I hate Fig Newtons.
28th Sunday 10/15/17 IS25;Phil4;Mt22:l-14JMayzikSJ
“Come on, try it. You’ll love it,” a friend encouraged me, holding out a fig in her hand. I resisted. “No thank you,” I said. “I hate Fig Newtons, and I’ll always hate Fig Newtons, and if I hate them I’ll definitely hate that !” I was pretty stubborn, and as she kept urging me, I kept saying no, no, no, no, noooooo. But her determination was stronger, and after she split the fruit open and forced it in my hand, I reluctantly agreed to taste it, protesting loudly. “Just a little bit, that’s all I’ll try.” As a little piece of the fruit entered my mouth, I got ready to spit it out in disgust. And then… behold… ”mmmmmm”. It was…delicious. I took another bite, not sure if my taste buds were deceiving me, and this time my mouth was filled with its delightful sweetness, a subtly rich, fresh flavor somewhere between a peach and a strawberry, with undertones of vanilla.
My friend looked at me with a big smile on her face. “See? I told you so.” I hated having to admit that she was right. “Yeah, ok, maybe you were a little bit right, but I still hate Fig Newtons!”.
Later on, I realized that my tasting experience reminded me of one of my favorite movies, a glorious little film called Babette’s Feast. The movie starts out in a small Protestant village that has been led for many years by a very rigid pastor. The beliefs of the congregation are extremely “Puritan,” making the village into a drab, grey place where there is hardly any joy. The townspeople are so worried about following the many rules that they are afraid to indulge in any earthly pleasures. The pastor dies and the congregation dwindles.
Then one day a French woman, Babette, comes to the city, and upends everything. While working as a housekeeper in the village, Babette discovers that she won a lottery back in Paris and instead of taking the money and returning home, she spends it all on a true “French feast.”
Many of the townspeople are scandalized by the many colorful ingredients and are set on refusing to enjoy what she cooks. They believe the feast is a “satanic Sabbath” and firmly believe the food should not be enjoyed and could expose them to terrible sins.
However, after sitting down and beginning to eat the many courses, they quickly discover it is harder to resist than they thought. They eventually can’t contain themselves and openly enjoy the feast. Little by little, the room is filled with conversation and laughter as the townspeople are transformed by the tasty meal, and by the end of it, they are eternally grateful to Babette for opening their eyes to the simple joys in life.
I discovered recently that the movie is also a favorite of Pope Francis. In a interview I read, he mentioned the movie in response to a question about people in the church who have criticized his ecumenical endeavors and his conciliatory approach to divorced Catholics. He compared the rigid behavior of those opposed to his merciful outreach to the rigid townspeople portrayed in Babette’s Feast.
It’s a great movie. You should see it, you’ll love it. It’s like a real fig, nothing like a Fig Newton.
When I would meet with prospective students of the film program I created at Fairfield University, I would tell them that if they were accepted, they would be invited to a four year banquet of ideas, possibilities and revelations that were meant to help them get their arms around the bigger truth of the universe. I would say it was like an enormous ‘tasting menu’, in which they would be encouraged try all kinds of things, to risk their intellectual, social, cultural and spiritual taste buds with new flavors about life. The academy, as college or university is sometimes called, was invented for you to get bigger in your mind and in your heart, I would say to them, and you have to be mature enough to be ready to do that for the next four years.
The truth is that many students who are on the approach to the highway of college are not often really ready to appreciate the ride. They often are so enthralled with newfound freedom from parental oversight that the main opportunity of their college years is squandered—and these days it can run at $70,000 a year. That can be a very expensive waste of their parents money, and of the incredible resources that have been created for them at the university that has invited them to the table.
It often bothered me to know that there were other much more deserving students out there looking longingly in the window at the ongoing banquet, unable to get an invitation or unable to afford it.
It’s like the banquet of which Isaiah speaks: the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. And it’s like Gospel parable where God's love is compared to a wedding feast where everyone is invited. Everyone, including us. And in the parable some don't accept, because as attractive as love can be, some of us don't know how to love back. Maybe we've been burned too often, maybe we've learned all the wrong things. Maybe we really believe, in our ignorance, that we would be happier in the cold shadows.
There was an off-Broadway play a few years ago called The Construction. The play opens with a group of people who are gathered in a kind of other-worldly place. The actors don't know where they are or how they got there or, more importantly, what they're supposed to do. "Where are we?" they ask. "And why are we in this place? What’s the purpose here? What are we supposed to do?" It’s a little like the freshmen students I encountered each year as they experienced the first days of their college lives.
In the midst of these unanswered questions, one of the characters in the play notices that there are a lot of building materials piled up nearby, so they conclude that they were brought to this particular place to build something, although nobody knows what. Someone suggests a swimming pool, another a club house. One character quietly proposes that they build a big dinner table, and the others look at him like he’s crazy.
But as they're discussing this, someone hears a sound in the distance, the sound of other people. After listening a while, they exclaim, "We don't know who they are or what they want,". A strange kind of tribalism begins to emerge from a group of people who barely know each other. Someone cries out "We can't afford to take chances. We should protect ourselves."
So they decide that this construction material is obviously meant for them to build a wall to protect themselves from the other strangers. In fact, the more they discuss it the more they become convinced that they must build a wall. They find superficial reasons to unite themselves with one another---the way they look, the way they dress, the food they eat, the music they like—and they create instant customs that distinguish them from any other group.
After they work on the wall for some time---and indeed, it turns out to be an incredibly huge wall---they look up and see a stranger heading their way. The stranger tells them that he is a builder. Not only that but he has plans under his arms. And the stranger, looking at the wall, tells them that they got it all wrong. As he spreads the plans out he says, "See, you're not supposed to build a wall around yourselves. You're supposed to build a bridge to other people and invite them in."
Their first reaction is stunned silence. And for a moment one character tentatively considers his idea. But then others reject his advice. They say he is unrealistic, that he is too idealistic. The world doesn’t work that way, and his plan would naively invite danger and destruction and disaster. And then they begin to wonder if the stranger is actually one of members of that other group. He doesn’t look exactly like us, they say. Yeah, and he doesn’t eat the same kind of food that we do. And there is something not right about his smile. And it doesn’t take long for the tribe to reaffirm their vision of protectionism and preservation. The stranger is exiled, with threats upon his life.
The Gospel is about inviting the stranger in: God inviting us into his love, us inviting our brothers and sisters in to our love in Him. Love isn't love till you give it away. That’s what makes us Christians so different, you see. We build bridges, and dinner tables, we throw the doors wide open to the whole party. We don't build walls. We never build walls. In our marriages, our friendships, our neighborhood, in our country, in our world.
Hours before the election of a new pope, Cardinal Bergoglio of Venezuela made 3 minute speech to the other Cardinals. He strongly criticized the Church for failing to open the doors wide to everyone. He spoke of Jesus being imprisoned in the church by those who were afraid to share His divine love with others. The self-referential, theologically narcissistic church, he said, does not let Jesus out. It was that speech that got him elected a few hours later as Pope, and he took the name of Francis.
“Go out therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.”
The risks are obvious. But the message of the Gospel, and of Jesus’ life are clear. Everyone is invited: rich, poor, women and men, black, brown, white, yellow, gay and straight, young and old, Democrats and Republicans, college students, executives, mechanics, Mets and Yankees and Red Sox fans, fig lovers and fig haters.
What shall we do, my brothers and sisters? Join the ever-growing table, or retreat from the banquet to the safety of our own kind? Shall we build a wall, or build a table?