Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Tale of Two Banquets

Dining with Herod in the Kingdom of Hell 
Dining with Jesus in the Kingdom of Heaven
In the Gospel of Mark, the author inserts the flashback-story of John the Baptist's death right before Jesus' feeding of the five thousand. In doing this, Mark sets up a contrast between Herod Antipas and Jesus, between the this worldly-values of Rome as reflected in his macabre birthday banquet and between the values of the Kingdom of God as embodied in the banquet Jesus hosts for five thousand people who are hungry for truth and bread.

RCL • Year B • Proper 10 • Track 2
Amos 7:7–15 • Psalm 85:8–13 • Ephesians 1:3–14 • Mark 6:14–29

John the Prophet
A few weeks ago, on June 24th, we celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. That is, we celebrated John the Baptist’s birthday. In today’s gospel, we find ourselves at another feast where we witness the circumstances and events that led to John’s death. I call it the Banquet from Hell.

As we all know, John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah. When the Gospel of Mark opens, when the curtain lifts, John is the first character we see on stage. He is dressed like the prophet Elijah, and he is out in the Judean wilderness announcing the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom. “The Lord is coming soon. Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent, and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.” John’s message struck a chord. Crowds of people were heading out into the wilderness to be baptized by John, to make themselves reading for the coming of God’s kingdom. In short, John was leading a spiritual revival, so how does he end up with his head on a dinner platter? Why would anybody kill a baptist, some crazy guy who was out in the middle of nowhere dunking people in a river?

Well, John wasn’t simply a baptist, he was also a prophet. And by prophet, I don’t mean someone who predicts the future; I mean someone who confronts the powers that be. Someone who speaks for God, who speaks forth God’s vision for human society. Someone who is not afraid to name sin and injustice, who calls people to change their hearts and their ways. Someone who calls people back to God, be they peasant, priest, or king.
Centuries earlier, the prophet Elijah had confronted King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. In his own day, John the Baptist was a sharp critic of Herod Antipas and his wife, Herodias. According to first-century sources, Herodias divorced Antipas’ half-brother, Herod Philip, in order to marry Antipas. And as it turns out, Herodias was also Antipas’ half-niece. John the Baptist publically denounced their incestuous relationship: “This may be how they do things in Rome, but this is not Rome; this is Israel, and such things ought not to be done here.”

What I want us to see is that the ministry that John the Baptist engaged in was not simply religious or spiritual, it was social and it was political. You cannot announce the kingdom of God, and expect the kingdoms of Herod and Rome and Satan to simply sit back and do nothing. John knew it, and Jesus—who came out to be baptized by John—knew it as well. 

In 2000, Peter Jennings produced a two-hour documentary called, The Search for Jesus, which originally aired on ABC. One of the segments was devoted to John the Baptist, his ministry and his relationship to Jesus. As the segment draws to a close, ominous music plays, and you hear the voice of Jennings:
All the gospels do agree that this meeting with John marked the end of Jesus’ life as an obscure peasant from Nazareth. Now he was involved in something radical, radical and dangerous. In a very short time, these two young men who had stood face to face in the Jordan River would both be executed.[1] 
A Tale of Two Banquets
Now following his baptism, Jesus spends forty days alone in the wilderness being tested by Satan. In his absence, John is arrested by Herod Antipas. So when Jesus returns to Galilee and begins his public ministry, John is already in prison. Now this is all mentioned in the first chapter of Mark. But what is so interesting is that Mark doesn’t tell the story of John’s arrest and death until chapter six. And then it occurs as a flashback.

So just prior to today’s gospel, Jesus sent his disciples out on their first missionary tour of duty, and it is quite successful. They preach repentance; they exorcise demons; and they heal the sick. In short, they do everything that Jesus has been doing. If Jesus’ name had been well-known before, now it is even more well-known. And the questions about the identity of Jesus resurface. Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Is he Elijah? Is he a prophet, like one of the prophets of old? Who is he? The rumors are so numerous and widespread that even Herod in his palace hears of it. And he has his own superstitious opinion. He’s convinced that John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. John, a holy and righteous man, whom he beheaded is alive again, and that explains why such awesome powers are at work in Jesus.

Now, it’s at this point in the gospel narrative that Mark chooses to tell the story of John’s horrific and gruesome death. But why now? I mean; it’s presented as a flashback, so presumably it could have inserted just about anywhere, so why put it here?

The simple explanation is that Mark is setting up a contrast between Herod and Jesus. John was executed at a banquet hosted by King Herod, and immediately after this episode, King Jesus hosts a banquet, which we know as the feeding of the 5000. These two banquets could not be more different from one another.

