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Lent 4: Feasting

March 16, 2015

A sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 15, 2015

 Mark 2:13-22

Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.

“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

I ate a meal at the church three times this week.  On Tuesday evening, White Plains Presbyterian congregants and community members gathered to learn more about Community Voices Heard, an organization of people working together to change systems that keep communities in poverty. To be honest, I was too full to eat that night, but others snacked as we talked about what people need to survive and thrive in White Plains: affordable housing, access to employment at a living wage, childcare.

On Wednesday night, eleven of us met for the third Soup and Soul Lenten dinner in the conference room.  We talked about images of God and read a “Night Prayer” by candlelight.

On Thursday night, volunteers from Hitchcock and White Plains Presbyterian churches and students from the neighborhood ate dinner together in the lower fellowship hall to begin our weekly English as a Second Language classes.  Everyone did some language learning, translating Japanese into English or English into Spanish to get to the sought after vocabulary word.

This was not a typical week.   More typical is a week in which most of my meals are spent with Will at home or sometimes in a restaurant.  I admit there was a moment before each of those evening gatherings that I wished I were heading home to my own table rather than to a common table at church.  However, at the end of each night, I went to bed with the words of someone with whom I’d shared a meal echoing into my prayers and expanding my understanding of God.

In today’s text from Mark, when Jesus invites Levi to follow him, the first place they end up is in Levi’s own home, gathered at Levi’s table.  Jesus’ invitation to follow, to be a disciple, leads immediately to a shared meal.  Around the table are other tax collectors and sinners, people who collect on debts and those who owe debts, sitting together and feasting.  It’s a table of forgiveness and inclusion, a table gathering that went against the rules of a hierarchical society and the laws of religious purity.

The scribes of the Pharisees, who are well studied in how table fellowship should occur according to religious rules, are watching the meal, questioning how it is that Jesus is willing to eat with sinners and the unclean and then wondering why Jesus and his disciples are eating at all.  Shouldn’t they be fasting to prepare themselves for God like the followers of John the Baptist and the Pharisees?  Valid questions.

When Jesus replies he doesn’t dismiss the practice of fasting, instead he elevates the importance of feasting as a way of drawing near to God.  In this context, feasting refers not simply to an abundance of food but to an abundance of grace.

Picture the relief and release when people denied access to everyday societal life were offered a place at the table.  Imagine the unburdening when the tax collector could offer rather than take.  Jesus brought together these table gatherings as a glimpse of God’s pure joy, as a model for us to recreate as disciples and followers.

Perhaps it’s more appropriate to say I feasted three times at the church this week as people of different ages, ethnicities, cultures, and economic backgrounds ate together and shared a couple hours of the day together.   The food was good but the community is what earns those meals the title of feast.   Each meal in its own way – through sharing spiritual journeys, through sharing hopes about a job search,  through planning to act together for affordable housing, through gaining confidence in a new language, through belly laughter and quiet contemplation – chipped away at isolation to reveal new depths of community.

This week in the midst of shared meals, Will and I announced through the Intraweek that we will be moving across the river to the Stony Point Center to join the Community of Living Traditions, a multifaith residential community on that campus.  I will continue to serve at White Plains at Parish Associate but we will be living in an apartment near one of the Stony Point Center greenhouses where Will has been spending many hours over this winter.  We will eat the majority our meals in the dining hall with the other Jewish, Muslim, and Christian residential volunteers.  Meals at home, just the two of us, will become the exception rather than the general rule.

We are excited and a bit nervous.  What if after a long day we don’t feel like sharing a table with lots of people? What if we offend someone through a lack of understanding of another religion or of how another Christian resident expresses their faith? What if meals are tense when there are disagreements between people within the community? Our fears are probably not unfounded – all communities face challenges, especially those who share more of their time together.  Nor are these fears unique.  These “what ifs” are often what make us hesitate to share more of our lives in community.

But our prevailing “what if” is one of hope: What if deep and transformative community grows from a table where a diverse group of people commit to follow God with one another? The story from Mark’s gospel today offers a definitive “yes” to that hopeful question.  When we follow Jesus’ invitation to the table here in worship or when we gather together to share in one another’s daily lives, we feast on God’s abundant grace and the table expands. Amen.

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