Food and Faith

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, July 15, 2012
Mark 6:14-29
Blair Pogue

Sitting down for a meal with others is an important part of being human. It’s often only when we are unable to eat due to illness or hardship that we realize how important eating with others is to our physical, emotional, and spiritual well being. While many families in the Cities are struggling to put food on their tables – as seen in the increased demand at area food shelves – other families find it difficult to sit down for dinner together. Longer work days and greater vulnerability in the workplace means that work demands often override our personal and social well-being.

Still other families are scheduled to the hilt. Piano lessons, baseball practices, and meetings cause those who have access to food to eat dinner on the fly, and sometimes in the car. One parent I heard about prepared a couple of casseroles each week and told everyone in her family to get dinner out of the refrigerator when they were hungry. While that plan may have been convenient for family members, I have to think something was sacrificed. What about the catching up that happens over dinner, the story telling, the chance to check in and support each other? Table fellowship with others– whether they be family members, friends, or unknown guests, contributes to our well being and is an important part of being human.

Now not all table fellowship is life-giving. I’ve been to dinners I looked forward to, and those I dreaded. I’ve been at meals where I felt treasured and loved, and others where I felt ignored and misunderstood. I’ve attended meals where someone got drunk and berated others, and where someone was made to feel unwanted. There have been meals with my extended family when everyone played their traditional parts and old patterns and issues reared there ugly heads, and times when my family told old stories and we laughed until we cried and gave thanks for being part of such a fun and loving family. I’ve also attended meals where true communion took place – times when there was deep and vulnerable sharing, and I felt God’s presence.

Today’s Gospel from Mark explores King Herod’s table fellowship. It provides an interesting contrast to Jesus’ table fellowship. Between now and September 2 every Gospel contains a meal scene with Jesus, or an occasion when Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life. From the Feeding of the Five Thousand to Jesus’ statement that “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me,” the readings the following seven weeks will explore the ways Jesus feeds us spiritually, his presence at our meals, and his hospitality.

Herod’s hospitality is all about Herod – maintaining his power and reputation, not losing face. His table is one at which his wife Herodias’ hatred of John the Baptist overrides Herod’s respect and fear of this “righteous and holy man.” Herodias hates John the Baptist because he has repeatedly told Herod that it was unlawful for him to marry Herodias, his brother Phillip’s wife. This is difficult news for Herod, but he does not want to kill John. We learn earlier in Mark that Herod had John put in prison.

On his birthday, Herod presides over a party consisting of his courtiers and officers, as well as the leaders of Galilee. It is a dinner to honor him and to reinforce the relationships that keep him on the throne. At some point during the dinner, Herod’s daughter comes in to dance. This in itself is disturbing. She is a young girl, as made clear by the Greek word used to describe her, korasion. This is the same word used for the young girl Jesus raises to life and a meal of life earlier in Mark. Hellenistic banquets included something called the symposion in which women and slaves were brought into the room as entertainment and exploited. The entertainment offered was not something you would want a young girl participating in. And yet Herod’s daughter dances, and pleases him and his guests. On a whim Herod tells the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” He even goes further saying, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” Sounds like Herod has the foolish, high risk-type personality we see implode in politics every so often. Offering your child half your kingdom over a dance? And what about the people in that kingdom and their welfare? Clearly there is no thought in Herod’s mind about the well being of the people he rules.

The daughter goes to her mother Herodias and asks her what she should request. Herodias says, “the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” When King Herod hears this request he is deeply grieved. The word used here for Herod’s grief and sadness is perilupos, the same word used to describe Jesus’ feelings in Gethsemane before his death. Herod’s guests represent “the inner circle of power” in Galilee and Herod’s birthday meal is “the occasion for the murderous whims of the ruling class of Galilee to be revealed.” The story, according to scholar Ched Myers, is “a parody on the shameless methods of decision-making among the elite, a world in which human life is bartered to save royal face.”[1] In the place of delicious, nutritious food, John the Baptist’s head is served as if it were the main course. This is what the reign of death looks like.

By contrast, everyone is welcome to Jesus’ meals – crowds are invited and everyone is fed and nourished physically and spiritually. Religious outsiders are welcome, women and slaves are welcomed – and not for their entertainment value. A woman plays a central role at one of Jesus’ meals, but she does not dance. She anoints Jesus head rather than having it maimed. Later in Mark’s Gospel and in the community of Jesus’ followers, Jesus is served as food in the shared bread and cup. He gives himself in love to nourish his followers beyond death, as his risen presence strengthens them to participate in his work in the world.[2]

The God we serve is the God of life. His life and mission are communal, as seen throughout the scriptures and especially in meal scenes. As Norman Wirzba ponts out in his book Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, “as early Christians struggled to remember Jesus in their eating and table fellowship they discovered that to co-abide with Jesus called for a new social reality and a new form of life. In this life the forms of oppression and division, degradation and violence that characterize customary eating and living need to be overcome. They understood Jesus to be building on the prophetic traditions that spoke of a new way of organizing existence, announcing that in him people will discover the good news of healing, freedom, forgiveness, and reconciliation, all prerequisites to the experience of life in its fullness.[3]

At Jesus’ table everyone who eats is fed and given the freedom and nourishment to be God’s Holy people. We have a taste of God’s reality and see and experience life as it could and will be. Jesus’ spiritual food provides the sustenance and courage to speak out against the reign of death in our midst and world, and to work for structures and communities that promote the dignity and well being of all. May the bread and wine we will receive this day, as well as the community of faith and love that surrounds us, feed us in body, mind, and spirit. May the food and the fellowship we receive give us the strength and courage we need to go forth into the world in the name of Christ. Amen

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. New York: Maryknoll, 1988, 216.

[2] The ideas in this paragraph were taken from Gordon Lathrop, New Proclamation Year B, 2000, Easter Through Pentecost. Minneapolis: Fortress Press200, p. 108-9.

[3] Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York: Cambridge, 2011, p. 165.