When I was growing up, there was a pecking order at the Peacock house that played out in different ways. It was sounded out every time my mom called for one of the six of us. She would rattle off our names from the oldest to the youngest: Maureen, Timmy, Joani, Bernie Clare. Joseph. One of us was bound to show up. This pecking order also played itself out at our dinner table — or should I say dinner tables.
Each evening at supper time, my parents ate in the dining room while my brothers and sisters ate in the kitchen. My parent’s table was set with Lenox China and Waterford Crystal; the kitchen table with Melmac plastic and Flintstone Jelly Jars (which we thought were awesome, I must add.) Sometimes even the menu varied: Beef Wellington on the Lenox; fried chicken on the plastic plates. Even on vacation this ritual was kept. My parents would dine at a fancy restaurant and leave it to my older sister to take us to a cafeteria. (Though on at least one night we all go to the fancy one!)
These seating arrangements taught me a lot, not about food but much more about what it means to belong. One’s place at the table speaks volumes.
Have you ever seen Babette’s Feast? It’s a famous film based on a book by Isak Dinesen. It tells the tale of Phillipa and Martina, daughters of a protestant pastor, in a little village in the north of Denmark. Their father’s strict religious discipline shaped not just their lives but the life of their little community. There was not much joie de vivre going on in their village.
A very possessive father, he prevents his daughters from marrying. And even after his death, to honor him, the sisters feel bound to carry on his unhappy pious ways.
One stormy night, a woman, a political refugee from Paris shows up on their doorstep. They reluctantly take her in. She is called Babette and she is very grateful for their hospitality. In exchange for food and lodging, Babette agrees to take care of the two aging sisters. And keeping her promise, she cares for them for many years to come.
Then one day, a stroke of luck befalls Babette. Every year since she has left, a Paris friend, has purchased a lottery ticket in her name. Babette wins a small fortune and is beside herself with joy. She decides to throw a feast for the sisters and the little village that took her in. The neighborhood buzzes with excitement but the sisters worry. They are afraid that Babette will leave when the feast is done – and leave them all alone.
Babette, in a frenzy, prepares for the feast — a feast, the likes of which the village has never seen before.
But the sisters and the local faithful are met with a dilemma. According to their dear departed father, such a feast is sinful and gluttonous. Their religion is about fasting not feasting. They don’t want to hurt Babette’s feelings so, they do go but intentionally decide that they will not enjoy it! Absurd, right? Party poopers, one and all.
Ah, but Babette has worked her culinary magic. She was a chef in a former life before she sought refuge. She knows how to throw a party. She spares nothing and cooks up the finest of foods. Every single villager, from the highest to the lowliest gets swept up in the excitement of it all. Even the dour sisters cannot help but join in. Someone starts to sing a hymn.
And then another someone says, “The stars have moved closer tonight.”
All that feasting carries them away.
Still the sisters hang their heads. Surely Babette, with her fortune made, will be leaving them now. “I cannot leave you,” Babette declares “I don’t have a penny left. I spent it all on the feast.”
After all the food is gone, much more valuable is the little community communing around Babette’s table.
In Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus having dinner with some Pharisee friends on the Sabbath. A scholar writes:
Jesus is certainly preoccupied with eating. Not only does he imply that some think he is a glutton and a drunkard (7:34); there are in Luke more references to eating, banquets, tables and reclining at tables than in any of the other Gospels.Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4
At his friend’s table, in intimate gatherings, Jesus teaches, spins parables, and hangs out with a motley few. But for a wedding feast, Jesus needs a really big table where you pull out all of the leaves to extend it as far as it is able. To make room for all that food and all those chairs and all of those unexpected guests – especially the uninvited ones.
Jesus’ table is where the last are welcome as the first. There is no seating chart. The have’s do not get better seats than the have-nots (though not for lack of trying!) There are no dueling dining rooms like there were at the Peacock house. Jesus’ table is a healing place where divisions cease. Divisions, between rich and poor; black and white; male and female; gay and straight; refugee and native born; even Democrat, Republican, and Independents, too!
Sounds like a table only Jesus could set, right? A fantasy feast only possible when the Kingdom comes. But the kingdom comes right here, right now. With every meal served at Carpenters’ Shelter. With every sandwich made for the Bag Lunch Program. With every delivery made for Meals on Wheels, and every time the ALIVE Food Pantry overflows.
And how does the kingdom come to your kitchen table, to your family feast? With family and friends, of course, but Jesus is asking us to stretch. Kind of hard to do at home, I totally agree. But that is what is being asked of us.
Remember the larger table, God’s Holy Table. Here, every Sunday, we break bread with those who are different than us, disagree with us, and who are new to us.
And what is true of communion, is just as true for coffee hour. Or should be! Coffee hour is not a church invention, it was a marketing scheme for coffee companies to sell more coffee. In the 1950’s, companies like Maxwell House and Chase & Sanborn gave away free coffee urns and free coffee samples to faith communities. Instead of just shaking the pastor’s hand as you headed out the door, you could linger after church and get to know your neighbors. Coffee Hour (Capital “C”, Capital “H”) is a nearly universal Episcopal tradition.
A time to stretch beyond the familiar and get to know the strangers in our midst. I bet dollars to donuts, there are people you share a pew with each week who possibly you have not ever really met.
Don’t be shy. Walk up to someone you have never talked to before and introduce yourself. Pour them a cup of coffee, have a conversation. Appreciate what you have in common. Respect any differences. Laugh at each other’s jokes. Coffee Hour is a sacrament, you know, Holy Communion by another name. A place where everyone is welcome – whether you drink coffee, or not.
So, in celebration of Jesus’ Great Feast, let’s close with one of my favorite prayers from Brigid of Kildare:
I would like a great lake of the finest ale for the King of Kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food for the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,
And the food be of forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast, for they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast, for they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,
And the sick dance with the angels.
God bless the sick. God bless the poor.
God bless the human race.
All homes, O God, embrace.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog