I love stories. I love to tell a good story. I have one about when I was in Munich and meeting some Russians that kills. I love to watch TV with great stories like Better Call Saul. They draw me into the life of characters, understanding people I would never know in real life and don’t even much like. Great novels do the same thing. I am reading a great book now about an 18 year old Italian in World War II who spied on the Nazis. Stories help us make sense of the world. By exploring the lives of others, we end up understanding our own lives better. Stories are good gifts, but if clutched too tight, they can also limit our willingness to accept new facts and new experiences that run counter to the story we have been telling for years. Because each story we tell after all is just a shading of a truth. All of our stories are just what we can see and understand from our vantage point at that place in that time.
Think about the stories we tell just to figure out our parents. Growing up, I was convinced my father loved my brother more than me because Keith was athletic and I was not. Keith was good at basketball and my dad not only put a slab of concrete in our backyard so he could practice, but even coached his teams. I lacked basketball skills. My dad’s nickname for me on the court was Tank, because my best move was just to knock people over and hope I didn’t get called for a foul.
In eighth grade, I went out for football and I failed miserably. Because I was so bad, I became the source of ridicule by the coach and the players. I came home crying after a month wanting to quit. After hearing about the latest humiliation on the field, the locker room and the bus, my mom thought quitting made sense, too. I told her I can’t quit because Dad will be so disappointed that I can’t play football or basketball. My mom laughed and said Dad doesn’t care. Sports aren’t important to him. He never played any sport in high school and never watched any sport on TV.
This was new information that didn’t work into the story I was telling about Dad. It made clear that my dad didn’t like my brother better because of sports. Fortunately, it made me reconsider whether my dad liked Keith better than me at all. I realized he praised us equally, disciplined us the same and was quiet around both of us. The simple story I had told no longer made sense. It took years for me to create a new story to speak to the truth of a complicated, primary relationship.
It is hard to look at a story that we have always told with fresh eyes. It seems almost dangerous to consider a new way to think about something that we have already made our mind up about. We are unmoored a little when we blow up how we understand those in our most primary important relationships. God is our most primary of relationships. Kay Morrissey, our Traditional Worship Leader likes to warn me that when people have their image of God messed with they tend to get upset. For the early disciples of Jesus, the revelation that came from the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus really messed with their story of God.
The disciples of Jesus were all Jewish, as was Jesus who was a Jewish Rabbi or teacher. The core belief of Judaism is that there is only one God. Their experience of Jesus challenged this core belief. Jesus was not just a prophet, a great teacher, a miracle worker or even the Messiah sent by that one God. Jesus was God. Jesus was God, but spoke to his father in heaven and promised to leave behind the power of his love in the Holy Spirit. One God but three different parts of God, too.
For Jews who became Christian in the early church, this was a real crisis. How do we tell a different story about God after Jesus? In the II Corinthians text we read today, we hear the apostle Paul in 55 AD or so, just twenty years after Jesus was crucified, playing with new language about God. His ending to the letter, which is actually the beginning we use at every one of our worship services, is not quite Trinitarian, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But it is something close. Paul is fussing with language like every good story teller does, to express his experience of Jesus.
The Matthew text we read has the last words of Jesus in Matthew clearly identifying God as Trinity. The disciples left behind are to baptize Jesus in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Since there are no actual recordings of Jesus’ words, maybe more interesting than Jesus saying this is thinking about how the great storyteller Matthew came to remember Jesus saying this. Matthew probably wrote this account in 70 AD, nearly four decades, a generation after Jesus had died and been resurrected.
One generation away from Jesus, their experience of him was already clearly redefining their core belief in the one God. Yes, there is only one God, but God has revealed God’s self to us in Jesus as three distinct parts or personalities. By the time of Matthew, just 40 years after Jesus, the language they would use to tell this new story of Jesus would be Trinitarian. Jesus revealed the richness of God and they needed new language to express that revelation.
Once, Christians started telling this new story about God revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they started reading all of scripture with that story in mind. Now in the Genesis story of creation they heard the work of the Trinity. The Father creates and imagines. The Son puts words, flesh, body to the Father’s ideas. The Spirit brings life with her breath to everything that swims, flies and walks about. The original author had no thought of the Trinity in mind when he wrote down this poem. Now, for us telling a new story about God, revealed in Jesus, it seems so obvious.
Kay is right. Jews in the early church that messed with the image of God so fundamentally, got shown the exit. Yet, God is still causing controversy in our churches because God is still about revealing more and more of God’s self to us. Our God longs to rbe made known. God reveals God’s self through the Holy Spirit in our neighbors, in the creation, in the Church that gathers in God’s name. This means that we are constantly asked as followers of God to not only tell the old stories of God but be willing like the early church to tell new stories of God. These new stories will likely challenge the image of God that many will fight to hold onto.
If we clutch too hard to who we think God is, we miss the God that is making herself known in a new way. A good story only gets us so far, which is why we should never stop telling new ones. There might be a day when what God reveals to us through the Holy Spirit means that even that Trinitarian story doesn’t seem to fit as well as it used to. If that happens, hang on tight for the good thing God will do next. Amen
The scripture text for this sermon is Luke 24:13-35.
