Two Texts for Preaching
Matthew 14:13-21, and,
by Denise Levertov
Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of
I who don’t know the
the line. They
(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was
what line it was. No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can’t find,
and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,
assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
most of all.
The powers that be,
the ones that designed the Common Lectionary
that we use each Sunday,
and which prescribes the Biblical readings
for each and every Sunday,
has an editorial bias.
Of course they do, all of us do.
Which readings they chose
out of the sixty-six books of the Bible,
and when they chose them to be read,
and which ones they chose to be read together,
all influences what we hear
when we listen to those readings.
Like I said, it is not strange or unusual
because that is what happens when we make choices
from among alternatives –
we always skew or influence the outcome.
No big deal.
But we still need to recognize
that every Sunday there is a silent secret agent
hidden among the readings.
And that is just one more reason
to add a reading that is NOT from the Lectionary –
which we do.
It rattles the arrangement
and throws a monkey wrench into the plan.
The liturgical poem we use
will insert itself into the fabric
and cause us to ask questions
we might not ask otherwise.
the powerful memory from childhood,
when excitedly discovering
some great secret truth
that is just as promptly forgotten,
Levertov’s poem also begs us ask
if indeed such secret truths exist?
Perhaps instead of the giant peach-of-a-truth
so many people reach for as if a huge, shiny nugget of gold
in a river of rocks,
truth is more like a pile of pick-up-sticks –
each little piece
connected to other little pieces,
and incoherent apart from the
precariously balancing relationships.
That may be more than we want to contemplate
mid-morning in the summer,
but it does open up that Gospel reading
to more than the usual Disney fantasy.
Going back to the editorial layout of the Lectionary,
they left out half of the Matthew story.
There must have been a reason they did that,
because as it is,
we are being asked to put together
a complicated jigsaw puzzle
without knowing what the subject is,
AND without all the pieces.
Clearly, the Lectionary Committee
wanted us to think of Matthew’s story
as a miracle story
inflating the powers and status of Jesus.
But it is not a miracle story.
Rather, it is a political commentary
and an economic and social criticism.
In fact, I will go so far as to say
that the so-called feeding of the 5000 story
is as close as we come
to uncovering Jesus’
political and economic manifesto.
But that is not what we hear
because we read only half of the story.
What we get
is the Disney Gospel
instead of the Jesus Gospel.
The Disney Gospel
is a consumer gospel that gives the religious consumer
what he or she wants to hear,
which is usually what consumer economics does.
But I think we will see,
if we acknowledge the whole story,
that it is not about magic
or satisfying wishes.
Today’s reading from the Lectionary begins,
“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat
to a deserted place by himself…”
With the Lectionary, we do not get to know what he heard,
but clearly it was the motivation for his leaving
wherever he was before this part of the story.
So let’s back up
because instead of this story being the feeding of 5000,
it would more properly be called,
the tale of two feasts.
(And, just to touch the Levertov poem again,
we are uncovering a secret).
This story properly begins far, far away
from hungry peasants;
it begins, far away on the other side of the lake.
This story begins in a palace.
It begins where King Herod lives.
It is Herod’s birthday
and he throws a big party for himself.
Because he is king,
it is an opulent feast and it is
the first of two feasts
in this story from Matthew.
At Herod’s feast
there is the heavy aroma of lamb
sizzling on the spit.
Seasoned duck and pheasant perhaps,
along with soft, steaming bread
and thick flavorful hummus.
There is juicy, succulent fruits and wine,
lots and lots of wine.
(Hmmm, I wonder what’s for Coffee Hour today?)
At Herod’s feast
they eat while reclining on pillows.
At Herod’s feast, there is music.
At Herod’s feast, there is dancing.
At Herod’s feast, in fact,
there is a dance performance –
a sensual dance
with youthful bodies
schooled in the art of seduction.
Herod is smitten with one of the dancers.
No, smitten is not the word, it is too wholesome.
He is engorged with lust
and not for just any dancer.
It is for his teenage stepdaughter.
He becomes senseless with craving as she dances.
We have all known the sensation
of being captured by our own desires,
perhaps not to the degree Herod displays in this story,
but we can imagine it.
His hunger is riding on a horse of affluence
and so it can never be tamed.
