Pentecost 9B John 6:1-21
What an amazing site to behold in our Gospel lesson! More of that amazing, miracle working Jesus! Feeding countless people with what amounts to little more than a single Lean Cuisine Dinner. But what a feast! What a banquet! And talk about the cup running over! There were enough leftovers from this feast to fill twelve doggie bags; make that twelve big baskets of extra!
I seem to recall another banquet we heard about recently, perhaps a couple of weeks ago. However, it was quite a different banquet. It was Herod’s birthday party with tons of food, guests and dancing girls. The gospel text a couple of weeks ago was about John the Baptist, Herod, his wife Herodius and their many complicated connections in what sounded like a reality tv show gone terribly wrong. All the glitterati of the day are there and it is a party to remember with lavish food and beverages galore. A man of power and a corresponding banquet for his celebration.
There is a big contrast here between that dinner party and the great meal we heard in today’s lesson and that contrast is worth looking at. One is a pick nick style, people sitting on the grass, five thousand or more there, and all are there to see this one rabbi who has done amazing things. The other like an event from the society pages with the rich and famous in attendance.
But perhaps the greatest contrast of all is that Jesus’ banquet is a veritable buffet of life and Herod’s is a feast of death. We hear these two stories in close proximity to one another and the stark contrast is unmistakable. Let’s go back to Herod’s story from two weeks ago. That feast was not in a deserted place, but in a lavish palace. There was not a massive crowd of thousands, but rather a select guest list of important officials. John the Baptist was a reluctant guest towards the end of the festivities, thanks to his condemnation of Herod’s depraved relationship with his brother’s wife (who was also his niece). Yes, the great draw of the day wasn’t the wisdom of a great man, but the dancing of a young girl and the beheading of an irritatingly righteous and loud prophet.
Although Herod was a Jew, it was pretty clear that Rome and perhaps even his own personal desires had replaced God’s law. In spite of his interest in hearing what John had to say, he gives in to the startling request of the vengeful Herodius and her daughter who ask for his head on a platter. Quite different than today’s text. In Herod’s banquet, there were no overflowing baskets of extra food sitting at the host’s feet. No well-fed mass of at least five thousand sitting beside him. Only a dish of cold revenge. Herod could have made a different choice, but he didn’t. He might even have doubted is own sinful actions, since he never wanted to kill John, and he was strangely drawn to John’s words. But when it came down to it, he was more concerned for his reputation and social obligations agenda than he was with the word of God and doing the right thing. And so, he ended up hosting a banquet of death.
But Jesus’ banquet is far different. News of this amazing rabbi was spreading far and wide! Healings and miracles. His wise words about the Law and about God were life changing. When the people saw him coming into town or getting out of the disciples’ boat they would gather around him. Crowds followed him everywhere and the day described in our text for today was no different. So many people around and Jesus sits down with his disciples in the midst of all of this. He looks at the disciples, maybe even already knowing what he was going to do, and poses a question to them. So, guys, how are we going to feed all these people? Philip emphasizes how serious the situation is by saying: Why, six month’s wages couldn’t feed all these people! A very different scene from Herod’s house where it is quite doubtful that anyone ever went hungry.
Then another one of the disciples, Andrew, points out what seems to us and probably to everyone there a ridiculous fact. Well, we’ve got a kid here with a bunch of bread and some fish. It was likely a meal his mother had prepared for him as he set out for the day. Jesus says: have them all take a seat on the grass. He blesses the bread and the fish and they hand it all out to everyone there. They eat and eat till they are all satisfied. Actually, the scripture literally says when they all were completely full up, meaning no one ended up with a small plate of food, no one had to make do with a small portion—every one was completely satisfied on Jesus’ meal. After this, the disciples gathered up all the left-overs and there are twelve big baskets full! Jesus has taken the little bit that the group had and multiplied it to more than they could ever need.
That is some trick isn’t it? Of course, that doesn’t have a lot to do with us today, right? Really, it couldn’t have anything to do with really feeding real hungry people. A whole lot of Jesus’ actions and teachings are just abstract ideas, right? It probably just seemed like they weren’t hungry any more. Not like today.
I mean, come on Jesus, you have to understand that hungry people are everywhere, not just a group of 5,000. Feeding everyone who has nothing to eat is a complicated global problem. This same story told in another Gospel says that you told the disciples to feed the hungry people. Now, you couldn’t seriously mean that we should do that, could you? I mean, yeah sure, if we look at John’s gospel, there is this whole thing at the end where you tell Peter to feed your sheep, but if you only understood how complicated the world is now, you’d know that we just couldn’t do that. Really, you’re God after all and you can feed thousands, millions if you wanted, and you can do all kinds of things. But we, on the other hand, live in this world, and reality is there’s not much we can do. Surely, you understand this is beyond us. We’ve only got five loaves and a couple of fish.
