landed among the graceless ones. Followers of Luther, the villagers had heard sermons on grace nearly every Sunday; but the rest of the week they tried to earn God's favor with their pieties and renunciations. Grace came to them in the form of a feast, Babette's feast, a meal of a life-time lavished on those who had in no way earned it, and who barely possessed the faculties to receive it. Grace came to them as it always comes: Free of charge, no strings attached, on the house.
Behind the sacramental meal we share is the extravagant gift of God, for the people of God. The common meal we share cost Jesus his life. This is the mystery we must never forget, even if we don't understand it.
Grace spreads a table before us, and invites us to "lift up your hearts" and joyfully receive these gifts "in remembrance of me."
Grace is as simple, abundant, and amazing as that! Amen
I am indebted to Philip Yancey, who uses this tale as the introduction to his book, What's So Amazing About Grace? for the re-telling of this classic story.