A sermon preached at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, MO on 8-6-17 for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost on Matthew 14:13-21
In Matthew chapter 14, we have a Tale of Two Parties. King Herod was having a birthday party and since it was royal celebration, we can imagine that they pulled out all the stops. There was an abundance of food, music and dancing. Officers in the Roman empire, wealthy landowners and merchants, and those who supported the Empire’s domination of Galilee were likely invited. They feasted on dates and olives, grapes and figs, nuts and pomegranates, fish and lamb, bread and honey, goat’s milk and cheese. The wine flowed and the guests had more than their fill.
But while the festivities were going on, John the Baptist was held in Herod’s prison for telling the king that he could not take his brother’s wife, Herodias, as his own. When her daughter danced for King Herod, he was so pleased, he said she could have whatever she wanted. Herodias urged her to ask for John the Baptist’s death with his head delivered on a party platter. King Herod and his guests had such abundance, yet they did so little with it. They fed themselves and took what they wanted, while wreaking destruction and death for John and those who would say this is not God’s way of life.
When Jesus heard the news of John’s death, he went away to deserted place by himself where our text for today begins. And this sets the scene for the second gathering in our Tale of Two Parties. Jesus goes far away from the towns, villages and markets so he can have time to grieve the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus doesn’t get much time to grieve however, because the crowds follow him out into the wilderness—a barren place where there is no bread, no olives to pick, no fig trees, and certainly no goats to offer milk or meat. The wilderness wandering to follow Jesus does not deter the crowds however, because they are accustomed to hunger.
Unlike King Herod and his birthday party guests, and unlike most of us here today, the people in these crowds were not used to eating their fill. They were not in the practice of being able stuff themselves with all they wanted and then have an abundance of food left over. In the Ancient world poverty was a visible and common phenomenon. According to estimations by scholars, nine out of ten persons lived close to the subsistence level or below it, and this was true both in urban and rural areas. The Roman empire exacted their taxes as well, even in seasons of low harvest. There was no middle class, and unless you were in the top 10% wining and dining with King Herod, life was precarious and hunger was a constant and familiar companion.
So they follow Jesus out to the wilderness—he’s the closest thing they’ve seen to hope because the Herod’s of the world are not sharing. As Jesus sees the crowds following him, he had compassion on them. Even though he was desperate for a break and some time alone, he saw their poverty, their illnesses, their suffering, their needs and he couldn’t say no. In fact, “compassion” literally means “to suffer with” someone—when their suffering causes us pain as well. One of my spiritual mentors says that the compassion is “having your heart broken” over someone else’s pain. When Jesus saw the illnesses, the poverty, the needs of the crowds following him out to the wilderness, his heart broke. Instead of walking away from the suffering crowds, he moved toward them. Jesus started a party of love and healing, of seeing and touching the needs of God’s people.
Well, it started to get late in the day, and the disciples thought enough was enough. “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.” And then Jesus says something startlingly direct, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat!” Of course, the disciples don’t see how they can feed possibly 15,000+ people (5,000 men + women and children!) with five loaves of bread and two fish.
Before we jump right to the miracle of the exponential multiplication of bread and fish (the kingdom’s new math!), we can’t miss Matthew’s crucial point: Jesus expects his followers to feed hungry people! There’s a party going on in the kingdom of God where disciples feed hungry people, and then they clean up afterwards collecting the 12 baskets of leftovers, a basket for each disciple. Unlike King Herod, who does so little with so much at a party that ends in destruction and death, Jesus asks his followers help him do so much with so little at a party that ends in fullness and goodness and life!
