“It All Started With a Picnic”
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 7, 2014
University Baptist Church
We know this story so well. It’s told more often in the Bible than any other story. Six times it’s told. It’s as if the Bible is telling us to pay attention. We know how the crowds were pressing in on Jesus and that they needed to feed them. We also know about the scarce resources that the disciples had: five loaves and two fish. And we know that by some miracle— some magic from Jesus or was it the finding of resources they didn’t know they had—everyone was fed so much that there were twelve baskets leftover.
We have pooled our resources and brought five members of our sister church in Nicaragua here. We have already shared some good times and we look forward to a week of getting to know one another and understanding a bit of what God has to show each of us. And in a little while, we will also pool our resources and eat some food.
Most of the best things happen when there is food involved.
Those of us who have been to Nicaragua, and there have been 29 of us from UBC over the years who have visited, have shared tables and food with the wonderful members of our sister church. We have gotten to know each other over the meals. We have tried things we never tried before. We adjusted our digestive tracts to different flavors, different consistencies, different portions, different sources of protein and carbohydrates. And we have laughed and imagined ourselves as different than we had been before. So will we be this week as we share this meal. I say this to our Nicaraguan guests, our new student friends, our long-time veterans: Each time we share a meal, something else is revealed. We remember that it all started with a picnic.
Now, contrast this loaves and fishes and leftovers picnic with the meal that precedes it in the Bible. A few verses earlier Matthew tells the story of a birthday party thrown by Herod for Herod. Not everyone was invited to this party. It was a party of the elites. It goes without saying that there was plenty of food. There was also intrigue at the party reminiscent of night time soap operas. You see, Herod wanted to have a dangerous liaison with Herodias who just happened to be the wife of his half-brother Phillip.
Since John the Baptist said it wasn’t right for Herod to be involved in such an incestuous relationship, Herod had him arrested. If you tell the king what to do and what not to do, you pay the price.
The people who were at the party were Herod’s friends and accomplices: his political party, his supreme court, his friendly clergy. They didn’t dare cross him, for they knew about his wrath. At the party, Herodias’ daughter danced one heck of a dance. Herod was so lustfully pleased that he promised her whatever she wanted. At her mother’s encouragement, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod, not wanting to go against his promises to a guest at his own party granted her wish. That’s one twisted dinner party and a host whose priorities are mighty messed up, and guests who are so drunk by the lure of power that they do not question Herod’s absurd actions.
The guests at that party might as well be modern-day apologists to a war-making, vengeance-obsessed, status-quo loving economy that keep the comfortable comfortable and ignore or give simple lip-service to the poor. They tend not to like to be called on their racism, sexism or even me-firstism. And whoever does might find their heads on a proverbial platter.
It’s no accident that the next story in the Gospel is of a different kind of party. It’s not thrown in a palace. It’s thrown on a lakeshore. There is not a banquet hall. There is grass and people sat on the ground. Everyone is invited. No one is turned away. Everyone gets food and it never comes at the expense of the innocent. The propaganda of the day was that the gods provided food for people through the emperor. Jesus showed that God’s will is that people should be fed, even in spite of the emperor. This was real hospitality and it’s as much a miracle as the so-called multiplication of the loaves.
I remember when I first visited our sister church in Leon, Nicaragua back in 2003. The church was busy with activity, cooking and packaging food. They borrowed or rented a bus and took us up to the hillside on the outskirts of Leon. There was an old fort there, Al Fortin, used by the former dictator Somoza as a prison until it was liberated by the Sandinistas. It was on a high place and was strategic. Below it was the city dump. We followed the garbage trucks up there and saw people following the trucks. Barefoot children, young men, women, even a few older folks were jockeying to be the first ones to comb through the debris when the trucks dumped their loads. Little pieces of cell phones, computer guts, food scraps, mercury amidst the copper.