Herod’s banquet occurs in a palace where his guests recline at low tables. Jesus’ banquet occurs in a secluded pastoral setting, and his guests recline on the green grass. Herod’s guests include the rich, the powerful, and the connected, his courtiers and officers and the leading citizens of Galilee. Jesus’ guests come from the opposite end of the social spectrum; they include his disciples and a great throng of the bedraggled, the beat-up, and the burnt-out. They are harassed, helpless, and homeless, like sheep without a shepherd. Herod’s wealthy guests gorge themselves on rich, sumptuous food and wine and on decadent entertainment. Jesus’ guests satisfy their hunger by feeding their souls with his words of wisdom and by filling their bellies with the simple staples of bread and fish.[2]

These two banquets represent two different kingdoms, two different value systems, two different ways of being in the world. On display at Herod’s banquet are the Roman values of self-interest, greed, dominance, and extravagance. It is a kingdom this world, the kingdom of Satan, the kingdom of death. After all the climax of the festivities is the morbid appearance of John the Baptist’s head on a serving tray.

On the other hand, at the banquet Jesus hosts, we find service, compassion, inclusivity, and abundance, which are all signs of the kingdom of God, which is a kingdom of life, wholeness, and peace. The significance of the F5000 goes well beyond its miraculous dimension. This meal is just one more example of how God’s kingdom was breaking into this broken, hellish world. In other words, the signs of the kingdom’s arrival are not to be found only in Jesus’ healings, exorcisms, and other miracles. The evidence of God’s kingdom is also to be found in Jesus’ practice of table fellowship, his practice of dining with anyone and everyone, be they rich or poor, clean or unclean, friend or foe.

You see, in the first century, meal practices reflected and reinforced a particular worldview, a particular set of values. How you dined and with whom you dined said a lot about who you were as a person, socially and morally. This is why Jesus is so often questioned about his practice of eating with tax-collectors and sinners. He presents himself as a prophet, as one filled with God’s Spirit, yet he has this habit of eating with some very unscrupulous and unsavory characters. What does it all mean? Well, it means that the kingdom of God is at hand, that God’s vision for human relationships and human society is being enacted. Jesus knew, if you change people’s dining habits, you can change the world.

Once Jesus was dining in the home of a Pharisee, and he said to his host:
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.  (Luke 14:12–14)

How very different this is from Herod’s banquet from hell, how very different from the parties I have thrown in my lifetime. But can you imagine how the world would change if we adopted this practice in our homes and in our churches?

Two Weekend Meals
Here at St. John’s we celebrate two meals each and every weekend. On Sundays, we celebrate Holy Eucharist. We come and recline at this table, and we share in a meal hosted by our Risen and Living Lord. Jesus meets us here, and feeds us with himself, with his very own body and blood which overflows in an abundance of love and forgiveness. This meal heals and sustains us; it also nourishes and empowers us to carry Jesus with us into our daily lives, to share him with others, and to invite them back to this table which has been set for all people.

On the weekends, we celebrate another meal, Sandwich Saturday. Each and every Saturday at 11:00 o’clock, people in need gather in our parking lot to receive food and drink, conversations and prayers. It is not unlike the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus is also the host of this meal, but we have a part to play as well. Jesus blesses and multiplies the resources, but he gives us the task of distributing them to those who have come. And lots of people have answered that call.

A number of churches in Wichita are signed up to make and distribute sack lunches. Some guys from Haysville often come early and serve breakfast. A woman and her five-year-old young son provide drinks out of the back of her car, hot or cold drinks depending upon the weather. Yesterday, she served ice-cold lemonade, while her son handed out granola bars. It was her daughter who actually started this ministry back in high school. But when she graduated and went off to college, her mother and brother took it on. Yesterday, I met a group of women who call themselves the Bachlorettes. They are a service organization who come and distribute food. As they told me, we are all just one paycheck away from being where these people are, so we want to help.

So what does St. John’s contribute? We provide the downtown location, we provide some oversight, we provide the rolling library, and on occasion we provide the lunches. There are a handful of us from St. John’s who show up on Saturdays. We walk around, and we have conversations with people. We provide a ministry of presence. But there are more conversations to be had, more people to greet, and build relationship with. And so we need more people coming out on Saturday to offer a ministry of presence.

So come and hang out. Come and chat with people. Come and walk around and pray for people, silently or with them. Perhaps you would like to hang out at the rolling library, and suggest some good books. Perhaps you play the guitar or some other instrument and would like to offer live music, The possibilities are endless. If you are not sure what role you might play, just come check it out. Show up on a Saturday at 10:30, and see what’s going on. If you don’t want to come alone, then B.Y.O.F. Bring Your Own Friend. If you have kids or grandkids, bring them along too. If you would like more information, then talk to me or Fr. Earl or Mary Ohlemeier, or Lura Unger.

Sandwich Saturday is our ministry here at St. John’s. It is one of our principal means of reaching out, of participating in what God is doing in the world. So come and be a part of how God is bringing the life of his kingdom to Wichita through this parish.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] (Peter Jennings. The Search of Jesus. End of 3rd clip of 7.
[2] They know that one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God. And having filled themselves on Jesus’ words, they are rewarded with full bellies as well. Just one more example of seek first the kingdom, and all these things will be given to you as well.

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