Preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at All Saints’, Cuddesdon and St Giles’ Horspath on 13th March 2016.
Readings: John 12:1-8
I would like to tell you a story. It’s a story about service.
In a small fishing village on the coast of Norway there were a group of devout and loyal Lutheran worshippers led by an eminent Dean and his two daughters Martine and Philippa. Every week this small congregation would gather together for worship, singing lustily of the New Jerusalem. They lived out their faith in what some may think an austere manner, wearing black and eating only boiled cod and gruel but what they lacked in material comfort was made up in loving fellowship.
The Dean’s two daughters were themselves great beauties of the village and both of them soon caught the eye of dashing young men. Martine was paid chivalrous compliments by a young cavalry officer whilst Philippa’s beautiful voice attracted an open singer from France who wanted to whisk her away to Paris and train her voice for the stage. Both girls were delighted in the attentions and loved their separate beaus, but each decided that their place was with their father and to the brethren and so they turned down any offer of marriage.
Fifteen years passed and there were many changes in the small fishing village community. The Dean had died and though the two sisters had loyally continued his work, things were not the same. They were now middle-aged spinsters whose bloom had faded, the congregation still met together but they sang with less lustre and vigour, friendships were still strong but annoyances and misunderstandings had soured relationships. Their group had dwindled in numbers and their way of life was misunderstood and even laughed at by the other villages.
It was then, one dark and rainy night, that the sisters heard a thump at the door. Only to find on opening it that a woman had collapsed there. They picked her up and took her inside. She spoke not a word of Norwegian but held in her hand a crumpled note from the French opera singer on which was written ‘Babette can cook’. Babette begged the sisters to let her stay with them and reluctantly they agreed. For the next twelve years Babette worked for the sisters, doing the menial chores and cooking their meals just as they liked it, a meagre fare of cold cod and gruel. Over time the sisters became extremely fond of their French guest who served their every needs. Never prying into her past it therefore came as a great shock when she suddenly received a letter. Reading it slowly Babette began to smile, looking up at the sisters she calmly announced that a wonderful thing had happened. Each year in Paris a friend had renewed Babette’s number in a French lottery and her ticket had now won. She was extremely rich. The sisters were delighted for Babette but their heart also sank for now she would be leaving them.
As it happened this good fortune had fallen at the time when the sisters had been planning a celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth. A month before the great day and Babette’s appointed time of departure, she came to the sisters and said, “I have never asked anything of you; before I leave I would like to prepare a French meal for your celebration”. The sisters were rather dubious of what this might involve but they could not refuse so gracious a request and reluctantly agreed.
Over the next few weeks the village was buzzing with talk of the strange boxes and crates of provisions that started arriving from France. Workmen pushed wheelbarrows loaded with small birds, cases of champagne, wine, animals, fresh vegetables, truffles, pheasants, strange sea creatures, all going to the kitchen of Martine and Philippa. The sisters were alarmed at this apparent witches brew and spoke their fears to the other brethren who were to attend the celebrations. No one wanted to offend Babette but they all agreed that they would not like her food and decided, out of kindness, to withhold any comment on the night.
Well the day of the dinner finally arrived and the brethren were joined by an unexpected guest: the same cavalryman who had courted Martine so very long age – now a general at the Royal palace. Babette had decorated the room with china and crystal, candles and sumptuous garlands. The brethren, as agreed, took their seats in silence and Babettte began to serve them with course after course of the most delicious food and wonderful wine. As each dish arrived the general was amazed at what was put before him, the food at the Royal palace was not so fine. And yet, he is more amazed at the brethren’s silence. Slowly and surely the dinner began to work its magic on them all. Reluctant at first to even taste the wares placed before them, the brethren began to look with eagerness at what Babette would bring out next. And as they began to delight in the taste, the smell and the sight of Babette’s offerings, they began to reminisce of happy days when the Dean was alive, misunderstandings were brought to the light of generous truth, wounds started to be healed and friendships forged anew. They began to smile and laugh, remembering all that they loved and held dear. As the evening lengthened into the small hours of the morning, the brethren began to sing all their favourite hymns of faith and could be seen dancing round the fountain in the centre of the village.
Eventually Philippa and Martine returned to the house to find Babette in the kitchen surrounded by unwashed dishes, greasy pots, shells, bones, empty bottles and crates. She looked as exhausted as the first day she had arrived. The sisters entered and realised that, in accordance with their vow, no one had spoken to Babette. Rather embarrassed Martine said “It was quite a nice dinner, Babette, we will remember this evening when you return to Paris.” It is only then that Babette drops the bombshell. She won’t be returning to Paris for she has spent every last franc of the whole ten thousand winnings on the feast they had just eaten.
The story of Babette’s feast is a parable, a parable of extravagant loving service and self-giving. As Philip Yancy writes: ‘A meal of a life-time lavished on those who had in no way earned it, who barely possessed the faculties to receive it. Grace came to that tiny village as it always comes: free of charge, no strings attached, on the house’. Christ is our Babette, our good news, who spends everything on the feast of love he presents before us. He extravagantly pours himself out for us, serving us in ways that we are barely aware of. Like Babette, his grace gradually renews, brings healing and hope, lightens darkness and replaces it with joy and ease of being. He is the servant of all and we, as Christians, are called to imitate that self-giving love. To give of ourselves in that same uninhibited generous way, for, as our post communion prayer reminds us, when we lovingly serve ‘the least of our brothers and sisters’ we are serving Christ.
In many ways the actions of Mary in our gospel reading today are an icon of loving Christian service. Like Babette, Mary lavishly and touchingly defies all social convention to pour the most precious and expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet. And yet she is pulled up by Judas for wasting money that could have been spent in service to the poor. Surely meeting the needs of those who have nothing is more important and a better use of resources than lavishing costly ointment and time on Jesus. Maybe, but Mary’s act of love and self-giving, which is the hallmark of all Christian service, arises first from her devotion to Christ, her ability to receive the grace of Christ. In our own way we are called to be like Mary and Babette in our service of one another. But before we can serve others, we must first of all receive his grace, for it is only partaking in the banquet of Christ’s love and grace that we will be able to imitate his self-giving love. Before we can be like Babette, we must first acknowledge that we are those group of loyal brethren and humbly sit ourselves down at the feast of love and allow ourselves to be served by the servant of all, for without his grace we can do nothing. Amen.