We rumbled the truck up the hillside, parked it and opened the back door. The line started and the 75 people living at Al Fortin dump came for their meal of loaves and fishes given by the disciples of Jesus from the Second Baptist Church of Leon. The loaves were tortillas. The fish were rice, beans and chicken. Children sat down with little bags of juice, biting off the corner and sucking out the contents as is traditional. The only preaching that happened that day was the radical hospitality of our sister church and the bits and pieces of the stories we heard from those who eke out a living off of what someone else discards.
Sixto Ulloa, the Sandinista Ombudsman in Managua said that entire families live off the daily garbage thrown out by the US Embassy complex.
On Tuesday, we are going to fill little bags of food to send to Nicaragua of all places to help feed people at the dump. We do this to see the connection between the US and our sisters and brothers.
I want to point out one more thing this morning. This meal, this picnic happened right after Jesus heard about the death of John the Baptist, his friend, his teacher, his kin, his predecessor. When Jesus heard about John’s brutal killing, he went off in a boat to a deserted place. He and John had been kin in the faith and had made similar friends and enemies. Jesus, I imagine, wondered if his fate would be the same as John’s. I imagine he missed his cousin. He was angry at Herod, at Herodias, at all of the people who stood by watching it happen and saying nothing. Martin Luther King said that we will not be so dismayed by the brutality of our enemies, but by the silence of our friends. He got another cruel reminder that the road is hard and the work is seemingly never done. So he went off to a place to be by himself. He needed to grieve, to contemplate, to reconnect, to rejuvenate, perhaps to reconsider some things about himself. I bet he wanted to run away. I would.
There he was sitting in the grass. Pondering the bugs, feeling the breeze, crying out to God to send him a sign. And God did just that. The crowds followed him with their very real needs of food and hope. Jesus obliged, as we all knew he would. He left his pity party and had a picnic with his new community. He got back to work. There is no record of what he said at that picnic, just that there were leftovers. I bet they held each other in their grief and strategized next steps. I bet they introduced themselves to new people and maybe even did a little grass-roots organizing. They got back to work.
We gather today to get back to work. We have enjoyed a summer off from our usual routine. But now school has begun again with new expectations. New visitors are here. And even as we greet new friends and allies, racism reveals its ugly head in Ferguson, Missouri with echoes in the Twin Cities. War breaks out all over the globe. There is work to be done and it seems like all is lost.
And that’s where God gives us the miracle. Maybe it wasn’t Jesus alone giving the miracle. Maybe it was the disciples giving the miracle, finding food enough for everyone. Maybe it was the disciples coming the aid of the people and even Jesus, reminding him that even though the odds are stacked way against us, we are not giving up. We are moving forward. Sit down with me on the grass, let us scrounge enough food to feed everyone. We’ll not only hear the Gospel of peace, of hope of courage, of grace, we will live it. Go ahead, sit down, I imagine them saying. We got this. We have your back. You are not alone.
The church, when it is at its best is the community that supports each other and gives us hope when we can’t see it. It is the people who know the long and true story of redemption that God is working out slowly among all of us. It is the people who are not going to wait for a leader to grant them permission to do what is right, they are going to take it on themselves to be light in the darkness, hope in the midst of despair.
It all started with a picnic. So let’s keep that feast and imagine what this world might be like.
To our Nicaraguan sisters and brothers, this picnic is the start of a deeper relationship that we share. It’s not the end, it’s just the beginning. Who knows what God has in store for us? What we do know is that miracles happen around food when good people are gathered together.
To students starting a new year, with a week of classes under your belt, remember that you are not alone. Not only do you come here with great preparation, families that have sacrificed so you can receive this education, but you come here with a new world of ideas to ponder. You will encounter new people, new ideas, new experiences. You may even eat food and sit on the grass and in class with people who challenge you. They may even be your roommate. But now, it’s all new. And you are not alone.
There are people right here who are willing and able to be your companions on this journey. You are not alone.
Remember, it all started with a picnic. And it’s not just an ordinary picnic. For when we gather at a meal like this, we remember the Gospel imperative to welcome all, to affirm dignity, to struggle for peace, justice—the way of Jesus where everyone is fed, and everyone is given hope. That’s what the real church is for.
And it all started with a picnic, so let’s get on with it. Amen.