“The Abundant Feast”
A Sermon on Matthew 14:13-21 for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
preached by The Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister, on August 3, 2014
“Nobody in the world eats better than the bereaved Southerner.” At least this is the claim that Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays make in this wonderful little book I picked up a few years ago titled Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. “In the Delta,” they go on to say, “we ask not for whom the bell tolls—it tolls for all of us, and the message we hear is ‘Open a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and get busy.’ ‘When somebody dies, I may not know them well enough to go to the house or attend the funeral, … but I can always take the family a … casserole.’”
The book includes a host of recipes for everything from tomato aspic to green pea casserole to chocolate chess pie. But the real treasure is its dry but very funny look at the ins-and-outs of funeral customs in a small middle-class white community in the Mississippi Delta. “People in the Delta look better dead, whether in their coffins or obituaries,” they write. “We don’t believe you have to have won a Nobel Prize to get a good obituary. A glowing obituary is practically a birthright.” In one of my favorite chapters, entitled “The Methodist Ladies vs. the Episcopal Ladies,” they not only compare and contrast the usual sort of cuisine served at First Methodist and St. James’ Episcopal—and the relative classiness with which it is served—they also admonish you to think about your mourners’ needs upon your own passing: “If you feel your family will be so devastated by your departure that they’ll require the solace of strong drink, join St. James’. Immediately.”
The book talks about coffins, cemeteries, hosting visitors from out-of-town, and even music choices—which includes a list of selections tellingly titled “Being Dead Doesn’t Mean You Have Good Taste”. But throughout it all, somehow they keep coming back to the food. Whether the reception’s at the church or at the home… whether you need a little post-reception reception to have a “restorative cocktail” or two… or six… or even if perhaps the grieving family got a little too carried away with those cocktails the day before the funeral and in their altered state ransacked through all of the food except the desserts, and reception plans have to change… in any event, food is a big deal in these moments.
We know that ourselves here at this church, too, of course. As it turns out, its not just a “Southern thing” to provide well for the waistline in times of mourning. While I’ve never seen any tomato aspic, our own funeral receptions team here at this church does a phenomenal job—there’s yet to be one I’ve seen here that lacked enough food. The team—which I know includes many helpers beyond the core group of coordinators—they provide a gracious ministry of hospitality and compassion that, to be honest, doesn’t happen everywhere and in every church. It’s a real gift and treasure we have here—and even yesterday, when the Castle and McCabe crew wanted to pay culinary tribute to their long-time kitchen companion John Kapinos at the reception yesterday following his memorial service, still our usual receptions team pulled together anyway to help out when they wouldn’t have necessarily had to do so.
Honestly, that doesn’t actually surprise me all that much. Not just our funeral receptions team, but people in general, they’re giving and helpful and compassionate most of the time. “I want to do something… what can I do? How can I help?” People are always asking these sorts of questions following tragedies or reaching out to friends in the wakes of losses and transition. If anything, people usually lament that they can’t do more, that what they can do seems like such a pittance in the face of the other’s grief or compared to the other’s generosity and service. People fear that what they do have, and what they can do, that it’s not enough. ‘All I can do is bake some cookies. All I can do is make some sandwiches. All I can do is send a card, or make a phone call, or give a hug… surely that’s nothing in the face of what’s happened. Surely that’s not enough.’
“We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish,” the disciples said. ‘Surely that’s not enough.’ Surely that’s not enough. Look at all these people… there must be thousands of them. And we’ve been out here all day with you, Jesus, curing and healing and caring. But what we have to offer now—just five loaves and two fish—surely that’s not enough… is it?
Of course, we have now heard the story, and we know how it ends. The crowds were fed, with 12 baskets left over. A lot of thought has been thinked and a lot of ink has been spilled over just how this so-called “miracle” might have happened. If you have spent much time in more liberal leaning churches like this one, you’ve probably heard someone explain away the story by offering that what happened wasn’t about some scientifically impossible physical multiplication, but that the real miracle was one of human sharing: the offering up of those loaves and fishes somehow opened the backpacks and satchels—and most importantly, the hearts—of the crowds, so that all shared with their neighbors. Could that be the case? Sure, although even the most learnéd and liberal-leaning of biblical scholars will admit that such an explanation is probably stretching beyond what the gospel writers had in mind. Those writers probably had in mind to show Jesus’ power, and his purpose to use that power in the service of the undersides of society… the ordinary people, not the powerful.
