2010-03-07 by George Kaplan
Preacher: Peter Haslehurst
7th March 2010
Readings: Psalm 63 (ESV); Isaiah 55 (ESV)
Psalm 63 (ESV)
1 O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
5 My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
6 when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
9 But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword;
they shall be a portion for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.
In Psalm 63, the writer juxtaposes images of scarcity and plenty to express his feelings about God. The wilderness of Judea, where even water (the most essential commodity of all) is in short supply, reflects his hunger and thirst for God’s presence. And remembering times past when he felt close to God reminds him of a lavish feast with “fat and rich food” (as the ESV has v5).
I like fat and rich food….
The culture of scarcity, where food and drink (not to mention clothes, shelter, means of transport, health) are in short supply for the great majority of ordinary people, is certainly the culture of the Bible, and indeed has been the culture of humankind in general throughout most of recorded history. My parents, coming to adulthood under rationing in the aftermath of the Second World War, were deeply marked by this scarcity culture, and to this day my mother is almost incapable of throwing leftover gravy away.
A pattern of scarcity and plenty, of fasting interleaved with occasional feasting, is deeply embedded in the Bible and in the Christian tradition. It is there from the beginning in the pattern of the week – 6 days of hard work and making do, followed by the feast of the sabbath – and in the great feasts of the Jewish and Christian traditions. At this very moment we are living through the fast days of Lent and preparing for the great feast of Easter.
In the post-war economic boom of the sixties, it seemed that here in the West we had finally abolished the old scarcity culture. Industrial mass production provided abundant good things – such as food, clothes, homes, cars, televisions – to ordinary people at affordable prices (or at least on easy terms). Fasting was over, as we established for ourselves a permanent feast.
But it is becoming clearer as the years go by that our declaration of permanent feast (at least for us in the West) is extremely dangerous – we are in danger of eating ourselves out of a planet. According to WWF 90% of the world’s large fish have already been fished out, and a group of experts recently warned that the world will run out of seafood by 2048. Deforestation in the Amazon is driven by our insatiable hunger for cheap beef, while the growing trade in bush-meat threatens many endangered species with extinction, including our closest relations the great apes. It seems we urgently need some self-imposed scarcity, before our feasting permanently damages the Earth’s capacity to sustain us and its other inhabitants.
Ursula LeGuin, my favourite sci-fi writer and one of my favourite writers of any kind, wrote a wonderful utopian novel called The Dispossessed. She sets her story on two neighbouring worlds. One, called Urras, is lush, green, temperate, and abundant. The other, Anarres, is a dry, windy, desert world, that can barely sustain life at all. Against expectations, LeGuin places her utopian society on the desert world Anarres. Urras, the abundant world where there is more than enough for everyone, is a place of extreme wealth and poverty, of governments and stock markets, of armies and wars, police and prisons. In LeGuin’s vision, her little anarchist utopia requires a world of extreme scarcity to concentrate people’s minds on the essential things.
So perhaps scarcity is good for the soul….
But it’s possible to go too far in that direction. The 1987 film Babette’s Feast (dir. Gabriel Axel) is set in a deeply pious and ascetic community on the Danish coast. Two sisters take on a French maid, Babette, who is actually a highly skilled chef, but is reduced to preparing the sisters’ daily abstemious meal of dried fish or thin soup. When she wins a lottery prize, she spends the whole sum to produce one extravagent feast for the entire village. The film paints a lovely picture of this feast as a sign of grace, which breaks open lives frozen by long years of scarcity culture. Clive Marsh writes:
The practice of eating raises so many profound issues: whether to eat animals, how much to eat, how lavishly to eat, how much to spend on food, whether to eat alone, who to eat with, how much time to spend on such a seemingly functional activity. Babette’s Feast sharpens our engagement with such questions. And in its quiet, quaint, modest way it urges us to think about what we eat, where our food is from, who has prepared it, who we share it with (and why). And it confronts us with the possibility that the sharing of food in company, when time and care is devoted to the task of preparing and eating it, is a prime moment of divine disclosure in the contemporary world which we can only call ‘sacramental’.
Isaiah 55 (ESV)
1 “Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
6 “Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 “For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lord,
an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
Likewise, our reading from Isaiah 55 urges us to “eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” Isaiah’s feast (like Babette’s) is an image of God’s grace as a big meal for hungry people, given freely as a gift of love, not for purchase.
Jurgen Moltmann talks about the Sabbath as a feast of creation and a feast of redemption.
Every sabbath in time has an end. Every feast day becomes another working day. That is why Franz Rosenweig calls the weekly sabbath “the dream of completion, but only a dream”. Sabbath day, sabbath year and Year of Jubilee point in time beyond the time of history, out into messianic time. It is only the sabbath at the end of history that will be “a feast without end”.
In the Bible’s vision, the sabbath is part of a pattern of scarcity and plenty. It’s the little feast day after 6 days of of hard work and short commons. But in our culture of permanent feast, when every day is a day of abundance, how can we make the sabbath different, except by making it a day of self-denial rather a feast day? Does this contribute to the difficult feelings that many Christians have about the sabbath? I know that for myself, too often the only way in which Sunday feels “special” is that it is a day of duties, rotas, and chores, at the end of which I feel tired and demoralized rather than rested and renewed.
I’m not sure that we are very good at doing sabbath in this church (or any church I have ever belonged to for that matter). The hard work – both in preparation and on the day – needed to put on this weekly “show” is running some of us ragged, and seems almost opposite to the ideal of a sabbath feast.
So maybe it’s time think again about how to pattern our week in a way that challenges the permanent feast of our culture, but also allows us to celebrate more truly the sabbath feast of God.