Father Barron is the Extended Stay Rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Grayslake. He preached this sermon on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 5, 2018.
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35
A person of distinction in the ancient Roman Empire, perhaps a politician or a priest, sorting through his daily mail, might have come across an invitation such as this one, not long ago discovered by archaeologists.
“You will dine well at my house,” the letter promises its recipient.
“The first course will be lettuce and tender shoots cut from leek plants, and then a pickled young tuna, which is larger than a small lizard fish, and will be garnished with eggs.
“There will be more eggs and cheese and olives.
“What else we are having? Fish, oysters, stuffed wild fowl and sow’s udder.”
Frankly, I would have been all set to mark my calendar for this event until coming upon the sow’s udder entrée.
Although not mentioned in this particular menu, another popular dish served at Roman dinner parties was baked dormouse, a dormouse being a small squirrel-like rodent which continues to abound throughout Europe.
To make this delicacy, says a cookbook from that era:
“Stuff the dormouse with minced pork or the meat of other dormice, chopped up with herbs, pepper, and pine nuts. Sew up the dormouse and cook in a small oven.”
This dish would likely be served smothered in a sauce; the Romans, apparently, loved their sauces.
A favorite of most households was known as garum, made from assorted small fish, such as smelt or anchovies, which were mixed in salt water and allowed to sit in the heat for weeks at a time.
Following this aging process, the mixture was strained through a basket and proudly placed on the table.
That sow’s udder is not sounding too bad now, is it?
Still, this was fairly basic fare, suitable for a family celebration.
The more anxious you were to impress your guests, the fancier the menu became— roast peacock and ostriches would make an appearance on more than a few tables.
The ancient Romans enjoyed their food, and gathering for dinner was a major event in wealthy households. A meal could go on for hours.
Expensive, exotic food, elaborately presented, was a way of proclaiming your wealth and social standing to others.
If you hosted a banquet, it had better go off perfectly if your position in society was to be maintained.
Diners reclined on couches arranged around tables to eat; sitting was for children and slaves.
The most favored guests occupied spots nearest the food and the host.
As forks and knives were not part of the dinner ware, people ate with their hands and slaves would wipe guests’ fingers in between courses.
People brought their own napkins for carting extra food home, kind of the precursor to doggie bags.
One way you could tell if you had a successful party was by how many people asked for leftovers.
Elaborate feasts were served by young and attractive slaves, both male and female, and usually offered entertainment such as poetry readings, music, and dancing.
Needless to say, wine flowed in abundance. And the more the wine flowed, the more comfortable the guests became in expressing their pleasure with the food.
The ancient Romans engaged in what we would consider obnoxious eating habits, perhaps the least offensive being the practice of loudly belching as a way of signifying their enjoyment of the meal.
This practice was encouraged by philosophers who taught that the highest form of wisdom was to follow the dictates of nature. Today’s parents teach their children just the opposite, often with limited success.
Just as the gatherings were important for ambitious hosts, they were equally important for ambitious guests, some of whom spent so much time jockeying for political and financial favors— as well as for invitations to upcoming banquets— that they had little time to eat and had to take enough food home with them to last until the next big feast.
Consider how much time went into the preparation of one of these meals; consider how much energy and anxiety were expended by the hosts in making certain that they went off without a hitch, making sure that their status was proclaimed and that the guests’ appetites— for peacock, for power, for position, whatever— were more than met: they were satiated.
And still it was never enough, then and now.
No matter how much or how long you eat or drink; no matter how much is wrapped up in napkins and taken home through the early morning light; what is served at these banquets, what is attained at these banquets, never lasts— never lasts.
Have you ever eaten so much that you can’t imagine taking another bite?
You pat your stomach, or, if you’re not worried about manners, you loosen your belt, groan, and swear you’ll never eat again.
The next day what happens?
You’re hungry; perhaps even hungrier than usual because the more you eat, the more you want.
You get the sense that a certain class of Romans believed they always needed to have more.
Herod probably did, anyway.
