The following sermon was preached on August 2, 2020 at Glory of God Lutheran Church in Wheat Ridge, CO. The gospel text for this sixth Sunday after Pentecost is Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. Season And Story subscribers may also download this sermon manuscript as a PDF.
Matt. 14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Jesus make us hungry for the bread of your presence and open our ears to your call in the wilderness. Amen.
As you may be getting used to hearing from me, I think knowing the context of our scriptures is both helpful and important to our understanding. I also read the scriptures as Spirit breathed, not as some formful fact sheet or purity pamphlet, but still imbued with truths that transcend time and culture and everything which divides us from one another and from Christ. And I will say that if you and I differ on these points of how we view the scriptures, that I’m OK with that.
Having said that, I’ll also say that I find the scriptures to be deeply political. I know that in our American context we have a tradition of separating Church and state and that this separation can be healthy. Less healthy, in my opinion is the sequester of politics from the pulpit. Am I making you nervous? Good, because Jesus implements some truly radical and subversive politics in our reading today.In a podcast I listened to this week Rev. Dr. Joy Moore described the context for this reading as a movement and not a moment. We are seeing here the beginning of the Jesus movement and an inciting incident for this movement is the death of one man. Our opening verse today states that Jesus hears something that makes him withdraw to a deserted place by himself. What Jesus hears is that his cousin and predecessor John has been beheaded by Herod. Why was John killed? Politics.
John came from what most everyone at the time would have known as one of the lowest classes: rural, rough speaking, poor, homeless, and conquered. And though race doesn’t seem to have played the exact role then as it does today, no one would have mistaken John for a Roman. In the end John was imprisoned because he spoke against the political rulers of his day and was ultimately executed because his death was deemed as a political advantage over the alternative of Herod losing political capital with his peers.
Jesus hears of Johns politically motivated execution and retreats to a place both he and John knew well, the wilderness. Maybe he’s going to grieve; maybe he’s fearful that he might be next when there’s still so much to say and do. Maybe it’s just too much to bear and Jesus knows that being on the water will bring some calm to his divinely human Spirit which is crying out in anguish at the death of John. We don’t exactly know the reason Jesus gets into a boat and leaves, but we know that Jesus is already so popular that a crowd has formed. Add to this crowd John’s disciples who bring news of his state sponsored execution and that John’s body was disgraced, his head served on a platter as food to the insatiable evils of dominance, power and privilege.
Do you sense as I do that this may have been a political gas can just waiting for a match? Remember Jesus in many of his parables, the stories we’ve been hearing throughout this summer’s readings, talks about the kingdom of heaven. This crowd is ready to act, to see this kingdom come. They are so ready to act that when Jesus gets on the boat they don’t disperse. It’s as if they cannot see this kingdom without Jesus as their guide so they follow, taking the long way round and picking up more people along the way. By the time they get to the other side of the lake their numbers are now well over 5,000. Men, women, and children on a hunt for the kingdom of heaven.
OK, let me make one more contextual footnote before we move into the miracle that is the feeding of the many. Between last weeks reading from Matthew and this weeks reading there are two stories that get skipped. I’ve already mentioned the first which is the murder of John.
The other story is that Jesus goes into his hometown and the elders of his church show him the door. They effectively say to Jesus, yeah we know you’re one of us, but you’re not really one of us. And Jesus response is to walk away from his hometown and synagogue. Rev. Dr. Moore’s words are ringing more true. This is a movement, not a moment, and it’s important to note that while Jesus seeks the momentary approval of his elders he does not let their disapproval hinder his movement.With this in mind let’s return to the scene on the far side of the lake. Jesus words and deeds of power have been invalidated by his hometown elders, then he hears that Johns very life has been invalidated by Herod and now there are thousands waiting on the lakeshore who have been made invalid by the structures of their society. They do not have access to the political structures of Roman citizenship, nor the economic structures of the Sadducees, nor the educational structures of the Pharisees. These people have been made invalid. Jesus sees them, sees himself in them, and his heart goes out to them. Jesus has compassion on them. The scriptures tell us that Jesus cures their sicknesses. Yes, I certainly believe that the scriptures are speaking of something miraculous here, but I don’t think we need to limit this healing to the individual, momentary and supernatural. The word here that we translate as “sick” could also be translated as invalid, or just maybe in the communal context of both that moment and this moment we can come to see that the compassion of Christ is making valid those who have been invalidated by the political structures of this world.
