Christmas Eve Homily – UCC Ashland
Rev. Christina Kukuk
Dec. 24, 2017 – 9 p.m.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…. some of you call it the Midwest… my spouse and I watched art films with lush cinematography and spare dialogue. That was before kids, the era B.K., when we could stay awake through what felt like 20 minutes of Juliette Binoche dipping a sugar cube in her espresso or watching rain fall in the French film “Blue.” One of the films we watched then, I re-watched lately. And it spoke anew a word we might need to hear this year.
This film opens with video of the shore of Denmark. The scene is the late 19th century. In a strict religious community in a Danish village, a French refugee from the Franco-Prussian War arrives on the doorstep of the somewhat spinster daughters of the community’s late pastor and prophet. “In this remote spot lived two sisters, both past the first flush of their youth,” the narrator begins. The refugee who arrives on their doorstep is Babette, and she has nothing left. She offers to stay and assist the two sisters in their works of piety, taking meals and socks to the sick and shut-in. She offers to stay with them and cook for no wages. How Babette comes to this point, this place, is a tragic, comic and beautiful story of its own, but the real action picks up 14 years later when Babette unexpectedly wins the lottery back home. With her winnings, she tells the sisters, she wants to prepare the feast for the upcoming celebration of the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth, the community’s prophet and founder. The community has dwindled until they fit around one table, all well-aged. Unbeknownst to the sisters, Babette had been a highly decorated chef in Paris before the war took her family and home, the kind of cook who could “transform a meal into a kind of love affair.” The sisters accept her generous gesture, with misgivings. And as the strange and expensive ingredients begin to arrive, the sisters begin to fear they’ve unleashed “a witch’s Sabbath” of sensuality and decadence and excess. Sympathetically, that small and quarrelsome congregation vows to eat the food, but not say a word about it.
“The tongue, that strange little muscle, has accomplished great and glorious deeds for [humanity],” says one character. “But it is also an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” They vow to preserve their tongues on the appointed day for prayer only. “It will be as if we never had the sense of taste.”
The tongue, that strange little muscle… it can be an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. She’s not wrong. (Pause) I cannot remember a year in which the power of words to build up or tear down has ever felt so keen. On the national and international level, jokes about what the President tweets mask the much more serious consequences of what those words can do… and are doing… at home and abroad. At the interpersonal level, many of us are grappling with how to talk to friends, loved ones, co-workers, neighbors about the things that matter to us – while also being able to listen and hear what matters to them – and keep love at the center of those relationships. In the online neighborhoods we inhabit of social media, hashtags like #metoo have become rallying words powerful enough to end the careers of previously untouchable men. Even here, on a night like tonight, we grapple with a mix of traditional and expansive language for our spirituality, for our expression, because we know words matter. Words are powerful.
A time also comes when actions speak louder than words, when word must become flesh. (Pause)
In the film as Babette’s Feast approaches, she uses so few words. Her hands work, plucking pheasants, chopping herbs, finally ladling the turtle soup into china bowls. The guests begin to arrive, and with each course some hardness in them melts away. In the silences that settle between the bits of conversation, an unseen power works in the hearts of all around the table. Forbidden from exhorting the food or the chef, the hard, religious people keep bursting out in snatches of old sermons or bits of scripture. They are enraptured, and they can’t talk about the food, so they just start quoting. The one outsider at the table, who is not in on the secret, reminisces about love and chances he thought he’d missed. At the climax of the meal’s flavor and spirit, he stands to offer a toast of a kind, a proclamation, an epiphany that grace wasn’t as limited as he’d assumed. That grace, gift, is infinite, unending. He did not miss out, as he suspected he might have. When the guests finally leave, they leave with joy on their faces, pieces and fragments of relationship unexpectedly healed and made whole. As they circle up under the starlight around the well outside, they sing once again the snatch of hymn they’d sung before in the film rather drearily before:
“Never would you give a stone or serpent to your child who asks for bread.”
Those are words of Jesus.
The Word becomes flesh. That’s how John’s “good news” story begins. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” He’s saying that what we’ve said God is, what we’ve proclaimed of love and justice, if it’s true at all, it must take on flesh and blood and be lived out in our bodies. So he begins this story telling us that Word – wholeness and healing and unending grace and love – has taken on flesh and blood, and in the paraphrase The Message, that Word moves into the neighborhood.
This is where it begins, the redemption of the world. That’s where it began then. That’s where it begins today, tonight, in this insane world of so much poisonous language: The Word becomes Flesh and Blood and moves into the neighborhood. In us. Through us. That’s the amazing gift, the grace that doesn’t have a limit. The Holy Word that creates the world can recreate us and our world. It’s ours to consume, to nourish us, to live through us… if we’ll receive it.
Thank God. Amen.
Christmas Prayer, by Howard Thurman
Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes and the heart consumes itself as if it would live,
Where children age before their time, and life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly down to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed.
CHRISTMAS IS WAITING TO BE BORN:
In you, in me, in all mankind.
 Babette’s Feast.