United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds March 24, 2019

Third Sunday in Lent Year C

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Lectionary citations:
Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Worship resources for the Third Sunday in Lent Year C are at Worship Ways


Sermon Seeds

Special preaching notes on Luke 13:1-9 in preparation for the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering 2019 by Mary Schaller Blaufuss

Focus Scripture:
Isaiah 55:1-9
Additional reflection on Psalm 63:1-8

Focus Theme:
Fed by the Glory

Reflection:
by Kathryn M. Matthews

Prophets are poets, really, which might explain why they are such great theologians. Today's reading, or better, today's poem from the prophet-poet Isaiah offers us in nine short verses what might be described as the heart of the biblical message: God loves us, no matter what, and reaches out to us even (or especially) in the worst of times, making promises that are not just pie-in-the-sky, not just theoretical.

God promises the things that we most yearn for, deep down in our hearts, the very basics of life: homecoming when we're lost or far away, a rich feast when we're hungry, flowing fresh water to satisfy our thirst, and a community of hope when we long for meaning in our lives – something greater than ourselves, in which and through which we might be a blessing to the whole world.

Oh, and another thing: there will be no cost affixed to this wonderful feast, no price of admission, and everyone (even people you and I would never expect) will be invited to the party. Underneath and through this message runs a deep and tender compassion for the human predicament, our habit of getting entangled, trapped, in ways and habits that cut us off from the source of what we need most, or worse, being taken captive against our will by forces beyond our control, like racism, sexism, and materialism, to name only a few.

The Book of Comfort

Our passage from Isaiah comes from the beautiful Book of Comfort, addressed to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon almost six hundred years before Jesus. We know that a prophet speaks sternly to the people when they need it, but also knows how to speak tenderly, to convey God's great love and mercy; in fact, that really brings out the poet in a prophet.

And this prophet knows that the people are hungry for a message of hope, a message that promises an end to their captivity and a different way of life, back home, where they can be who they are called to be, and live lives faithful to the God who has made an everlasting covenant with them. Today, we might say that these words are "comfort food" for the soul of the people.

Isaiah knows that even the mention of the great King David's name will stir the people's memory, drawing their hearts and minds back to a time when Israel was a people great and glorious. Here, however, he adds that this time, as God renews the covenant, it is extended beyond one king or dynasty and even beyond one people, for the chosen people will be a light to the nations, drawing to it people they have never known or even heard of.

Overflowing feasts and good news

Long ago, God had led the people from bondage in Egypt and fed them manna and water on their way to a land flowing with milk and honey, but this trip home will be no bread-and-water journey. This will be an overflowing feast of delicious, delightful foods.

Timothy Saleska recalls his mother's voice calling him to supper as a child: "Come and get it!" was music to his ears, not a command but "good news." He and his brother were happy to run home when they heard these words, just as the people long ago, in exile, in "desolation and death," would have thrilled to hear an invitation to come and enjoy free food, wine, milk, and the restoration for which they longed (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

It would have sounded to their hungry hearts like their mother, calling them home to supper. The same might be said of us, today.

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Voices calling to us

Perhaps the voice we hear, calling us to "come to the waters," to "buy and eat" – but with no money – is the voice of an ancient street vendor selling his wares. I'm reminded of the people who stand on a street corner, wearing green Statue-of-Liberty costumes and holding sandwich boards that invite passers-by to a carpet sale, with "bargains you won't believe" (the connection to the Statue of Liberty, however, escapes me).

How easy is it to just pass on by this kind of offer and the voice that beckons us to check it out?

Getting us to change course

Or maybe this vendor is more like the nice people in the grocery store who invite us to try a sample of this or that new cheese on this or that new cracker.

In either case, the offer is made to people who have other things on their minds, other destinations on their schedule, and the point is to get them to change course and put carpet-buying or cheese-and-cracker buying at the top of their to-do list, to imagine their home given a whole new, fresher look by laying down some new carpet, and a new dish added to their repertoire for the next time they entertain.

What is God saying to you today?

This poet-prophet is calling us to a much bigger change in our schedule, of course. Isaiah is saying that "God is trying to tell us something," as the spiritual goes: we may have settled so comfortably into a routine and worldview that keep us busy and distracted that we've lost touch with our deepest selves, made in the image of God, and our spirits may be thirsty, starving, and homesick, even if we can't name those feelings on our own.

Daniel Debevoise describes the heat of the southwestern United States, where the humidity is so low that they post signs like those in the Grand Canyon National Park that say, "'Stop! Drink water. You are thirsty, whether you realize it or not.'" Isaiah the poet is doing the same thing, "telling us something true about ourselves at every moment of our lives," Debevoise writes. "We may not be immediately aware of how we have wandered away from God – how life has lost its meaning in pursuit of a promotion or raise, how we have gotten buried under the demands of economic and social status" (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2).

