Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.
Wedding season is in full swing, and after the wedding service comes… the reception! With dancing… food…friends and family… and best of all, cake! But with weddings also come comparisons. I’ve attended two weddings already this summer, and they could not have been more different. The service for one couple was relaxed and full of laughter and joy. The other felt much longer than it actually was because the sanctuary did not have air conditioning! I know I shouldn’t complain, since I was not the one wearing a floor-length formal gown! One wedding took a while to serve dinner, but we didn’t mind so much while we were listening to the dynamic live band. The other served us our food impressively fast, and it was delicious, but after dinner in the extended time between dinner and dancing, the party fell flat for a while.
No matter how perfect the wedding seems to be, how smoothly everything seems to go, or how well-behaved the family is, something unexpected and memorable usually happens. I have a lot of cousins, so I’ve been to a lot of weddings over the years. At one outdoor service, the bride’s cathedral length train blew straight up in the breeze and almost clobbered the pastor. At another, the unity candle refused to light. At yet another, they ran out of cake.
But some things about weddings are always the same. Two people get married. And friends and family come celebrate, and there is almost always food – and plenty of it. Have you ever gone to a wedding and left hungry?
There are no weddings in today’s readings. But there are two different gatherings with food and surprises. The first party happened just before the reading we heard day. We begin by hearing of Jesus’ reaction to the beheading of John the Baptist, his cousin and the prophet who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. John had run into some trouble in speaking out against King Herod, who ruled the region. Now, this is NOT the King Herod that threatened to kill young Jesus earlier in Matthew, but THIS Herod was ALSO bad news. Herod is not the kind of guy you go around criticizing, and that is exactly what landed John the Baptist in prison.
Herod threw a huge party for his birthday, and was so pleased with the dancing of his step-daughter that he swore before all his guests that he would give her whatever she wanted. The girl, prompted by her mother, the current wife of Herod and the target of John’s criticism, told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. And because he had made his promise so public, Herod HAD to go through with it, or lose face in front of all his guests.
Of course, when Jesus heard about it, he wanted some time to grieve for his friend. And perhaps to regroup, since surely once John was gone, Jesus would be Herod’s next target. But the crowds would not let Jesus lay low for long. And instead of sending crowds away, Jesus had compassion on them and healed their sick.
As people compare weddings, we also can compare these two feasts. At Herod’s birthday banquet, the guest list was limited to a very exclusive and elite group of powerful people. In this select assembly were the regions’ rich and powerful, and they feasted on the best food and had the best entertainment.
And in the end this party lead only to death – the death of a prophetic voice at the hand of a king who did it to safe face at his own birthday party.
At the surprise feast of Jesus, what some have named “the feeding of the five thousand,” it was not just the rich and powerful who were given food – all the people present were satisfied. The feeling of being full is so common to us, we don’t realize that it was a rare occurrence for the people of Jesus’ time.
These people at Jesus’ party may not have feasted on rich food, but had their fill of a simple meal of bread and fish. There was no music, expect for the grateful cheering and laughter of people made whole, and no dancing - except perhaps by those newly healed.
This is a party that leads to life – it is a feast where compassion is the host, where all are fed and all or healed – men, women, and the children there too. Actually, some estimates say as many as twenty thousand people – or more! - might have been present, since Matthew only decides to mention the number of men.
Jesus has no guest list. He doesn’t ask them for their credentials, call their references, or demand they prove their need. Instead, he heals. He feeds. He has compassion on twenty thousand people. The menu might not be as fancy as Herod’s feast, but with Jesus we know that our host is kind and compassionate, not driven by greed or self-preservation.
At Jesus’ party, there is always enough for everyone. Even when there only seems to be a little bit – just five loaves of bread and two fish – even that little bit is enough for Jesus to work miracles.
The truth is we would never have been invited to Herod’s party. Maybe, if we were lucky, we would have been servants and gotten to eat the leftovers – if there were any. But in reality, we are like the ones in the crowd, desperate to see Jesus, hungry and dusty and in need of healing.
But we can also be the disciples too. We can look around us and wonder how can Jesus care about all THOSE people, too. Send them away, Jesus. Surely you have better things to do with your time. Surely there could never be enough of Jesus for everyone. Better keep some back, just in case.
But, like the woman in Jesus’ parable from last week, the woman takes just a little yeast and mixes it into dough in order to make it rise, Jesus only needs just a little bit in order to do great things. Five loaves of bread and two fish to feed twenty thousand. Just a small seed is needed for faith to grow. Just a few sproutlets of wheat among the weeds. Just twelve blue-collar common men who would later do miracles in Jesus name. Just a small hope tucked away deep in the heart that the sun will rise on a new day. That’s all Jesus needs in order to do amazing things in our lives.
But the story doesn’t stop there. After Jesus takes the bread and the fish, he gave it to his disciples to hand out the life-giving meal, to do his work. We are the ones sent out. It may be God’s work that we do, but it is our hands that make it happen.
Just as Jesus gives life to people in something as simple as a full stomach, we are called to do the same. After all, there are plenty of hungry people in our own time.
But we certainly can’t feed the whole world by ourselves. Let alone twenty thousand people. But Jesus can take something as small as a two-hour time block and turn it into meals for hundreds of hungry people around the world – through us and using organizations like Feed My Starving Children. In fact, this fall we are starting to put together a group from here to go over to Del Val University to take a shift in packing meals for people all over the world. And all it takes is a few hours of our day.
The feast that Jesus provides for us – rather than the feast of the Herods of the world – is about sharing what we have been given by our generous God, no matter how insignificant the offering seems. Jesus shared his life with the likes of us, giving us his life so that we may live too. And then Jesus hands the work over to us, to keep on healing and feeding in his name, until of God’s people are filled and made whole.
(Here I impromptu shared my children's sermons, for which I brought 12 leftover containers as a visual of how much God's overflowing love is for us.)
And even after all that, there will still be LEFTOVES. Thanks be to God. Amen.