Originally preached at Bloomington Inclusive Mass on August 3, 2014.
"When Jesus got the news, he slipped away by boat to an out-of- the-way place by himself. But unsuccessfully—someone saw him and the word got around. Soon a lot of people from the nearby villages walked around the lake to where he was. When he saw them coming, he was overcome with compassion and healed their sick. Toward evening the disciples approached him. “We’re out in the country and it’s getting late. Dismiss the people so they can go to the villages and get some supper.” But Jesus said, “There is no need to dismiss them. You give them supper.” “All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish,” they said. Jesus said, “Bring them here.” Then he had the people sit on the grass. He took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples. The disciples then gave the food to the congregation. They all ate their fill. They gathered twelve baskets of leftovers. About five thousand were fed." (The Message)
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, who weeps over tragedy and knows pain and yet never forsakes us. Amen.
Today, I want to encourage you to leave behind what we often consider to be the miracle in our Gospel reading. Yes, we just heard a spectacular story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people and purportedly doing so with just a little bit of fish and bread. How amazing it all seems! We remember fondly our Sunday school teachers explaining to us how this proves Jesus to be God’s only son. We remember the astonishment we felt at the idea that God could perform such an act! However, most of us here are no longer Sunday school students. Many of us have left behind what many would deem to be fairy tales. We have each stared real life in the face. We have often witnessed a cruel world where miracles like that of the loaves and fishes seem nowhere to be found. We watch the news and we see the starvation that affects not only so-called third-world countries but also our very own neighborhood children. Some of us still whole-heartedly believe that these Gospel narratives are historical facts and others of us believe they are storied symbols conveying spiritual truths. Regardless of where you fall on the belief spectrum and your understanding of the Christ, I encourage you to leave behind, for a few minutes, the multiplicity angle of the miracle. If you are willing to do so, I believe, we can search deeper for much more profound marvels in the story. Marvels, or miracles, that are beautifully divine and human, while offering themselves for imitation in our daily lives and relationships.
Our Gospel began with the words, “Jesus got the news.” Without a back-story we can easily miss the Jesus we are coming face to face with in this passage. Jesus has just been told that the local ruler, Herod, has beheaded his cousin and one of his greatest friends, John the Baptist, during a lavish dinner. We meet a Jesus here who is grief stricken, likely anxious and heartbroken, with clenched hands and swollen red eyes from tears seeking to make an appearance. One of the greatest tragedies of Christianity, as it became the imperial religion and law of the land, was the separation of Jesus from the people. As the creeds became increasingly solidified and rulers wished to align with Jesus the Christ, the God-man and the invincible ruler, they lost sight of the human Jesus that walked and talked and lived very much like everybody else. Jesus was suddenly viewed and understood to always be in charge and never batting an eye, no matter the situations set before him. Christianity, in many ways, caused the character of Jesus to cease being one of us and rather become a God above and apart from us. We picture Jesus as always calm, always collected and never frazzled by any situation. But today the Gospel of Matthew shows us a Jesus who is so heavily burdened, even traumatized, with painful news that he must get away from the crowds by slipping onto a boat.
Jesus’ escape isn’t very successful. We are told someone caught a glimpse of his movements and spread the word. Soon a large crowd walks all the way around the lake to find him. A question we might ask ourselves is why do the people walk all the way around? Why don’t they simply hop on some boats and cut across the water? The answer is very simple; these are poor people, people who barely have anything to show for their existence besides themselves and their loved ones. These are the forgotten people in the land of Judea: the starving, the homeless and the sick. And so they walk in the heat of the day to simply be close to the one whom they believe is a messenger and deliverer of God’s love. Jesus, through his tear filled eyes, sees the people coming. And now we catch a glimpse of what a true miracle looks like…
Jesus has all rights to jump back on the boat with the arrival of the crowd. Actually, many of us might reasonably recommend he do just that. Jesus’ own family has just been murdered in cold blood at the hands of a ruthless man. He needs time to process and heal. However, the Gospel writer tells us Jesus is moved with compassion and heals the sick. The original texts use much more colorful language telling us that “in his very bowels Jesus was moved” and could not help himself but to help those who came near. And this is truly the first miracle in this passage - A devastated man has so much love within himself that he somehow finds the ability to work within his own state of brokenness and sadness to help heal others.
This is the Jesus I call on as my way-shower and Lord in this life. A Jesus who is not above heartbreak but rather a heartbroken Jesus who continues to love those in need. I believe if we wish to call ourselves Christians or people of faith or spiritual followers of Jesus we must be willing to at least consider mimicking such behavior in our own lives and relationships. It isn’t awlays simple. And at times it might honestly be too much to ask for but there are times when we can allow ourselves to be stretched and love in such unimaginable ways. Jesus was willing to share his presence with people who sought it even when he wasn’t feeling up to it. Even when he had every excuse in the book to be alone, to curl up into a ball and to ignore the cries of the world, he still reached out with compassion. Our Epistle reading today from Paul explained God’s love as so incredibly powerful that literally nothing can separate us from it. Not a single life situation, no amount of mistakes, no powers above or below, can keep us from God’s love. Jesus walked in this same spirit of love and therefore when the crowd came, no matter his personal state, he continued to love.
