This was one of those sermons that I tried to do too much with. (Maybe if I hadn’t been sidetracked in previous weeks from my original intention, I wouldn’t have tried to pack so much in this week.) Here’s what I was trying to do under the theme of “feasting”:
- Show how grace frees us from anxiety so we can just enjoy our life (under basic constraints of justice)
- Have some fun mocking “par-tay” culture. This part received a lot of attention, but was probably the least important. Still, even though the party days are probably past for most in our congregation, I think it is important for the church to name the really obvious problems in our secular culture, to take some responsibility for them, and to see how our faith offers a way forward.
- Show how the feast gives us a way to balance the responsibilities of Earth Day with the enjoyment of creation.
Yes, that’s a lot. And I threw in a quick theory of sacrifice in the midst, and some reflections on the ethics of eating meat. I did it all, and kept it under 15 minutes. But I don’t blame anyone for feeling a little lost.
Call to Worship: Isaiah 25:6-9
Leviticus 17:1-7; Luke 24:36b – 53
According to tradition, Easter is a seven-week feast, the longest and greatest feast of the Christian year, well exceeding the 5 ½ weeks of fasting at Lent. But we hardly use the word “feast” anymore, although we sometimes use its cognate, “festival.” A concept more familiar to us is a “party.” So we might say Easter is a seven-week party, but later I want to contrast our Easter feast to our popular idea of partying.
Call it feasting or partying, Christians have often been bad at it. When you think of our Puritan ancestors, you probably don’t imagine people who could rock a great a party. (Thanksgiving being a kind of exception, I guess.) Too bad. Our liturgical calendar has cleared us this nice big space to feast, the space between Easter and Pentecost; and this is based on the account in Luke and Acts (and only there), in which 50 days separated Christ’s rising from the coming of the Spirit upon the disciples. What were the disciples doing during those 50 days? Luke says, “They worshipped him, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” Sounds like they were feasting—joyfully spending their time together celebrating the risen Christ, before the Spirit came and set them to the work of the Kingdom of God.
I think we get the idea of work. But sometimes Christians don’t know what to do with 50 days of feasting, 50 days of worshipping and being continually in the temple, blessing God. ‘That’s a lot of temple time.’ We sometimes make sense of worship and fellowship by seeing their purpose as inspiring us to do good works. Now, good works are essential. But the works that too many Christians devoted so much effort to, both in the past and some still in the present, involved enforcing narrow-minded moral discipline and self-control. No wonder we don’t know how to feast. Christians have often seen all manners of the enjoyment of life as occasions for sin—things like dancing, eating and drinking, playing games, and good heavens, sex. The church spent so much energy wagging its finger and warning people about gluttony and lust. I am amazed that so many evangelical colleges still outlaw dancing. Like I said two weeks ago, we white Protestants need help on dancing, not rules against it.
The austere, prudish priest or minister trying to wring all the fun out of life sounds comic to us today, but he has left a tragic wake. Because over the centuries, quite understandably, people became convinced that if you wanted to have fun, were looking for good times, or sought just to enjoy the beauty of life, you had to turn away from the church and look elsewhere. We could have all along been nourishing a sense of feasting and enjoyment that brings joy and uplift to the duties of life, but instead we seemed to preach that God doesn’t want us to enjoy life at all.
And from this tragic mistake, I think, was born the secular party culture of today. Separated from the church’s holistic way of sanctifying life, partying becomes an end in itself, a kind of escape from life’s drudgeries and commitments. Looking for that killer party, that awesome high, that mind-blowing hookup, becomes a kind of mere sport, a quest for fun that is the antithesis of work and responsibility. And so students go to college under the pretense of seeking out this great learning experience, but all some really want to do is party. Why do we even have such things as “party schools?” (Thank goodness our five colleges don’t fit that description.) What a waste of a great opportunity for growth.
