Sermon for Pentecost 9
Year A (2020)
Today’s Gospel tells us one version of the story known as “the feeding of the multitude.” It’s a story with which many, both inside and outside our tradition, are familiar. It appears in all four of the Gospels once; a second variant of it appears in two of them. We’ve heard it so often, I wonder if we even hear it at all. Or does it go in one ear and out the other, sent swiftly on it’s way by the assumptions we hold about it? Do we absorb only the surface-level lessons presented? Share what you have, God will provide, Jesus as miracle-worker are all perfectly good lessons. But they miss a deeper reflection on the healing power of God’s Kingdom just below the surface…
Because our lectionary clips the first phrase off the first sentence of the passage, we miss an important transition and its context. The crowds follow Jesus after he withdraws. But why does he withdraw? Immediately before this story, Jesus learns of the execution of his cousin John the Baptist. There is always grief in losing a loved one. Many of you know this first-hand. Losing a loved one to this kind of violence is its own, unique kind of grief. Jesus surely wanted to be alone — I know I would have! And yet — the crowds come, again — looking not for strengthened faith but the flashy show of another miracle.
There are a number of ways Jesus could have responded to these clashing circumstances. Anger would have been an easy response. He could have lashed out at the crowds for being so superficial — and so nosy. He could have used his power to lash out against Herod. He was — and is — a third of the Trinity, for heaven’s sake! Instead, he chose neither. That was not a part of His mission. The Kingdom of God he sought — and seeks — is not one of violence, as so many expect it to be. Instead of reacting to Herod, He retreats to a place beyond the king’s reach. And rather than send the crowds away when His disciples give Him an easy excuse, He embraces them.
I wonder how our lives would look different if we reacted the way Jesus did — with nonviolence instead of harsh, quick and angry judgement? Anger is the easy response; love is much harder. What if we chose to stop, take a deep breath, think about the other person’s perspective (even if we disagree) and then — and only then — respond?
Taking such a sacred pause is a challenging thing. Yet, it is Kingdom work.
So, too, it is hard to choose to count our blessings instead of complaining. And it is so much harder when we are in the midst of trying times as we all are now! I still remember an adulthood visit with one of my grandmothers. Virginia was in the twilight of her earthly years, a fact of which she was very aware despite her failing memory. She would complain — and rightly so — about her aches and pains, and the inability to do even simple things she loved, like take a walk or sew. Despite these difficulties, multiple times a day, she would interrupt herself to say, “but I should count my blessings.” And then she would.
While Jesus took the hard route in today’s Gospel, the disciples took the easy one. They did what they thought was the simple and right thing. They suggest Jesus send the people away to fend for themselves. His response is one which echoes across the centuries to our own ears: You feed them. The disciples’ response is natural. But there isn’t enough! So, too, in the Exodus story, at the beginning of the wilderness wanderings, the people of Israel complain. They fear for the future, and they fear hunger. Like the disciples standing before Jesus nearly empty-handed, they forgot to whom they spoke. Before them was the God of life, the God of time, the God of all creation, the God who had the power to heal every wound and fill every need. God sent manna into the wilderness to sustain Israel on her sojourn. And God — as Jesus Christ — blessed the few handfuls of food the disciples presented, making it enough to feed a multitude. Day after day in the barren desert, every family of Israel gathered in manna, some more and some less, yet “those who gathered more had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.” And the crowds on the mountain with Jesus “ate and were filled.” The people asked, in their imperfect way, and the God of Love provided.
Trusting in God’s power and giving thanks for what we have, however small, is a challenging thing. Yet, it, too, is Kingdom work.
So, how will we respond to the call? You feed them. You feed them. You — yes, you! — feed them! We do not have the power to fulfill every need — certainly not individually, and not even as a community. But we do have a God who can, a God who loves us. And God loves our humble offering, even if a handful is all we have. A handful our God will take and transform into a world renewed in ways we can’t even imagine.
That is the hard work of participating in God’s Kingdom. It’s easy to quicken to anger. It’s easy to fall back on complaining. It’s easy to think we have the power to fix everything and force everyone to behave as they ought. It’s hard to let go of the anger, the fear and the uncertainty. It’s hard to make sacred space to empty ourselves of those things. But, with faith, it is possible to play a small part in God’s mighty kingdom. You feed them. You feed them, love them as best you can. Let Me worry about the rest. And together, we’ll bring My Kingdom to earth.