August 2, 2020
Up until yesterday, I was going to preach this morning from Romans 9:1-5… where Paul… writing to the Christians in Rome… turns his discourse to the question of “what about the Jews who are not becoming Christian. What about them?” It’s a question that comes up again and again long past Paul’s time… and there are many who sadly come to the opposite of Paul’s conclusion which is God is faithful… God’s promises and covenants are not based on short-term conditions, but are from everlasting to everlasting. The election of the Jews is God’s unchanging choice. Paul’s answer to the question about the Jews who do not become Christians is the answer he gave at the end of chapter eight… that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love and God will have compassion and show mercy to whom God will have compassion and show mercy. End of story.
So since there wasn’t a whole lot more for me to say outside of that… I decided to switch passages.
This morning’s gospel reading is a familiar miracle story from Matthew. I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today.
READ Matthew 14: 13-21
Reading again how Matthew tells this familiar story of the feeding of the 5,000… plus those women and children hangers on… there are a couple of nuances in the telling that I want to lift up to you this morning.
The first is Jesus’ compassion when it comes to the crowds. As the story begins, Jesus has just heard the news about the death of John the Baptist. It is the reason he withdrew to be by himself. As Matthew tells the story, John’s death comes about because of Herodias. Neither Herod… nor Herodias… his brother’s wife … liked what John had to say about their current relationship. John had this nasty habit of telling truth to power… of reminding these two that their relationship was immoral… reminding them that power and position did not excuse them from the need for good character. Arresting John and putting him in prison was meant to silence him from speaking his critical truth. John… as you can imagine… was never very good at holding his tongue. He wasn’t interested in playing the game.
Herod, because of the basis of his great political power, was afraid of the crowds and their reaction if he were to kill John the Baptist, which was what he wanted to do instead of just putting him in prison. The crowds were a danger to Herod and had to be either pacified or dominated since his power did not come from the people but by others who were also in power without the will of the people. Herodias apparently did not have the same fear and so using her daughter’s charms, she took the opportunity to have John killed by catching Herod in an oath. Feeling it was more important not to break an oath rather than to do what was right… Herod had John beheaded. Matthew’s gospel has John’s head served up on a platter. Maybe there is a statement in here between the “food” at Herod’s gathering and the “food” at Jesus’ gathering. I don’t know. What do you think? That’s one to think on a hot summer afternoon.
So anyway… in contrast to Herod and all of his fear of the people’s reactions to his actions… when it comes to the crowds that have gathered around him, Jesus has compassion. He goes among them and cures their sick. And when the disciples come to him urging him to tell the people to go and buy food for themselves… which in their way is also an act of compassion… Jesus immediately encourages his disciples to act with greater, and a more direct form of compassion. You feed them. You take care of them. I think that’s the second import nuance to the story. Jesus encourages his disciples to do something that they at first believe to be impossible. They look at what they have… at the resources available to them… only five loaves and two fish. With only this at our disposal… there is no way we can do this… we cannot take care of all of these people… we cannot feed this many with only this small amount. Their need is so much more than we can handle. We need more stuff… we need more resources… we simply need more food to feed a crowd this size.
The disciples aren’t being unreasonable. It’s a very practical way of looking at the situation… of approaching the problem before them. I mean, look, I’ve done church work for twenty years now… I have experienced more than my fair share of not having the right amount of resources for doing the ministry task that compassion has put in front of you. I’m sure you all have had that experience too. It’s not that we don’t want to help… but the problem is so big… we don’t know how we can help. We become paralyzed by our limitations. If I can relate to the disciples in this story it is in this… their practicality does not allow for other possibilities. They see only the smallness of what they have. They are locked in the mindset that they have to somehow perform like a Herod and from their hands supply all that these people need… the people being only passive receivers of their compassionate benevolence. The disciples see only what they lack and how many people are gathered around them. I would imagine they are also a bit afraid of failing… of having their good intentions turn against them. Crowds… especially when they begin to get hungry… can turn ugly very quickly… good intentions or not, blame has a way of spreading like a wildfire. It is scary to take a risk… even with the best of intentions… even when you know what you want to do is right. The risk of failure can be overwhelming. What if I can only help a few? What about all the people in this crowd who will not get something to eat through my hand? Is it worth the risk to feed some if it means I have to turn others away?