Herod’s affluence diminishes his boundaries.
over-indulged and over-empowered
by the unreal degree of his affluence,
stretched his capacity for restraint
into an insatiable, bottomless pit.
and he falls prey to his obsession.
“Keep dancing!” he begs
as the music stops.
“Keep dancing and I will give you anything you want.
What makes you happy?”
“None of that,” she says,
“just cut off the head of John the Baptist
and serve it to me on a platter.”
I know, right? How did John the Baptist
get into this story. Crazy.
John the Baptist is another prophet
and social critic,
more renowned than Jesus at the time.
He was a severe critic of the Disney religion
in his own day,
and Herod was often the foil of his critique.
But I don’t want to get into all of the politics
and palace intrigue today.
Suffice it to say,
an entourage of kitchen slaves arrives
carrying a large handsome silver platter.
Ceremoniously they make their way
through the feasting crowd
and place the human head with eyes wide open,
lips curled into a crooked grimace,
truth written all over his face,
on the table in front of the king.
This tale of two feasts
is not quite the Disney tale we imagined
when we only heard half the story.
But this is now where Jesus comes in,
and the second feast.
Jesus hears the story about John’s beheading.
Immediately he leaves where he was
for a “deserted place.”
Matthew tells the story of the first feast
and then immediately,
Is he freaked out and afraid?
Does he immediately read the punch line
of Herod’s action:
Those with power do not give it away,
and those who own affluence will not soon part with it?
Perhaps it is both:
Jesus’ grief and a strategic retreat,
all at the same time to consider his options.
Either way, Jesus is followed.
He is followed by people who are hungry.
He is followed by people who hunger for hope
as much as for food.
Hunger for hope that he is the chosen one
who can fix things.
Hunger for hope that he will take down Herod
and the Roman occupation.
Now for the second feast in the tale of two feasts.
At Jesus’ feast, there is no music.
At Jesus’ feast, there is no protein.
(There are no fish in Matthew’s version).
At Jesus’ feast, there is no wine.
At Jesus’ feast, there are no pillows.
At Jesus’s feast, there is no dancing.
At Jesus’ feast, there are no slaves –
or more probably, if slaves were there
they were without their masters.
At Jesus’ feast, there is only bread.
At Jesus’ feast, the host
shares what he has
and acts like that will be enough,
even without knowing ahead of time
if it will be enough.
At Jesus’ feast, there is no affluence
but there is abundance.
So right there, we have landed on the fulcrum
upon which this tale of two feasts balances.
Affluence is what we have
when we own wealth and resources.
Abundance is what we have
when what we have is more than enough.
We can have more than enough and not be affluent.
An economy based upon abundance
ensures that everyone has more than enough:
whether no one is wealthy
or some are wealthy,
everyone still has more than enough.
Abundance is the invisible guiding hand
in the economy of God,
and that is what the tale of two feasts is all about.
The Disney Gospel,
which is the primary narrative of OUR economy,
is that we should own more than we need
and accumulate as much as we can.
Our economy is guided by the invisible hand
of Natural Selection that grabs for as much as it can get.
But in fact, our economy
is built on scarcity so that affluence is shared by only a few.
Affluence deepens our hunger
and it deepens our desires
and it seduces us
with promises of more and more wealth and riches.
Abundance, on the other hand,
insures that we have enough,
and more than enough,
no matter how much or how little we have
relative to everyone else.
An economy of abundance may include people with wealth
but it does not allow anyone to suffer deprivation.
The moral of the story,
according to the tale of two feasts,
is that affluence leads to jealousy,
anxiety, and violence
while abundance leads to generosity,
empowerment, and community.
Now here is a critical moment of truth:
we do not get to decide
which economy we live in,
even though we likely live in both –
side-by-side as if straddling two dimensions
at one and the same time.
We live in our economy
even as we might desire to live in the economy of God.
Our spiritual task then,
is to release ourselves as much as possible
from the seductive power of affluence,
and nurture in ourselves and one another,
the hope and work of abundance.
The Lectionary Committee
would have us hear that Jesus is a miracle worker
when instead, the tale of two feasts that Matthew tells,
is about us
and about which economy we will actually thrive in.
Like those two girls
discovering the secret of life in a line of poetry,
there is a secret to be uncovered in this story
we thought we already knew.
It is also likely a secret we will forget again and again,
and that we have discovered before.