You do it.
The first line of our Gospel reading today - "when Jesus had heard this ...." - alludes to something that happened in the previous verses. That something was the beheading of John the Baptist as a sort of prize at the end of a lavish dinner party. The king, Herod, gave a state dinner that featured some apparently sizzling dancing which caused Herod to cast caution to the wind. His scheming wife seized the moment and next thing you know, even though Herod felt bad about doing this, John the Baptist is dead and his head is delivered to the wife on a platter and she has gotten her revenge. Herod felt that he couldn’t back out of a promise, even a very rash promise, made in front of his guests. And so the deed is done, and John is dead, and Jesus goes off by himself to grieve.
Then the scene changes and now Jesus is hosting a dinner party, too. But this one is vastly different. No dancing, no rough entertainment, no posturing. Just a bunch of people who are sad and hungry and tired, who are not going to get an invite to the king’s banquet. These people have been suffering and they have been looking to Jesus for hope, and restoration.
So in a way this is a tale of two dinner parties.
There is this thing that is going on all the way through the Gospel of Matthew, a conflict between the world as it is, the earthly kingdom ruled by Herod, and the heavenly kingdom, ruled by God, that has drawn near but is not all the way here yet. The dinner parties are a perfect contrast of these two worlds, one in which lavishness is a form of ostentation, in which base emotions - currying favor, posturing, exclusiveness, scheming, revenge seeking - are on display. And the other another kind of lavish, in which all who are hungry and thirsty and sick and dying are asked to sit down and receive basic sustenance from the hand of God. Just some bread and some fish, still lavish in a real-life way: enough and more than enough.
The contrast is not the story, just a detail. The story is that people come to Jesus for healing - literal, physical healing, and they are now far from home and hungry and tired and even though Jesus has been grieving, his grief turns to compassion as he sees the people in need. He ministers to their bodies - no sermons, no parables, no giving of theology tests to see if people are getting the answers right. And at the end of the day when his disciples suggest he send them to the store to buy food for themselves, Jesus turns to them and says, You give them something to eat. You feed them. Tell them to sit down and you feed these hungry people.”
So the disciples turn out their pockets and they come up with the equivalent of two and a half fish sandwiches, as one commentator puts it. That’s all they’ve got, but they give it to Jesus and he turns it into a feast for 5000 men plus women and children. (I like how Matthew includes women and children in this account. Nobody else does.) And everyone is fed and then the disciples pick up the broken pieces. I like how the broken pieces are part of the story, because aren’t there always broken pieces in life? So let’s put them in the basket, too.
People love this story for many different reasons, and they find themselves in it in different ways. There are many ways to look at it. But it seems to me that for our little parish this day, the story reminds us that whatever little we have to offer in this big world of swirling need is still a necessary part of the divine plan. We don’t get to just see a need, tell God about it in our prayers, and then leave it to God to fix. We are required to contribute to the program. God will make it enough, but first God is going to use what we have to give. However little that might be.
Every week in our prayers we name all sorts of needs. We name the hungry, the imprisoned, the distressed, the sick, the dying and dead. We name the situations in the world that we want God to transform by praying for peace and unity and for leaders to use good judgment. We name these things, we offer them up to God, but we don’t just get to sit back and say, OK God, get to work. We have something, even just a little something sometimes, to contribute. We can pray for the imprisoned and then Jesus might well turn to us and say, you visit the imprisoned. You feed the hungry. You tend to the dying. Not because God’s not going to bother about it but because God’s work is going to be to multiply our offerings to a degree well beyond what we could ask or imagine.
So it’s not enough to simply shun Herod’s dinner party and go to Jesus’s instead.
Beginning today, in our in-person worship, our little parish church will resume the celebration of Holy Communion. And after we receive our bread, we will pray to God to send us out into the world to do the work God has given us to do. And also beginning today, we are going to start the process of discerning what we are called to share with our neighbors, our community, in this time of great turmoil, distress, and need. I don’t know what form our offering is going to take, but our story today reminds us that it does not have to be lavish. God will make it lavish.
Our story today reminds us that Jesus was love in a very concrete way in the world, and that we are called to go and do likewise.