Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 13A/Lectionary 18] - August 6, 2017 (Matthew 14:13-21)

I have never been able to make the right amount of rice for my family. It’s become almost a joke. No matter how low I try to go on the recipe chart on the back of the container, no matter how carefully I try to eyeball it and guess how much will really feed a family of five, I always end up with loads of extra rice at the end of the meal. I’ve even written down in a book how much is too much, but when I go a little lower the next time…bam! Too much rice. So we try to conserve what we haven’t eaten by putting the leftovers in a Tupperware container. By the end of the week we have at least two or three containers of different kinds of rice that each amount to about 1½ servings. Sometimes I cobble a couple of them together for a lunch at work the next day, but, sadly, many times we end up tossing them out. And then I look at the floor after supper is over. There’s another half serving down there! Don’t even get me started on cooking couscous. I am certain that stuff multiplies like bacteria colonies once it hits water and then air, no matter what you try to do. And it explodes and scatters throughout the kitchen.

I think of rice and couscous just about every time I hear the story about Jesus and the loaves because it starts out as such a little bit and then explodes and scatters throughout the wilderness. No one seems to have a handle on what is actually needed. They start off with such a ridiculously small amount and by the end they’re on the ground, underneath the table scraping leftovers together and hunting Tupperware containers for the refrigerator. Somebody’s going to have to take this stuff to work the next day for lunch.

I get that the disciples misjudge how much they need to feed this great big amount of people, but Jesus? Does he misjudge what is needed, too? Does he misread the recipe? Are we sure they’re not working with couscous here?

Other than the last week of Jesus’ life when he goes to Jerusalem and clashes with the temple authorities and dies on the cross, there are only a handful stories about Jesus that all four gospel writers tell us about. The miracle about misjudging the loaves and fishes is one of them. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the communities that they worked with and borrowed from all must have heard about this event along the sea when Jesus, seeking solitude and rest, trying to get away from a stressful situation, feeds thousands of people with just five loaves and two fish.

It makes a lot of sense, if you think about it, that all four would know about this story and seek to tell it. Most of Jesus’ other miracles and ministry moments occur before very small audiences, so word of mouth about those events would have spread slower. This was a miracle that was witnessed and felt by thousands of people, whether you count the people on the margins or not. And even though it was clearly a spontaneous occurrence, there is remarkable agreement between all four gospel writers about what actually happened. Their versions line up with each other really well.

(Giovanni Lanfranco, 1582-1647)
All that is to say is that very early on this event becomes a clue to understanding who this Jesus is. To hear and know about this man and his ministry is going to mean dealing with this story about the feeding of the 5000. Who is this Jesus that everyone keeps talking about? Oh, he’s that guy who somehow fed all of those people that day out in the wilderness.

Interestingly enough, as Matthew understands it, Jesus performs this miracle at exactly the halfway point in his ministry. Right after his cousin John the Baptist is beheaded for speaking out against Herod, Jesus multiplies the bread and fish in order to say something important about who he is and the direction he is taking.

And that key to who Jesus is and the direction he is taking is compassion. At this turning point, at this critical time in his ministry, Jesus is going to be defined by his concern and care for the world’s needs more than his own. He is going to be defined by his ability to be moved by suffering and struggle.

The question for those who eat the bread and the fish that day, the question for those who hear about this story and struggle to believe it, the question for those who have some experience with Jesus is not so much how are we going to respond to person who can do miracles with multiplication but how aware are we of the power of God’s compassion for the world? Do we believe compassion has sufficient influence? Do we think that Jesus can be enough?

You see, the conventional way we hear this story puts us in the role of the disciples, the bumbling, clueless sidekicks to Jesus who don’t believe there’s enough food available, who consistently, like many of us, misjudge and underestimate the amount on the back of the container, afraid of running out. And there’s certainly meaning it hearing and experiencing this event in that way. God does continue to perform miracles in our ministry once we hand it over to him and have faith that five loaves and two fish are enough, whatever those fives loaves and two fish happen to be…the household supplies we’ve gathered for ACTS house, the items for the food pantry, the church budget. God does bless the world with an abundance of what it needs, and our trust in that is a key to sharing it with everyone.

