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A Feasting Community

October 3, 2021 Series: Identifying the Church

Topic: On the Church Passage: Deuteronomy 16:1–17

We are closing out our preview series, and with them our short series on how to imagine the church—how to speak of the church's identity. Put all the sermons in one sentence and it's only a little clumsy: the church is the unified community God gathers to himself in mercy, washing them clean and (this week) feasting them.

I have to admit at the start that feasting and the old word of "festival" is not typically the first thought people have of the church. In fact, it sometimes seems the furthest thing from people's experiences. But it is the church's inheritance (so I will argue), whether she always lives into it or not.

The reading from Deuteronomy can sound like it comes from a whole different culture (largely because it does); it's easy to read right over it or to have eyes gloss over. If you're new to the whole Bible thing, know that you're not alone in wondering what in the world this text is talking about. Deuteronomy functions as something like a community's constitution—a kind of large-scale HOA, except here God is the king, and he cares what the neighborhood looks like. The whole of Deuteronomy is about the kind of neighborhood, the kind of community and life together the people will have in the land they are just about to enter.

And a part of that life together is feasting. Three feasts are talked about here and they acted like anchors for the annual calendar. Our cultural calendars are anchored in things too—January 1, summer vacation starting, school starting. They are loosely tied to seasons, but even for us it's not just about marking seasons, it's about marking rhythms. You don't have to have children in school to live in the rhythm of the school calendar.

The three feasts are Passover, the Feast of Weeks (called Pentecost—a word that means 50 days, because it's 50 days after Passover, 7 weeks), and the Feast of Booths—we'd say a tent, a temporary dwelling. They are to live as homeless, an interesting inversion of being homeless because it was the great harvest feast rejoicing in God's bounty. But all of them are huge feasts. Everyone was to come to Jerusalem to feast—a festival, full of food and more food; wine and strong drink (that's Deuteronomy's way of saying it). 

Feasts, by their nature, are joyful occasions. An early Christian preacher named John Chrysostom said simply:

Where love rejoices, there is festivity. [Chrysostom, in Pieper, In Tune with the World]

Feasts are not just about food (though they have food), they are about love rejoicing. Lots of public thinkers and philosophers have talked for the last hundred or more years about how we have lost feasting and festivals in our culture. Christmas has become fully commercialized, and we feel it: people trying to take advantage of our desire to rejoice so they can make money. And I'm old enough now I can say that it keeps getting more and more overt, not even pretending anymore. I'm already getting email flyers about my "gift giving"—so generous, the companies pushing me disinterestedly to give gifts to my friends. 

Christmas has so much shimmer around it—one person I read talked of Christmas in our day as like:

“G. K. Chesterton's... comment on the dazzling advertisements of Times Square at night: What a glorious sight for those who luckily do not know how to read.” [Pieper, idem]

We have tons of food, and lots of lights and all the appearance of festivity. And we grow up, learn to read, and the shimmer is more depressing than dazzling.

These three feasts were meant to be feasts, never to be commercialized, never utilitarian. They were week long festivals with the command: "You shall rejoice!" The food and wine don't just help the rejoicing, they are a part of it. They are not tools to be used to rejoice, they are a fitting part of what happens when love rejoices.

I want you to imagine growing up with this; imagine growing up in your rural town in Israel (maybe 1,000 people in the larger ones), heading to the great city—Jerusalem—three times every year. And when you got there it was packed with people—all of your cousins, second cousins, third cousins; strangers, people from all over the nation. You never saw so many people together, with all the noise, smells, and celebrations of it.

And you got to eat meat: lamb, sometimes beef (not pork, sadly). Those kinds of meats were not normal things to eat. Lambs were expensive partly because they were not yet useful; you could eat an old sheep that wasn't useful any longer. But these feasts you ate tender, roasted lamb. You left work, stopped everything, and rejoiced with wine and food. Feasts are not about utility; they run against usefulness. You leave work to the side, produce nothing, consume a lot. Festivals are anti-utilitarian.

As if to emphasize the point here in the text: you weren't allowed to leave leftovers. It's part of the law to make sure that no one is stingy, thinking about what might happen tomorrow. No; just today, feast and rejoice. The moment you are consumed with tomorrow's work, your feasting is interrupted. You're not allowed to wait and only feast after you make sure that you have enough for the rest of the year. You feast. And as a child, year after year, these feasts would be the highlight. They would structure the year; that was the point. You couldn't wait for the next one, and they circle through every year. The whole people were to be shaped by these feasts. And at their heart we see what they embody: the joy it is to belong to this God.

Elsewhere in the ancient near eastern world there were feasts of different sorts: for the royalty, typically; and for the rich, the well-off, the ones who don't need to worry about the time off. Romans had feasts and festivals. But slaves didn't get the days; they provided and worked the feast for others. In Israel it was every single person— you can see that in v.11 and again in v.14:

You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns. 

No one gets left out of the feasting, even the "sojourner," the foreigner passing through or living among the people. The whole community stops its work, and love rejoices.

Early Roman writers despised Jewish customs of the Sabbath in part because of the Sabbath was so anti-utilitarian: a whole day given to "idleness," as some said [Seneca]; no work, no study, no contributing to society; just feasting and worship and community. The three great feasts here have always been viewed as a kind of great Sabbath (I want to say they're "Sabbaths on steroids"—not sure that's the best comparison, though...).