But the honest truth about this story, this scene of the feeding of the multitudes that ends up being the only miracle story we find in all four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—is that we don’t know by our modern standards just how exactly it happened, and we certainly don’t know how to do it ourselves. As noted preacher Patrick J. Willson notes, “The disciples say, this is all we have, we don’t have enough. They’re right of course. We don’t have enough. The church doesn’t have enough to feed them. Whatever it was Jesus did with five loaves and [two] fish, we don’t know how to do that. We don’t know how to do that miracle.” But “what we do know and what we do have is this story.”
And as famed Jewish writer and Nobel Peace Prize awardee Elie Wiesel reminds us, the story itself may be enough. Wiesel tells a story about stories like this:
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezeritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would to go the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.
The truth is, we can tell the story, we can make the phone call, we can bake the cookies and make the sandwiches. None of it is enough, it would seem, and yet somehow it does end up being sufficient.
And even more, my friends, Jesus is able to make sufficient even in the midst of grief and fear and despair. Our story this morning began with the mysterious line, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” But what was “this”? As it turns out, Jesus had just heard that his cousin and forerunner in ministry John the Baptist had been killed by Herod the king. And the more Herod heard about Jesus’ ministry, the more Herod wondered if somehow Jesus was John returned from the dead. So, maybe it was grief over John’s death; maybe it was fear for his own safety and continued ministry… but either way, Jesus just wants to get away. And yet, in the middle of grief and fear, still Jesus saw the crowds and had compassion for them anyway. Perhaps that’s as much the miracle in the story as anything else, the thing that seems so unexpected and even perhaps impossible. If the stories of Jesus miracles serve to reveal something about the character of God, then this miracle might just be that even when God’s own self is grieving and under attack, still God has compassion, still God is willing and able to reach out to heal and to feed.
Really, when you think about it, that’s the central strategy of our faith that we enact every time we gather here at this feast table. Even in the midst of our grief, our doubt, our fear, our questions of whether any of what we do is ever enough, still we come and “we place our not-enoughness on the table and deliver it into the hands of” Jesus. And he “takes our not-enoughness, and blesses it, and breaks it up, and gives it around, and behold: a miracle. People are fed. Acknowledging our hunger and knowing our not-enoughness, we come before God, and our huger and our not-enoughness are transformed into a holy offering and an invitation to a feast.” And all of this happens in the midst of a place, a people, a world, and even a God that are just as filled with grief and sorrow as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow. But that’s exactly where such miracles tend to happen, isn’t it?
According to one of the personalities populating Metcalfe’s and Hays’s book about Southern funerals, “ ‘If you don’t get at least one caramel cake when you die in the Delta, … somebody doesn’t love you.” Well, I’m sorry to say that we won’t be slicing up any caramel cake here at the communion table this morning. But then again, today is not a funeral, but rather quite the opposite: today is a preparation for life, a training in what life in the world looks like with Jesus here to bless and break and give. So hear the story and come to the feast, my friends, and taste and see that, indeed, somebody does love you… very much!
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen
 Gayden Metcalfe & Charlotte Hays, Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral (Miramax Books, 2005), 143.
 Ibid., 143–4.
 Ibid., 67.
 Patrick J. Willson, “The Hunger”, sermon on Matthew 14:13-21, reprinted in Lectionary Homiletics 25:5 (August – September 2014), p. 8. Emphasis and correction added.
 Ibid., emphasis added.
 Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest (New York: Avon Books, 1967), frontispiece; quoted by Patrick J. Wilson, “The Hunger”, sermon on Matthew 14:13-21, reprinted in Lectionary Homiletics 25:5 (August – September 2014), p. 8.
 Matthew 14:13 (NRSV); emphasis added.