There’s more here to this story than first meets the readers eye. Again, I see nothing in the scripture that suggests we are required to see this miracle of feeding thousands with a few fishes and loaves as anything less than miraculous. It’s up to us to decide whether the power of Jesus’ compassion is forming food out of thin air or if there is a more mundane explanation. Some scholars have suggested that the power of Jesus compassion was in his act of giving all he had (5 loaves and 2 fish) and that this servant leadership encouraged others to lay out the food they’d brought with them from their hiding places in the folds of their cloaks. Ultimately the scriptures are uninterested in spelling out the details of how the miracle occurred (and this should be a clue to us as to what’s really important in this story), but this doesn’t mean the scriptures are not interested in some details. Why do we get the detail of 5 loaves and not the detail of exactly how these loaves multiplied?
One possibility may be that Jesus is contrasting his movement from another leader who started a journey with a request for 5 loaves. In 1 Samuel, chapter 21 David is running for his life from the wrath of King Saul. At David’s first stop he requests 5 loaves of bread from his host to feed himself and his outlaw companions. His host, a priest, only has the holy bread made for God’s table on hand and asks a question of David: are you and your men pure? Have you not defiled yourselves? David answers that they are all pure and undefiled and received then the bread of the Presence which had been offered to God in the Temple.
Similarly Jesus asks of his disciples what they have to share. They bring forward five loaves, and this is where the Jesus movement heads down a new path. Jesus does not ask whether those who hunger are also pure. He has spent the day with them. He knows that their deep need is all the purity God requires. And to ask for some other proof would be to invalidate both their need and their beauty and worth to God. Now please hear this: this is a movement and not simply a moment. The Jesus movement is speaking to us and about us today. If it is not, then it is just a moment that we can dismiss. Jesus sees your need. Jesus knows the purity of your need in the face of a world which has defiled you and made your deep need into a source for your invalidation. Jesus will not withhold the bread of God’s Presence from you in the moment of your deepest need because Jesus’ Presence is not a moment; it is a movement. And there is nothing that can separate you from the of living, breathing, moving love of God in Christ.
Do you believe it? I sincerely hope so! But let’s also be clear that your belief in Jesus is far less important than the fact that Jesus sees you and in his compassion hands you the bread of his presence. Now, with this bread in hand, with the crumbs falling from your hungry lips, for a moment let’s look up from the scripture story that is our life and hear this: this is a movement and not a moment. The bread that Jesus gave to those thousands on that lakeshore is still being handed out. The miracle never stopped! Jesus is handing out the bread of his presence to all… and especially in this time in the movement of Black Lives Matter.
The branch of the Jesus movement known as Black Lives Matter has been started and restarted in every moment in which a person of color has been wrongly accused or murdered in America as John was murdered in our scriptures. The systemic violence present in John’s beheading is also present in the knee on George Floyds neck, the no-knock warrant issued for Breonna Taylor’s home, the choke hold which ultimately ended Elijah McClain’s life and in every instance of state sanctioned violence.
When we distance ourselves from the lives of our neighbors, especially our Black and brown neighbors, our poor neighbors, our neighbors who have been made invalid because they cannot access the political structures of American society we then separate ourselves from the movement of Christ’s presence in this world here and now. And in separating ourselves from the movement of Jesus in this world we become hungry and willing to stuff ourselves with just about any little white lie.
The word I am hearing for us today in the miraculous feeding of the multitudes is not the fact that Jesus fed so many with so little, nor that there were leftovers for all, but that Jesus is instituting some truly radical and subversive politics into our religious culture which has lost its way both then and now and requires an illegitimate purity prior to receiving the bread of Gods Presence. It’s as if the movement of Jesus today is a voice crying in the wilderness of our streets saying all lives cannot matter in the kindom that is to come until Black Lives Matter in this one. Amen.