Life for the people of God was to structured every week, and every year by these rhythms of feasting. You stop your work, take the time off—not just for the purpose of rest. Many are arguing to recover the Sabbath in our day just as a "time off." That's fine, but the Sabbath was about more than just a time off, it was a time of rejoicing; a community given to feasting. And these three feasts,  the high feast days, were the fullest expressions of the Sabbath: the people of God, gathering together for worship.

I'll put it simply: the life of God's people was always to be a life of feasting. That was the context in which everything else was to take place.

Again, that is not how people imagine life in the church. Sometimes that is our fault. We don't always remember this is the framework for our life together, inside of which we talk about moral questions and what to do or not do, why we do this and don't do that. In Deuteronomy the reading of the Law—the ten commandments and the ways those commandments were meant to shape the community—was required to take place in the middle of the highest moment of the greatest feast during the year of jubilee when all debts were forgiven. Meaning: the moment in which all joy is at its greatest, that is where we talk about how it is that we live together as a community.

One of my favorite parts of being Anglican has been the recovery in my own life of this exact way of living in the world as a Christian. It's not just Anglicans; it's most of the church around the world, but I am partial to the way Anglicans do it... We have three high feast days, and two of them are the exact same feast days as we find here in Deuteronomy (Passover we call Good Friday and Easter; Pentecost we call Pentecost). We added Christmas to it pretty early on, and so we have three high feast days.

And if you are new to this practice, you will notice it. Those three feast days structure the whole year. We have different colors for different seasons of the year—but all those colors are anchored around the three high feasts.

We walk through the work of God in Christ Jesus every year: his birth (Christmas), his death and resurrection (Easter), and his sending of the Spirit for the sake of the world (Pentecost). Round and round we go, anchoring our lives in the feasts that celebrate what God has done for his people: a life anchored by feasts, with preparations for those feasts, and then "ordinary season" where we live and work until the year of feasting starts again at Advent (we're in ordinary season now).

When God gathers a people to himself (the central identity of the church) he gathers them by saying: "Come, eat with me!"

I want to make two more points in closing. The first is what I want to call the relentless grace of the calender. What I mean is that these feasts, and the rhythm of life that they bring, doesn't care about your private experiences—in the best sense. If you were just married, or finally had a longed-for child, or suffered the death of a loved one, the command is the same. The calendar keeps moving forward. If you have known trauma and abuse, fear, lost a job, if there was famine in the land, a family ruined by addiction or rejoicing in the triumphs of a business—none of it makes the calendar move slower or faster; none of it determines the feasts. It's a relentless march, round and round.

Some of you have known a lot of loss, death in your families or any number of other griefs. You've known what it is like to see the feasts coming: the first Christmas with an empty chair at the table, and you feel the change in the feast. Maybe it even felt like the world should stop and the feasting should stop, but it didn't. So I call it relentless.

I call the feasting calendar a relentless grace because it forces us into a mold where our private and family stories, with all the mixed blessings and curses, the life and death, end up taking their shape from a larger story—a story where God is at work. In the face of death, feasts are acts of protest, they are the gathering of the church to mock the power of death even when we need the rest of the community around us to carry the joy we know is proper to it.

I was recently reading a book about an American POW in Japan during WWII,  who was subjected to unspeakable wrongs. Yet he speaks of the prisoners all gathering scraps in secret even while they were being starved, for what they called a Christmas feast. Why give it that name except to bring out—"damn it all, we're celebrating!" There is something greater than this dehumanizing prison. These feasts tell a story that is bigger than the current little story that I am living; not ignorant of my story but bigger, able to contain it. And hard as the first year, second year, 50th year might be with that empty ache, the relentlessness of these feasts form us to live within the context that God is redeeming this world.

Finally, I want to suggest that this way of life together—a feasting life—is a part of our mission; it is one way we participate in God's desire for this world to be a wonderful, beautiful, redeemed place. It is God saying to his people, "Come and eat!" And we get to carry that invitation—like the Gospel reading has it. The Kingdom of God is a King saying to the world: Come and feast with me!

Several years ago I was talking to a woman at the YMCA who taught remedial literacy in North Minneapolis, helping a group of young men learn to read who had spent some time in juvenile detention. (What great work!) When she became pregnant, their juvie supervisor gave each of these young men a writing assignment: write a letter to your teacher (this woman) giving their advice to her as a first-time mother. “Tell her what you think a mother needs to know.” One 15 year-old young man, who had no home to speak of, wrote in his broken script:

Just make sure you eat family meals together every night. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but it sure would be great.

That's the sadness of churches that fail to live their life together as a life of feasting: we want people to look through the window and at the least say that it would be great if what we were saying as Christians was true. If you're here this morning and maybe don't know what you believe about all this Christian stuff, we are really glad you're here and I want you to hold us accountable in this—hold me accountable in trying to lead it. In one of our prophets, Isaiah, God speaks of the work he will do and is doing in this world by saying:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well-refined. (Isa 25:6)

We need to be a community where we are tasting that promise. Part of my calling is to help us live as that kind of community. I don't know how sometimes, but we have to try to live that way as the church. And like that young man advised, we eat our family meal together every night—or every time we meet. 

I know it seems weird to call a tiny bite of bread and a thimble of wine a family meal, much less a feast. But for us it's the taste of the feast; it's the guarantee of it. That feast of well-aged wine, rich food full of marrow. We will feast. We will. And every time we taste this meal we declare that final feast. It's a protest feast, sometimes; it's a celebration at others; it's a hope at others. And in all of it we embody God's call to us and the world: "Come! Eat with me!"

More in Identifying the Church

September 5, 2021

The Community of the Washed

August 1, 2021

The Fullness of the Church

June 6, 2021

Church as a Community of Mercy