The truth is, Jesus knows exactly what we have. When it comes to feeding the hungry, balancing a church budget, paying all our personal bills, doing all kinds of ministry on nothing but the bare minimum of money, time and helping hands, he knows it all, and not in some kind of abstract way either. Concretely, he knows. Think about Herod again. Herod listened to John the Baptist’s words as though John spoke only in the abstract, as though John’s words had nothing to do with his ‘real life’. They were philosophical ideas of right and wrong, perhaps good suggestions of how a perfect person would live in a perfect world but not HIM. Not in his real world.
Sometimes, we do the same with Jesus. We listen to parables and puzzle over these interesting riddles. We love the fantastic miracles and healings he performed as they are recorded in scripture in the same way we like fairy tale stories of magic. We ponder the stories of his actions, like today’s story, and admire the incredible actions of an amazing man. We listen to Jesus telling us that the kingdom of heaven has come near to us as though it were merely an intellectual exercise. Oh yes, yes! Kingdom of Heaven is here. Mmmhmm. Ok. And now back to our regularly scheduled lives.
Because you see, we are faced with reality. The world is a hard place that doesn’t look like any Kingdom of Heaven. The needs and demands of this world and even our individual lives can be overwhelming. Take this hunger issue for example, since we are talking about feeding people today. According to the United Nations it would take about $5 billion dollars to feed all of the hungry people in the world for a year. Wow. Looks overwhelming doesn’t it. That is, of course, until we put it into perspective. That amount is only about 1% of what our country will spend on the military next year. Now this isn’t meant to set up a feed people vs. military conundrum, I’m not trying to make the argument that we should choose one over the other, but I am trying to put the cost into perspective. Five billion dollars sounds like such a large amount of money that we can barely get our minds around it, but when you put that number in perspective, particularly the perspective of something we are already committed to doing, it doesn’t seem nearly so unthinkable. It doesn’t seem so far beyond our reach.
So to get some more perspective, let’s look again at the two banquets. Herod was caught in the middle and chose to put John the Baptist to death. His faith was in any one or more of a thousand different things—Rome, local politics, social obligations or perhaps even his own desires. His faith was not in God. His faith was not in the God who spoke through the prophet John directly to him about what his life should look like—what it could look like. John’s words to him were not abstract unattainable things. He did not even tell Herod to feed all the hungry people in the world, walk on water or fly to the moon. But Herod was too busy with his own agenda for that to be real to him. Because of his focus, or lack of focus on God, it seemed surreal and not worth consideration. As a result, his banquet was one of death.
Where is our focus when things are confusing and look insurmountable? When we make decisions about our finances or how we will spend our time? When we as a congregation look at our budget, at the ministries we want to continue or start? Do we think in terms of doing things on our own based on what we want to do and what we think are priorities while considering God’s place in these things as an abstract idea or perhaps a polite suggestion that has little to do with our real world? Or do we see God as the one standing there just waiting for us to say, Well, we’ve got only so much time, only so much money, only so many members and we do not know how to make it all turn into ministry. Do we see God standing beside us as we balance our checkbooks at home, eager for us to say, Well, I can’t see how I can make all these priorities work out and I need help balancing the wants and needs of myself and others. Do we realize that God is so eager for each of us to say, Can you help me out with this? I need to pay the bills and give more generously to the church, I need to spend time with my family and volunteer and still have time for myself, I want to share my gift of musical ability or creativity or reliability or desire to prepare food or gifts of hospitality or teaching skills. I want to share my time with others and have some for myself, too. Can you help me God? All I have is this little bit, these few bits of bread and fish.
The disciples and the five thousand people following Jesus had an entirely different focus from Herod. It wasn’t that they were able to conjure up baskets full of food on their own. They were not suddenly inspired to share hidden food they had selfishly squirreled away in their pockets. They did not somehow simply forget that they were hungry because they were dazzled by the sight of Jesus. Rather, it was that they gave what they had to Jesus and he fed them all. For them, God was not an abstract idea or just an interesting thought. God was real. Jesus was real and standing right in front of them. They did not just listen to him, they came to him with all they had. They came to him with the sick, those who could not walk, those who were dying. They came to him when they were hungry, when they were lost like sheep with out a shepherd. They came to him, the real person Jesus, not an abstract idea to ponder, and they were fed by him—fed until they were completely satisfied. They were fed at a banquet of life.
Jesus can take all of what we have and make it work. Really. In a non-abstract, concrete, real way. It is not a fairytale story or a fable for which we must find the moral truth. The story is the truth. Jesus does take what we have when we let go of it, whatever it is we have individually and as a group, and creates the Kingdom of Heaven. Really. We do not need to know how he does it, just know that he does. If he could take a little bit of bread and fish and feed thousands, just think what he can do with all of us! He can make a whole banquet of life!