We may not realize how thirsty we are, indeed. We may not realize how weary we have become, how buried, how pressed down. And we may have lost a sense of how precious we are in God's eyes.

Our true worth

Like some of the ancient Jews exiled to Babylon, we may have made a strange and uneasy kind of peace with the empire that imposes what Walter Brueggemann calls a "pseudo-order" on our lives. Just as "they gave their lives (and their faith) over to imperial productivity" (Texts under Negotiation), we are easily trapped from our earliest days into thinking that worth is equated with productivity, that a dollar amount can be assigned to our value (think of the term "net worth").

I recall, for example, hearing on television that the compensation received by family members of those who died on 9/11 was based on the victims' earning potential. It made me stop and think about the grief of the widow of a minimum-wage worker in a restaurant I'd visited in the World Trade Center years ago. How can we tell her that her husband's life was worth less than that of the executive 100 floors above?

How much are we worth?

Is our value fixed by "an open market"? Have we made a home for ourselves in that market, in a way of living that is alien to who we all are, as children of God? Or, as Brueggemann puts it, are we in an exile – right where we live – where "we are bombarded by definitions of reality that are fundamentally alien to the gospel"?

Brueggemann then makes a curious claim, that our exile is not simply "fact," but "a decision one must make." Like the Jews who assimilated in ancient Babylon and found a relatively comfortable way of life if they adopted the values and ways of the empire, we might not perceive ourselves as exiles, either, Brueggemann writes (Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile).

However, like the sign that warns us that we may not realize that we are thirsty, the prophet wakes us up with a call to come back to God, the source of what will truly satisfy our souls.

Our spiritual and physical health

Many commentators on this text press this point about our living in an empire of capitalist tyranny, and they are quite eloquent about the effect on our spiritual and physical health. Darryl Trimiew writes of the accommodations that we make with the powers that be, in order to survive. After a dreary week of meeting the expectations of the system (what Brueggemann calls the empire could, after all, be called "the system" in our day), we come to church exhausted and empty.

Like many readers of this text, Trimiew describes a world in which we are caught up in a commercial, profit-driven culture of excess that does not know the meaning of enough, and he acknowledges that what we really need, what will really satisfy our deepest hunger and thirst, is God (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2).

That's what Isaiah tells us, and that's the truth that lies buried deep inside us, the truth that makes us restless even in the midst of plenty, even and especially in the midst of excess.

Finding hope and acknowledging the good

At the risk of being one of those who do not experience the tension between the gospel and our cultural values (a concern of Brueggemann), I wonder if our current economic problems might provide fertile ground for reflection on that interface. In some ways, our economy appears to be "better," and yet poverty persists in significant ways, and the gap between rich and poor grows wider, while the middle class struggles. We feel frustrated when we read the statistics and wonder how we can shape a world where everyone has enough.

Brueggemann is only one of the eloquent voices that call us to change course, to uproot ourselves from a semi-comfortable, dulled-by-consumption exile by listening to and following God's call to a different way of thinking and living. A sermon on this text, then, could open up the question of what we spend our money on that does not satisfy us, "that which is not bread" (v. 2). What are the alternatives to what does not satisfy? What are the different ways of living that life in God offers?

When we stand in the pulpit before a congregation that includes many people who work honestly and hard to provide a living for their families and to contribute to the wider community (including the church), I think it's easy to sound as if we're equating capitalism with "the evil empire" rather than inspiring the church to call society to ever higher expressions of justice, to demand from society the kind of course corrections that will avoid turning us into something that violates our greatest shared values.

Seeing the positives in our culture

I suppose preachers/pastors could too easily become co-opted by that "system," but I also believe that we don't have to sound harshly judgmental of the people who sit before us. This culture, after all, has improved the life experience of women and children, paid more (but not enough) attention to civil rights, struggled with bigotry, and raised the standard of living of a huge (but not great enough) percentage of the population.

So while we speak of exile and empire, we might focus on the difference between "excess" and "enough," between what we need and what we want, and, beyond that, far more than we could ever enjoy but are seduced into thinking that we need. In that pursuit, we are indeed captive and in need of a liberating word from the poets and the storytellers.

(We might begin with Sara Miles' book Take This Bread, an extended and graceful meditation on the theme of spiritual and physical hunger.)

What does "bread" mean to you?

While Brueggemann has written stirringly on this text in many of his books, his words about bread and the symbolism of bread are especially moving: "The street vendor knows that all the way from manna to Eucharist, we have taken food to be a sign, sacrament, and gesture of an alternative....that touches everything, economics as well as liturgy" (Hopeful Imagination).

In the church, we give thanks for all good gifts and struggle to discern and articulate alternatives to the powers—the systems and practices—that deny those gifts to any of God's children. Like our secular culture these days, we're mindful that we can consume junk food for our spirits as much as our bodies, and we have to learn to say no.