The 1987 French Film called Babbette’s Feast is set in a village in the 1800’s on the dark, rocky and forbidding Danish shoreline. The entire village is part of a Protestant settlement, similar to the strict Puritans that made their home in New England. The village was founded by the father of two unmarried sisters. The father is dead now, but he is remembered for his strong faith, pure life, and demanding nature that fit well with the difficult landscape that he had chose to live.
The sisters had suitors and opportunities to move from this forbidding and harsh village. They chose not to, out of loyalty to their father. The movie revolves around a visitor to this village, Babbette. Babbette is young, beautiful, boisterous, extravagant, French and Catholic. None of these traits endear her to the village or the sisters. She is fleeing France because of her anti government activity which also makes her suspicious. The sisters, even though they do not approve of Babbette or her ways, take her in because it is the good Christian thing to do.
Babbette manages not only to offend the sisters but nearly every one of the unsmiling, gray clad villagers. She is oblivious to the disapproval that follows her every move and only wishes to repay the villagers for their kindness. She gets her chance when she is left money in France. She decides to spend the entire winnings on a big preparing a huge feast for everyone. We find out that she was a famous chef in Paris.
She orders extravagant animals like sea turtles, quails, fish eggs and young calves for her meal. The sister’s home begins to look like a zoo. She grows excited for what she is planning as each new herb and delicacy arrives. The women look on with disapproval at the waste. They gather the other villagers together in a meeting without Babbette. They tell them that although they disapprove of the meal, it would not be Christian if they did not attend. They make a pledge with the others that they will eat the food but they promise to swallow quickly and not taste or enjoy it.
The day of the feast comes and everyone sits in their gray, black and white clothes looking more ready for a funeral rather than a celebration. The courses are served with Babbette theatrically and grandly fussing over the details. The villagers hold to their promise and chew quickly and swallow without comment or word. Babbette seems not to notice. The great delicacies mount, soon small morsels of taste cannot help but be noticed by the villagers. They start whispering to each other what they have enjoyed. The expensive wine loosens even further the rigid posture of the villagers at the feast. By the end of the meal, they are laughing, singing, toasting and anxiously awaiting the next treat. Babbette’s feast transformed these dour, sour, sad people into a raucous, singing thankful people. For once they looked like the joyful people their Sunday hymns consistently declared they were.
The village is made up of religious sort of people. Religious sort of people understand bad news and low expectations; they don’t seem to understand Good News and abundance. Religious sort of people understand and are weary of evil; they don’t seem to understand God’s goodness and are consistently surprised by it. I like to think of the two disciples walking away from Jerusalem towards Emmaus in our Gospel today as typical religious people. They were sure that evil had triumphed yet again. Their lot was to endure, just as the lot of the villager’s in Babbette’s Feast was to endure.
The two disciples knew Jesus. They told the stranger that came upon them completely, accurately the story of Jesus. He was a prophet. He did great things. He was arrested, tortured and killed. They believed he would be the one sent to save them. They had been wrong. They knew this because now he was dead. They had all the head stuff down.
These two disciples knew Jesus, but didn’t trust Jesus. Knowing is head stuff. Trusting is heart stuff. The stranger, who it turns out is the risen Jesus, says that they are slow of heart. Slow of heart seems better than hard of heart. Hard of heart would mean they didn’t get any of it. They were walking away from Jerusalem. They are simply going in the wrong direction. They are escaping with their slow hearts, to Emmaus, to lick their wounds and wait for the next tragic disappointment from God.
Like the villagers in Babbette’s Feast, because they know what the right thing to do is, they invite the stranger in for a meal. It is in this act of kindness, inviting Jesus to eat with them, that allows their slow hearts begin to burn hot. Their disappointment turns to joy. Their faith, what they knew up here, took on flesh and it becomes who they are here. They know and trust Jesus.
As religious people we often reside near God but not in God. Our faith is full of knowledge but there is no flesh on it. We have hearts for God, but those hearts never burn. We eat at the table, but don’t taste or enjoy. We mouth the words to joyful hymns, but we never shout the Alleluia’s! when given the chance. We know Jesus, but we have stopped trusting Jesus.
I don’t want to be the dour gray clad Christians in Babbette’s Feast or the disappointed disciples in our story from Luke. Join me in being surprised that God’s love for us is deeper than God’s disappointment in us. Together we can encourage each other to trust that the goodness in life survives even when the thicket of evil seems to choke it out. As community, we can celebrate the gifts we have been given, share them generously, and love extravagantly. As church, we can sing great joyful hymns as thankful, saved children of God. I want to know and trust Jesus, with you.
Today, move the head stuff of faith into the heart stuff of actions. Do the right thing, even if you don’t think it will make a difference. You know what is right. You know Jesus, now trust him, too. Be open to the possibility of God’s love in the most unlikely people, the crazy Babette, the bothersome strangers. Though this world is still broken, God is fixing it and you are part of the joyful repair. Though evil is all around God’s goodness is greater and you are part of that goodness. Smile! God’s love is great. Sing! God’s gifts are abundant. Love! God’s promises are real. Taste! God’s table is fantastic. Alleluia! Amen