And this is true every single day of our lives. There are always two parties going on--and I don’t mean Democrats and Republicans–I mean Herod’s party and Jesus’ party. Herod’s party loves our consumer culture where more and bigger is better, and the one with the most stuff wins. At Herod’s party, our portion sizes have exploded and we glorify stuffing ourselves, complete with eating contests (one of my sons met a challenge to eat 100 chicken nuggets at marching band camp in high school). After the Golden Corral Buffet restaurant opened a few years ago near our house, they had to hire security guards to stand at the buffet to prevent fights from breaking out. If you’ve driven through Amarillo, Texas, you know you can win a free meal at the Big Texan Steakhouse if you can eat an entire 72 oz. steak along with baked potato, roll with butter, shrimp cocktail, and salad in under 1 hour (we were there when a college student tried it and he said he ran out of saliva). It’s a party where we already have so much, yet we want more and more and never seem to be sated. A professor at Aquinas Institute of Theology shared with us that there is enough clothing in the world to clothe every person on the planet for the next five years. I try to remind myself of this when I look at my closet full of clothes and think I have nothing to wear. The US is less than 5% of the world’s population and yet, we consume 24% of the world’s energy resources. It’s a party where we all have so much, but do little with it.
And then there’s Jesus’ party, where our heart’s break for the 785 million people—1 in every 9 people on the planet—who do not have enough food. Jesus’ party makes it clear that we do not have an abundance or an amount problem—we have a distribution problem. God has given us an abundant creation where we produce enough food to feed everyone, we just don’t make sure everyone gets it.
Last month Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences reported that, “if all the grain currently fed to livestock in the US were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million”—the exact number of hungry people in the world. He adds that if we all ate grass-fed livestock instead, we would still all have our protein needs met.
After the Dalai Lama delivered a lecture, a member of the audience asked him if he could supply an answer to the problem of world hunger. He responded: “Sharing.” That’s why at Jesus’ party, he looks at us and says, “you give them something to eat.”
Even if you don’t have a lot to share, Jesus invites us to offer what we have, trusting that God can do so much out of even small offerings that come from us saying NO to overconsumption of the world’s resources and the damage to creation and to the poor that results. As his followers, Jesus asks us, “for whom does your heart break?”
Atonement has wonderful ways for us to join Jesus’ party, bringing fullness and goodness and life to those who are suffering:
• For Paul and Dolly, their heart breaks for those who stand at intersections with a cardboard sign that says they’re hungry and homeless, so they provide us with these red bag lunches to give them. We can look them in the eye, acknowledge them, and offer a meal.
• For Bill, his heart breaks for our elderly and homebound, most of whom live alone and no longer cook, He makes soup and freezes it so the parish nurses can bring a homemade meal to them on their visits.
• For Bernie and Debbie, their heart breaks for the homeless women and children who stay downtown at Gateway 180Homeless Center, so they pack brown bag lunches for them. Last Sunday the workroom was full of volunteers packing lunches.
• For Jane, Jill, Debbie, our preschool class and other gardeners, their heart breaks for those who frequent the Safehouse and the TEAM Food Pantry, so they grow fresh vegetables in Atonement’s community garden.
• For Kelly and Dan, and all who help with Room at The Inn, their hearts break for those who are homeless and need a place to stay, so they help monthly with overnight accommodations and food in our fellowship hall downstairs.
• For Rick, the Congregations in Service Team, and 563 volunteers who came on July 15th, our hearts break for hungry children in developing countries, so in one day, we packed 107,568 meals with Feed My Starving Children. One meal costs 22 cents and we see that God can do so much with so little.
For whom does your heart break? It may be different from feeding the hungry—it may for injured veterans and their families, or those in chemotherapy for cancer, or children who need books, or drug-addicted babies at the hospital who need to be held and rocked, or supporting those who grieve the death of a child.
Our life is a Tale of Two Parties every day, and the choices we make matter to the world and to God. Our culture entices us to Herod's party, but we listen to Jesus instead. Jesus invites us to join his mission of compassion to bring relief and joy those who suffer. All you have may be 5 loaves and 2 fish, or 22 cents to share. But when Jesus hosts the party, that’s always more than enough to do good and to bring life!
Photo: Artwork by ©Laura James Used With Permission