One of my favorite films is Babette’s Feast. The story revolves around a small community of Christians that was founded by a charismatic pastor many years before.
His two maiden daughters took up his mantle after he died. Together with an ever-dwindling number of members, they take care of the sick and needy in their small village. Every Sunday they gather to say the same prayers and sing the same songs they sang when the father was still alive.
On the surface, everybody appears to be getting along. Beneath the surface, though, old resentments and conflicts are simmering. They’d sing about love, and smile at one another as they sat around the table where they worshiped. But inside, they were starving; they were starving for love. One day, a woman named Babette shows up to help. No one knows her story, at first, but as she observes the two daughters, and sees what is going on between them and among the small group of worshipers, she realizes that what they need is to be healed and reconciled—and fed.
Our readings today invite us to reflect on what we are really looking for when we yearn for community. What we think we want, what we think we are in danger of losing because of the pandemic, may be something we haven’t really had before, not to the extent we thought we did—not to the extent we really need and want for our church.
The gift of this time may be that we develop a stronger sense of what it means to be a Christian community, and commit ourselves to the work of love that goes into being one.
Community is a work of love that frees us to become the people God wants us to be. In today’s epistle, Paul tells us, “Owe nobody anything, except to love one another.” If we owe someone something, whether it is a debt of money or a debt of courtesy, we have lost our freedom. But if we love one another, Paul says, we will not hold things against one another.
We will forgive the debts of others, including emotional debts for the things people have done to us, or what they haven’t done that we think they should have, like remembering our birthday or responding to an email we spent a lot of time composing. When debts like this pile up, and we don’t try to resolve them, we can get stuck in a past the other person doesn’t even remember, or if they do, they might not want to bring up because they are afraid to.
I remember calling my sister one summer to ask her if she remembered the tires I bought for her car when she didn’t have any money. She had promised to pay me back and it’d been three years. I was in a jam, I told her, and I wasn’t going to get paid until the fall semester started. I spent months agonizing over whether I should call her, but when I did, she said, sure, I’ll send the money right away. She had completely forgotten about the tires. She had a new car, now, and had put that time behind her. And here I was, still sweating over the tires I paid for and the money she still owed me.
The freedom Paul is talking about here requires more than reconciling an old balance sheet. Sometimes we simply have to forgive the debt, using whatever grace God gives us to stop “swallowing the pain.” I had to be ready to forgive my sister when I called her. Making the call and talking with her about something that was coming between us was more important to both of us than paying off those tires.
Paul says that if we love one another we will fulfill God’s law. The commandments he is talking about—the ones that say, do not steal, or lie, or covet—are about boundaries.
Love means that we respect boundaries. We acknowledge that what is ours, is ours—and what is theirs, is theirs. We acknowledge boundaries of behavior, so that we do not steal someone’s relationship or destroy someone’s reputation by lying or spreading rumors.
Paul is treading on tender ground in saying these things. No one ever wants to be told they’ve violated a boundary. We resist the idea that we could hurt or inconvenience someone when we are doing what we think we are entitled to do, or what we can rationalize as being okay because we are the ones who are doing it.
We excuse ourselves and we excuse other people, all in the name of freedom. But that’s not the freedom Paul is talking about. The freedom Paul is talking about comes at a price.
A long time ago, when I was struggling with some complicated and sad family issues, I started a cross-stitch embroidery kit with the saying, “The price of peace is love.” Paul tells us in the second letter to the Corinthians what love is: it is patient and kind. It is not envious or arrogant, or rude or boastful. I like the International Translation, where it says “[Love] is never glad with sin; she’s always glad to side with truth, and pleased that truth will win.”
Today Paul tells us to “wake from our sleep”: it’s time to lay aside the works of darkness and pick up the armor of light.
The armor of light helps us when we need to call upon our better angels. It helps us call one another out of quarrelsome conversation, and conversation that feeds the monsters we all have inside of us, the monsters of jealousy and pride.
When someone calls us on something we have done or are doing, the armor of light is what makes it possible for us to hear the love, and to lean into it. It takes more love to call a child, a spouse, or a friend to a higher standard than it does to reaffirm that person just to make him or her feel better.
When we put on Christ, we are made humble in the knowledge that we, too, fall short, and that we do not have all the answers. When we put on Christ, we are made aware that our perspective is not the only perspective, and that love may be calling us to simply walk with the other, and be open to what they have to say.
What Babette did in the movie, Babette’s Feast, was to feed the people in that dying Christian community with food that cost her every last dime she had. At first, they would not eat what she put in front of them, but after a couple of surprise twists in plot, they started to eat. And as they ate, they remembered who they were, and how God had blessed them. All those years, they had been praying and eating in community and yet they had been starving. They would have kept eating the same thing they’d eaten and having the same superficial conversations they’d shared all those years, but because a stranger came to town they were able to experience the community they had been longing for all along. Babette’s Feast gave them—and us—a taste of the resurrected life.
When we make love the focus of our community life, we will become a place where resurrection is a reality. We are not going to stay in the tomb of sorrow and anguish and fear. We are not going to let ourselves or anyone we know starve for the love we have in us, the love we share in Christ. We are going to use this time to restore and deepen our relationships, and our community.
And at every new morning we awaken to, we will find Jesus, right here with us, just like that first Easter morning, calling us just like he did to Mary Magdalene, by name, over and over again, and sending us out into the world, to spread the Good News that God is love, and we have nothing to fear.