The third nuance in the story’s telling is the miracle itself. Jesus blesses and the disciples distribute the food. But Matthew doesn’t describe the actual miracle to us. He says nothing about how, but only gives us the results of twelve baskets full of left-overs when they are done. Somewhere in between… all this food appears. Now some like to fill in the blank and imagine the food magically multiplying. As a fish is taken another suddenly appears out of thin air for the next person. I seem to remember one movie I saw depicting this miracle where suddenly making these baskets fill up with fish and bread… gushing up like water from the bottom of the baskets so that the disciples have to hurry in their distribution in order to keep up with the miraculous creation of food for the crowd. It makes for a great image… and it ties in nicely… this way of reading the story… with the miraculous healing Jesus has already performed among this crowd.
But… I have to admit that I personally don’t care for the pure miracle imagining of this story anymore. Maybe I’m just too practical. I can appreciate that such a way of imagining this story has its appeal… that for some it shows God’s providence… that God will provide… that nothing can hinder God’s blessings. And it gives us a picture of the power of Jesus… but how is that power any different from Herod who has the resources to feed the crowds but not the compassion. But I suppose the biggest drawback for me of the miraculous appearing of the fish and the bread is… how are the disciples supposed to feed the next crowd… and the one after that… and the one after that? I look at the story in this way… how does this great miraculous food creation help us disciples today as we face the hungry crowd before us? How does a story about miraculously multiplying fish help us today as we know the demand at food banks are suddenly and quickly increasing as people keep losing work and benefits during this prolonged pandemic? Don’t we disciples still hear Jesus telling us, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Do we disciples not feel like these disciples in the story when we look at our own resources and see only five loaves and two fish? I’m sure those who have volunteered at the food banks and pantries… or if you’ve ever worked a soup kitchen even in the best of times… there is always that experience of doing everything you can with the five loaves and two fish in hand… and what seems like thousands of people before them. It would be great to be able to replicate such an amazing miracle of creating food out of thin air. But we can’t. We can’t.
Actually, this story makes me think about the earlier story in Matthew’s gospel of Jesus being tempted in the desert. The first temptation… after Jesus has fasted forty days and forty nights… the first temptation that comes to him while he is famished is to turn the stones into loaves of bread. And Jesus’ response then is, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Why would that statement be so different now as Jesus challenges his disciples to feed this crowd. Can this story really be about miraculously appearing bread alone?
Matthew doesn’t describe the miracle that happens… just the results. And that has led many people to say that the miracle here is the compassion that comes from the crowd who soon understand the situation before them. The crowd is not so stereotypically mindless and sheep-like… and the food that suddenly appears is the food that was already there with them. The miracle of the story is a compassionate sharing with one another. The miracle is the crowd loving one another… of looking towards the common good of the moment… of taking care of their 4, 999 neighbors including those women and children. And I know that for some there’s not as much flash and excitement at that reading of this story… but for me that reading makes this feeding much more relevant to our being church today and the ministry challenges that come before us. That is a reading that I as a disciple of Christ can find hope in. You know, the cliché is true… we are the miracles that Christ performs.
As we faithfully gather today in Christ’s name, that is the miracle that I find hope in… rather than the magically appearing bread and fish. As our elected Herods and Herodiases forget the common good of the moment in their Washington palaces… as they worry more about their regard for their own political careers… as the only real multiplication we see are those who will be hungry… we are still told by Christ to have compassion. To give them something to eat… something that goes beyond the bread and the fish. Satisfy their hunger… the kind of hunger that will not return again in few hours.
Saints, when our love for money fails us. When our individualistic materialism finally consumes us instead. When our political ideologies blind us and divide us and fail us. The church will perform once again the great miracle of compassion… the same miracle that it has performed time and again for those who find themselves in a deserted place. The crowd that day were more than receivers… they were more than takers… the disciples went out into the crowd with the little they had being blessed and offered freely… and the crowd became participants in their compassion. The crowd became that day a community equalized through the same love that Christ had shown them. As cool of an image to see a basket spew up with bread and fish… that’s the miracle I would really like see happen again and again with my own eyes. Amen.