When I was growing up, there was a pecking order at the Peacock house. It played out in different ways. It would be sounded out every time my mom called for one of the six of us. She would recite a litany of 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 was also on display at our dinner table — or should I say dinner tables.
Each evening at supper time, my parents ate their dinner in the dining room while my brothers and sisters and I were relegated to the kitchen. Dr. and Mrs. Peacock’s table was set with Lenox china and Waterford crystal. While the kids had Melmac Plastic and Flintstone Jelly Jars. Sometimes my parents even ate different food: Beef Wellington on their plates, fried chicken on ours. We actually had to serve my parents their dinner first before we could sit down to eat ourselves. Even on vacation the ritual was observed. My parents would dine at a fancy restaurant and leave it to my older sister to schlep us to a cafeteria.
These table arrangements taught me a lot. I did not learn much about food, but I did learn to know my place.
Such is the story of Babette’s Feast, a 1987 film based on the 1950 short story by Isak Dinese and set in the 19th century. Maybe you have seen it. 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 community. There was not much joie de vivre going on in the little 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 austere unhappy 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.
But the sisters and the locals have a dilemma on their hands. 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 accept her invitation to the feast. But they 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.”
But 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, after all the money is gone, the village is not impoverished. Much more valuable is the little community communing round the table.
In Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus communing 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; maybe even Democrat and Republican!
Sounds like a table only Jesus could set, right? A fantasy feast only possible when the kingdom comes. But the kingdom is right here, right now. — at the kitchen table.
Has the kingdom come to your house? Just how many of your grade schooler’s soccer friends, how many of your spouse’s random coworkers, how many of your college student’s roommates, how many of your in-laws outlaws, just how many more strangers can you squeeze in around your dining room table? I am not talking about Martha Stewart here — I am talking about biblical hospitality — the thankless kind! Ha!
And what about that larger table? The Lord’s Table. Here, every Sunday, we break bread and share the cup with those who are different than us, disagree with us, and who are new to us. (Make no mistake, despite outward appearances, there is a lot of diversity sitting in Emmanuel’s pews.)
And what is true of communion, is certainly true for coffee hour. Or at least it should be!
Coffee hour is not a church invention, it was a marketing scheme cooked up by 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 churches. Instead of just shaking the pastor’s hand as you headed out the door, you could linger after the service and get to know your neighbors.
Coffee Hour (Capital “C”, Capital “H”) is a nearly universal Episcopal tradition.
With a little caffeine, coffee hour can help you climb out of your comfort zone. I bet dollars to donuts, there are people you share a pew with each week who maybe 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, let’s toast the Great Feast of Jesus, and lift a cup-of-Joe in thanksgiving for everyone crowded around his crazy table. As Saint Brigid prayed,
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 from 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 our human race. All homes, O God, embrace. Amen.