Sunday, August 03, 2008

A Tale of Two Parties: A (not new) sermon on Matthew 14, 1-21

I first preached this sermon 9 years ago, when it came up in the lectionary cycle. It was the Sunday after a beloved and wonderful boss left the pulpit of a church that had grown increasingly hostile towards her for unnamed and unnameable reasons. Let us just say, they had their suspicions.

The day she preached her last sermon (the Sunday before I preached this one) onw family threw a party-- not a "Good bye, we'll miss you" party. Rather, a "Ding dong the witch is dead" party. This is the sermon that resulted from my musings on the lectionary gospel that week. I preached it this morning at St. Sociable, in advance of an ice cream social we threw for our friends and neighbors.

“A Tale of Two Parties”
Matthew 14:1-21
August 3, 2008

It certainly can be the best of times or the worst of times.

Have you ever been to a party which was, simply, perfect? I have. I was 20 years old. I had just met a group of friends whom I believed to be the cleverest, the funniest, the nicest, and the most talented people I had ever known. Three of us had birthdays within the space of a week, so one of the birthday trio decided to have a real, grown up dinner party. She invited us to leave the dorms of Big Eastern College and go to her mother’s home. We all dressed up, and put on our nicest jewelry. We climbed into somebody’s father’s station wagon and drove to the suburbs. When we got there, we found a lovely home, complete with real china, the Brandenburg Concertos on the stereo and chicken cordon bleu cooking in the kitchen. Clearly, we had left the dorms behind! There were strawberries waiting to be eaten and bubbly drinks waiting to be poured. We all sparkled all night long. We still talk about it: J's dinner party.

And then there are those other parties... you know the ones I mean. The parties where you stand frozen in a corner because you don't know a soul except the person who invited you-- who is, of course, missing in action all night long. Or the parties where the host and hostess are in the middle of a lovely marital spat, which manages to cast an evil spell over everyone’s ability to make conversation of any kind. Or the parties where uncle So-and-so gets sloshed and acts out his own delusions of his irresistible charm. The parties that make you want to run screaming into the night. And I bet if you’ve ever suffered through such a soiree, you still talk about THAT party to this day, too.

Throwing a successful party is an art, not a science. The alchemy of choosing just the right combination of people and setting hors d’oeuvres is not available to all of us mortals. The art of being a good host or hostess is just that-- an art. You can study it, but unless you have the gift, you will always be no more than a dilettante. (Of course, we dilettantes can throw nice parties-- just not life-changing events that people talk about for decades afterwards!). The host or hostess is the heart and soul of a party. He or she is the glue that holds it all together. Without that particular gifted person at its core, a party is just a bunch of people and a bunch of food and a bunch of hot, over-crowded rooms.

Today’s gospel reading offers us a startling contrast in styles of hosting a party. On the one hand, we have Herod, hosting his own birthday party in the intimate inner chambers of the palace. On the other hand, we have Jesus, hosting multitudes for an impromptu pot luck on the gentile eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.[i] I don’t think it is an accident that the gospel writer has juxtaposed these two gatherings for our benefit. Jesus and Herod: each is the heart and soul of his own particular party. They couldn’t be more radically opposed.

Herod Antipas was Rome’s man in Galilee-- essentially, a puppet ruler.[ii] But the fact that he had no power apart from that which Rome bestowed upon him did not prevent him from leading the ancient near-eastern version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous.” We can presume that Herod’s birthday party included the very best of the best food, the most elite guests, and hot and cold running servants. His guests and servants alike would have known to be on their best behavior, of course, as this particular party animal had a prison into which he could throw them if they happened to annoy him. As the festivities got underway, we happen to know that Herod was holding one such prominent but probably unwilling guest in his dungeon, namely, John the Baptist. John had proven himself very annoying indeed to the ruler.

John had openly criticized Herod’s illegal marriage. Herod was married to the ex-wife of his still-living brother, which was forbidden by the Torah. Matthew tells us that Herod had mixed feelings about John. He wanted to put him to death, because it was very inconvenient for the royal family to be proclaimed to be in serious violation of the law. However, he also feared John, or rather, feared the crowd’s reaction to John’s death, for he knew that the people “regarded him as a prophet” (Matt. 14:5). So the host of this party was in a conundrum.

Well, the party proceeded, and we all know what happened next. We know that because this particular story has captured the imaginations of countless artists down through the ages. There are many well-known depictions of this story, everything from paintings and plays to movies and even an opera. In fact, I bet most of you know the name of Herodias’ dancing daughter, even though it’s not included in the biblical account: according to the historian Josephus her name was Salome. It was a common practice in this part of the world to for hosts to engage dancers to entertain their guests.[iii] A royal host whose own stepdaughter and niece danced would be bestowing a particular honor upon his guests. But this host proceeded to make a fatal promise: “Anything you want, my dear, anything at all...”

