Sunday, August 03, 2014

Two Banquets

Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
August 3, 2014

Year A, Proper 13: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17:1-7, 16
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14: 13-21

Two Banquets
            If you’ve been in church the past few Sundays, you may remember that we’ve been making our way through a collection of Jesus’ parables in the 13th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.
            Jesus was a master teacher – the master teacher - who used parables to teach his lessons – to get his message across – both to his own disciples and the crowds who followed him looking for healing and other miracles.
            Jesus uses his parables to point us towards the very hard to describe kingdom of God. (Or, as Matthew prefers to call it, “the kingdom of heaven”.)
            We can’t quite absorb what the kingdom of God is. So, Jesus uses his parables to help us get a taste of God’s kingdom – not just heaven where we’ll go after we die – but God’s kingdom here and now – the earth transformed into what God has always dreamed it could be.
            Jesus uses his parables to help us get a taste of God’s kingdom where we are transformed into what God has always dreamed we could be.
            Parables are hard to define, but they are essentially very short stories with multiple meanings. In fact, the more we reflect on Jesus’ parables, the more meanings, the more meaning, we will discover.
            So, using his parables, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like a farmer sowing seeds all over the place – on good soil and not so good.
            The kingdom of God is like a field where the wheat and the weeds grow up together but eventually the weeds are gathered up and burned.
            The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed or like yeast – it starts small but then grows into something big and amazing.
            The kingdom of God is so precious it’s like a merchant in search of fine pearls who sells all that he has for one pearl of great value.
            And now today we move from the thirteenth into the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. We move from parables to a living parable.
            Today we heard the story of one of Jesus’ most amazing miracles: the feeding of the multitudes.
            Like all the best teachers, Jesus doesn’t just tell us. Jesus shows us.
            In the feeding of the multitudes, we get a taste of the kingdom of God.
            Although Jesus withdraws to a “deserted place,” the crowds keep following Jesus. They’re hungry for healing, hungry for teaching, hungry for hope, hungry for God’s love.
            And, they’re also just plain hungry.
            One of my favorite parts of the story is how the disciples try to pass the buck. It’s not their problem that all these people have followed Jesus to the deserted place. It’s not their problem that these people didn’t plan ahead – that they didn’t bring enough food.
            Jesus doesn’t put up with the passing of the buck, though. He tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”
            So, they gather up what they have, which isn’t much, just five loaves and two fish.
            And yet, with Jesus, not much turns out to be more than enough. We’re told that those five loaves feed about five thousand men, plus women and children.
            In the feeding of the multitudes Jesus offers us a living parable.
            The kingdom of God is like a banquet where we bring the little we have and there’s more than enough for everyone.
            Not surprisingly, this story must have made quite an impression on the disciples and the others who were there. The miraculous aspect is amazing, of course. The taste of the kingdom of God is beautiful, too. And, the early Christians picked up on the foreshadowing of the Last Supper and the sacred meal that we will share right here in a few minutes.
            The feeding of the multitudes made such a big impression that, in fact, it’s the only miracle story found in all four gospels.
            But, Matthew, whose version we heard today, does something unique with the story.
            He places it right after the story of another, very different kind of banquet.
            Just before Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ miraculous feeding, he tells the story of a royal birthday party. The birthday boy was Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great. You may remember that Herod abandoned his wife to marry Herodias, who was his brother’s wife. A lot of people criticized him for this, including John the Baptist.
            Anyway, Herod celebrated his birthday with a big bash. You’ll remember the daughter of Herodias (elsewhere called Salome) danced for the king. It must have been quite a dance, because Herod swears he’ll give the girl anything she wants.
            It’s good to be the king, right?
            Or maybe not.
            The girl’s mother tells the to tell the king, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
            After Jesus learns about John’s beheading, he withdraws to the deserted place. We can imagine that he wants to grieve and to pray. And maybe Jesus was frightened for his own safety.
            But it’s there in the deserted place that Jesus offers a very different kind of banquet.
            Two banquets.
            Herod’s banquet was lavish and filled with hatred and death.
            Jesus’ banquet was simple but filled with love and life.
            So, here’s the question for all of us: which kind of banquet do we want to attend?
            Around the world and closer to home there are plenty of banquets filled with hatred and death.
            We’ve all seen on the news how the Israelis and Palestinians continue their dance of death, both sides shedding innocent blood day after day.
            But we don’t have to look that far to find a banquet of hatred and death.
            We all know about and many of us have been effected by the violence and despair in our own community - right here in Jersey City. I attended a community meeting last week where people of color were understandably angry about how they’ve been treated and are still treated by the police and others in authority. And others pointed out that we are in danger of losing most of another generation to despair, to crime, to drugs, to the street, to long jail sentences and to early death.
            And then there’s the humanitarian disaster unfolding at our southern border as tens of thousands of children flee the violence and lack of opportunity – flee the banquets of death - in places like Honduras and Nicaragua. These children come here desperate to reach the relative peace and prosperity of the United States.
            These children arrive here only to be greeted by angry Americans, screaming hatred and fear, holding signs with slogans like, “Not my kid. Not my problem.”
            Herod’s banquet of hatred and death is still going strong, here and all around the world.
            But, Jesus’ banquet of love and life is also still underway. Frankly, it’s a much better party. And, despite the odds, it’s growing.
            Jesus told the disciples – tells us, “You give them something to eat.”
            And when we give them something to eat, sure enough, we get a taste of the kingdom of God.
            And so, the kingdom of God is like the monthly community meal at Incarnation where absolutely everybody is welcome.
            The kingdom of God is like Garden State Episcopal’s emergency food pantry right here downstairs in your parish hall, feeding the hungry and offering hope and love.
            The kingdom of God is like the three Episcopal churches taking the risk of going out to street corners and marching in parades, feeding people the Good News through our obvious and overflowing joy.
            And Jesus’ banquet is still underway all around the world.
            You may know that, like us, many European countries have struggled with immigration in recent years. It’s been difficult for many of them to welcome people who look and sound so different, who come from very different places with very different cultures.
            One of the countries that has struggled with newcomers is Sweden.
            This past week the New York Times ran an amazing story about Ebba Akerman, a young woman who teaches Swedish to immigrants in her country. Through her teaching, she discovered that these immigrants had little to no contact with Swedes.
            Then she came up with a very Jesus-like plan to try to change that. She calls herself the minister of dinners in the Department of Invitations.  What does she do? She hosts dinners and invites Swedes and immigrants to come and break bread together to get to know each other at least a little, to begin bridging the cultural gap and start to discover a common humanity.
            It’s not easy work and sometimes things go wrong but I’d say those meals – like Jesus’ banquet long ago - offer a taste of the kingdom of God.
            In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus offers us a living parable. The kingdom of God is like a meal where all are welcome, a meal where the little we have to offer is more than enough.
            You and I live out this parable each time we reject Herod’s banquet of hate and death.
            You and I are invited to live out this parable right now when we gather at Jesus’ banquet of love and life…and get a taste of the kingdom of God.