Proper 13a, August 6, 2017

August 9, 2017

God’s Eat Place

Matthew 14:13-21


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 worth noting that one of the very first things Matthew 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 really 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 regarding the difference between the promptings of the Holy Spirit and the suggestions of an evil spirit. Jesus knew that there are times when we need to deny ourselves feed on the word of God – he also knew that there are times when someone needs to show up with some actual bread.


The back-story for this morning’s scripture lesson was really sad. Jesus had withdrawn to a deserted place because he had gotten the news that, John the Baptist, his friend and fellow servant of God had been killed by Herod. But this wasn’t just a sad occasion for Jesus, it was a blow to all the people who were longing for the redemption of Israel. John the Baptist was one of their heroes. He was a righteous leader, and he had been killed by their terrible governor. Herod had imprisoned John the Baptist after John the Baptist criticized him for breaking up his brother’s marriage in order to marry his former sister in law. Herod was sort of afraid of John the Baptist because of his spiritual power, but his new wife, Herodias, wasn’t so timid.


Caught up in the revelry of an extravagant party, Herod had announced that he would grant anything to his newly acquired wife’s daughter because she had danced so pleasingly 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 what went on in Herod’s palace and what was going on with Jesus and the people in the wilderness couldn’t be more extreme. A righteous man was killed for trivial reasons in one place, a crowd was fed by the hand of God in the other place. There was a time in Jesus’ life when he needed to reject the temptation to use his God-given power to feed himself, but on this occasion, he saw that the people needed some food. When Jesus was alone in the wilderness he knew not to use his power to serve his personal needs, but when he was with this hungry and desperate crowd he was moved by compassion to provide them something to eat.


Good food doesn’t eliminate the pain of loss, but providing something good to eat is often our first instinct when we face the pain of death, and that’s not a bad thing to do. Sharing food is about the best way we know to resist the claws of death, and that’s a big part of what was going on when Jesus blessed the fish and the bread and told his disciples to feed the crowd.


No doubt there was an abundance of food at Herod’s palace, but it was a godless environment, and the food in that place served as an appetizer to the death-dealing and soul-sickening main course. There wasn’t much food out in the wilderness, but God was present, and five thousand people were given more than they could have asked for. The bread of life is served when God is welcomed and thanked. The bitterness of death is delivered when people ignore God and assume they are in charge of the world. There are a lot of different places and ways to dine in this world. Where and how you choose to dine will determine what you are served and how well you are nourished.


I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating at Doe’s Eat Place, but if you’ve got a good amount of room on your credit card or a few large bills you can get served an enormous steak. They’re also known for their tamales, but I don’t care for tamales, so it’s the steak that has made an impression on me. And it’s such a memorable name for a restaurant. I’ve never been to the Doe’s Eat Place that’s housed in a barn near Augusta, but I’ve been to the Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock. I don’t know how Mr. George Eldridge from Augusta got connected to the original Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, MS, or how he came to establish his restaurant of that name in Little Rock, but Greenville is where the original Doe’s Eat Place began.


I don’t know the full story of how they came up with that name, but it may be that it had to do with which door you went to when you went to Mr. Doe’s place. The front of the place was a honky-tonk, and there was a kitchen in the back. So if you went to the front door you went to the dance place, and if you went to the back door you went to the eat place. I don’t know the whole truth of the situation, but there’s some truth to this, and it sort of stirs the imagination to think of where we go to get what we want.


In my opinion, you can do some fine dining at a Doe’s Eat Place. But as Jesus pointed out when he was tempted by the devil when he was alone in the wilderness, people don’t live by bread alone. There’s not a steak big enough to nourish that hunger that’s in our souls, but we aren’t just floating souls without the need for bread. Our souls and our bodies are intimately bound together, and sometimes our souls are nourished by good food provided by compassionate friends. When food and compassion and companionship come together you might say you are doing some divine dining at God’s Eat Place.


God’s Eat Place can’t be found at a particular address, but it can pop-up anywhere.  And 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.


It’s interesting to think about the various ways God nourishes our souls. God always provides, but the menu is always different. On the first occasion when Jesus was in the wilderness and in need of food, God provided him with the wisdom he needed to keep the devil at bay. On this second occasion when Jesus was surrounded by hungry people God provided actual food. On both occasions, Jesus pointed to our need to be thankful and dependent upon God, and God served what was needed.


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. You will always find grace on the menu at God’s Eat Place, but it’s served up in many different ways.


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 the Christian faith begins to take on a form of 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.


The importance of living with reverence for God and compassion for our neighbors never subsides, and this was made so clear by this miraculous meal in the wilderness. This is the only miracle story that is recorded in each of the four gospels. The essential requirements for God’s Eat Place to emerge came together on that day. Some people were desperate and hungry and they looked to Jesus – who looked to God, and who then instructed faithful disciples to share the food that was on hand. Need, compassion, trust in God, and willingness to do what Jesus instructed produced a meal that no one could forget.


The contrast between the slaughter at Herod’s Eat Place and the feast at God’s Eat Place couldn’t be greater. The world was diminished by the banquet of Herod – the world was renewed by Jesus’ feast in the wilderness. Those who ate at Herod’s Eat Place were given a sight that they would be desperate to forget — 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. And it’s good for us to remember that God is a remarkable chef. God knows what we each need, and God knows how to nourish our hearts, minds, and souls. Present your needs, look to God, have compassion, do what you can, and enjoy the divine dining that God will provide.


Thanks be to God. Amen.


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