People remember a sermon if you simplify it. Most often, I simplify sermons by hanging three points on one letter. Today, three Ms – Meals, Mercy and Ministry.
Three points are easier to remember if they all begin with the same letter. Case in point: When I worked in the nonprofit sector, my communications involved members, message and method. Marketing consultants boil down a strategy to the market, message and medium. A professor teaches that politics is comprised of money, media and momentum. A therapist teaches that the keys to a happy life are music, movement and meditation. While I do not expect these three Ms to stick to your memory like glue, they illustrate that points are easier to remember if all the words begin with the same letter. That said, we examine meals, mercy and ministry.
First, meals. Ancient Israelites ate two meals a day, a light meal in the morning or midday and a more substantial meal around sunset. In ancient Palestine, the normal diet included bread, grains, wine, cheese, figs, dates, raisins, beans and other foods. People reserved sheep and goats, the main sources of meat, for special occasions, feasts or sacrifices. Poultry, eggs and fish became common later in Israel’s history.
Meals were more than occasions for satisfying hunger. People who ate and drank together bound one another through friendship and mutual obligation. Eating before the Lord, when one brought sacrifices and offerings, reflected the view that through sacred meals humans could commune with God.
Festive meals marked weddings or the return of an absent family member. Appointed feasts prescribed by the Torah or tradition included Purim and Passover and celebrated God’s goodness to his people.
New Testament banquets given by the well-to-do required guests wear proper clothing. They obligated hosts to greet guests with a kiss and provide for the washing of their feet. Hosts seated guests according to rank.
At formal meals in Jesus’ day, the Greco-Roman custom of reclining on couches around a large table was widespread. One reclined on his left elbow, ate with his right hand, while his feet dangled from the couch. This explains how the woman anointed Jesus feet, how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet while they ate, and how John reclined at Jesus’ breast.
Jesus’ table fellowship with his followers was an important feature of His ministry. It symbolized the blessing of joyous communion, which drew criticism from detractors for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Labeling Him as a glutton and drunkard suggested that, unlike John the Baptist, Jesus took pleasure in eating and drinking. I could say more about meals, but this is a sermon, not a theology lecture; hence, my second point, mercy.
The primary definition of mercy is compassion shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power. It also means compassionate treatment of those in distress.
English speakers derived the term in the late 12th century from the French word merci. Its Latin root is mercedem meaning reward or wages. In the 6th century, the Church applied the word to the heavenly reward of those who showed kindness to the helpless.
In our Gospel today, we see that Jesus showed kindness or compassionate treatment to the helpless and distressed. Most English versions of Matthew 14:14 read that Jesus had compassion on the crowds and healed their sick. How He felt towards them gives us a rare glimpse into His inner life. Other than compassion, the only other feelings Matthew described were Jesus’ amazement at the centurion’s faith and anguish and distress in Gethsemane.
The verb “had compassion” revealed not only Jesus’ feeling, but also what he was about to do. At the end of chapter 9, Jesus had compassion for the crowds because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He responded compassionately by calling twelve disciples and sending them out with authority to cast out unclean spirits and heal people’s diseases and afflictions. Likewise, in the parable that follows His instruction to Peter to forgive seventy-seven times, we hear that the master released and forgave the servant who owed him ten thousand talents. It teaches that God responds with divine compassion to spiritual needs (forgiveness of sin) and physical needs (sickness and hunger). In chapter 15, we read, “Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.’”
Jesus’ compassionate response tells us that the reign of God in the world was concerned with spiritual needs as well as physical ones. In Christ, God reestablishes His rule over creation, and desires to restore everything that is broken, twisted, amiss or dying.
The scene then transitions to the “feeding of the 5,000.” The day is waning and the logical act would have been for Jesus to dismiss the crowds and let them fend for themselves, and that is exactly what the disciples asked Jesus to do either because they thought He could not do anything or did not want to have anything to do with the crowds and their need for food.
Refusing to dismiss the crowds, Jesus emphatically told his disciples to do something about the problem. Yet, they did not understand that He could provide.
Now, fade out the disciples and focus on Jesus. Methodically, He prepared the crowd, took the loaves and fish, pronounced a blessing and gave the food to the disciples. With this story, we are familiar, but often overlook the phrase, “they all ate and were satisfied.” Not only did all 5,000 men eat, but also the women and children. Not only were all were satisfied, there were abundant leftovers.
Strangely, there is no response or mention of astonishment or amazement from the crowd. Nothing. Yet, Jesus continued to feed, nourish, heal and teach. Today, Christ works through His Word and the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. They relate to our body and soul. In Baptism, we die and rise with Christ. In Holy Communion, we kneel in repentant faith before we receive His Body and Blood, which preserves our bodies and souls to life everlasting. During that time, do we ponder God’s compassion and mercy for His people and their needs that arise from brokenness and sin that still trouble our world?
