Sermon for Aug. 2, 2020, Pentecost 9A
Video can be found here.
When Jesus received the news of John the Baptist’s death, 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. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 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.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 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. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children
Since the nineteenth century, the British colonialists in India had made local salt production illegal, to force people to buy expensive British salt. Salt is necessary for the diet of people who live in extremely warm climates, like India, so this basic human need was instrumentalized into a basis for oppression.
So, when Gandhi led a crowd down to the sea to take salt from it, he was conducting an act of resistance.
When the late John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette, took their seats at the front of a Greyhound bus in 1960, they were conducting a risky act of resistance to racism.
Seemingly insignificant acts, like harvesting salt from the beach, or taking a seat on a bus, are bold acts of resistance when they represent a “no” to the oppressive status quo.
Serving bread and fish to a group of Galilean peasants was also an act of resistance. When most people are sharecroppers or day-laborers, working for the landed aristocracy, indebted to them and dependent on them, providing bread self-sufficiently was as an act of resistance.
When fish production was taxed, which it recently had been after Tiberius had commercialized the lake, then providing tax-free fish would be seen as an act of resistance. Jesus was getting political.
Are we right to read this story politically? Matthew requires it. The way he tells the story, the setting is a political assassination. Jesus had just learned that his cousin, his mentor, the one who had baptized him and whose group he had been a part of, was rounded up, and killed. John had been publicly critical of the government.
Matthew tells us that Herod was superstitious enough to wonder if Jesus himself might be John, come back from the dead. So, Jesus was in clear and present danger of ending up like John.
So, Matthew tells us,
“When Jesus received the news of John the Baptist’s death, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
Deserted places are at the margins. They are not worth anything to the elite, but they provide refuge for people who are living at the margins.
It reminds us of the place the recently freed slaves of the Egyptian empire went that Passover night, long ago.
I want to be clear that I do not believe Matthew is telling a literal story, but a parable. Timing, setting, words, and actions are all given to convey Matthew’s themes as he re-tells the Jesus-story.
It is important to remember that Matthew (so traditionally named) was living in the Roman empire, not too long after the failed Jewish revolt which ended in the year 70.
The rebellious Jewish state was crushed by the Romans. So, telling a story with a Jewish hero, especially one with a large following who was talking about a kingdom that was not named Rome, was dangerous. So, Matthew has to be subtle. He is subtle, but also, clear.
Spirituality and Politics
So, Jesus, in this parable, goes to a deserted place to be safe and alone. For Jesus, it was a chance to pray. Jesus’ whole mission was fueled by his deep spirituality. He was political, in the sense that he was committed to changing the status quo by acts of resistance, but he was not only political.
His politics were the politics of the Jewish prophets before him who announced God’s will that no one is hungry. Prophets like Ezekiel imagined a time when justice would be done,
“so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land”(Ezk 34:6).
Hunger is a concern of God’s, so addressing hunger is a spiritual concern. Jesus’ politics were the politics of a compassionate God who cares about human suffering. They were the politics of compassion.
The Crowds and their Hunger
So Jesus is alone, nurturing his spiritual life, but then is found by the crowds. Crowds can be protective shields, as the “Wall of Moms” is trying to be in Portland. John the Baptist himself was protected for a while by the crowds whose numbers made Herod initially hesitant to move against him, as Matthew tells us.
When Jesus sees the crowd, just like the God of compassion who inspired his ministry,
“he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”
Jesus’ ministry of announcing the presence of the kingdom of God with its alternative values and its description of a God of love, was deeply healing for people — then and now.
But healing though it was, the people were still literally hungry. And the hour was late. Nighttime brings danger. People get rounded up and arrested at night — that will soon be Jesus’ fate. Nighttime signals that time is almost up. Things are coming to a head. Action is overdue.
So, time to do something. Jesus hands the problem back to the disciples. Figure out how to feed them, he tells them. It is not a question of identifying the need: everyone sees the need. And no one is questioning whether the right thing to do is to feed them; of course, it is. “God does not want people to be hungry,” the disciples are thinking, “and we are here, so of course, we should feed them. “
But all the disciples can see is scarcity. Five loaves and two fish. Matthew’s readers do the math; 5 + 2 = 7, and seven is the perfect number, the number of completion, of fullness, of abundance, so perhaps there is an alternative way to look at the situation.
Scarcity or Abundance?
What can you do with so little? Well, consider: how much money did it take for Gandhi to make salt? How much did it cost for John Lewis to buy that bus ticket? Neither of those men, nor any of the ones who followed their movements were wealthy. And yet, when they used what little they had, they made huge changes. Yes, they put themselves on the line, took risks, faced brutal treatment, and even death, just as Jesus did, but the result was world-changing.
So Matthew tells us that Jesus,
“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. And all ate and were filled;”
Matthew is consciously telling a parable about the Eucharist. Using the four verbs of the Last Supper, “took, blessed (or gave thanks), broke and gave,” and having the disciples, who represent the church, distribute the food, the result is that everyone eats and is satisfied.
When the church comes together around a common table where everyone is welcomed, and where they intentionally remember Jesus’ life, his ministry, his words, and his actions, we are fed spiritually.
And when we have remembered Jesus, we are inspired to follow Jesus. We are inspired by his spiritually-inspired compassion to be people of spirituality and compassion. And when compassion meets hunger, it gets political. The politics of compassion are the politics of a kingdom that values every hungry person, regardless of how marginalized they are.
So, what are people in our time and place hungry for? We were reminded at John Lewis’ funeral that, emulating Gandhi, Lewis insisted on the truth. If you are like me, you find yourself hungry right now for leaders who insist on the truth.
In the meantime, we citizens must insist on the truth that every single person, black, white, brown, citizen, immigrant, gay, straight, rich, or poor has been created by God, is loved by God, and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
The hunger in our time is for justice. We must insist on the truth that there has been racial oppression since the very founding of our country. The truth is that even the documents which proclaim our highest ideals and self-evident truths were written by wealthy slave-owning people, who had no intention of including women, native Americans, and certainly not black people. The truth is that racism is America’s original sin.
We must insist on the truth that the documents written by the Confederate states who seceded from the union proclaimed slavery as their right, again and again, and condemned the concept of the equality of all people.
Mississippi was probably the clearest, stating
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.”A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/declaration-causes-seceding-states
And, complaining in that document, that hostility to the institution of slavery in the North is so strong that it
“advocates negro equality, socially and politically.”
Imagine, advocating equality!
There is so much left to be done. It includes, but goes way beyond proper policing. We remain hungry for the bread of justice and equality, and hungry that it be available for everyone.
There is enough. But the baskets full of bounty are not equally available. Therefore, resistance born out of compassion is necessary. It feels like night time; that time is running out; that something has to change.
May the right changes come; not the changes like the gutting of the voting rights act; not changes like unlimited dark money in the political system, but changes like salt-making and bus riding.
Changes like ending cash bail and permanent disenfranchisement after incarceration.
Changes like an end to political gerrymandering of districts.
And maybe the biggest change of all, a change from the politics of triumphalism and nostalgia, to the politics of compassion; from hunger and scarcity to satisfaction and abundance.