Sunday, June 28, 2009

In praise of feasting

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Mark 14:12-25

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Most Americans have forgotten how to feast.
Yes, here in this land flowing with milk and honey.
A country that ranks among the world’s highest standard of living,
among the most fertile and productive farmland,
and most abundant food supply . . .
here in this very land, we have forgotten how to feast.
And Mennonites are some of the most feast-impaired Americans.

As Mennonites living in an affluent western society,
we have two strikes against us
when it comes to learning how to feast well—
the values of the culture we live in,
and the values of our own Mennonite community.

But before I say what those values are,
and how they make us feast-impaired,
let me tell you what I mean by feast.

I’m speaking of feasting in its historical and biblical sense.
I’m speaking of feasting as a communal ritual,
as a shared practice of celebration.

Biblical examples of feasting are many, and various.
Time and again the people of God gathered to feast,
either spontaneously, after some great move of God among them,
or as a carefully planned and ritualized observance,
to obey God’s explicit and detailed instructions to feast.

The patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—
often spontaneously ordered a feast
after some significant encounter,
with messengers of God, with kings, even with strangers.
They made a feast for weddings, for birthdays,
for other milestone events.
They always prepared a large quantity of good food,
and called together a great number of people,
so their joy could be shared with as many as possible,
and everyone would be made merry.

And when God established a covenant with the people,
God explicitly ordered the people to feast.
Told them how and when and with whom they should celebrate.
And those established feasts had two primary purposes.
They were to build a stronger sense of community—
of belonging together as God’s particular people.
And they were to praise the work of God among them,
to remember, to celebrate,
to rehearse the stories of the past
so they might never forget
the wonders of what God did among them.

The prime example of such a feast,
was the one God ordered in Deuteronomy 26, today’s text.
After the people settled in their new land,
and harvested their first crop,
they were each to bring to the place of worship
a basket, full of the first and finest of their harvest,
they were to set it down before the priest,
and then give praise and glory to God by retelling the story
of how God was with their wandering father Abraham,
how God led and delivered them over generations,
until they came to this place.
And then the priest would put these baskets together,
and the food would be prepared,
and all the people of Israel would come together and feast.
Their community would be strengthened by this feast,
as all were welcomed,
including the widows, orphans, and foreigners.

Over time, three major annual feasts were celebrated.
There was the Feast of Passover, the greatest feast of them all,
when the people recalled the day of their miraculous deliverance
from slavery in the land of Egypt.
And there was the Feast of Booths
that celebrated the general harvest,
but also marked the beginning of the 40 years in the wilderness
and God’s provisions for them there.
And there was the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost,
that celebrated God’s faithfulness in the wheat harvest,
and later, came to also celebrate God’s gift of the law at Mt. Sinai.

And there were numerous other lesser feasts,
in between the major ones.

Each feast underscored how dependent they were
on the God who called and provided for them,
and how dependent they were on each other
as a people in community.
These feasts were a communal practice
of celebrating the good work of God . . .
a practice that strengthened their peoplehood,
and strengthened their worship of God.

Yes, there was lots of food, and usually lots of rich food—
wine and bread and meat and vegetables.
More than enough for all.
Some of the feasts, like the tithe of the harvest,
had a missional component.
They were not just for the inner circle of the Israelites.
They were commanded to invite the widows, orphans, and aliens
to join them in the celebration,
so no poor person would go hungry.

That’s the kind of feast I’m talking about—
a feast with plenty of good rich food and drink,
by which to make merry,
but a feast with the explicit purpose and goal
of building up the community,
and celebrating our complete dependence on God.

Now perhaps you can begin to get a sense of why I say
we tend to be feast-impaired.
As I said, we have two strikes against us.
We’re Americans and we’re Mennonites.

As Americans, we live in a culture that teaches its citizens,
and teaches them well,
to squeeze all the personal pleasure you possibly can out of life.
It shapes people for the relentless pursuit of happiness.
It values abundance to the point of excess.
Americans know how to splurge, and binge,
and put on big parties with lots of food and drink and pleasure.
But they are not careful to connect those pleasures
to any experience of deep community,
or deep dependence on God,
or anyone beyond ourselves.

Just serving up piles of rich food,
does not constitute a feast.
The American notion of feasting can sort of be summed up
in the typical all-you-can-eat buffet.
We are blessed with at least four or five major ones
right here in Harrisonburg.
The queen of all buffets that I’ve been to
is the Mennonite-run Shady Maple in Lancaster County, PA.
The massive size of the dining hall,
and the endless variety and quantity of food
is nothing short of overwhelming.
I am not slamming restaurants with buffets.
They have their place in the larger scheme of things, I’m sure.
On occasion, I will eat at a buffet,
and make a valiant attempt to do so in moderation.

But an all-you-can-eat buffet is not at all the same thing as a feast.
Reveling in good food in large amounts may indeed be enjoyable.
But piling your individual plate full to overflowing,
with those select items that you desire most personally
seems more akin to the American value
of the individual pursuit of pleasure,
than the biblical and divine mandate to feast
in a way that deepens our experience of community,
and memorializes our experience
of complete dependence on God.

