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 A Tale of Two Banquets

Sermon - 7/31/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 14:1-21

The text that I want to share with you this morning is the very familiar story of the feeding of the 5,000. I think many of us remember the details of that story, but can you tell me the context of the story? Particularly the context as presented in the gospel of Matthew?

It's a bit of a tricky question, because the context varies according to which gospel you're reading. And by the way, this is the only miracle of Jesus that appears in all 4 gospels. Not only that, but Matthew and Mark also have an additional story about the feeding of the 4,000. So if you get some of the details confused, it's not surprising, because they tell the story twice, each one a little bit differently.

So there are 6 'feeding' stories in all, this story in the 4 gospels, and then two of the gospels have the story of the 4,000. It gives you an idea of the importance of this story in the context of the early church in that day & age, when basic sustenance was such a critical issue for so many.

Well, in Israel, when I was there in 2008, I had an opportunity to go visit the region, the Sea of Galilee, and now we're going to have another miracle this morning with our new addition to the sanctuary:

Just like a big church :). Is that cool, or what?! It's not quite finished yet, we're still working on the details of the picture quality, but we're making progress.

Along the Sea of Galilee, there's a church called the Church of the Heptapegon, which is the Church of the 7 Springs:

I assume there must be 7 springs there in the vicinity. But the German name is much more interesting -- it's the "Brotvermehrungskirche" -- easy for me to say, having spent 3 years living in Germany. But "kirche" -- is Church, "brot" is bread, "vermehrung" is multiplication. It is literally the "Bread Multiplication Church".

It's actually a newer building, built around the 1980s, upon an ancient foundation. And they discovered here this incredible Byzantine tile work, dating from about the 5th century.

They built this church over this tile that was still in incredible condition. What I noticed on visiting this site is that it's not one of the big sites, where thousands and thousands of tourists visit. It's more like a 3 or 4 bus tour-bus location, rather than a 20-30 tour-bus location.

Most of the folks that come there are on some type of spiritual pilgrimage. And so they come there to pray:

They don't always pray in the way that we pray:

It was very much a spiritual place where you have a sense of the presence of Christ, even after 2,000 years.

One of the portrayals in this mosaic is a very familiar one, it's a picture you may have seen -- the loaves and the two fish:

A very popular image. That is found right in front of the altar. Underneath the altar is a stone, which has been worn smooth. It's on that stone, according to the local tradition, that Jesus broke and blessed the bread before he gave it to the disciples to distribute to the 5,000 people:

Keep in mind, there are traces of this story that go back to the 4th century, of some of the mosaics, a tradition that is quite old, and has been a revered spot for thousands of years.

Why is that stone worn smooth? Even though there's a barrier around it, for this one woman on her spiritual pilgrimage, she had that need to reach out and touch and pray:

I think she was probably even weeping, very powerful place.

As I read this text, this story, think about the people who come to a place like this. What is it that draws them? Is it a miracle from 2,000 years ago for people long-since dead? Or is it something else? That desire to connect to that presence of Christ, still after 2,000 years?

So hear now, then, the full story of not just what Jesus did along the shores of Galilee, but also why. What brought those crowds out to that deserted place? And without adequate preparations, that they came without food. So here is, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story, from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 14, verses 1 through 21:

At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; 2and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ 3For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife [Herod had taken the wife of his brother Philip.  And by the way, this is not 'Herod the Great' under whom Jesus was born, this is one of his sons, who rules just Galilee, not the entire Palestinian region], 4because John had been telling him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ 5Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. 6But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod 7so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. 8Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ 9The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; 10he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. 11The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. 12His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Once again, I find myself surprised, amazed at the nuances, the complexities of the Gospel, which reveals what an incredible piece of superbly constructed literature it is, which can convey so much in so few words. But then why is that surprising? I mean, this is after all the Gospel, the greatest story ever told, indeed.

I have long known, and I suspect many of you have, of the Eucharistic themes that are in this story, which anticipates (or foreshadows) the Lord's supper, the Last Supper, which is to come. Jesus blesses and breaks the bread and gives it to Disciples -- the very same actions, indeed the very same words, that Matthew used in retelling that story of the Last Supper.

And just as there are 12 Disciples representing the 12 tribes of Israel, so too here there are 12 baskets full of food. A rather obvious symbol for the Kingdom of God, where there is plenty of food for all and then some.

Now, all of that is familiar. But I had never really put this into that larger context as Matthew presents it, where it is not only the story of a miracle, but of a banquet. And more precisely, of two contrasting banquets. One that occurs in the palace of power, of Herod, the ruler of Galilee, and the other that occurs on the lake-shore in the countryside of Galilee.

Never has there been a stronger contrast between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. And that Matthew intends for these two stories to be told together is especially evident when you compare his version with Marks earlier version, probably written a decade or two before Matthew, and probably Matthew is drawing on Mark.

But there, in Mark's version, the context for this meal is different. In Mark's version, when John is beheaded, the disciples of John take his body and bury him, and there the story ends. Mark doesn't say anything about the disciples of John going to tell Jesus about the death of John.

