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Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, August 3, 2014

One New Year’s Eve, I went out with a friend. We went to a jazz concert at the Kennedy Center; we went to a fancy restaurant for dinner and we danced until midnight. We had a great time. I think that is the most elegant evening out I have ever had. Good wine, good food, good music, good company, great time. Yet I have also experienced food insecurity – not the kind you have when you can’t get enough to eat, but the kind I have when I am not sure my needs will be met. I go out with friends to a new restaurant, only to say, “I can’t eat here” because they do not offer the types of food I need. I go to an event that has advertised one kind of food that works, only to find the menu has changed and I will have to go hungry. At my high school reunion, there was a tense moment when I was supposed to get something special, and the chef had suddenly disappeared. I was scared for a while, but it finally came through and I had all I needed.

We see these two kinds of situations in Matthew right next to each other. The first one is Herod’s birthday party in Jerusalem. There is rich food and wine, more than enough for the important guests who are gathered there. They talk power and politics and get to see some dancing from Herod’s stepdaughter. Unlike my experience of elegance, however, something very cruel happens there. Herod promises his stepdaughter anything she wants, and she wants the head of John the Baptist. Herod does not want to have John killed, but he does not want to lose face with his cronies either, so he reluctantly orders it done. John’s head is brought in on a platter.

The second scene is our lesson for today, ironically brought on by the first. Upon hearing the news of John’s death, Jesus retreats to a deserted place, away from the city, away from Rome’s power. Whether he goes to grieve John or to evade possible capture we don’t know. He wants to be alone, but it is not going to happen. The crowd follows him from the towns. So Jesus does what Jesus always does. He cures their sick. And he feeds them, not with rich food and drink, but with bread and fish. He feeds not the rich, but the poor, who often went hungry. A very different kind of meal for a very different kind of crowd.

The world of Rome characterized by power and politics and money and this time murder and the world of God, which Jesus represents, characterized by love and compassion, are very different. Whenever Jesus does the miraculous, he is always pointing through his actions to God’s character. And God is compassionate. God suffers with us in our needs and wants to meet them – physically, emotionally and spiritually. Today, Jesus meets the crowd’s physical needs. He heals and he feeds. Part of God’s will in the world has always been that all the people will be fed (Warren Carter). God gives Israel manna in the wilderness. Elisha miraculously feeds 100. Isaiah says it is God’s will that people share their bread with the hungry. Matthew’s Jesus continues that theme. He supports almsgiving to redistribute resources to those in need. In his parable of the sheep and the goats, he says that the key to heaven in part is whether or not people have fed the hungry.

We all know the basics of the miracle. The disciples have five loaves and two fish, which they bring to Jesus, who takes, blesses, breaks and gives them to the people. There is enough so that everyone is full and there are twelve baskets of leftovers. The abundance of God promised in the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast has become a reality. Jesus takes a little and turns it into a lot.

Even though it is the crowd who is fed, this event shows very little action between Jesus and the crowd. It is the disciples who are the focus of Jesus’ attention. He wants to teach them a lesson about God’s compassion and their response to that gift of love. It is the disciples who show concern that it is late and people must be hungry – good – but it is also the disciples who tell, not ask, Jesus to send them away to get their own food in the cities – bad. The people were far from the cities, and many could not afford it. Instead of doing the disciples’ bidding, Jesus challenges them to feed the crowd. What an impossible, overwhelming situation they must have found themselves in. They had no way of feeding the crowds, they thought. They did not have the money to pay for the food, nor had they stored food away for what must have been nearly 20,000 people. In fact, they tell Jesus, they have nothing, which is not true. They do have five loaves and two fish, not even enough to feed themselves, much less a crowd. It is then that Jesus steps in, takes the little they have found or brought themselves and demonstrates God’s compassion for the poor and hungry. Jesus has the disciples distribute the food and collect the leftovers. The disciples do all the acting in this story except for the miracle itself.

Jesus wants the disciples to understand that God’s compassion requires their action to complete it. Disciples are not just followers. They are being trained to be leaders, to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. They are being trained to proclaim God’s love, shown forth in the abundance of God’s compassion – even and perhaps especially in situations of great need. That is what we as individual disciples and as a church are also being taught. To make God’s kingdom a reality, we are to take action to bring forth God’s ideals, to help God’s world become the norm on earth.

Maryland governor Martin O’Malley has been trying to recruit foster parents and other help to aid the massive influx of immigrant children into the United States, says an article in The Washington Post. He has been meeting with religious leaders to talk about how to assist the federal government with the crisis. And he has been urging the Obama administration to show compassion and resist sending children back to dangerous situations in their countries. No matter what side of the issue you come down on, sending the children away, like sending the crowds away, is not a compassionate option. It is an option the government has, of course, and many will agree with it. It is not necessarily bad, but it does not seem to be compassionate.

There are some things this story encourages us as disciples to do. We are encouraged to bring our insoluble problems to Jesus, whatever they may be. We are expected to assume God’s compassion for our difficulties, as individuals and churches who may be low on imagination, energy, money, time or other resources. We are encouraged to give what we have and to remember that we all have something to give. The disciples called what they had nothing, and they had five loaves and two fish. That is not nothing and our offering of what we have to God is not nothing either. If we think of what we have to give as nothing, then we are boxed into a negative attitude and likely won’t offer what we have to God. We are expected to give all we have. The disciples did not save 2 loaves and a fish for themselves. They gave everything to Jesus, and we are to do the same with our resources – money, time and talent – and our problems. We are to surrender what we think we have control of to the One who really deserves the control and can do something compassionate with our “haves” and “have nots” if we only ask. Last but not least, we are called to action. As our needs have been met, we are to meet the needs of others – in this particular case to feed the hungry. St. John’s is taking that action with its ministry to AFAC and to the Bailey’s Crossroads shelter. We are providing miracles of abundance for people with nowhere else to go, helping them know that God has not forgotten them.

Giving our five loaves and two fish to God for God’s work is hard. It is frightening to give up control, but it is also freeing. God’s compassion for us and for every human being springs forth in abundance, solutions arrive, and we and others are blessed beyond measure.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
Warren Carter, Commentary on Matthew 14:13-21, Blog Post for “Working Preacher