Well, as I said, the second strike against us is we’re Mennonites.
And if we’re good Mennonites,
we probably have deeply imbedded in us
our community values of frugality, simplicity, and sobriety.
Some of us may have consciously rebelled against those values
at some time in our lives,
because we found them restricting,
and we found the larger cultural values
of luxury, pleasure, and merriment more to our liking.

But overall,
there is a strong stream—and an admirable stream—
within Mennonite faith and culture
that values living simply, so that others may simply live,
that values not consuming more than we really need,
that values a sober and quiet posture toward life.
After all, there are millions of people around the world
who are suffering deeply . . .
who are starving, who are living in abject poverty,
who are without a home,
without clothing,
and without enough food to keep them alive.

So some of us strive all the harder to get by with less,
to not get too much enjoyment out of the luxuries we have,
to move through life with a compassionate and sober realism,
and to do as little wining and dining and dancing as possible.
Naturally this has a tendency to make us a bit feast-impaired.
I’m quite sure, in modern American history, no one has ever said
to someone organizing a big festive community ball,
“Be sure to put some Mennonites on the guest list.
They always liven things up.”

We are not party-ers. We are a sober, realistic, and grounded people.
And that is good in most situations.
That is a worthy posture in a land of affluence and excess.
But I wonder whether it hasn’t also dampened our enthusiasm
for the kind of feasting God called his people to do in scripture.

And that’s a shame,
because the worship of God is a feast.
It is all-out celebration.

If we fail to regularly gather as a community of faith,
and serve up the best of the food and drink we have to offer,
and truly revel in that good abundance that comes from God’s hands,
we are missing out on an important opportunity.

Communal eating is a spiritual act, and I don’t say that glibly.
It is spiritual in the deepest sense.

As people of God
we don’t eat simply for its utilitarian benefits.
God created us to eat.
God said to the first humans,
“See all these plants and seeds and fruit?
I give them all to you for food!”
We eat so we can live into God’s created design for our lives.
Eating food is a tangible physical reminder
of our dependence on the earth itself,
and on God who created the earth and its living things
for our food.
It is also a reminder of our dependence on our fellow human beings.
Eating brings our fractured selves
back into relationship with God,
with others,
with ourselves,
and with the earth.
Eating is restorative in every sense of the word.
So, why wouldn’t we see eating and worship
as closely related activities that at the core
are profoundly spiritual.

I think we need to rediscover
the deeply satisfying and deeply spiritual discipline
of feasting . . . of the biblical variety.

Shannon Jung, a Presbyterian teaching at St. Paul School of Theology—
under a fascinating academic title:
“Professor of Town and Country Ministries”—
wrote a thoughtful book titled,
“Sharing Food: Christian Practices for Enjoyment.”
I wonder if a Mennonite prof
could get away with writing a book by that title.

Anyway, in his chapter on the practice of feasting,
he says there are four central features of feasting.
First, feasting is joy-full. It puts a premium on celebration.
Second, feasting is doxological. It’s about God. It’s not about us.
Third, feasting grows out of an awareness
of God’s abundance and generosity.
It’s a response to God.
Fourth, feasting is a communal celebration that transforms us.

And in this light, he says for Christians,
the “master practice” of feasting is the Lord’s Supper.
Celebrating the Lord’s Supper
is a joy-filled encounter with the Incarnate God.
It is community building.
It is formative and transformative. It changes us!
It a powerful symbol—food—
that connects our physical and spiritual beings.
And it is missional.
It brings us face to face with God’s love for us
and for the world.

I don’t know how you personally are being called by God
to revitalize your experience of feasting.
It might include a new commitment
to share as many of your meals as possible with other people,
eating in a way that builds community.
And it might include a new commitment
to make prayer before meals more than just a few rote words,
to which you never give a second thought.
It might mean pausing long enough to identify
in the collective experience of those at the table,
some way that God is at work,
and make that meal a celebration of that work of God.

But I also think there are things we might do as a church,
to renew our experience of communal feasting.
Potlucks are more, much more,
than an opportunity to showcase our best recipes,
and eat as much as our plates will hold.
They are opportunities to build community
and celebrate the work of God among us.
If we are intentional about it.

And certainly, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper,
we should be intentional about making this the feast
it was intended to be.
The Communion Table is a feast table.
It is a communal practice of celebration.
Communion can take many different forms, of course.
Sometimes it seems big and joyous and collective,
sometimes it seems quiet and contemplative and internal.
But it must always meet the requirements of feasting,
or it’s not really communion.
It must build up the community,
and lift up the mighty works of God.

[transition to communion introduction and instructions]

—Phil Kniss, June 28, 2009

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1 comment:

awais said...

a good sermon.I Lived in Harrisonburg VA from 2001-2003.A very nice place.Love Harrisonburg and Virginia