Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
August 2, 2020
Today let’s dive straight into the Gospel of Matthew. What we read this morning is that story we know so well. Jesus has just heard about the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. So he goes to a quiet place by himself to recharge his batteries. But the crowd can’t get enough of Jesus, so they follow him. Jesus has compassion on the crowds because they’ve come out to hear him and be cured by him. They’re hungry, so he takes five loaves and two fish, making it enough for the entire crowd to eat. Making so much there is even some leftover. It’s a great story by itself; a true miracle of God’s life-giving love. But it’s even more powerful when contrasted with the story right before it.
We didn’t hear it this morning, so I’ll recap it for you. Herod is the ruler of the area in which Jesus is doing his ministry. Now Herod is an unrepentant sinner and tyrant. He married his half-brother’s wife, who had previously married her half-uncle. Not only was this weird, it was expressly forbidden by Old Testament law. Anyway, John the Baptist was going around telling everybody that this was weird and against the law. Tyrants don’t take kindly to people criticizing their personal lives, so Herod arrests John the Baptist.
Now, right before the passage we read today about Jesus feeding the five thousand, there is a story about Herod’s birthday party. At this birthday party, Herod orders John the Baptist to be executed and his head delivered on a platter.
Those are the two meals that I wish to talk about. At one meal, the host throws an extravagant feast for his own birthday. At one meal, there is food and plenty of it. At one meal, there are so many dishes and plates around, that there is a spare platter for the head of John the Baptist. At that meal, there is no compassion but only a demonstration of violent power.
At the other meal, there is hardly enough food for one person. At the other meal, people sit down in the grass. At the other meal, the host is healing, saving, loving not for his own sake, but for the sake of the crowd. At that other meal, there is a demonstration of power certainly, the power of compassion.*
I believe these two meals are set next to each other in the Gospel of Matthew to show us, who would be disciples of Jesus, the difference between the kingdom of earth and Kingdom of God. These two meals contrast the power of tyrants and the power of God. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas put it this way: “Jesus provides food for those without food solely because they are hungry. Herod provides food for those who are not without food as a demonstration of his power. Jesus feeds the five thousand because he has compassion for them. His feeding, therefore, is an alternative to the politics of envy and greed that the Herods of this world cannot avoid.”*
Because as disciples of Jesus, our call is not to an earthly kingdom, with earthly power, and earthly distinctions. As my friend and colleague the Rev. Nik Forti has said - our loyalty is neither to the elephant nor to the donkey, but to the Lamb.
So the question is turned to us. What kind of meal are we going to host? Are we disciples of Herod or disciples of Jesus? If we are disciples of Herod, if we have bought into the powers of this world, then by all means - we should throw parties for ourselves. We should use food and service to others as a tool to gain power over the powerless. We should give our things away only because we expect something in return. With Herod, there is no humility, there is no grace, there is no compassion.
If we are disciples of Jesus, if we are hosts to the other kind of meal, the whole world is turned upside down. We give expecting nothing in return. We feed the hungry because they are hungry, not because we are hungry for power. We, the Church, offer to the world a different vision - a vision of a place where anybody and everybody is invited to hear a word of grace, to be filled with the bread of compassion, and to rejoice in the power of love. This meal, this other meal, is the alternative into which you and I were baptized.
Now, the Church, the disciples of Jesus, we have lots of other meals we need to host in times like this. If we believe in that alternative vision, then we will need to live it out. Those students over at Salyers Elementary School, with all that is going on, will need even more support and compassion from people like us. The hungry people getting food from the Abundant Harvest Kitchen and from the Hope Center will need even more from churches like us. More people are looking for more jobs, and they will be coming to us looking for help, looking for assistance, looking for hope. Those lonely, isolated people in our assisted living facilities need compassion more than ever. And we will give not because we expect anything in return, not because we want to make them dependent upon us; but simply as an outpouring of the love of Jesus. Simply because we believe in an alternative vision for how the world ought to work. Simply because we think Herod is up to no good.
These two meals described in the Gospel of Matthew pose to us the starkest of questions - are you a follower of Herod or a follower of Jesus? When push come to shove, do you accumulate or do you give? Do you live for yourself or for your neighbors? Are you hungry for power or hungry to serve? Do you live in the kingdom of this world or do you live in the Kingdom of God?
*“Matthew,” Stanley Hauerwas, 139