And, Brueggemann says, we have to be aware that this bread "always comes with a price. Eat royal bread and think royal thoughts. Eat royal bread and embrace royal hopes and fears," but we remember that "we are children of another bread" (Finally Comes the Poet).

Like Jesus speaking of the reign of God, we are called to "redescribe the world," Brueggemann says, so that we might know the difference between exile and home, and learn to "live out of the promise," together (Hopeful Imagination).

Again, the heart of the biblical message

Many of us may be attempting with varying degrees of success one kind of Lenten discipline or another, to learn to act and think in ways that will transform not only our lives but the world around us. It's hard work, and it requires persistence.

Two weeks into Lent, we may have already become discouraged, perhaps a result of thinking that pure willpower on our own part is the source of our strength and determines what will happen in our lives.

What do we hunger for?

And why not? We "breathe in" a culture of self-determination—the peril of freedom, perhaps—and find it difficult to admit our powerlessness in the face of the relentless seductions and messages of our culture. Maybe the point of Lent is for us to adjust our sights so that we at least understand what it is we should hunger for, or in fact what we do hunger and thirst for, in our deepest being: justice, mercy, peace, healing, acceptance, love.

And not just for ourselves, but for all of God's children. It sounds like shalom, and it's at the heart of the biblical message.

The mystery of God's ways and the hunger of the heart

The closing verses of the reading remind us that we can never fully understand or even lay out God's "plan"; was it Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who observed that if we needed something explained to us in the first place, we wouldn't be able to understand it?

And yet we have a powerful confidence that homesickness and hunger are not at the heart of that plan. But maybe we need to feel, to connect with, our hunger, our homesickness, not for "what does not satisfy," but for God and for the gifts of God. All humans share this deep need for God, whether we name it in that way or not.

The difference between metaphor and harsh reality

However, at any given time, not all of us share physical hunger and thirst. It is a spiritual discipline—not only in Lent, but in every season—to remember the difference between metaphor and the harsh reality of those who hunger and thirst for physical food and water, and to strengthen our unity in both religious and secular settings by responding to that need.

Can we gather at the table each Sunday without remembering all those beyond our walls, in our neighborhood, our city, the countryside that surrounds us, and the world beyond? Are we building communities that reach out as well as welcome in?

Both are important: after all, we never know which exiles might be coming home this Sunday, hungry and thirsty, and longing for a community of meaning in which to put down roots.

A different sacrifice

Heather Murray Elkins describes "sacrifice" in a much better way than we have traditionally understood it, that is, as giving something up with almost grim determination. She speaks instead of "the right sacrifice" as something that happens inside us, "a gift of the heart, of the self. God, who is all merciful, looks for true seekers, people who hunger for God" (The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, Volume VII: The Prophets 2, Michael Williams, ed.).

I can still hear the haunting words of "Come to the Water," a hymn by John Foley, S.J., who paraphrased this reading and put it to slow and meditative melody: "Why should you spend your life," he wrote, "except for the Lord?" Is there a more fitting call to the communion table this Lent?

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

C.S. Lewis, 20th century
"The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing...to find the place where all the beauty came from."

Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, 21st century
"Say that we are a puff of warm breath in a very cold universe. By this kind of reckoning we are either immeasurably insignificant or we are incalculably precious and interesting. I tend toward the second view."

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread."

Victor Hugo, The Memoirs of Victor Hugo, 19th century
"The need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal."

Frank McCourt, 20th century
"After a full belly all is poetry."

Thomas Fuller, 17th century
"We never know the worth of water till the well is dry."

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man's greed."

George Eliot, 19th century
"It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are still alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them."

Mick Jagger, 20th century
"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need."

Dag Hammarskjold, 20th century
"In a dream I walked with God through the deep places of creation; past walls that receded and gates that opened through hall after hall of silence, darkness and refreshment--the dwelling place of souls acquainted with light and warmth--until, around me, was an infinity into which we all flowed together and lived anew, like the rings made by raindrops falling upon wide expanses of calm dark waters."

Additional reflection on Psalm 63:1-8:
by Kathryn M. Matthews

Focus Theme:
Enduring Love

Last week, in reading the story of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, we remembered who we are; this week, we are keenly aware of whose we are. The Genesis 15 passage was a story of anxiety reassured, and a covenant "cut" by God.

This week, as we recite or, better, sing Psalm 63, an ancient prayer addressed to that same God, we too long to take shelter from the things that strike fear in our hearts today, the forces that drive us to church or perhaps to other places and other things, the conflicts within us and all around, the hungers and thirsts that seem never to abate, the losses and the experience of being lost ourselves, wandering in a wilderness of confusion and doubt.

Who is our shelter?