Notice that the text emphasizes that Herod took both his oath and the presence of his guests into consideration when weighing whether or not he would actually hold up his end of the bargain. It was Herod’s intention to be a considerate host. It does not say whether the platter bearing John’s head was the final and grisly “dish” of the night; but it was certainly the one that had the guests talking about the party for years afterward.

And then there is Jesus. When he received word that John had been killed (and, no doubt, how he had been killed), Matthew tells us that he “withdrew from there.” He got into a boat and crossed the Sea of Galilee, out of Herod’s jurisdiction.[iv] Matthew uses that word, “withdrew”—in Greek, anachoreo—more than all the other gospel writers put together. The reason is this: Matthew is giving us insight into Jesus’ new vision for the world, the vision he calls “the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus doesn’t withdraw because he is a coward. He withdraws because he is a new kind of king, with a new kind of response to violence. His response is “no.”[v]

Already we know something about Jesus which sets him far apart from Herod Antipas: how he responds to a threat. Herod throws the threatening person into prison. Jesus refuses to engage in the violent conversation on any level.

So Jesus withdrew, offering an alternative to becoming involved in political or religious brinksmanship. But surely the Jesus who was baptized by John, whom another gospel tells us was John’s own cousin, withdrew for reasons other than ideology. Surely the horrible and violent death of John gave Jesus reason to grieve, to pause, to pray, to question.

Only, those people... those pesky people kept following him. Jesus didn’t want to throw a party. He had, as far as we can tell, no intention of being a host. But the people followed him. This was a “deserted place,” not a palace: hardly ‘where the elite meet.’ And these were not the beautiful people. These were the little people, the people without influence, without connections, and, evidently, without food, who brought their sick to a wandering prophet because here, at last, in the person of Jesus, was hope.

“When he went ashore,” Matthew tells us, “he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (v. 14). And then, when reminded of the lateness of the hour, rather than sending the crowds away so that he could at last have the solitude he was craving, he gave the casual order to his lieutenants: “ give them something to eat” (v. 16). And Jesus became the host of a party so memorable, so extraordinary, so big, every single gospel tells the story, at least once, sometimes twice, for a total of six versions in the New Testament. A party people are still talking about, two thousand years later. A party which, surely, is at the heart of our Christian identity.

How different Jesus and Herod were as hosts, and how different were their parties. Herod was irritated and threatened by John and had him imprisoned; Jesus was pursued when he sought time apart and still was moved to compassion. Herod butchered; Jesus healed. Herod ordered a man’s violent death, the absurd result of chance, a dance and a rashly made oath. Jesus directed his disciples to feed these hungry looking crowds, the result of his always, in every situation, choosing to give life rather than take it away or even ignore it.

A host is the heart and soul of his party. Herod was the heart and soul of fear, violence and an arrogant pride that could not admit that he’d made a horrible mistake. Jesus was the heart and soul of compassion, of healing, of blessing, of sharing, and of celebration. The perfect host.

So the question comes to us: What kinds of parties do we throw? There are Herods in this world, make no mistake. It is not unheard of for people to use occasions for hospitality as opportunities to gain or consolidate power—think of everything from state dinners to the office holiday gathering. But think, too, of all the opportunities we have to emulate Jesus as host—deciding, when we may not be up to it, to be the heart and soul of welcome and generosity anyway. Deciding, even when we feel we might like or even need to be waited upon, to wait upon others. Deciding that perhaps even our moments of pain or grief or fear are moments when we can choose to give, rather than to receive.

The miracle of the loaves and fishes is a vital model to any of us who hope to have welcoming, thriving and even growing churches. Extending ourselves to others in hospitality when we are not sure we even have the means to care for ourselves is the essential Christian calling. It’s a tall order. But it is our calling, we who have sat in the crowd and heard the words of Jesus our teacher and eaten the amazing meal served by Jesus our host. We are called to offer his words and his meal and his welcome, every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[i] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. VII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 324.
[ii] Boring, op. cit., p. 319.
[iii] Selina Hastings, The Children’s Illustrated Bible (New York: DK Publishing, Inc., 1994), p. 226.
[iv] Boring, op. cit., p. 323.
[v] Boring, op. cit., p. 167.

1 comment:

FranIAm said...

If you could see me, you would be looking at a woman with her jaw open and her head spinning.

You are an amazing and gifted homilist, how I long to hear your words in person one day!

Seriously- this is brilliant. I mean really brilliant.