In Matthew’s account of the beheading of John the Baptist, the execution takes place in the midst of an elaborate birthday party the king has given himself, a party which immediately precedes the account of Jesus’ feeding the five thousand with bread and fish, much more basic fare offered to thousands of less reputable folks, gathered not in a palace but in a deserted place.
“I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Unlike King Herod’s, in Jesus’ banquet is life, not death.
Not much of a menu for this banquet, though, is it?
Not much of a location, either: a deserted grassy place.
How unlike Herod’s birthday bash.
You’ll remember from several weeks ago that Herod, who had already put John the Baptist in jail, wants to have him killed but fears the reaction of the crowd, who regards John as a prophet.
Now, swept away by the dancing of his new wife’s daughter at his birthday party, Herod promises to grant her anything she wants.
Prompted by her mother, the girl says, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
Fearing to lose face in front of his guests more than he fears the response of the crowd, Herod complies.
Jesus is informed of John’s death and wants nothing more than to go off by himself to pray, to grieve, and to gather his strength.
The crowds, whose needs are more profound than attaining or losing status, follow him.
Seeing them, Jesus knows their needs, and cures their sick.
Quite a different mood prevails.
Herod’s banquet teems with fear; he’s afraid of inciting the crowd; he’s afraid of what people will think of him if he goes back on his word.
Jesus, on the other hand, has compassion on the crowd and heals them, even though his heart likely needs some healing.
Herod does everything he can to protect himself, and Jesus does everything he can to serve his flock.
One banquet destroys while the other restores.
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Herod’s banquet offers the richest food, in the most opulent setting, to a handful of people waited on by servile slaves.
Jesus’ banquet offers the most basic of fares, in the simplest of settings, served to over five thousand people by a few disciples.
Disciples who really were not sure they were up to the task— actually, they were not really sure that their host, no matter how great his compassion, was up to the task.
They, too, feel for the people.
They notice the size of the crowd; they notice the lateness of the hour; they notice the sparseness of their surroundings, and they respond in a logical manner.
John’s Gospel tells it this way:
“When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?’”
Jesus said this to test him; and Philip does not pass the test because Philip answers, “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
The disciples’ lack of trust in Jesus’ resources is matched only by their reliance on human resources.
Jesus tells the disciples: “Make the people sit down.”
The disciples, in the other gospel accounts of this event, balk.
They do not see possibilities, they see problems.
They do not see what they have; only what they lack.
“We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish,” they complain.
That’s not the makings of a banquet, that’s the makings of a disaster, a social nightmare for their host.
Their host thinks differently.
In Eucharistic imagery, Jesus looks to heaven, blesses and breaks the bread, and gives the pieces to the disciples, who in turn distribute them to the crowd.
They distribute them to the crowd.
The obedience and participation of the disciples is crucial to the realization of this miracle.
Perhaps that is the miracle itself: weary, hungry souls feeding other weary, hungry souls with the bread of life in the dying light of a deserted place, far from the seats of comfort, the seats of power.
Feeding them well, too; this meal was indeed a feast; not a snack on the road to tide the crowd over until they could get home to a real meal.
This was an abundant feast; a taste of the kingdom; an unexpected and unlikely gift— just like grace.
Grace so overflowing there were leftovers to wrap up and take home.
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and who ever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
It could not have been accomplished without God, just as it could not have been accomplished without the aid of those trusting souls who took God at his word even when that word, as it sometimes does, flew in the face of all they saw and all they knew.
The source of this feast is God; the resources that do the feeding are human, people like us, who both need to be fed and who need to feed.
The resources are people like us, who know the pangs of hunger just as we know the pangs of compassion when we walk in the midst of a hungry world.
My friends, at God’s banquet we are all people of distinction; we are the guests and we are the servants of our gracious host.
At this banquet we dine well.
Let us leave here not only filled with God’s grace, but carrying plenty of leftovers— enough that we may tend the sick, feed the hungry, and carry the invitation to all we come across in crowded and deserted spaces, to come to our dining room, to come to our table; and never be hungry or thirsty again.