Matthew 14:13-21 “Dinner By A Different Name”
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 6 August 2017
This is not Communion Sunday, as you know. This is not the day that we join and celebrate the sharing of a meal together symbolically, in order to teach ourselves something greater about meal sharing and the work of Christ still among us. That day will come, but there are things that come first
I often contemplate how we have come to the point of eating a small piece of bread and a sample of wine or juice, and we call that Communing together. From what I know of early Christian meal practices, our lunch on the final Sunday of each month is a better representation of what they began doing.
But I also appreciate the intention of doing something during the service that draws our attention to a meal as something sacred, and even at the center of the Christian faith we practice. It is after all an amazing thing that a meal is so central to Christian religious practice.
A specific sermons on communion will come another day. Sermons on Christian meal practice will happen soon enough. Even thinking about our faith as agrarian in nature, connected to the earth, which is important for connecting what we do to what we eat and vis-a-versa will be soon enough.
Today I want to step back a little. We are presented today with a story of mercy as food.
It begins with Jesus hearing some news. This news compelled him to get away from everything and everyone that was requiring his time and energy. But what was so disturbing about that news?
Jesus was a leader in a Jewish movement among the poor and marginalized that was resisting Roman occupation of their homes and land. We know that a few decades after Jesus was executed, which the state did in an attempt to smother the movement he was leading, the Jewish people revolted and Rome responded by destroying Jerusalem and the temple.
They killed thousands and dispersed more. There was even a large arch of triumph built in Rome called he Arch of Titus that depicts the humiliation of the Jewish people. Likely many that were marched or travelled to Rome from Jerusalem had to walk under the arch of their shame.
This destruction would all soon come, but there was a buildup taking place. However, Jesus was not the first person in the gospel narratives to be executed before eventual communal destruction. And that is where we begin today.
John the Baptist, the one who is said to have come before in order to prepare the way for Jesus, the one who baptized and who worked with Jesus, He had been arrested and was held by Herod, the son of the Herod the Great who was he ruler when Jesus was born.
Well, Herod was having a massive party. There was food and drink for all of his powerful friends. There was also this young girl who was dancing for him, and the twirling of her skirt pleased him we are told.
But she was the daughter of his wife, who had been married to his brother. The girl was his niece and his step-daughter. But he had friends to impress
I remember the summer after I graduated high school. I played golf at least 4 days a week. I worked for a grocery store as a manager in the evenings, so I was free all morning. There was a monthly friendly match that my boss and I would go to. It was called stag night. It consisted of a bunch of older men, and a couple younger. We would play a 4-person scramble with a small prize pot.
The teams were randomly selected, and afterwords we would grill the staeks we brought. It was mostly fun, and to be honest, the opportunity at the prize money was worth some effort if I could draw at least one more good golfer.
One of the guys that was always there had retired from the local factory that made wallboard. I didn’t know him very well, but he was loud and hard to miss in a crowd.
There was also this other guy, who’s daughter was a good friend of mine a couple years younger than me, and still in high school at that point. I knew him pretty well.
The conversation began to go in the direction of my friend. The retired guy started commenting about how attractive she was. He complemented her dad, who was sitting right there. But it didn’t just stop there. He kept going. I was not an overly innocent kid, but I remember being horrified at what was being said about my friend.
But what bothered me more than anything was that her dad, the man I knew and respected, just sat there. Not only that, but not a single person stepped in to do anything. Of course, neither did I. I felt speechless in the moment, and I remember walking away so angry at the situation, and angry at myself.
I promised myself that I would never sit by and allow a situation like that to go unchallenged. I have stuck to that as best I can. I of course still get caught off guard, or miss the fullness of situations until after it happens. I still get it wrong, and situations like that still occur with frustrating frequency.
We all can point to moments like this. Maybe some much worse. The moment goes unchecked and it goes too far. In our story today, in order for Herod to save face after promising this young girl anything she wants because her dancing turned him on in front of his powerful friends, who are all to afraid to step in, he kills John the Baptist.
That’s all it took. John’s life was worth no more than a horny old man’s promise to his niece. John’s life was worth less than Herod’s pride at a dinner party, less than a crass grab at a twirling skirt of a girl exploited and objectified.
Jesus was devastated. His friend and fellow revolutionary was killed just like that, with no recourse even imaginable. So he runs to be alone. And then … there is this odd shift in the story to the feeding of the 5000.
It is an alternate celebration of plenty and abundance. It is a place of healing. Food at this party is scarce, but there is more to eating than food itself.
There is, however, something amazing that I have always missed about this story. I have focused in on the food amounts, the size of the crowd.
I have even looked at this event, one of the only story of Jesus that shows up in al four gospels, and conclude that this is really a communion story. We read Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians, but he wasn’t at the last supper, or ever with Jesus. The gospels account for the last meal as well. But this story stands alongside the last supper in importance.
Notice that all the pieces are here. In our reading today, Jesus took the food, blessed it, broke it, gave it. It even sets up the role of the disciples to act with Jesus as they distribute the meal to the people. This sure sounds like communion to me.
However, I still missed one thing. The story is so important that I missed that it followed directly on the execution of Jesus’ friend. It happens as Jesus is mourning, trying to be alone for a little while.
When the crowd heard about what happened, they followed him on foot from the cities, and waited for him. They didn’t push in. They waited for him. They gave him time and space to mourn as he needed, and when he returned they were there. This whole story begins on a communal response to the suffering of another.
Jesus was grieving for his friend. The crowd was coming to be with him as he was grieving. And then they communed together. A simple meal. Not hardly.
We might ask ourselves why the church, and our own church is not as full as it once was. I am under no illusion that addressing this reality is in many ways why I am here. I wish there was a magic solution. Some churches use guilt and fear. Some attempt to entertain. All I know is that Herod’s party was entertaining … and full of fear for many … and most would have walked away ashamed.
The question for us and the church is what is the purpose of gathering together for communion, or worship, or service?
There are many around us grieving. some we know personally. Some of us here today are in the middle of it. Many we do not know, but they are around us.
Whether it be transgender soldiers fearful that their future careers and livelihoods will be lost. Or for activists fighting for liberation from the persistent marginalization within our society who are targeted. Whether it be veterans denied care for the scars of service, or children and elderly denied adequate healthcare.
And even the more visible, sojourners without housing, or people struggling with addiction.
Whether it be the stigma carried with mental illness and the recovering from traumatic experiences. Or maybe it is those among us who miss a dear friend or family member, and who are just lonely.
These places and moments are where it begins. All of the big and fancy things we do, if they do not begin by recognizing the pain experienced around us, we will miss the point.
There are big parties with important people you can go to. But there is this other place where Jesus is, the one we see the presence of God through. Where people are grieving, where they need healing, where they are hungry, but where they have never been more alive because they are going through it together.
Before we eat a single bite, before the food is blessed or even prepared, our lives happen and we show up to eat. We still crave mercy in the mysterious act of communing together. It is in our DNA as Christians, at least it should be. We eat together because it is a shared mercy for one another in memory of long-suffered pain, boundless joy, fear and hope, in the face of violence, and in the reeling aftermath.
We eat of the mercy of God who sat with us and shared in all of it. We gather and eat full of memory that when all else is falling apart around us, what the world needs most of all is food to share. In that moment something truly miraculous happens.
People become united together, supportive in solidarity, invested in personal and communal struggles.
A simple meal full of routine and mystery is the first act of communal healing, but long before that meal happens, life doesn’t stop. To rest and eat together is a refusal to let suffering stand alone. It is the embodiment of the presence of God in our midst, the mystery of faith lived out in the act of eating. Amen