Feasting really has gone out of fashion in this day and age. Do we really ever get invited to a feast? We go to formal dinners occasionally, but we are far more likely to inhale a TV dinner or a handful of Chicken McNuggets by ourselves then we are to sit down to a meal with a large group of people. And I’m not even sure that merely a large group qualifies as a feast. There is in the word “feasting” a sense of solemnity, of length, of plenty, of laughter, of toasting, and of overwhelming abundance. A feast isn’t really a feast without huge sides of meat, without vast trays of delicacies, barrels of beer and vast amounts of wine, and the obligatory roast pig with an apple in its mouth. Feasting is not for those who are closely examining their waistlines or are in bondage to nutritionists.
A feast is what we imagine pirates doing, after a successful day of pillaging; or Vikings, boasting of their exploits in battle. There is, in short, in feasting a certain roughness or gruffness; a quality of being slightly out of control, slightly wild. A feast is more like a fraternity party and less like a Norman Rockwell-esque Thanksgiving Dinner.
We, certainly do not feast. We, frozen chosen Episcopalians would look slightly askance at too great a display of emotion, that kind of wildness at a social event. We gather certainly, for communal dinners, but really, feasting is a bit passé and bit rustic. We would be forced to yell at our companions across the table, and listen to their slightly off-color jokes. Feasting might make us slightly uncomfortable and exposed.
But we must learn to feast, because if the Scriptures that we read today are correct, feasting is our final goal and delight. Feasting is our future.
It is unfortunate that feasting has left our experience, because it is a preeminent and much used image throughout the Scriptures; a way of talking about the incomprehensible and unimaginable future that God is preparing for his beloved people; a way of talking about heaven.
First, in the passage that we heard from Isaiah, we have the wonderful image of the mountaintop feast, where God gathers all peoples and makes for them a feast of rich food filled with marrow and well-aged wines strained clear. The feast is a celebration, because in the future which God prepares for all peoples, the sadness of life and sorrow of death are removed and God wipes the tears from our faces.
And Lord knows that we need to be reminded of this hope, as we have watched the stock markets and the financial markets of the world crumble, as we have watched our own savings dwindle and people all around us struggle to make ends meet.
Lord knows that we need an abundant feast, as people are struggling to find the money to feed themselves and their loved ones.
Lord knows that there are many, many tears on our faces, as we look at a world and a city filled with violence and poverty.
And the Lord does know all that, and there is tremendous and vast hope in knowing that our sadness and our cries are not ignored and that the day of feasting and an end to sadness is coming.
But the hope of that day is not just pie in the sky. The passage from Isaiah is about what God will do, at some future moment. The parable from the Gospel of Matthew this morning is about what God has already done in Jesus. The kingdom of heaven, which has come near us, which is among us, is like a wedding feast. A wedding feast which was RSVP only, but when those guests failed to come, to which all are invited, those worthy and those unworthy.
At first blush, this parable seems to portray the king as an arbitrary and angry ruler, who has simply decided to have a party, and if he has to force the guests to come, he is powerful and will do it. When he finds a guest who isn’t dressed correctly, he tosses him out of the feast. Is this really how God is? Arbitrary, petulant and dangerous?
But no, of course God is not like that, nor is that the meaning of the parable. The feast, you see, is the most important thing; the feast is the end and purpose of our life, what we were made for. That restlessness and sense that we sometimes have of not quite being home; that is because we were made for the feast, and instead we are in the midst of fasting and suffering. The feast is the reversal of the Fall, the return to Eden, rest after long labor, the period at the end of the sentence. And so to have an invitation to the feast and not go, or to go and not be ready for the feast is a drastic and massive failing. It is like having tickets to see the Phillies play in Game 7 of the World Series (God willing) and instead decide to go to a movie, or stay home and watch the game on television.
What the parable is teaching is the necessity of being ready when that great and glorious day, long hid from our sight comes. That day when we are invited into the festal hall of the King with all sorts and conditions of people, and showered with food and drink to celebrate the end of death and the healing of grief.
What we are about this morning is preparing for the Feast. What we do here at the altar is a kind of mini-feast, a practice feast, a way to get ourselves ready for that final, eternal feast. We gather as all sorts and conditions of people, we gather however worthy or unworthy we feel. We gather, business people and paupers, young and old, many races; all the peoples that God has made. We gather and are made one and become a sign and symbol of what we were created for: the feast to end all feasts and the party to end all parties.
What we do as the church, as the People of the Way gathered here is both preparation for and participation in that great and glorious day hid from our sight. This mass is an image, an icon of the Wedding Feast of our God, the Supper of the Lamb, in which our God spreads out a feast for us, wipes away our tears and showers down upon us the abundant food and drink of eternity.
Though we cannot see it, and though so much of our world seems dark, we are already in the outer chambers of the king’s palace. Already the feast has begun and we wait only for the doors to swing open to admit us into the gathering; that great crowd of witnesses which none can number.
Come then, come to the Feast; prepare yourselves for heavenly food and drink. The rich food will be upon the altar, the well-aged wine in the chalice. With this feast, God will wipe away our tears, not for the last time, but for time being; with this feast we will be strengthened, for the work ahead of us, to go out into the world, to comfort those who mourn and bind up the broken-hearted, to be with the sick, the friendless and the needy, to work for the restoration of the Kingdom, that we may be ready when that great and glorious day is upon us.
Preached by the Rev’d Andrew Ashcroft
12 October 2008
St. Mark’s Church, Philadelphia