Proper 10 (July 10-16)
Texts: Psalm 85:10;
Eph 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
FEASTING AT THE TABLE OF GRACE
Steadfast love and faithfulness have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (Psalm 85:10; ELW translation)
I begin with the psalm for the day — not because I want to stay far away from that PG-13 Gospel Reading we just heard. But as a good Lutheran I want to begin with the message of grace — which comes through loud and clear in both our Second Reading and Psalm.
This extraordinary verse I repeated from our Psalm is six words in Hebrew: two verbs that connect (with a personal touch) four great Hebrew words of grace:
- hesed: steadfast love, mercy, compassion — the covenant love of God
- emet: truth, faithfulness — the Hebrew word for “truth” having more to do with faithfulness in a relationship
- sedeq: righteousness, justice — the justice that God calls us to live
- shalom: peace, wholeness — the kind of well-being that God’s salvation brings
I don’t know Hebrew myself, but these four words are worth learning, four words that help to convey the grace of God’s of salvation. “Truly, your salvation is very near,” writes the Psalmist. “Compassion, truth embracing; justice, peace kissing.”
This verse also brings to mind one of my favorite movies, Babette’s Feast, by Isak Dinesen, the pen-name for Karen Dinesen Blixen. It’s based on one of the greatest works of Danish literature, which I’d like to share with you briefly here this morning, to honor the Danish heritage of this congregation. The central characters in “Babette’s Feast” are two aging sisters who live on a remote fjord in Norway. Each sister is named for one of the two pillars of the Reformation: Martine for Martin Luther and Philippa for Philip Melanchton. Early in the short story we find that the two sisters had been “very pretty” in their youth and each had had an opportunity to marry but given them up to stay and help their father, “the Dean,” to run their little mission church. The story picks up many years later, with their father long gone, and one other woman who has come into their household: a French maid named Babette, who’s a Parisian refugee from the Franco-Prussian wars of the later 19th Century.
The central event in the story is the upcoming 100th anniversary of their late father’s birth, but as they are beginning to plan it something very unexpected happens. Babette wins a lottery worth ten thousand francs, and so she says that she would like to host the Dean’s anniversary dinner herself, paying for it out of her winnings. Martine and Philippa consent. In the course of the great dinner, we find out from a special guest, a general who has fought wars in Europe, that Babette had in fact been the chef at the best restaurant in all of Paris. She uses her winnings to throw the sisters the most expensive, lavish meal she had cooked in that restaurant. Spurred on by some of “the noblest wine in the world,” the General rises to speak at the end of the great feast (take note of yet another translation of Psalm 85:10):
“Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together,” said the General. “Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. [Humankind], my friends, is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble. . . . We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers [and sisters], makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. [Forgiveness!] See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!” (Isak Dinesen, Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard, 52)
The affect of that speech and the experience of Babette’s feast brings a revival of mission to the little group. We are told that an immediate affect was to bring reconciliation to relationships which had begun to fray, healing to festering grudges. With a renewed experience of God’s grace through this amazing feast, the little aging congregation was moved to a revival of its ministry, beginning with a ‘ministry of reconciliation.’
Uplifting to me is the General’s emphasis that God’s grace is infinite not finite. How often do we actually experience this grace as infinite? Do we remember this grace every time we become discouraged by our faults or wrongdoings? When we do remember, does it revive our sense of mission for a ‘ministry of reconciliation’?
For the last several weeks our Second Reading has taken us through Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. You might especially recall the high moment a month ago when Paul shout’s out, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17). God’s grace effectively gives us a brand new start! The only somewhat disappointing aspect of reading this verse was not continuing two more verses, where Paul clues us in on what that grace works in us:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ. . . . (2 Cor 5:18-20)
Grace yields the results of a “ministry of reconciliation.”
This morning we begin to read through St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, and once again we start with the message of grace: we are adopted as children of God, gathered into God’s household, and chosen “to be holy and blameless before him in love.” Holy and blameless not because we never do anything wrong but because of God’s forgiveness in Christ. No matter how often we wander astray from the path chosen for us, God’s grace is infinite in its power to forgive us and set us back on track.
And once again in Ephesians, as we found in 2 Corinthians, Grace leads to the mission or ministry of reconciliation. Paul’s message of grace revives the mission which we will read next Sunday as he proclaims in chapter 2:
For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile [there’s that word again!] both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph 2:14-16)
Making one new humanity in place of the two! We have a ministry of reconciling all the broken ‘twos’ we find ourselves in. For Paul, the main division into two was Jew and Gentile, or circumcised and uncircumcised. What is it for us? White folks and people of color? Republican and Democrat? Vaccinated and unvaccinated? You name it, right? Our world is so badly divided right now, along so many different lines. And yet God’s grace calls you and I to the ministry of reconciliation, the ministry of joining with God’s work of creating One New Humanity out of all the splitting into ‘twos.’
It seems such daunting work. Consider for a moment the huge task of trying to heal the racism which still plagues us after five hundred years of white supremacism. It’s particular difficult for us white folks to even talk about this history without the flooding in of feelings of shame and guilt. Right? But that’s where the foundation in God’s infinite grace becomes so important! We are able to face even the darkest and most deadliest of our human reality, like racism, knowing that we are forgiven. We are able to look at the kind of sin that put Jesus on the cross because we are able to look through Easter Eyes. We are able to look at ourselves through God’s eyes, the eyes of a loving parent, who wants us to be able to move forward in truth, and in true freedom.
I have a wonderful African American pastor-colleague, who told me a beautiful story just this week. She shared about her anti-racism work. That for years talking about racism with church groups of mostly white people has generally been met quickly with resistance born out of shame and promptings of guilt. But more recently she has begun her conversations differently. She begins her meetings with church folks by meditating together on God’s grace, God’s unconditional forgiveness, God’s choosing us to be holy and blameless in God’s sight. From that beginning point in grace it has been much easier to move past the shame and guilt to the sense of being able to handle the truth of racism in this country, as something we can work together to dismantle. Anti-racism work is not intended to be about shame or inducement of guilt. It is about learning the truth together of how we’ve been pitted against one another along racial lines. It is about claiming not only God’s grace of forgiveness but then also getting to work on God’s mission of creating One New Humanity in place of the two.
Brothers and sisters, we may not have quite the feast laid before us like Babette’s feast. In fact, under the conditions of a pandemic it appears even more sparse than usual — tiny pre-packaged cups of juice with a wafer fastened to the top. But each and every week it is the magnificent feast of God’s infinite grace set before us, that we may remember the overflowing love of Christ’s body given for us and his blood shed for us. That we might then be sent out once again this week on a mission of reconciliation to our broken world, a mission of creating One New Humanity in place of the two. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, July 11, 2021