What, or better, who is this shelter? It is the God whose faithful love and tender care comforts our weary souls in the deep of the night. The God whose awesome yet gracious presence abides with us, when "fast falls the eventide; the shadows deepen…when other helpers fail and comforts flee…" ("Abide with Me," Henry F. Lyte, The New Century Hymnal).

The God whose right hand upholds us, who has been our help in every generation.

The spirit can hunger and thirst, too

In every age, the human spirit longs for God. In this psalm we hear of that longing, that thirst, that hunger that feels like being lost in a dry, weary desert, without the most essential things for life, including the life of the spirit. Our spiritual longing takes on a physical dimension, and it feels like our very flesh hungers for spiritual nourishment.

Right in the middle of this passage, however, the psalmist sings of finding God's presence in the sanctuary, of experiencing God's glory and power in the holy place of worship. Just as the longing felt like a physical one, the response is an embodied one, with lips and eyes and hands all engaged in giving God praise, and one's soul feeling satisfied as after a great feast.

But this sense of peace and fulfillment remains even when the psalmist returns home and goes to bed, lying peacefully in the dark of night, when fears often loom large and faith needs reinforcement.

Refuge in the shadow of God's wings

Perhaps the most poignant question one might consider after reading, and praying, this psalm is in regard to the "sanctuary" that we offer to seekers today. Have we built places of worship in which people, God's children who long for God, can truly feel that they are in the shadow of God's wings?

The first two definitions of "sanctuary" in my dictionary speak of safety, one for humans and the second for God's creatures. Have we turned our sanctuaries into "unsafe" places where broken and hungry people feel turned away or judged rather than taken under the shadow of God's wings?

Are sanctuaries really "safe"?

It's particularly discouraging for pastors to hear comments about the church that suggest that God is better experienced outside rather than inside its walls, when the church appears to care more about institutional preservation than it cares for "the least of these" or for the freedom of inquiry that marks the history of the United Church of Christ. Such perceptions and experiences of those who have left the church call us to self-examination and repentance during this Lenten season.

In even more heartbreaking ways, the tragedy of mass shootings in synagogues and mosques, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Christchurch, New Zealand, in places that should indeed be safe space, sacred places of safety and rest and nourishment and prayer, demonstrates how far we are from God's will for all of God's children. Hatred and xenophobia have infected our language, our culture, our societies. What does our faith say, in the face of such violation of God's love?

Feeling God's presence

Lent is a time of seeking God's presence, earnestly and thoughtfully, in a time of spiritual discipline and particular attentiveness to the ways God speaks to us in our lives. Whether in our church community, or alone, on our bed in the quiet and stillness of night, we can listen for God's voice, feel God's presence abiding with us, sense God's reassuring love and challenging call.

What we face when we walk out of church or rise from bed in the morning is what God calls us to, and we can be sure that God's right hand will uphold us in whatever we face. We may even be surprised to find God most eagerly waiting for us, most unexpectedly, in those highways and byways of life, in the bustle and busyness of everyday activities, in the peaceful quiet of time spent doing nothing but waiting on God.

In the watches of the night, in the promise of a new dawn, we will bless God, and praise God, as long as we live.

Note: Barbara Brown Taylor's book, An Altar in the World, provides rich material for reflection on sensing God's presence in unexpected places and ways, and provides a good source of further reflection for preaching on this text.

For further reflection:

Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 5th century
"You have made us for yourself, O God, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you."

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 20th century
"I wonder how much of the day I spend just callin' after you."

Adam S. McHugh, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, 21st century
"When introverts go to church, we crave sanctuary in every sense of the word, as we flee from the disorienting distractions of twenty-first-century life. We desire to escape from superficial relationships, trivial communications and the constant noise that pervade our world, and find rest in the probing depths of God's love."

Christopher Forrest McDowell, 20th century
"Beyond its practical aspects, gardening - be it of the soil or soul - can lead us on a philosophical and spiritual exploration that is nothing less than a journey into the depths of our own sacredness and the sacredness of all beings."

Frederick Buechner, 20th century
"Go where your best prayers take you."


Lectionary texts

Isaiah 55:1-9

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money
   for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which
   does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
   listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
   my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
   a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
   and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
   for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
   call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
   and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord,
   that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God,
   for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Psalm 63:1-8

O God, you are my God,
   I seek you,
my soul thirsts
   for you;

my flesh faints
   for you,
as in a dry and weary land
   where there is no water.

So I have looked upon you
   in the sanctuary,
beholding your power
   and glory.

Because your steadfast love
   is better than life,
my lips will praise you.

So I will bless you
   as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands
   and call on your name.

My soul is satisfied
   as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you
   with joyful lips

when I think of you
   on my bed,
and meditate on you
   in the watches of the night;

for you have been
   my help,
and in the shadow
   of your wings
I sing for joy.

My soul clings to you;
   your right hand upholds me.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play." We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."