Carla J. Bailey August 13, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 14:1–21
A couple of weeks ago, the sermon title “Count to Ten” made more sense than it does today. That often happens when a sermon title is due well before the sermon is delivered. I had been thinking of all the times we number life lessons. The Four Things That Matter Most (Ira Byock), for example, or the ten commandments from the Hebrew Scriptures or the two great commandments from the Gospels. I had just read a wonderful blog post written back in February by John Pavlovitz, “50 Reasons to Keep Going, Fighting, Loving, Resisting.” Here are just a few of them:
- Because of the Transgender teen who shouldn’t have to wait all day to use the restroom in peace.
- Because public schools are our bedrock and public school teachers are superheroes.
- Because the right thing is still the right thing, even if it is the more difficult thing.
- Because right now, refugees are treated as urgent safety threats, but guns are not.
- Because people are making money from incarcerating other people.
- Because women’s bodies should be their jurisdiction.
- Because the separation between Church and State is critical—and eroding.
- Because Native American burial lands and Jewish cemeteries and Islamic Mosques are as sacred as Baptist churches.
- Because we are a nation created as haven from tyranny, not a sanctuary for it.
- Because religious freedom should not be solely for Christians.
- Because the world is in trouble.
- Because you are the kind of person a troubled world needs.
- Because love always has the last word—and you will help speak it.
Aren’t those great? I admire the clarity of thinking that can put thoughts together in ordered, numbered ways. I’m a little more circular, I’m afraid.
Anyway, that was a couple weeks ago. Now, today, I have something else on my mind.
I imagine you have all heard the story about the feeding of the five thousand with two loaves and five fish—or is it five loaves and two fish? I never can remember and since it doesn’t matter to the point of the story, I’ve long since given up trying. When I was a child, I was taught this story, as were you, I imagine, as a lesson about sharing—that when we share all we have, there is always enough. As a child, I could picture all the baskets of leftover crumbs, I could see the crowds sitting on a hillside and Jesus’ incredulous disciples. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the Sunday School drawings of the bread and fish and I can vaguely remember the efforts of some Sunday School teacher explaining to already suspicious children how such a miracle could happen.
But it wasn’t until I became an adult, and accumulated some of the more difficult experiences life tends to throw at us, that I began to see this story’s harsher truth.
Some years ago I got it in my head that if I expected my parishioners to become more biblically literate, I needed to take a different approach to my own personal study of Scripture. Parishioners usually hear just a story here and a story there on Sunday mornings—usually read just before the sermon, and that was how I was studying Scripture—one story at a time. So I began by reading the gospel of Matthew straight through in one sitting—not in a worship service, but alone, sitting in my office, and it just jumped out at me that this story of the feeding of the five thousand immediately follows the news that John the Baptist had been murdered. “Now when Jesus heard this [that John had been murdered by Herod], he withdrew to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard the news, they followed Jesus from the towns. When Jesus returned to shore, he saw the great crowd and he had compassion for them.”
You know, of course, that there was competition for loyalty between the followers of John and the followers of Jesus. By the time Matthew wrote his version of the Jesus story, life for the followers of the Way was extremely dangerous. Herod was a totally corrupt leader of the Jews, as was his administration and his family. Does that feel familiar? The storytellers needed to do everything they could to reassure their listeners that discipleship to Jesus was worth the risk, in spite of the danger, so they made sure to include in the story that John knew he was not the Messiah—that he yielded to Jesus’ authority, and that he and Jesus respected one another. John prepared the way for Jesus. John baptized Jesus, and Jesus loved John. So when, as the story tells us, John fell victim to the vicious, hate-filled violence of betrayal, of course Jesus’ heart was broken! Of course he went away for a time alone to a deserted place. And when the crowds heard of it—the followers of Jesus and John, they wanted to find him! They wanted to understand! They needed their rabbi’s assurance that violence would not finally win, that John, innocent of everything but telling truth to power, would be vindicated, that the risks they were taking, the risks to their lives, to their children’s lives, to their faith in God were not in vain!
Now, let’s think about the feeding of the five thousand, gathered on the hillside because they had just heard the terrible news of John’s murder, waiting for Jesus to come and comfort them, to reassure them. Doesn’t that tell us more about the miracle of bread and fish—sharing food with one another, giving into one another’s grieving spirits the nourishment of love?
Of course, it’s easier to teach this story to children when you don’t complicate it with grief, when you don’t mention the senseless, vicious violence that caused all those people to come together, when it’s just a miracle story about how, if you believe in him, Jesus will make sure you have enough to eat.
International, national, and local news sources have brought us sad and terrifying stories recently—the growing specter of nuclear war with North Korea, the violence of racism in Charlottesville, the bombing of a Mosque in Bloomington. I too want my rabbi to come and reassure me. I want to hear that it’s going to be okay, that my job is to feed my people with love.
When it gets hard, when the news, remote or personal, engulfs us in sorrow and despair, what do we do? Where do we go to be fed? How do we find the comfort and strength to go on? There is of course the thing we are actually doing today, right here, together in church. We can gather to worship, to pray with one another, to give and receive the nourishment of love.
But we sometimes take our lessons in Scripture from the wrong people—we emulate the wrong characters. In our identification with the angst of the disciples, we worry over whether there will be enough to feed so many who are starved for faith. We want to send a few away so the crowds are more manageable, or we pretend that, at that moment of their great emotional need, perhaps they should go take care of themselves, go buy their own food, so to speak. Or in our need to be comforted and reassured like the crowds, we seek Jesus for healing and food, imagining that he is an endless fount of reassurance and nourishment. But if our relationship to faith remains at this level of individual refreshment and encouragement, even though we go away satisfied, our thirst slaked, our hearts comforted, we are no more than very young and very selfish children who seek only personal satisfaction and then call it a religious experience.
Shall we not be like Jesus Christ? Is it not the goal of our Christian discipleship to live the life of courage, strength, faithfulness and selfless giving? Should we not, then, even in the time of our own sorrow and despair, relying on God, work at bringing comfort to others, healing to the sick, food to the hungry?
The Christian life is, at every turn and in every way I can think of, a life of contrast to the prevailing winds of our culture, including the seductive and over-used adage that one must take care of one’s self. Well, of course. Jesus withdrew to a deserted place to pray. But when he returned from taking care of himself, he cared for others. And in the context of that complex relationship between grief and generosity, a miracle occurred.
When it gets hard, when sorrow surrounds you and grief overwhelms, when the injustices seem insurmountable and hate appears to be overpowering love, when the powers and principalities successfully behead the prophets, at that exact moment, be generous. Miracles will happen. Amen.