May 7, 2023
Rev. Scott Landis
The gospel lessons in the season of Eastertide are typically from the book of John. The theology expressed in John’s writing is so spot-on, but he does offer some of the most complex concepts to comprehend making it quite a challenge for preachers and for parishioners. Today’s story is no exception.
In John 14 Jesus is engaged in ONE of what biblical scholars refer to as the “Farewell Discourses.” These comprise Jesus’ final words and attempts at teaching his disciples some very important lessons while he was preparing to leave them. It’s important to note, historically this scene occurs before his arrest and crucifixion, yet we are reading it on a Sunday that follows our annual celebration of the resurrection. Our context – that is where we stand in history – may help us understand more fully the apparent ignorance of the disciples who do not seem to grasp what Jesus is trying to tell them.
Jesus wanted his disciples to know that in seeing him and in experiencing his teaching and example they were also seeing God – the one Jesus referred to as his “Heavenly Father.” He wanted them to understand that not only did God dwell within HIM, but that God also dwelled among and within them physically and spiritually as well. Jesus wanted them to know that the God who sent HIM would abide with THEM long after he was gone. This really made their heads spin.
So, questions from Thomas like, “How can we know the way?” And comments from Philip like, “Show us the father, how can we know the father?” may make a little more sense given THEIR place in history. Having gotten so caught up in the details, they could not allow themselves to experience the unbridled joy, the true gift of love, the abundant living, the abundant love, the abundant union that was being offered in the person of Jesus AND while abiding in God’s love. They almost seemed blind to the gift being offered. Sometimes it’s so easy to miss the gift that is right in front of us. OR, what might initially appear as the gift may be something else entirely. [Pause]
Last Christmas my daughter gave me such a gift that may help to explain this. I didn’t realize initially how much it would mean to me. It’s a program called Storyworth, modeled somewhat after the StoryCorps concept often heard on National Public Radio. Storyworth is a year-long writing program where the recipient (me, in this case) is prompted each week with a question on which I am invited to write several paragraphs that reflect the story of my life. Some examples are, “Tell us about your first or best date ever, or Where did you go on family vacations? Or describe a Christmas memory from your childhood?” Questions of that nature along with uploaded photographs will eventually comprise a kind of memoire that the Storyworth people will publish in book-form for a yet undisclosed fee. That could be another story entirely. No matter, my daughter’s gift will eventually become my gift to leave the kids. And I am sure having fun doing this since I love to write.
This past week the prompting question was, “Talk about the best meal you have ever had.” At first I laughed when saw the question. If you know anything about me, you know that food is very low on my list of priorities. It’s not that I dislike food. On the contrary, but as my mom would often joke, she lived to eat whereas I only ate to live. Oh, I like to eat but I’m far more interested in the event that surrounds eating – that is, in the people who gather for the meal – the conversations that unfold – and how we are changed having shared a meal together. For me it’s much more about the relationships than the food.
Hang with me – I am slowly going somewhere with this.
You see, I responded to my Storyworth prompt by reflecting on one of my favorite films which beautifully unpacks this idea. The film is Babette’s Feast. If you’ve not seen it, do look it up. It’s well worth your time. Babette was a young Parisian woman who was hired as a housekeeper to a strict Danish family who started a very conservative church in Jutland. Over the years the church became so insular that it began to dwindle. With no new members and the insistence on following strict, oppressive rules, the community degenerated. It was not a place of joy but one of fear and of resentment kept firmly buried.
One year Babette won a lottery which gave her $10,000 francs – money she could not spend in Denmark, so she decided to purchase all the trimmings for a proper French feast including all the wine parings and extravagant desserts and after-dinner cordials. She had everything purchased and shipped from France for her famed feast. It was her gift to the minister’s family and the small congregation on the day of the founding pastor’s 100th birthday.
The food was exquisite, and the stern believers seated at the table didn’t quite know how to respond. Could such grace really be “of the devil” as they had surmised? I can’t say the wine had nothing to do with it, but I think it was her generosity and the extravagance of Babette’s gift that literally turned the table (pun intended) and transformed them. Conversation soon began to flow, and folks started to chuckle and then to belly laugh. Much to their surprise they were having the time of their lives. By the time the last cordial was served the group was singing and later dancing as the family noticed all that Babette had given them. A newfound joy emerged as their hearts broke open and their lives warmed in ways they had not felt in years.
As I reflected on the film in my Storyworth entry, I was not surprised that I didn’t remember very much at all about the food. But I DO remember how their lives were changed and of the smile on Babette’s face when she witnessed the result of her gift. The stern religious family discovered something much more important than strict observance of the rules of their faith. And they realized that what they had received was much more than an extravagant feast. They discovered the gift of the one who gave everything she had and the importance of caring for one another. [Pause]
Jesus tried to communicate to his disciples the same message the scriptures seek to communicate to us today. “In my father’s house are many dwelling places.” In other words, there are many places for you to abide. Many seats at the table. Many places for you to spend time with ke Akua. We are invited to live, and move, and have our being in relationship with the same God who lived and moved and had his being in Jesus. And while it may be nowhere near as extravagant as Babette’s Feast – the simple meal we will eat today reminds us, once again, of that same invitation – of abiding in God’s love – AND – of God’s invitation to “come unto me.” Abide with me. I will give you rest.
But the story doesn’t end there. After we receive that magnanimous gift symbolized in a very simple meal, we are commissioned to go forth into the world and offer the same to others.
We are blessed to gather together here in worship (with those physically present, with those watching on livestream, AND with the saints who surround us in eternal aloha). We gather together to abide in God’s Holy Love as we sing and pray, but we cannot stay here. The invitation is “to go,” to continue onward to the dwelling place Christ prepares for us – sharing our gifts with a world in need.
In the words of the hymn we sang just before I began my sermon.God calls humanity to join as partners in creating,
A future free from want or fear, life’s goodness celebrating.
That new world beckons from afar, invites our shared endeavor,
That all may have abundant life and peace endure forever.
May it be so,