A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

By: David H. May, Rector


This time of the year, I like to check the times for sunrise and sunset in the newspaper to see how much more daylight we will have today than yesterday.  This time of the year even just a one minute more of sunlight is cause for rejoicing.  Each day, we’ve got a little more light, just a little more time.

I’ve found that the season of Lent is a pretty good time to think about things like this: how much more light, how much more time is there in this day?  How much more time, how much more light is there in each of our lives?  Lent begins with the Ash Wednesday words ‘remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’, and gives us a time and a place to think about that.  How much more time will I be in this world?  What do I hope can be a part of the time I have left?, because what is it, really, that matters most?  And on the other hand, how much of the time I have do I spend on things that really don’t matter at all?

So, how shall we live?  That is the question that is at the heart of Jesus’ insistent cry for repentance.  There is time enough to turn aside and behold God’s goodness.  There is enough time.  But not for ever.

The reading from the gospel this morning begins with a cranky conversation about why bad things happen to people and especially what did they do to deserve it?  It’s so interesting, apparently, to think about what other people have done wrong and about their faults.  But Jesus steers us away from that fruitless kind of thinking by saying in no uncertain terms that, really, you ought to tend to your own knitting, not someone else’s.

And then he describes a vineyard owner who plants a fig bush in his vineyard.  But after three years, it has failed to produce any figs so he decides to dig it up and toss it aside.  The steward of the vineyard steps in and says,  ‘It’s not really the fig bush’s fault—the soil is so thin and dry.  Give me some time to work with it some more.  I’ll dig an irrigation ditch to bring water and I’ll work rich manure into the soil around the plant.  Let it be for another year.

There’s time still.  Let it grow another year.  There’s time enough to turn and remember that we live in a world where God is still lighting burning bushes, still calling servants to turn aside and see the work he has for us to do for his Kingdom.

And ‘something burning’ is exactly what is needed in the frozen Danish village of Isak Dinesen’s story ‘Babette’s Feast’—a frigid tale of unlived lives, frozen in place.  They need a kind of Moses to lead them out of their icy captivity.

The story is set in the late 19th century.  The main characters are two elderly Danish spinsters, Phillipa and Martine, daughters of a larger-than-life Lutheran pastor who followed a strict puritanical rule.  He had been loved and feared by the villagers, and since his death, the daughters have tried to carry out their father’s traditions to the letter.  They along with the villagers live a strictly austere life, following rigorously regulated habits and routines.  They come together to attend meetings, hear a spiritual message and sing their familiar hymns in the Pastor’s house beneath his imposing portrait.

Long ago, both Phillipa and Martine had brief brushes with a different life.  Once, a dashing soldier, Lorens, had stayed in the village and been dazzled by Martine’s beauty.  They had even shared a single, illicit kiss for which Martine forever after carries punishing guilt.  Lorens flees feeling himself too unworthy for Martine’s chaste, pure beauty.  And Phillipa had once sung for Achille Papin, director of the Paris Opera.  She might have been a great diva but her father had overruled the mere possibility.

The daughters live on keeping their losses secret.

Then, one stormy night, a refugee from the revolution raging in Paris arrives on the old sisters doorstep.  It is Babette with a letter of introduction from none other than Achille Papin.

She becomes the sister’s maid and cook, learning to prepare a stale bread and ale soup that is their staple.  She keeps their house and settles into their simple routine.

Meanwhile, the dutiful flock, loyal to a long dead pastor, begin to quarrel among themselves with renewed bitterness, stewing over past grievances and hurts with deeper enmity.  The sisters remain detached from the quarreling as they remain detached from their own lost lives.

And then a most remarkable thing happens.  Babette wins the lottery, 10,000 francs!  With her new found wealth, the sisters are convinced that she will leave them and stoically say, ‘the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.’

But, Babette conceives of an extraordinary plan.  She asks the sisters permission to prepare and pay for a real French meal for the anniversary dinner they hold each year for their long dead father.  The sisters are moved by Babette’s earnest appeal and they agree.  But they become worried about what they have agreed to as the preparations Babette makes become more and more elaborate, including a trip to Paris to order supplies.

She returns from Paris with countless mysterious crates and boxes.  Babette insists that they can know nothing of what is to come.  More boxes and crates arrive by sea, including one containing a live sea turtle.  The sisters become convinced that something unholy is taking place.

Unknown to Babette, the sisters meet with the villagers and confess that something terrible is about to happen.  They liken it to a ‘Satanic sabbath’.  The villagers rally and agree to partake of the meal but that they will not enjoy it, they promise; they will not let a single reference to what is before them pass their lips.

As the day of the anniversary approaches, we learn that Lorens has been invited to the meal as well by his aunt who lives in the village.  Then the night of the anniversary meal arrives…

The table is resplendent as never before with silver candlesticks, linens, and beautiful china, Babette has purchased for the meal.  An endless parade of extraordinary dishes begin to arrive at the table with fresh wine for each new course.  As the exotic dishes are consumed, the villagers refuse to admit what their taste buds are screaming and refer only to the weather or remembrances of the old pastor.

But as the night goes on, the magical meal has its effect.  First one, then another other let slip a delighted gasp at what they have just tasted.  Gradually, they give over to the sheer grace of the heavenly tasting food.  Phillipa sings with the pure voice of her youth.  Martine and Lorens gaze at one another in perfect peace; remembering now with warm affection what once was.  The villager’s old enmities give way and are replaced with forgiveness and laughter and joy that come as gifts of mercies are given and received.  By the end of the evening, the villagers drift out into the snow, arm in arm, and the sisters lost lives become infused with a palpable sense that all that was lost has been found.

Later in the evening, Babette confesses that she once had been the chief chef at Café Anglais in Paris—the greatest restaurant in that great city.  And to cook again as she had that night was the fulfillment of her dream because it is her calling in life.  And she tells the sisters that all the money is gone.  C’est tout!  It is finished.  It is the last supper like this that she will make.  She has spent it all and she is satisfied.  And now she is poor again and this village and the sisters are now her home.

It was late in the day for all of them, but there was enough time left for a sacred meal and the knowledge that God still lights burning bushes in this world, to overwhelm and cleanse and redeem all of their lives.

Though we may be reluctant fig bushes (because who isn’t, really), there is time enough to remember that we are watered by the living waters of our baptism and the very roots of our souls reach into earth made rich by the life of Jesus buried there.

To repent, is to turn and know that there is time enough to see that we live in a world where God still lights burning bushes and calls servants to work for his Kingdom.

The sun is out longer these days, thanks be to God.  There is time.  There is time still.  Amen.