Monday, October 13, 2008

Trinity 21 - Fr Edward Dowler

In the Danish film Babette’s feast, set in the 19th century, a Frenchwoman Babette becomes the cook for some sisters who live an austere and puritanical existence in Jutland, Denmark. The sisters and the small congregation that meets in their house have many good things about them. They are kind, hospitable and, in their way, generous, but they are also extraordinarily frugal and austere, suspicious of all types of pleasure and luxury. After giving them fourteen years of faithful service, Babette unexpectedly comes into some money, and so she decides to order from France and serve to the community the most glorious meal: sea turtle, quail, fine wines and many other delicacies. The sumptuous banquet has a transforming effect on the community. It fires the spirits of its members, brings reconciliation, heals old wounds, and puts an end to superstitions. Ultimately they discover that Babette has spent all of her money on this one meal.

Today’s Old Testament and gospel readings also speak of sumptuous banquets. In Isaiah a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wine, God wiping away the tears from his people’s eyes, taking away their disgrace. And again, Jesus’s parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew’s gospel speaks of invitations to a fine banquet with oxen and fat calves; invitations extended first to a group of ungrateful recipients and then to everyone in the streets. Both readings speak of a God who is unstinting, who gives plentifully and abundantly, of an important New Testament word: pleroma, a word that speaks of fullness, completeness, superabundance, generosity. It points us to a Lord whose ministry is marked by feasting, who promises life in all its fullness, who tells his disciples that ‘a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap’. But do we always remember God’s abundant provision? I would say not.

One example comes when we think about subjects such as care for the environment, or global poverty. Often the question that seems natural for people to ask is about how we are to make do, how we are to survive with limited resources; how we can share things out as carefully as possible out from a finite and ever-depleting pool. But that surely isn’t for Christians, the right question to ask, for our starting point is that of a God who gives with extraordinary generosity and superabundance; who always provides his people with very much more than enough. Of course the abundance of what God gives can be abused, and of course what he has richly given can be distributed with grotesque injustice. But the fact remains that our starting point for thinking about these questions is not scarcity, but plenty; not how to parcel out scanty resources, but how best to celebrate the generosity of an abundant giver, and do so in a way that honours rather than exploits the generosity of his gift and seeks to reflect that generosity.

Another, entirely different example of the way in which we assume that there is scarcity when in fact there is plenty, concerns the tortured question of the way in which we use God’s word in scripture to reflect on moral questions. And, again, the assumption often is that it’s all very difficult, that God somehow hasn’t given quite enough for us really to work out how we ought to live. In the words of one writer on this matter, if you’re going to derive any moral insight from the Bible, you need ‘a high degree of knowledge, discernment, theological acumen, understanding of human nature and society’, otherwise you’re likely to go badly wrong. But in the Pentateuch, the writings of the prophets, in the psalms, the Song of Songs, the Sermon on the Mount, in all these places and many more, quite the opposite is the case. God has given an embarrassment of riches, an extraordinarily rich and vivid canvas against which we live our lives in the world as moral beings. And, again, this is not to say that everything is easy, for of course there are difficult issues, uncertainties, problems of interpretation. But the problem is not that God has given too little, but again, how we should rightly respond to his having given so much.

As it appears that we are moving into a period of economic slowdown the passages of scripture that speak of generosity, excess, superabundance will become ever-more important. And it may be that one of the main tasks of the church in the next few years will be to bear faithful witness to a God who is not stingy, but gives abundance of gifts, abundance of life, abundance of love and grace; and to help people to live lives rooted in wonder and joy, rather than envy and fear.

But the theme of abundance also makes me slightly cautious. It’s the same feeling that I get when I read the many parish mission statements that say, as they so often seem to, that such and such a parish wants to show everyone ‘God’s unconditional love’. My problem is that God’s generosity isn’t just thrown at us. And that’s why this great biblical theme of abundance and generosity needs, it seems to me, a little bit of sharpening at the edges. For, receiving the abundance that God gives comes with cost and with responsibilities. In one of my favourite books, the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out forcefully to his fellow Lutherans that, while God may give his gifts and his grace freely and abundantly, he does not give them cheaply. He does not simply immerse us in them, and not bother about whether or not we respond.

So, we are taught in the New Testament that the measure that we receive is the measure that must give out; that from those to whom much is given much will be expected. And this, I think, relates to the fate of the man at the somewhat surprising end of Jesus’s parable in today’s gospel; the man who comes to the wedding banquet but won’t wear a wedding garment. He’s someone, it seems, who will come and take what is on offer, but who signifies by his refusal to wear the wedding robe that he won’t truly enter into what is happening; that he won’t commit himself to participating fully and actively in the generosity of the host; that he won’t allow himself to become caught up in the great movement of God’s generosity. And that being so, he is bound hand and foot and cast into outer darkness. It is a parable about abundance, but one with a very sharp and uncomfortable edge.

And where is the place in which we most clearly see this abundance and generosity; because it is not just anywhere and everywhere but very specifically in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s here that we see God’s generosity most clearly focused: Christ’s emptying of himself in the incarnation, his life overflowing into the resurrection; the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost. But as for Babette who, by participating in that great movement of generosity and abundance ends up losing all she has, for us to share in the banquet of Christ means that we’ll also share in the overflowing cup of his suffering. The chalice that we will receive today is not only the overflowing cup of Christ’s abundant life, but also the overflowing cup of his suffering; and those two elements are inextricable from one another this side of the Kingdom. ‘Are you able,’ he asks his disciples, ‘to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘we are able’. Let us hope that we may be able to say that also.