8 Pentecost—Proper 13-A
August 3, 2014
Psalm 17:1-7, 16
A wild friend of mine who is a recently minted Quaker pastor is getting married in a couple of weeks to a woman from Texas who is an opera singer in The Netherlands. He sent an email out yesterday saying only a few of his invited guests had RSVP’d, so he needed those who are coming to the wedding to do so asap.
He said, “Please let me know if you will be coming, if for no other reason than to insure there is enough wine. Sadly, in seminary, they do not teach us that water into wine trick, even for weddings.”
(Of course at Virginia Seminary we were taught as Episcopalians never to run out of wine in the first place.)
He’s referring to the story in John’s gospel when Jesus has the servants fill 6 stone water jars used for ritual purification and when the wine steward tastes the water it has become good wine.
In today’s story we watch Jesus turn 5 loaves of bread into enough bread to feed well over 5000 people until they are satisfied, with 12 baskets of leftovers.
If you are of a conservative bent you may see this as the gospel writer intends you to see it: as a full blown supernatural act of Jesus, the incarnate Lord. If human beings can grow wheat, harvest it, and make bread in 6 months why is it considered difficult for God to do so in 6 minutes?
Barbara Frey is the wife of The Right Reverend William Frey who was bishop of Guatemala and then for many years Bishop of Colorado and now retired.
I heard her say once that she was helping with an outdoor feeding station in rural Guatemala which had planned that day for about 100 people. But when many more showed up she was sure they would run out of food—yet she said the tortillas kept multiplying until everyone was fed. She was convinced it was a physical miracle.
If you are of a liberal bent you may have been taught that the real miracle in this story is that Jesus’ generosity melts the hearts of the people so that everyone shares the bread they all had with them under their robes. This is a miracle of hard hearts becoming generous, no mean feat to be sure!
If you’ve attended the Connect Course I teach every January, you’ll remember another miracle is that this crowd of strangers, most of who were raised that you never, ever, eat anything that isn’t kosher, becomes a community of friends who are willing to eat bread of unknown origin with strangers who may be ritually unclean or not even Jewish! This is a miracle of lonely, afraid individuals becoming one in Christ.
I see no reason to choose between the three miracles, so I take them as all pointing to the truth about Jesus Christ:
Yes, Jesus prays for the hungry people and the Father provides bread just like when Israel was sustained with manna in the desert following the exodus from Egypt.
And—Yes—the witness of the compassion of Jesus cracks open the hearts of the crowd to share.
And—Yes—Jesus transforms a crowd that follows the purity codes of Israel into a community that is a sign of the Messianic Banquet of the Kingdom of God in which everyone, clean and unclean, is one in Christ.
Yet all three miracles require some things we may be tempted to overlook.
It starts with compassion. He has just learned that John the Baptist has been murdered by King Herod, so Jesus sets out to find solitude: to pray, to plan, and to grieve John’s death. Surely he also sees that the powers that be will soon be coming to silence him.
Jesus goes into the countryside to be alone, but he finds a small city of needy people clamoring for healing and some word of comfort in the face of John’s brutal, cynical murder.
Matthew tells us that Jesus has compassion for them.
And this compassion is not just a warm feeling, but a force that allows him to put his own needs on hold for a time, so he can attend to the people. He ministers healing until sunset.
The disciples want him to send the people into the surrounding villages so they can eat—and Jesus and the disciples can get some rest.
But Jesus says, “They need not go away….”
How easy it is to send people away—just send the illegal children back to Central America, what could be easier?
Did you see what conservative writer George Will said on Fox News last Sunday when asked what we should do about the 60,000 illegal kids being held at the border?
““We ought to say to these children, ‘Welcome to America, you’re going to go to school and get a job and become Americans,’ We have 3,141 counties in this country. That would be 20 [children] per county. The idea that we can’t assimilate these 8-year-old ‘criminals’ with their teddy bears is preposterous.”
How easy it is to send the homeless street people out of the church or better yet, to keep the church doors locked so they won’t show up in the first place. It’s always easier to send them away and let them fend for themselves than it is to act with the compassion of Christ.
Certainly would have been easier to send away Dr. Kent Brantly who is infected with the Ebola virus, instead of flying him yesterday from Liberia to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta—which is only a mile or so from where I was staying this past week with my sister.
Once we obey the first command and welcome them to stay, Jesus says: “give them something to eat.”
In Matthew 25 we are told those who pass the final exam of discipleship are the ones who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, and heal the sick. Those who do these things aren’t loved more by God, but rather they have taken the love of God they have received and passed it on to others, thus becoming partners with God.
But what are 5 loaves and 2 fish among so many?
Just enough to prime the pump.
Here’s the thing: Jesus partners with the servants who fill the stone jars with water. He partners with the disciples who offer the bread and fish.
And today he wants to partner with us in the work of the Kingdom.
Author and theologian Gil Baillie says his 5 year old son asked him to build a tree house. Baillie agreed under one condition. He would work on the tree house only when his son was willing to work on it with him.
Some days his son had no interest in helping so nothing got done. Other days he did help but it was slow going as Baillie waited for his son to bring him a nail or a hammer.
This father-child partnership took quite a while to build that tree house.
od is in charge, God is the compassion, God is the power and all we have to offer is our obedience as very junior partners of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said:
“The people need not go away; you give them something to eat.”