[from a sermon preached on Aigust 3, 2014]
There are many ways this morning feels like a summer morning, and one of them is that we are reading the story of the Feeding of the 5,000. It seems I preach on this story every summer. I suppose it comes up so often in the lectionary because it’s told in all four gospels. It’s the only miracle story that appears in all four – except for the resurrection. Each gospel tells the story a little differently – as you might expect in a reporting of what is going in in a crowd of 5,000. How do people estimate the size of a crowd? According to Matthew, the numbers were even bigger than that. 5,000 men plus women and children, and if you figure one woman per man, one child per family – that’s 15,000 and probably more.
So, here we go again with a story so familiar that you don’t even have to be a regular church goer listening to yet another sermon to know this story. Loaves and Fishes, as this story is known, is just a part of our language and culture – no big surprise given the number of hungry people in our world, and our humanitarian efforts to get food to people who are in need of it. That effort began in earnest for us during The Great Depression largely through the efforts of Dorothy Day who was co-founder of The Catholic Worker movement. She began as a journalist and then moved to be an activist in living as Jesus lived, serving as Jesus served. Feeding, housing, and clothing the urban poor. Teaching non-violence. When she wrote a book about it all, she titled it Loaves and Fishes. From that movement in the 1930’s to today, there have been and continue to be literally thousands of food pantries, community meals, and charitable organizations using the name.
Loaves and Fishes is such an often-told and well-worn story that it also brings some humor to the table. It’s not Holy Humor Sunday – that will be next year the Sunday after Easter. But just for a laugh today, here’s one …
It helps to laugh doesn’t it? Especially when we are faced with something we really do not understand.
Like a miracle. We do not understand what happened that day – because a miracle by its very definition is not explainable. We’re not capable of understanding it exactly. I also believe it’s not up to us to parse and explain it away. We try to do that sometimes. It’s been in-vogue for several years now to explain this miracle by saying that: there were enough people in the crowd who’d brought food with them, that when they heard Jesus preaching, they were moved to share what they had. And that’s how there was enough for all of them. There’s always enough if we share is the message. Not a bad message, and I’m not disputing that Preacher Jesus would certainly have been capable of changing people’s behavior just by his words, but I’m going to stick with calling this a miracle.
I want to say that there was not just one miracle that day. There were two.
The feeding of the 5,000 was the 2nd. The first one slips right past us. Did you notice when I read that we started in the middle of something? It begins: Now when Jesus heard this. What was this? What was it Jesus heard?
This was the death of John the Baptist. Jesus’ best friend. A relationship that was beyond special. Their families were close. Their mothers spent their months of pregnancy together. They were both servants of God sent to preach the Good News. John baptized Jesus.
And John’s death was not by natural causes. He was murdered in a senseless act, and the details were horrific. Jesus wasn’t there for his friend. He’d only heard about it from John’s disciples. Have you experienced someone close to you dying and you weren’t there? Shocked and heartbroken, Jesus takes off to be by himself. We read: Jesus went off to a deserted place. Other translations equally accurate say: Jesus went by himself to a lonely place.
I like that translation better because I’ve been to that lonely place. And so have you. We can be in a lonely place that is not deserted. It can be a room filled with people. If only we had looked up, we might have seen each other. In that lonely place. Sometimes we’re there because a loved one died. Or a friend betrayed us. A husband walked out. We lost a job. Took our health for granted until the shocking diagnosis. Our own thoughtless actions can take us there when we’ve inflicted hurt on someone else. The news of the world can take us there – either because we’re afraid or we feel powerless to do anything about it. All of that can take us to a lonely place.
The good news is – and there is good news. Jesus has already been there. And if we were to look up, we might see him there. Still. Waiting for us. Understanding what brought us there. Hurting as we hurt. Crying tears as real as the ones that we’re trying to hide. Jesus is there making the lonely place not quite so lonely.
Jesus heard the news of his friend, and it affected him. Deeply. The more I think about that, the more connected I feel to him. The closer I feel to God. That brings me comfort, and I hope you feel that too. But there is even more good news. Jesus didn’t stay there. In that lonely place.
And that’s the first miracle. When a tired, exhausted, frightened, sad and disheartened man who could very easily have been too tired to care, to self-absorbed to see, and too paralyzed to act – was awakened by his compassion for others. We see clearly that his compassion fed the 5,000. Can we also see that his compassion saved his life? Compassion was his self-preservation. Able to see beyond his own pain. Feeling the hurt of others. Pieces of him breaking apart, and still healing the brokenness of others. Starving in grief while also reaching out to feed someone else.
Jesus is our model and guide, and mentor who teaches us: Life is not about the disappointments we’ve faced. Life is in the possibilities in moving beyond them. Life is not about the grief we suffer. Life happens moving through that grief. Life is not the sum total of our defeats. Life is how we respond in the face of defeat. He is our savior who saves us by his compassion, and we are here to be his compassionate body.
And one more statement about what life is. Life is not in the secrets we keep. Life is in our openness to each other.
That’s from a book a church friend recommended to me recently. She’d found it helpful during some recent struggles of her own, and thought it might be helpful to me as I continue to work through the grief of my son’s death. It’s titled Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help us Grow. One of the essays is about the secrets we keep. Titled Open Secret which sounds like an oxymoron. It’s a title taken from 13th century poet and mystic, Rumi who says that each of us is trying to hide something. To keep it secret from everyone else. In order to do that, we hole up in lonely places trying to keep people from knowing. We work so hard to keep people from knowing what we think is unique to us, that we fail to see what is universal to all of humankind. In today’s vernacular: Everybody’s got something! And yet in our everyday interactions when asked: Hi, how are you. We answer: Fine. The kids? Great. How’s the job? Love it. How’s your health? Never felt better. None of which may be an accurate representation of what is really going on. We don’t want to say that one of our kids is failing in school or has a problem with drugs. We don’t want to admit that we just lost a job. Or, we were cheated on. And the biopsy brought devastating news. So maybe we don’t know the other person well enough to bleed all over them. But more often, we mistakenly believe that the other person has his or her life all together.
Trust me. They do not. Have it all together. Trust me. They can understand all too well. Poet Rumi says this:
Learn the alchemy true human beings know. The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door will open.
I would change only one word. Rather than alchemy, I’d call it miracle. Learn the miracle true human beings know. And I’d write the next verse in the poem – to add, right after: the door will open, ….. and you will find the place where you can be the miracle for someone else.
We can be a miracle, just like Jesus was to the 5,000.
One disclaimer before I close. We have not yet achieved being just like Jesus. There is that potential, but we will not achieve it in our lifetimes. There will be moments when we come close, and in a life devoted to following him, those moments can become more closely spaced together. More frequent. So, please hear me when I say: I’m not suggesting that when we suffer a loss, when someone close to us dies, when the chemo isn’t working, when the foreclosure papers arrive, … that we ought to expect ourselves to be at the ready immediately to help someone else. We will not be as quick to respond as Jesus was that day. We should expect to visit the lonely place. If that has not happened yet, it will. You will find yourself there.
You will not be alone. Jesus was there – the seat is still warm – because his Spirit is there waiting for you. And if we could learn to be more open with our secrets and learn that it’s OK to acknowledge our pain to each other, that place would become much less lonely.
That’s a miracle in itself. I guess that’s at least 3 for today. And there’s even more where those came from.
Let us pray:
Thank you, Jesus, for the miracles we see every day. Help me, Lord, to be a miracle for someone else. Amen.