My Sunday sermon can be heard here - or read on!
As the calendar prepares to roll over to August, September is already looming large. Back in May, the Bishop reminded his clergy that the tenth anniversary of September 11th will fall on a Sunday. My preaching resources, twitter feed, and facebook news are already teeming with resources on how to handle that delicate day. Because of the constant reminders, I've relived September 11th dozens of times over the past few months, and will certainly do so again in the coming weeks. Like many in my generation, September 11th is a defining moment and I remember the day vividly. Hearing the first reports of a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers on the radio as I drove to class. Standing in front of the hastily wired TV in the Student Union with others, slack-jawed as the details unfolded. Cassie calling me as the University of Pittsburgh dental school closed after flight 93 crashed less than 90 miles away. Staring at CNN.com in my office at the all but shut down for the day RR Donnelley plant. Finding my parents at St. Thomas Church and giving them huge hugs because, as I said to them, “today is a day that you just want to see your parents.” We all handle bad news differently. Some reach out to others. Some get to work on mindless tasks. Jesus, as we will see, sought out a deserted place.
Chapter 14 of Matthew's Gospel should be subtitled “A tale of two dinners.” The first, which we skip in the RCL, is a dinner of great opulence served in the comfortable setting of Herod Anitpas' palace in honor of his birthday. Out of sight, but not out of mind, sitting in the basement dungeon was John the Baptist who had arrived there for getting in the way of ugly family drama. Herod had taken his brother's wife as his own and John stood up and said, “No! This is unlawful.” Now Herod, at the urging of said wife, Herodias, wanted to put John to death, but he feared what the people might do to him, and so, John sat in prison awaiting his fate while Herod and his friends got plastered upstairs. Herod got so snockered and found his step-daughter's dance routine so pleasing that he offered to grant her whatever she might ask. And so, the young girl, at the prompting of her mother, asked for the head of John on a platter. Which she got.
Which brings us to dinner number two, and our Gospel text for this morning. When Jesus heard the news of John's death, he hopped in a boat and sought out a deserted place. We all handle bad news differently, but no matter our actions, most us, in tough times, try to God. When life doesn't make sense most of us find ourselves most hungry for God. That's what I did as I sought out contact with loved ones on September 11th. In their words and hugs they were God to me. That's what others do when they got lost in the millions of details, they seek God in the mundane – a place where he is easily found. Jesus sought to fulfill his hunger for God by getting out into the wilderness, in the peace and quiet. He needed some time to talk to His Father and sort it all out. He needed to hear, probably for the millionth time, that God's plan is good and perfect even though people are often flawed and terrible. He just needed some space, but the crowd was hungry too. They had a lifetime of bad news to process, and their way of handling it was to seek out Jesus. The crowd needed him, and so as soon as they heard that he had taken off, they began to search for him. Like paparazzi looking for the perfect picture, they sought him out from every surrounding town, until they found him, still in his boat, just offshore.
Jesus returns to shore, after a break that I can only guess wasn't nearly long enough, some how ready, willing, and able to reach out with compassion to the crowd swarming around him. The way Matthew tells the story, the miracles begin almost immediately, “Jesus went ashore, he saw and great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Jesus came back from his brief respite ready to share God's gift of compassion and he did so with vigor, but let's be honest. You didn't come here today to hear about Jesus healing some folks. As you flipped through the bulletin before the service started and you glanced at the Gospel lesson, most of you thought, “Oh good, The Feeding of the 5000, I love that story.” It is The Miracle of Jesus. It even has its own action figure play set.
As the last of the sick came forward to be healed and evening approached, the disciples, weary from a long day, approached Jesus with a problem. “This place, where you tried to escape, is deserted, and the hour is growing late, we should send everybody back to the towns so that they can hit the drive-thru or pick up some take out before everything closes.” Jesus, as usual, has other plans. Here, in the wilderness, in the place where God fed the Israelites manna from heaven, where Elijah was nourished by ravens, where Elisha fed a hundred men with twenty loves of bread, where John the Baptist set up shop, and where Jesus was tempted for by the devil to turn stones into bread, in that very wilderness, Jesus is going to perform one of his most powerful miracles. He's going to feed these five thousand men and every last woman and child there too. Just as he healed the sick, Jesus could have miraculously placed a happy meal, cooked their way, right away, in every persons hand, but this miracle of sharing is one to be shared. He looks at his disciples and says, “There is no need to send them away, you are going to give them something to eat.”
“Us?” They reply, bewildered, “Us? No way. Impossible. We've got nothing but five loaves and two fish.”
“Bring 'em here,” Jesus responds. Then, in language that should be very familiar to Episcopalians he took, blessed, broke, and gave the bread back to his disciples who distributed it to the throng of tired and hungry people. They ate until they were filled, and then the disciples went back around, collecting twelve large baskets full of left-overs.
The Gospel writers rarely give us glimpses into what is going on behind the scenes with Jesus. We hear about his sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion. We hear about his anger in the Temple courts when he turns the tables. We see him weep for his friend Lazarus, but most of the time all we get to know about Jesus is what is on the surface. In its proper context, however, this story of the feeding of the 5000 shows us Jesus in all of his human vulnerability. From the midst of his own mourning, fear and uncertainty – from one of the Son of God's most human experiences – we find Jesus reaching out with supernatural compassion. As the story opens, we find Jesus in the same position as the crowd: lost, sick, and wandering. I imagine him looking out from that boat and feeling the same way the disciples did when they looked in their picnic basket. “There are thousands of people who need me, and I barely have enough energy to keep myself going. From a lifetime of experience, however, Jesus knows, beyond the shadow of a doubt “that wherever there is plenty of God, there will be plenty of everything else.”1 There was plenty of God in that otherwise desolate place and there was plenty of compassion in Jesus. There was plenty of God in the crowd and there was plenty of bread and fish to go around.
Maybe you've come here this morning feeling run down. Maybe you are looking for a place to hide. Maybe you are hungry or thirsty or tired or scared. In a few moments, Keith will step behind this altar and take what little bit we have to off and ask God to bless it, break it, and share it with everyone. There is plenty of God in the bread and wine we share at this table and there is plenty of grace to go around, plenty of healing, plenty of restoration.
We all handle bad news differently, but in his Son, God with us, the Father invites us to share that pain, that sorrow, that fear, that anxiety with him. He invites us to receive his compassion and mercy. He offers us the bread of life that sustains us beyond overflowing. But then, like the dumbfounded disciples, he expects us to pick up a basket and go forth to share the abundance. God's gifts are not ours to keep. They are only given in order to sustain us so that we can continue passing them along. So come, you who are weary and burdened, receive the sustenance of God and go forth renewed for his service. Take your part in God's miracle of abundance. Amen.