Proper 13a, August 3, 2014

August 4, 2014

God’s Eat Place
Matthew 14:13-21

14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “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.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

In light of this story of a miraculous feast in the wilderness, it’s interesting to note that one of the very first things reported about Jesus was his refusal to turn stones in to bread when he was alone in the wilderness. If you remember, right after his baptism we are told that Jesus was driven in to the wilderness for 40 days by the Holy Spirit. He was hungry. He needed some bread, and while the devil’s suggestion that he turn stones in to bread doesn’t sound like a terrible abuse of power – Jesus knew that it was not the Holy Spirit talking. Those 40 days in the wilderness provided Jesus with great clarity of the difference between the promptings of Holy Spirit and the suggestions of an evil spirit. Jesus knew that there are times when we just need to feed on the word of God – he also knew that there are times when someone needs to show up with some actual bread.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating at Doe’s Eat Place, but I think I’ve eaten at Doe’s four times – twice at the Doe’s down on Markham and twice at the Doe’s in Fayetteville. It’s memorable to eat at Doe’s. They serve the largest steaks I’ve ever seen in my life. I think they also serve tamales, but I don’t like tamales. I don’t know what to say about their tamales, but I’ve shared some memorable steaks at Doe’s. And one steak can feed four people – especially if those other people like tamales. You should go to Doe’s with people who like tamales – they’ll fill up on the tamales and you get more of the steak.

Maybe they serve other things at Doe’s Eat Place (I know there have been some political deals cooked up there), but they are known for their steaks and their tamales. I like the elemental nature of a place like Doe’s. Like their name indicates, their objective is to serve food – it’s a place to eat, and it’s a good place to eat. It’s not cheap, but they serve good food.

But today our focus is to be on God’s Eat Place. Unlike Doe’s Eat Place, you never really know what’s going to be on the menu at God’s Eat Place, but when you feast at the table of the Lord you know you are going to leave satisfied. God’s Eat Place serves up a wide variety of sustenance, and while it’s not easy to find your way to the spot where God is serving, you don’t have to worry about the bill. God’s Eat Place is quite a place – it’s not easy to get there, you never know what’s going to be served, you don’t have to pay, and you leave with leftovers – abundant leftovers.

This is what I see happening in both of these feeding stories that are set in the wilderness. God provides, but the menu is different. On one occasion God chose to provide Jesus with the wisdom he needed to do battle with God’s adversary. On this other occasion God heard the prayer of Jesus for actual food to feed the desperate people who had followed him in to the wilderness, and God provided bread & fish.

I’m not saying that our God is fickle, but clearly there isn’t just one policy in heaven for dealing with hungry people in the wilderness. This has got to be maddening to people who want God to be represented by clear and consistent rules. We worship a God who is only consistently insistent upon one thing – that we love God and we love our neighbors. I know that sounds like two things, but those two things are so tied together they qualify as one thing. You will always find grace to be served at God’s Eat Place, but you won’t find it to be served the same way on every occasion.

God rarely cooks up the same thing twice. And it sort of drives me nuts when people try to define the nature of our faith with a bunch of rules. According to the Bible, God has been revealed in a wide variety of ways throughout time, and every time we become overly dogmatic about what God requires it begins to look a whole lot like the practice idolatry and that isn’t a good place to go. You don’t want to eat at The Dogmatic Eat Place – you fill yourself up with malnourishing food and you leave with a bad attitude.

But those of us who want to define Christianity in more open ways have to be careful as well. Even open-minded people can find ways of narrowing the nature of faith. It’s easy to turn good causes in to little gods, and it never works out well when we try to tell God what needs to be on the menu. The only way any of us get to enjoy the feast at God’s Eat Place is to show up with empty hands and a hungry heart.

Christianity is probably not the right religion for anyone who wants a set of unwavering directives. The way I read the Bible, God is consistently compassionate toward all people, but God’s compassion takes on many different forms. Sometimes God’s saving action takes the form of hard lessons. Sometimes it shows up in the form of bread and fish. Sometimes faithfulness to God requires us to engage in acts of self-denial – sometimes we need to have a party.

I guess there have always been people who have tried to define Christianity very narrowly and establish a clear set of rules that define the nature of Christian discipleship, but the God that Jesus revealed provides for people in different ways in different situations.

This is true of Jesus himself. He wasn’t unfamiliar with the importance of self-denial and fasting. He exercised self-control, but he could also appreciate a good meal with wine. Jesus didn’t despise this world. Jesus sought to integrate life on earth with life in the kingdom of God. He loved life. He loved people. He loved the earth and all of it’s inhabitants, but he also was willing to die – to leave this earth prematurely.

The importance of living with reverence for God and compassion for our neighbors never subsides, but people who live with sensitivity to these holy objectives find themselves travelling in a variety of directions. People who love God are often driven to extreme places to find satisfaction for their hungry souls. This was certainly the case with this crowd that followed Jesus to this desolate place. Jesus had gone in to the wilderness in hope of having some down time, but he couldn’t shake the crowd – and it created the perfect setting for one of the most memorable meals ever served at God’s Eat Place. This is the only miracle story that is recorded in each of the four gospels. This was a meal that no one wanted to forget.

Of course timing is everything, and they needed such a feast. Jesus had just heard about the death of John the Baptist and that was an ugly turn of events. John the Baptist had been imprisoned for speaking ill of Governor Herod who had married his sister in law, Herodias, after orchestrating her divorce from his brother, Phillip. In fact this particular manifestation of God’s Eat Place in the wilderness is in direct contrast to the story of the feast at Herod’s Eat Place.

Caught up in the revelry of his extravagant party, Herod had announced that he would grant anything to his newly acquired wife’s daughter because she had danced so well for his guests. Prompted by her mother, the young woman asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and Herod had to comply. John the Baptist’s head was delivered to the party.

The contrast between the slaughter at Herod’s Eat Place and the grace of the feast at God’s Eat Place couldn’t be greater. Herod had tremendous political power, a beautiful home, and excessive wealth, but his party ended with the sickening sight of a righteous man’s head. The world was diminished by the feast of Herod – the world was renewed by what happened in the wilderness. People’s bodies and souls were nourished by the feast that Jesus hosted. He and his followers were in the middle of nowhere with 5 loaves and 2 fish, but Jesus prayed to God, and God provided them with more food than they could eat. Those who ate at Herod’s Eat Place were left with an unappetizing sight — while those who shared food at God’s Eat Place were fortified for a lifetime.

Faithfulness to God can carry us in many different directions, and God can nourish us in many different ways. Sometimes we find ourselves is circumstances of plenty, and when we do we must do as Jesus instructed his disciples to do and share what we have with others. Sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances of scarcity – of not having all that we need to address the demands of life, and God is there for us then as well – reminding us that sometimes we are to feast on nothing but the word of God.

Jesus was very clear about the need for us to live with sensitivity to one another. People don’t dine alone at God’s Eat Place. If we want to be faithful to the God that was revealed by Jesus Christ we are not just to partake of the bread and juice that represent his living presence – we are to be that same bread for the world.

We have gathered today at God’s Eat Place. I pray that the words, the sounds, the people, the bread, and the wine that we are sharing this morning will provide the sustenance you need for your journey. God is a remarkable chef. God knows what we each need, and God knows how to nourish our hungry hearts. Thanks be to God for cooking-up all that we need as we journey through life. Amen.


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