Do we ponder God’s compassion and mercy for His people and their needs that arise from brokenness and sin that still trouble our world? Folks, permit me to move to my third point, from mercy to ministry.
On January 6, 2014, our first grandchild, Emma, was born in Anderson, Indiana. At the time, my wife, Cindy, and I lived in Edmond, Oklahoma. The travel time between our house and Emma’s hospital was 12 hours … under normal circumstances. We left Oklahoma at 6:00 a.m. planning to arrive in Indiana by suppertime. Instead, we hit one of the worst blizzards in Illinois. We made Effingham by evening where traffic came to a standstill. We spent our first night at the Effingham Performance Arts Center on cots with 200 other travelers. Truckers, parents, infants and toddlers all crammed into one open space on cots. Cindy and I got no sleep that night.
The next morning, I learned that we would not be able to continue our trip and make Anderson by nightfall. We did not want to spend another night at the Performing Arts Center. So, being a Lutheran pastor, I looked up the Lutheran Church in Effingham. We called St. John’s Church. I explained to the secretary our plight. A few minutes later, the church president called and offered us a place to sleep. He met us and we followed him to his home. He then invited us to lunch. After lunch, we returned to his home, showered and napped. A few hours later, he asked if we would like to go to dinner with some friends. We agreed. The next morning, we headed out. We avoided the interstate and kept to state roads. We arrived in Anderson that afternoon. There and then, we saw and held our first granddaughter.
I preface my third point with this story because we experienced Christian hospitality firsthand from the president of a Lutheran congregation in Effingham, Illinois. Hospitality is who we are as Christians. Hospitality is our ministry.
Several years ago, when my younger brother died, I contacted my friend, Mark Spaziani, owner of a restaurant in Monaca, Pennsylvania. I asked Mark to accommodate 20 people between the funeral home viewings at his restaurant. He arranged for us a room and dedicated servers. Around 4:30 p.m., we arrived, sat, ate and returned to the funeral home for the 7:00 p.m. viewing. Although we paid for the meal, time and convenience, Mark provided a ministry or service for us.
Simply defined, ministry is the service, function or profession of a minister of religion. Ministry is from the Greek word diakoneo, meaning to serve. In the New Testament, ministry is service to God and to other people in His name. Jesus provided the pattern for Christian ministry: He came, not to receive service, but to give it. We read in Matthew, “As the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The epitome of Jesus’ service is John 13, where He washed his disciples’ feet.
Christians should minister by meeting people's needs with love and humility on Christ's behalf. In Matthew, we read, “It shall not be so among you. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Paul opened Romans with these words: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.”
In short, Christians minister to others out of their devotion to Christ and their love for others, whether the other people are believers or unbelievers. Ministry to others should be impartial and unconditional, always seeking to help others as Jesus would.
Ministry in our day has taken on more of a vocational meaning as we call pastors "ministers" to full-time service. Pastors spend their lives in the ministry. They minister to others and rightly are designated as ministers, but pastors are not the only ones involved in ministry. From the early New Testament churches to the churches of our day, each Christian should be in the ministry of helping others.
To the Romans, Paul wrote, “By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
Ministry prioritizes spiritual things, not just practical things. It emphasizes sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others so they can come to know Him and receive Him as personal Savior, experience Him as Lord, and know Christ as the essence of their Life. Ministry can, and should, include ministering to the physical, emotional, mental, vocational, and financial needs of others. Jesus did, and so should we!
That said, I close with a few words of my current boss, Mark Walter of My Chef Catering in Naperville. I asked Mark to tell me how his work is ministry. He wrote, “I have been thinking about your sermon. I feel that My Chef helps people celebrate life through our food and services, starting with baby showers through birthdays, graduations, weddings and mournings. Through our services, we help people relax and enjoy their day. A lot of these events we set up, serve and clean up so that our clients are able to be a part of their celebration. Through our food, we help conversation by giving people a common talking point. I also feel that though great food comes comfort, joy and peace. Food helps calm the soul.
On the corporate side, we help nourish the body and mind. Also, it gives the employees mind a break and allows them to talk about something other than work.”
Friends, whether you offer Christian hospitality to others professionally or personally, as a professional chef or president of your congregation, in Effingham, Bolingbrook or Naperville, do it in the spirit of Christ. Follow the lead of my friend, Mark Spaziani, or my boss, Mark Walter, and help people mourn or celebrate life through food and service. In order to do so, Jesus must not only be my chef, he must also be my Lord and Savior. When you recognize Jesus as such and serve others as He did, the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.