Let me tell you a story – the tale of two banquets.
The first banquet was quite the extravaganza.
- Held in a richly appointed palace,
- to celebrate a king’s birthday.
- The guest list was elite and limited – the court was invited (at least the men), and the top military leaders, and the most influential men in the city (again – only the men).
- The food was abundant, with many different dishes, expensive delicacies and wine flowing freely.
- They relaxed on padded couches and watched entertainers, delighting in the dancing of a young girl.
- A rash, probably drunken, promise was made to give the young dancer, the king’s daughter, anything she wanted.
- And a man died simply to fulfill a drunken oath, and his head was the leftover carried home from the banquet.
The second banquet really wasn’t a banquet at all.
- Held outdoors, just a bit in from the seashore.
- There was no celebration, just the need to feed hungry people.
- There were no guests of power or wealth or great reputation, just ordinary men, farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, men looking for work – 5000 in all, and their wives and mothers and children.
- Instead of a fancy feast and abundant food, there were just five loaves of bread and 2 fish.
- Instead of entertainment, they sat on the ground and listened as Jesus taught them.
- Jesus blessed the meager food, and the disciples passed it around.
- Not only was a basic necessity for life met – everyone ate their fill, no one went away hungry – but there was such abundance that twelve baskets of leftovers were carried away.
It was a feast of death versus a meal of life. Mark places them side by side in his gospel – the birthday celebration of Herod with its gruesome final course of head-on-a-platter, and Jesus feeding 5000 by the seashore.
We only hear about the feast of death today. It’s hard to listen to this story and hear any good news in it. And yet Mark tells it in such detail – it’s a story that needs to be told in all its unpleasantness as a witness to the evil that is in this world.
This is the story of the world, the story of acts that promote death and decay:
- Lust and envy – Herod covets his brother’s wife and she wants him too, so they divorce and marry each other. No matter that Herod’s first wife brought a political alliance with her and by divorcing her; he incites her father to wage war on him. No matter that Herodias is not only his brother’s wife and off limits, she’s doubly off limits because she’s also Herod’s niece. Which also means he’s off limits to her as well!
- Greed and gluttony (and sloth) – Herod throws a big bash for himself, just to show how powerful he is. A lavish meal, lots of good wine, no expense spared. He displays total disregard for the poor who could have benefited for receiving just a portion of what he spent on his party – remember, the welfare of his subjects is his responsibility, especially since he was a ruler of the Judeans who believed that God set kings over them care for them as a shepherd.
- Pride and power - Herod makes a most-likely drunken rash promise to give his daughter ‘half his kingdom,’ in appreciation for her dance, effectively saying “Look at me. I’m so rich and powerful I can give away half of what I have, for something as trifling as a dance, and still be enormously rich and powerful.” When she asks for something he doesn’t really want to give, he does it anyway because if he welshed on his oath, he would look bad in front of his guests.
- Wrath- Herodias was one who could really carry a grudge. Anger fueled her and led her to plot ways to get revenge on her enemies. Herod also let anger control him – he after all had John arrested because of John’s calling them out on their adultery, but couldn’t quite bring himself to have John killed. In fact, the one redeeming thing Mark tells us about Herod is that he liked to listen to John and he protected him from Herodias’ demands for his death.
Herod’s feast is a snapshot of the world – of how the forces of evil and death sow corruption and greed and anger and violence. We see it all around us, all the time.
And if this was the only story Mark told, it would be a sad telling indeed.
But there’s more to the story because this is a story not about death, but about life. A story of life beyond death. A story of abundance and wholeness and healing and mercy and amazing grace and infinite love.
This is a story about Jesus.
Remember how the reading today began:
“When Herod heard of it…” –
- Of Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom of God was near and that we need to turn from our own inward-focused ways (repent) and turn to God;
- Of Jesus’ deeds of power, that the blind see, and the deaf hear and the lame walk, that demons are send packing and a little girl who was dead lives;
- Of Jesus’ authority and power placed in his disciples that even THEY –those fishermen and tax collectors and other riff-raff – could also heal and cast out demons;
When Herod heard this, he recognized the truth of what John has preached:
- That the power of evil and death had been broken;
- That the kingdom of God was right here, right now;
- That although he killed the messenger, he could not, would never be able to, kill the Message.
Herod heard about Jesus, and saw the proof of how God’s kingdom was coming near.
And that is the story Mark really wants to tell, the story that Mark spends the rest of his gospel telling – that even though death tries it’s hardest to drain life of the abundance and joy that God intended, that even though it looks like death will win as Jesus – like John – suffers from an arrest on trumped-up charges, and stands before a ruler who despite, believing his innocence, still condemns him to death, and dies and is buried, death does not win.
God says “yes” to life, to creation, to love, to grace, to us.
I’d like to tell you the story of one more banquet:
- Held the first time in an upper room, but now gatherings all around the world, in large and small congregations, and camps and retreat centers and homes, and sometimes even hospital rooms.
- It’s a celebration of life, of God’s ‘yes’ triumphing against the feast of death.
- Everyone is invited, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, from every nation, and time and place.
- It may look like just a bite of bread and a sip of wine, but hidden in, with and under those morsels are the abundant bread and wine of heaven, Jesus present with us.
- We come and gather, some sitting on pews a church, or chairs in a borrowed worship space, or the ground at camp, or reclining in a hospital bed.
- There’s a promise and a blessing: God chose us, adopted us as God’s own children, lavished upon us grace and forgiveness made available through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and shows us God’s desire to bring healing and wholeness to all of creation and inviting us to get up out of our seats and join in the dance.
- There are no leftovers – no scraps to carry away. Instead there is more abundance as our souls are nourished by Jesus’ grace and love and mercy to the point of overflowing from us to the world around us.
This is a story of the feast of life.
- A feast where beggars become rich,
- where outcasts are welcomed,
- where orphans become beloved sons and daughters,
- where the lost are found,
- where the blind and the deaf and the lame and the sick healed and made whole.
It’s a feast of life, a feast of victory, a feast where all are welcome, where all are fed, where there is more than enough to share, where life is celebrated and death destroyed.
And that’s a story that begs to be told, over and over again.