Sunday, August 6, 2023

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Brent Gundlah

Getting people with different perspectives to come together and agree on anything has never been an easy thing to do. This seems especially true these days, when every single issue that comes up results in us running to our respective corners, taking up our positions and defending them to the bitter end.

But it’s always been this way, at least to some extent, anyway. Consensus among humans has generally been the exception, not the rule; and so when people actually manage to agree about something, this is reason enough for us to stop and take notice.

Consider the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels — though I really should say stories because Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell theirs in very different ways. Whenever we recount a story, we inevitably make choices about what to include (and what to exclude) and about what to say with respect to what we do include. And the Gospel writers, being storytellers, do this too.

For example, Matthew and Luke discuss the circumstances of Jesus’s birth, while Mark and John don’t say a word about it. That being said, Matthew and Luke don’t actually agree on the underlying details of this event. But every one of the Gospel writers includes an account of Jesus’s miraculous feeding of the five thousand, the story we just heard in today’s reading from Matthew.

And this is the only one of Jesus’s miracles that appears in all four gospels. From this we can infer that this story was super-important to the authors and to their readers in the early church. It seems as though there was broad consensus that this event said some things that really needed to be said about who Jesus was and what he called his followers to do. As I noted earlier, whenever people actually agree on something, that something deserves a closer look. And this story is no exception to that rule.

“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself,” is how Matthew’s version begins. To put it some context: the “this” about which Jesus has just heard is the execution of John the Baptist.

John was the one who baptized Jesus, the one who paved the way for Jesus and, if Luke is to be believed, he was also Jesus’s cousin. John was important to Jesus, and the news of his death at the hands of the authorities, for talking about and doing things that Jesus himself was out there talking about doing, had to be really hard for Jesus to hear.

Things were already tough enough for Jesus; he’s been traveling about the region preaching and teaching and healing, and this was exhausting work. Recently, he went back to Nazareth, where he was rejected by the people in his own home synagogue. And now John the Baptist has met his untimely end at the hands of the powers that be.

So, it is understandable that Jesus would want to take a break and get away from it all at this point. I wonder: Did he ever feel as though he had nothing left in the tank? Did he ever he doubt whether he had anything more to give?

But the crowds keep coming. It seems that they’ve also heard about John the Baptist’s death and they’re pretty upset — remember, John had quite a following too. And so Jesus decides to put his vacation plans on hold for a little while in order to minister to these people; “he had compassion for them and cured their sick,” is what Matthew says happened.

When evening arrives, the disciples are feeling a bit worn out too, which also makes sense — after all, they too have been following Jesus’s lead, preaching and teaching and healing as Jesus called them to do.

And so, like the hosts of a party that’s gone on way too long, the exhausted disciples want to rid themselves of these guests who have overstayed their welcome and encourage Jesus to give them the old heave-ho. “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,” is what they say.

But Jesus is having none of it. His surprising response to the disciples is this: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” The frustrated disciples explain that they have only five loaves and two fish in their possession — which is obviously not enough food for that many people. But Jesus takes what they have, looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the bread, and gives it back to the disciples who then distribute it to the crowd. Everyone is fed and there are even some leftovers left over.  

How we get from five loaves and two fish to food for ten thousands is kind of a mystery. Did the meager provisions the disciples had suddenly, magically, multiply right before everyone’s eyes? Maybe they did, but I wasn’t there and neither were you so we can’t really say for sure.

The point is that something important happened here, and this miracle, such as it is, is not only about Jesus, it’s also about everyone else — the disciples, the crowds and even us.

Remember, Jesus doesn’t actually give these people food himself — he enlists his disciples to do it. Sure, Jesus blesses the bread and something happens to it, but Jesus doesn’t actually send piles of bread and fish flying out into the crowd on his own — he gives the blessed food to the disciples and they, in turn, give it to the crowd.

Truth be told, God has always invited people to participate in God’s wondrous deeds, and God has always provided people with what they need in order to be what God’s calling them to be. And yet people often fail to see these gifts that are staring them right in the face because they’re so focused on other stuff — well, at least until something provides a sufficient nudge to change their focus.

As I hear this story, I wonder when these overtired, overworked disciples and all the hungry people in the crowd began to experience gratitude for what they had instead of lamenting what they thought they lacked;

I wonder when they finally understood that they already had all they needed.

It was probably when Jesus blessed that food and gifted those disciples with an abundance to share; a well-timed miracle can really help to change one’s perspective on things, I suppose.

Then again, so can a day like this — one on which we leave behind the building in which we typically gather to come up here and worship in a much different space — a place where the air is a little thinner and cooler, a place without walls and a roof and a thermostat and a sound system and all the responsibilities that comes along with such things, a place where we sit at picnic tables instead of the same spot in the pews that we’ve occupied every week.

And maybe, just maybe, all this difference of this day serves to remind us that our church isn’t simply that structure down on Murray Holladay Road, our church is all of us, living in relationship — living in community — wherever we happen to be, and that we too already have all that we need.

For this, and for so much else, thanks be to God.