Are we willing to do the same in our lives? Are we at least willing to consider the possibility of loving in such a way? We tend to allow life situations and heartaches and pains to quickly throw up walls between others and us. We often draw back with good reasons and cut ourselves off from the “crowds.” And when we see the crowds coming: when see the poor people asking for money, when we see the homeless needing a meal, when we see the hurting asking for understanding or when we see the sick asking for a healing touch – we say, “No!” Jesus however, says, “Yes!” And that is a marvel, a miracle of epic divine proportions but manifested to us in the very human Jesus we find in this Gospel reading. Jesus is calling us to do the same as he demonstrates to us. It isn’t easy but if we try it, we have the possibility of bringing a miracle into this cruel world, one loving action at a time. Jesus found a way to minister from his own brokenness and in this we also find hope that we need not become perfect in order to love as God loves, we only need to be willing to try.
The Gospel reading continues on to tell us evening was drawing near and the disciples came to Jesus with what is a pretty solid and understandable suggestion. They ask Jesus to send the people away to the village so they can acquire their dinner. Reasonable enough, right? Not to Jesus. You see Jesus remembers these are the same people who had to walk around the lake because they could not afford to take boats. Jesus remembers the look of starvation in their faces. Jesus remembers these are the forgotten people. Jesus remembers the lavish meal where his friend was just killed and now he sees people seeking love going hungry. So he tells the disciples, “You feed them!” Jesus has decided that he will not allow the disciples to easily turn away those in need with clever, even logical thought processes. Jesus demands they find a means to feed the people. He makes the feeding of the crowd the problem of the disciples.
Imagine if the entirety of the Church functioned under this thought process rather than one of logic. Imagine if we truly believed the feeding of the starving was our problem and not the problem of those starving. Jesus doesn’t back down from the demand he places on the disciples, and I don’t think he backs down with the Church either, if we have ears to hear. And so the disciples find a little bit of fish and a little bit of bread. Jesus takes the food and blesses it and breaks it and then gives it to the disciples and says, “Feed them.” Notice Jesus doesn’t give the fish and loaves out to the needy himself, he requires his followers to do the work. Jesus is basically telling his followers to demonstrate this divine love they claim to follow in him by loving the “least of these,” not with words alone but with actions.
Indeed, it is a cruel world. We are surrounded by sorrow, death, war, grief, anger and downright starvation. We know it is rare, if ever, that God somehow rips the skies back and pours down bread for the starving. But then did God really do that in our Gospel reading? We don’t know where all the bread and fish came from that fed the people to a point of abundance but we do know whose hands it came from. It came from the hands of the disciples, the hands of those who claimed to be followers of God. Yes, this Gospel passage is truly a miraculous one full of marvel. It is marvelous that a person who many deem to be Incarnate God experiences heartache and sadness and in the midst of it still finds strength to love and heal the forgotten ones. In this we realize that the same God who was inside of Jesus is inside of each of us asking us to allow nothing to separate us from doing what is right and good. It is equally marvelous that God calls you and I to be the deliverers of miracles in this cruel world. In this we realize that if we rarely see miracles, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Jesus is telling you and I today to, “Feed the people.” Will we feed the people or will we send them away telling them to take care of their own problems? The truest miracle of this Gospel passage is the manifested unending love of a God that cares most deeply for the vulnerable, the forgotten and the broken no matter how bleak or hopeless a situation feels. We must learn to do the same. We do not always know what the out come will be or how the miracle will occur but with faith we reach out in love, believing somehow the impossible will become the possible.
Our faith community here seeks to feed all people the gift of God’s love around this holy table each week as we celebrate the Holy Mass. We then seek to encourage one another to realize that we are called to be the deliverers of God’s miraculous love not only in words but also in concrete actions. As our liturgy concludes, each week we hear the words, “The Mass has ended; the call to love has only begun!” Is God, the Divine One, the Source of All Life, calling on you to minister to the crowds that surround you even in the midst of your own life’s turmoil and sadness? Is God asking you to feed all God’s people no matter how impossible it seems? What are your hands busy doing? Shooing people away to fix their own issues, rubbing your own eyes incessantly, being blinded to the blight of those around you, or are your hands distributing the gifts of heaven, the promise of hope, the gift of life?
In case you fear you can’t feed the whole world. In case this calling seems absolutely overwhelming. Let me encourage you to begin loving in some of the simplest, yet most profound, ways. Here is a poem by an unknown author that could literally change the world if we all enacted its simple truths in our lives:
What is love?
It is silence--when your words would hurt.
It is patience--when your neighbor's are rude.
It is deafness--when a scandal flows.
It is thoughtfulness--for other's woes.
It is promptness--when stern duty calls.
It is courage--when misfortune falls.