The secular party culture is summed up in a single word: “par-tay.” (Doesn’t that just capture the attitude perfectly?) We’ve put an extraordinary amount of cultural effort into creating the ultimate par-tay—the trance-like music, the great variety of alcohol and drugs, the art of seduction and the showy clothes, the gyms where you get your bod, the plastic surgery where that fails—lots of effort. Of course, the best par-tay is an exclusive one, where you can feel affirmed as a real some-body by thinking of all the nobodies who weren’t invited. Such exclusivity is based on an undisguised disdain for others. By contrast, a real feast, if the church knew how to throw one, welcomes all. The world needs the alternative to the par-tay that we can offer.
I find something so depressing about par-tay culture, which I have witnessed not in Granby but on college campuses and in big cities. Sometimes there’s a desperate, vain air to the whole thing. It’s amazing how alone you can feel amidst of all that revelry, perhaps because the par-tay is not really about creating and sustaining community. Not surprisingly, lurking behind all the smiles and high-fives of the party scene is a gloomy and violent underbelly. We’ve often seen festivity so easily turns violent when the hometown team wins the Superbowl. Or how the party game of seduction so quickly ends in sexual assault. It seems that the par-tay just gives a long leash to the disturbing elements in especially male behavior; and women have to play along by trying gingerly to court male attention while avoiding its threats and dangers.
I mostly got over par-tay culture early; indeed, I started too young. My 15 year old crowd was pretty wild, and I was on the make for easy and unfettered access to alcohol (wine coolers—yuk!). When I finally scored all I could drink, I passed out alone, and vomited without waking up, lying on my back. It only dimly occurred to me at the time that I could have died. At 15. For that. Death by par-tay. / I could have been lumped together with all the hazing deaths and the ineradicable memories of sexual trauma. By the time I got to college, I was having nothing to do with fraternities. I denounced them in the school newspaper; and I still have an invitation to the “We love Bill Wright party” that Phi Kappa Sigma threw in mockery. In truth, I was a bit of a prude and kill-joy, repeating the same mistakes that the church historically made.
Later, in seminary of all places, I began to recover a healthy enjoyment for a well-done party. (Yale Divinity had a weekly party called the “Fatted Café”—a clever nod to the big feast that lies at the center of the beloved parable of the Prodigal son.) I loosened up on my moralism, to a healthy degree, and learned to love the good food and drink of creation, shared among caring and fun friends, usually including some really great conversation about theology. I think it makes a big difference, the difference between a feast and a par-tay, if there is some kind of spiritual depth underlying your friendships. Never party with people you don’t trust and who don’t care about you.
The church needs to renounce the par-tay, whose motto is “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” And owning up to our responsibility for that culture, we need to really celebrate the feast, which binds us joyfully and more deeply into a community of caring, a community of justice. We need to appreciate the feast that we have in worship. We need to be willing to spend a little (I know we’re in a budget crunch) on tasty, well-raised food, supporting our local farmers if possible. We should include alcohol where appropriate, being very mindful of those still recovering from the aftermath of the par-tay.
Jesus understood the feast. He was asked why his disciples didn’t fast like John the Baptist’s, and he said: “The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?” Being in the presence of Jesus was like a wedding party. He knew how to celebrate the glorious presence of the kingdom in our midst, whenever it happens by the grace of God. And that is what our seven weeks of Easter are for.
We tend to think of religion as all about fasting and duty and sacrifice and giving up things for God. But going back to ancient Israel, the feast is built-in to the sacrifice. It was a very different religion back then; much of it centered on the sacrifice of animals or grain on a fire at the altar of God, as Leviticus describes. This could have been to appease God, sometimes—and the whole animal might be burned. But our reading describes the sacrifice of well-being, in which people brought their animal to the priests, who would slaughter it. The priest dashes the blood on the altar. Sounds odd, but I see the blood as representing the tragedy of taking life to support our own life; rather than hiding from that tragedy or denying it, the Israelites confronted the blood head on and turned it over to God to deal with. The fat was placed on the fire to God, perhaps because it burned nicely, becoming a symbol of sharing the enjoyment of creation with God. And then the people would share the meat with each other and with the priests.