But there is something else, something even more profound Jesus is saying with this miracle. As his followers told and retold this story to anyone who would listen they begin to hear it in such a way that they realize they are actually the fish and the leaves. They are the ones who don’t feel like enough. They themselves—the people following Jesus, swimming upstream against currents of greed and vanity and selfishness—they themselves are the handful that pales in comparison to the world’s needs. Jesus isn’t merely giving them a lesson about how God provides enough worldly resources for all. Jesus is showing them that he is enough. His body and his blood will be enough to make the world whole again. His way of offering himself for us, even just his own body on the cross, in a death reserved for the lowliest of people, will be more than sufficient to heal and restore humanity to God’s vision for life.

And because he takes the loaves that day, blesses them, and breaks them, and gives them to the disciples who give them to the crowds, we understand that we are Christ’s body. We are a part of this act of compassion. From those loaves then, to these loaves here. From the cross of Jesus, to the crosses Jesus invites us to take up in the world. From the suffering he undertakes in his death for you and me to the suffering we listen to and empathy we have for the lives of those around us. It is all an extension of this miracle of compassion. It’s still ongoing. As church father St. Augustine said,“You are the Body of Christ. In you and through you the work of the incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken. You are to be blessed, broken and distributed, that you may be the means of grace and vehicles of eternal love.'

Brothers and sisters, in these days of declining church worship attendance and the closing of congregations, in the coming drastic shortage of pastors and other church leaders, in the rising tide of other religious groups, including those who claim to have no religious affiliation, this is a wonderful miracle to remember and re-tell. There is a hunger in the world, and it may seem like the presence of Christ is dwindling, tired and in need of rest; there is a restlessness in the world, and it may feel like we don’t have the energy or calm to speak to it, but Jesus’ compassion is still here, deep in the gut. It’s not going anywhere. It’s going to plop itself down in the middle of it all and be more than enough.

And by the grace of our baptism and the meal on this table, that compassion is rooted and refreshed in us again every week. When Jesus lifts those loaves in the wilderness, he is lifting his body, you and me, in service to the world. And that can feed thousands.

At the Virginia Synod Assembly back in June we heard about our denomination’s work in Juba, South Sudan. South Sudan is the world’s newest country, about six or seven years old. It is also one of the poorest and most violent. It has been embroiled in a terrible civil war almost as long as it has been independent. Right now the ELCA is the only mission organization with any ongoing work in the country. Two years ago we broke ground on a community center right in the middle of the capital. It contains, among other things, a worship space, a health clinic, and a center to address the needs of women and girls. The rest of the city is falling apart, but the church is building a new structure for compassion right in the heart of it. At Synod Assembly our presenter, the head of ELCA’s Global Mission, the Reverend Raphael Malpica-Padilla, told the story about how a few months ago, as the building was nearing its completion, the country’s Minister of Finance walked by and stopped to look at it. Shocked that anyone would be building in a time like this, he called for the construction foreman. The Minister asked, (and this is supposedly a direct quote) “Who are the crazy people building a community center in this place at this time?” The foreman, who was from the area, just told him, “The ELCA.” The Minister of Finance asked who that was and how he could reach them. It’s not often that a high-ranking officer of a foreign country actually contacts ELCA headquarters, but a community center made it happen.

The new community center in Juba, South Sudan, built by the ELCA
I don’t know how you feel about it, but I’m pretty excited and humbled to be connected, in some way, with the crazy group of people with that kind of compassion. And to tell you the truth, I should really stand back every week and be excited and humbled at the way you let yourselves be multiplied and shared all over the place. I see you come to the rail and receive this bread and then turn around to share that compassion not just in our own church ministries, but in far-flung places like South Africa and Philadelphia. And then…let’s think about it. The reach is even farther: at Hamilton Beach, and Crestview Elementary School. Cedarfield Retirement community and Atlee High School. At St. Mary’s Hospital, and Capital One and Allianz. At McKesson and Altria and Genworth and then around all the tables filled with bread and surrounded by hungry hearts and bellies in your own homes.

You people are all over the place! You people are rice! Or couscous! Misjudged and underestimated, crazy people, exploding with Christ’s compassion. Taken by Jesus, then blessed, broken, and given out, you are going to leave a trail…a trail of goodness and compassion! And people should just see what’s leftover. We could eat on this all week.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.