And thus the transition in Matthew's Gospel, which connects these two stories together, connects the dots, and that becomes the reason for the withdrawal of Jesus to the deserted place, and the reason for the pursuit of Jesus by the crowds.

So this is most likely Matthew's addition to the story, it's Matthew's insight, it is perhaps God's revelation to Matthew of why it is that Jesus withdrew, why it is the crowds sought him out. So these are not just two isolated events, but the second (the miracle of the feeding) is a response to the first (the execution of John). Matthew wants us to see what he sees, writing some 40 to 50 years later, after these events occurred, looking back, reflecting on what we can learn from them.

He says, in effect, here is what worldly power looks like -- a banquet with the rich and powerful, important people in that palace of power, where the head of a righteous man is served up to settle a personal grudge, and to save face for a King who's afraid to look weak in front of his guests.

And here is what the kingdom of God looks like (the anti-banquet, if you will, of Herod) -- a banquet of common folk, where a simple meal of bread and fish is multiplied and there is plenty left over for all to share.

So in which banquet would you like to be?

And if you find yourself attracted to the first one, that gruesome scene, seek help, please, before it's too late :)

Matthew, you see, wants us to be appalled by this blatant use of power, by the actions of Herod and Herodias. And he wants to identify with that place where everyday folk find a place at the table and all are fed.

When we started the Sunday breakfast last year, I had just one request. You know, there are a number of places where people can go and be fed -- we call them soup kitchens. But that place where people go to be fed, who are hungry and can sit down and eat with those who are well-fed, that place is called the kingdom of God.

So yeah, it may take more food, and it may mean those of us with the means to pay need pay for our breakfast. And it may take more volunteers, so that those good people who are serving behind the counter can also take their turn to sit down and eat with our guests.

But when we do that, when we eat together, when we have fellowship together, when we hear those stories of those hungry people who come to us, when we sit down and we get to know one another, we share, we hear those stories, you see, that is the kingdom of God. It changes you. It transforms you.

When we read this passage together in our staff retreat this week at the beach (and I share that with you just so you know we actually did some work together, prayed together, read Scripture together, it wasn't all fun and games), we sat with this passage. And what came out in that reading with our staff was the communal response to the grief. And how that always involves food. Have you noticed that? It's true in almost every culture -- when a death occurs, people bring food.

And it's not just about the practical need for nutrition. It's about the social need for community. It's about the spiritual need to affirm that life still exists, still goes on, in that process of eating.

Upon learning of the death of John the Baptist, the crowds seek out Jesus. And the Disciples try to send them away -- go send them somewhere else to get something to eat. And Jesus says no, you give them something to eat. And they say 'Jesus, we hardly have enough for ourselves!'.

And Jesus says -- that doesn't matter. They need something to eat. They need comfort. They need reassurance. They need to know that God has not abandoned them. Give them something to eat.

Sometimes that's what compassion means -- that we just show up to provide some of the basic necessities of life. Sharing our food is about so much more than filling our stomachs. It's the kingdom of God, when we share in the kingdom of God, there is always, always more than enough for all.

And in the kingdom of God, we're never left alone. Jesus goes off to be by himself. Sometimes we need to do that in our grief. But the crowd seeks him out. They do not leave him alone for long, and Jesus is moved to compassion. To be with them, to share with them, to heal, to provide food.

It's so striking, this last week, to see all those images from Norway, after that enormous tragedy, committed this time not by a foreigner, not by a person from a different religion, but by a supposed Christian who advocated separation and purity of race and nation and proclaimed a message of hate. And the people of Norway responded -- 200,000 people who came out and filled the streets in the public square, in just an outpouring of grief and compassion. Of sharing together, of calling for more openness and inclusion, not less.

And this story ends on a rather odd note, doesn't it? There were 5,000 men, not counting the women and children.

April was in Nashville at the General Assembly, and a few others, and heard Sharon Watkins (the General Minister and President of the Disciples of Christ) proclaim (sharing this text, about not counting women and children), and she said "But we are going to count the women and the children". That's right.

How many times have the women and children not counted?

How often has it been that the hungry and the homeless don't count?

That the poor and the mentally ill don't count?

That foreigners and people of color have not counted?

There may have been a time when that was so, but not this time. There may have been a place when that was so, but not this place.

Not only are we going to count the men, the women, and the children, we are going to count the immigrants -- both documented and undocumented, who also want a place at that table in the kingdom of God.

We are going to count the same-sex couples who want us to know their relationship matters too, just as much as anyone else's.

We are going to count people on the street who come to us on those cold winter nights when no one wants to be left alone.

We are going to count those singles who too often get lost in churches that are all about families.

We are going to count divorcees who have to readjust their relationships and associations, their finances and routines, on top of all the legal issues and the grief of a broken relationship.

We are going to count the alien and the alienated. The friend and the foe. The childless and the children. The home-bound and the homeless. The churched and the un-churched.

We are going to count all who counted by God. All that God counts. These are the people of God.

This is the kingdom of God, where all count.


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