Feasting on meat was a rarity in those days. To slaughter the fatted calf was a very special occasion. In our opulence, we’ve come to expect meat every day, pre-slaughtered and even packaged to heat-and-serve. By contrast, the Bible respects meat as a rarity, something delicious but precious; something celebrating life but involving blood. Eating meat brings us face-to-face (or face-to-snout) with the mystery that all life is not only interdependent but also often comes at the expense of other life. (Read Genesis 1 carefully and you’ll see that God’s original plan as described there was for all creatures and human beings to live off of fruit, not even killing a plant for food.) Our Leviticus reading basically says this: If you are slaughtering meat for your own belly, you are simply shedding blood. You should bring that act of slaughter into your religious life and relationship with God, which will help you deal with the moral ambiguity of taking life to support your own life. We tend to dismiss animal sacrifice as barbaric; but perhaps our own tidied-up, high-output meat industry is the more barbaric way. I try to say a special prayer when I eat meat, remembering the life that went into it, including those who grew and butchered my meat; and I try to make it rare (infrequent, that is).
This Leviticus religion based on animal sacrifice passes out of existence shortly after the time of Jesus. But the early Christians saw Jesus’ death on the cross as the end of all sacrifice—perfecting sacrifice so that no others would ever be needed. (If you are curious, and patient, read the Book of Hebrews.) In short, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross assures us that we are permanently reconciled to God. It assures us, on one hand, that God is loving and not angry with us; and also that by making ourselves sharers in Jesus’ faithful humanity, we are made beautiful and holy before God. This is why we have peace of mind before God, which is exactly what animal sacrifices were supposed to bring.
Peace of mind means you can stop fretting and worrying about something. You don’t get peace of mind by just hiding away the tragedies of life, by concealing the blood, keeping it out of sight. We still have to face our problems. We are still very flawed human beings in a flawed world, living amid great moral ambiguities. But by dashing those moral ambiguities on the altar of Christ, we have a way of lifting the worry about them from us, without pretending they don’t exist. Christ holds them for us, giving us the space to feast and enjoy, and refocusing our gratitude toward Christ. We don’t have to feast under the slogan, “For tomorrow we die.” No, in Christ we “seize the day” while holding on to tomorrow as a time for working in hope toward the good.
In the end, the feast is different from the par-tay because the feast comes in a season within a sanctified whole of life. Our liturgical year gives us seasons for feasts and seasons for fasts; it’s not just do whatever you like whenever you feel like it. We are bound to these rhythms of the liturgical year within this community, a world-wide, boundless, open community. We enjoy a common rhythm to our life, and at the center of that rhythm is our shared union with Christ, with his death and with his risen life.
On this Earth Day, we need to know how to honor the feast alongside of seasons of fasting and responsibility, indeed the potentially overwhelming responsibility of saving the planet. Left to our own devices, we might either say, “Screw it, I can’t do anything to save the planet from ecological destruction. I might as well take what I can and enjoy.” For tomorrow I die. Or we might be so anxious about the problems of our planet and so burdened with a sense of personal responsibility that we would never be able to just relax and enjoy the pleasures of the earth. Well, God has made us a path through these hopeless extremes. By Christ, God has given us a way to be released from anxiety, to trust that God’s will for the world has already been accomplished. In Christ, God has given us back our personal, human life which we can enjoy; God has given us a taste for enjoyment that respects and lifts up all the life around us. But God has also assured us that we can participate in Jesus’ restoration of all things. When the Spirit comes upon us, we also shall become agents of salvation of the world. Not because we have to, not out of anxiety; but because we’ve finally understood that loving service is all that really matters, is the very essence of God.
Finally, and briefly, the scene in Luke of Jesus appearing to his disciples is odd, and unique to Luke. Why does Jesus ask for some fish? (Meat, no less.) In light of all we’ve said, I think he’s reminding them of the feasts they had together, and that all of that has not been erased by his death. And so his disciples go boldly out into the world, filled with joy, and awaiting the promised coming of the Spirit from on high.