November 1, 2015
What foods do you think of when you hear the word feast? If a feast were to be served in your honor, what gourmet goodies would you want to see on the table? What dishes of delight would you want to chow down upon? I’ve been fortunate – extremely fortunate – to partake in some pretty amazing and delectable meals over the course of my life. If I haven’t told you about the chicken and waffles I had over Mother’s Day, see me after the service is over. But when it comes to what I think of as a feast, I think of Christmas Eve in my house growing up. I think of my dad’s Swedish meatballs.
As far as we know, without having a DNA test done, my dad is all German. Both his mother and father were of long German lineage, so my dad is about as German as we can imagine. But for some reason, for as long as I can remember, he became the Swedish meatball maker extraordinaire. My dad isn’t really a cook. My mom was and is the cook of the family. But dad’s Swedish meatballs set the standard that the rest of us have to live up to. I’m still striving to reach his high bar.
He would make them the day before Christmas Eve. Any dog we had in the family stayed close by his side, taunted and tortured by the smell of all that heavenly meat. Dad keeps track of how many he makes; I’m not sure if he’s gone over the 200 meatball mark, but I know he’s come close. My sister-in-law, Mary Jo, is allergic to onions. When she joined the family, dad started making a special batch just for her.
We always had tons of wonderful food at our Christmas Eve table: spiraled ham, baked rice pudding, assorted rolls and vegetables. If family came from Minnesota, we would have Swedish sausage as well. Dessert would be an assortment of all the Christmas cookies my mother had been baking for weeks and peppermint stick ice cream. But for me, Dad’s Swedish meatballs were the highlight of our family’s lavish feast.
Isaiah does not mention meatballs as being on the menu of the feast the Lord will give his people. We do read of rich food and well-aged wines. We read of the feast being served on this mountain. While the word holy is not used in conjunction with mountain, it is not hard to imagine that any mountain the Lord resides on is a holy one. Isaiah goes on to say that while the people swallow their food, the Lord will also do some swallowing. Instead of food, the Lord will swallow up death forever. The shroud – that death sheet – that has been cast over the people will be destroyed by the Lord on this mountain. The sheet – that woven cloth – which has been spread over all the nations will also be destroyed. The people will consume food. But the Lord will consume death. The Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces. The Lord God will take away the disgrace of his people from all the earth. At this feast, on this mountain, the sorrow of the people – their tears, their grief, their disgrace will be wiped away. Death will be done, swallowed up, by the Lord.
The imagery of this passage is magnificent. It is poetry at its most powerful. It is not just describing a lavish feast. It is describing an eschatological hope. Feast imagery is used in other passages in both testaments. But certainly in the Old Testament, stories of feasts are used to illustrate the ways the wealthy and powerful live by the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable. While the rich feast, the poor starve. While the powerful sit down to sumptuous spreads, the vulnerable beg in the streets. But this feast is not thrown by a wealthy tyrant. This feast will be given by God himself. This feast will not be held in honor of the A list. There will be no guest list at this feast. Instead all peoples will be invited. In three verses, the word all is used five times.
“The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples…”
“And he will destroy in this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations;”
The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.”
The Lord God will give a lavish feast for all people, not only for the nourishment of bodies, but for the sustenance of their souls. All that has pinned people, weighted them down, mired them in the sorrows of the world will be removed. They will no longer be covered in shrouds or sheets. They will no longer be consumed by the defeat of death. The Lord will swallow death.
This is a beautiful passage for the day when we celebrate all the saints – those that are public and those that are personal. I’m assuming the creators of the lectionary agree with me, which is why they chose these words of Isaiah for this day. On a day set aside for us to intentionally remember the saints who have gone before us, it is beyond comforting to hear of God destroying that which breaks our hearts. It is beyond comforting to know that God will swallow up death itself, and in the end wipe every tear from our eyes.
But what I find so profound in these words and images is that all this done at the table. All this takes place at a lavish feast given by the Lord for all people. You see today is not only the day when we remember those saints who have gone before us. A saint, by the way, is not just a perfect person or someone canonized by the Roman church. A saint is a believer. A saint is someone of faith. Not perfect, just faithful. On this day, this All Saint’s Day, we lift up the believers who have meant something to us; who have influenced us, guided us and taught us. And we do this by gathering around this table; this table which connects us to God, to one another, and to the saints living and departed.
To me gathering at the table is a way of stepping outside of time and space. There are two understandings of time. One, which is more western, is linear. Time has a beginning, a middle and an end. The other, which is more eastern, is circular. Time moves in a circle. Each stage of time is never far from any other stage. We have some of this in our more western thinking don’t we? The seasons are circular. Perhaps even the gaining and losing of hours through daylight and standard time is circular.
But to me when we come to this table, linear time or circular -- our different understandings of time fall away. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that at this table, we remember what Jesus said and did. We lift up the same elements of life that he lifted – bread and wine. At this table we catch a glimpse of what God will do in his lavish feast for all. At this table we not only remember the saints but we sit at table with them. This is not a ghost story. It is a recognition that the God we worship does not exist in limited time, but beyond time. It is a recognition that we remain connected to those who have gone before, even those we have never met, who lived on this earth long before we did. At this table time falls away, and we partake of God’s lavish feast with all the saints.
I read a story once of a young pianist who was gifted in his art, but struggling with his continued mastery of the instrument. His teacher, who recognized his frustration, leaned over and gave him a kiss on the head. He told his student that this was Beethoven’s kiss. When the teacher was a young and frustrated student, his teacher had given him the same kiss. And that teacher’s teacher had done the same thing. And that kiss had come from Beethoven. It was a kiss that was passed down from one generation to the next. That kiss helped each student work through the struggles they were having. That kiss inspired them, influenced them, pushed them forward.
Maybe the story isn’t true. Maybe Beethoven never passed on a kiss like that. But when I look at this table, when I gather with you and all the saints at this table, I can hear my grandmother’s voice and my friend’s booming laugh. When I gather at this table, I can hear Jesus’ words about remembering him and I do. When I come to this table, I can anticipate the rich food and the aged wines that the Lord is setting before us. When I come to this table, I can actually taste and see that the Lord is good. When I come to this table, I can feel God’s touch on my shoulder, hold hands with the saints, and give joyful thanks for this lavish feast.
Let all God’s saints say, “Alleluia!” Amen.