This morning I have two questions for you. Number one: Of all the problems in the world, what are you most concerned about? What really worries you?
Second question: Is there anything you can do about it? Be honest with yourself. Do you believe there is anything you can do to make a difference?
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus and the disciples have some considerable problems. Jesus has just learned about the murder of his dear friend, John; ostensibly beheaded for simply calling into question the legitimacy of Herod’s marriage. At the top of the political and economic order of his day, Herod’s birthday dinner party not only included sumptuous food, fine wine, and even dancers, but ultimately, John’s head on a platter. In a society of extreme stratification – where a few people had most of the money and power, Herod was in the top 1%.
Jesus was not only deeply grieving the death of his friend. He was also upset by a system that allowed Herod to live lavishly while so many others struggled, a system that allowed Herod to get away with murder. Jesus also had plenty of reason to worry. As a well-known associate of John who also questioned the disparity between the haves and the have nots, Jesus knew that he was also a target of Herod’s ire. Jesus has gone away to pray, to mourn, and to gather strength and courage for his inevitable confrontation with Herod.
Jesus must have been feeling depleted and so in need of time alone when the crowds found him. The crowds were hungry and probably depleted, too. New Testament scholar Warren Carter notes that “The lack of food was one of the ways many people experienced the injustice of this disparity of power. It is also one of the reasons we see so many sick people in the gospels. Diseases of inadequate nutrition and diseases of contagion (of inadequate immunity) were rife.”
To make matters worse, the people in the crowd also knew what happened to John. They, too, were grieving and upset that a beloved leader had been so cruelly taken from them.
This one scene in the gospel dramatizes some of the same problems our country and world continues to have: economic inequality, hunger, rampant health crises, immoral leadership, abuse of power, and state-sponsored violence.
The crowd that finds Jesus is hungry, dispirited, grieving, upset, and likely on edge. Perhaps not too different than some Black Lives Matter protesters.
Even as drained as he is, because he cares about others, Jesus can see the crowd’s vast needs and is moved with compassion. Because he cares not only about himself, he finds it within himself to cure the sick who come to him.
When his disciples, who are also grieving, distressed and likely exhausted, suggest that it is time for the crowds to leave to buy some food for themselves, it is not a stretch to think that they just wanted some rest and are concerned that Jesus gets some rest too.
How shocked the disciples must have been when Jesus tells them that THEY are to feed the crowds. How could this be possible? What could they do? Especially when from their point of view “They have nothing but five loaves and two fish.”
THIS is the heart of the difference between Jesus and the disciples. Where his disciples see scarcity and lack; what they don’t have and what they can’t do; Jesus sees what they do have and what they can do!!
When we consider the problems our country and world faces, how do we look at ourselves, at what we have and what we can do? Are we more apt to see what we don’t have and what we can’t do or are we more apt to see what we have and what we can do?
Marianne Williamson writes, “What appears like a problem is merely a place where a miracle awaits.”
Jesus tells the disciples and tells us that there is no need to go elsewhere to find solutions to our problems. On the contrary, the location of abundance is right here, not elsewhere. Jesus shows us how this is possible. When Jesus gives thanks for the bread and breaks it for distribution, he is doing what a Jewish man would typically do for the family at the beginning of a meal. Abundance is always present whenever we do with what we have as Jesus did with what he was given: That is, whenever we pause, look to God, bless what we have, and share it.
We are so often tempted – by marketers, some politicians, and perhaps by the way we were raised – to think that there is not enough to go around. The fear that there is not enough – not enough food, not enough space, not enough time, not enough jobs, not enough money, not enough love – is one that often drives the worst of our human impulses.
Jesus demonstrates the exact opposite. And he does this in a way that we often forget to do and many others would not even consider. Jesus turns to God to bless his disciples’ efforts. It is God’s presence, God’s grace, that takes what we see as “nothing,” that takes whatever we have and whatever we are willing to give, and multiplies our efforts.
The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 families is not a one man job. It’s not even a one village effort. The miracle occurs when Jesus involves his disciples while calling on the blessing of God. It’s “divine mathematics”- 5 loaves, 2 fish, and 1 God who multiplies our efforts!
The Gospel writer, Matthew, wants to be sure that we don’t miss the point of this story. It’s not about some miraculous hocus pocus. Notice the difference between Herod’s meal and Jesus’ meal. Herod’s party is characterized by opulence; Jesus’ meal, by simplicity. The events at Herod’s are driven by hatred; Jesus is motivated by compassion. Herod is a petty tyrant whose only concern is his own power and well-being. Jesus thinks first about the well-being of others. Herod’s party ends in death; Jesus’ meal sustains life and gives hope. Herod only cares about himself. Jesus cares about others. And that, my friends, is how miracles happen.
Think about that problem I invited you to consider at the beginning of the sermon. What might happen if you invited other people who also care to join you? What might happen if you called on God to be with you? Dorothy Day did not run the Catholic Worker soup kitchen in New York on her own. Mother Teresa could not have even run one home for the dying without her sisters and volunteers, let alone a global network of compassionate care for the poor and dying. John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. never stood alone at the podium, the lunch counter, or at the front of a march. Annisquam’s Sarah Hackett could not do what she is in Haiti without Rob Russell and others.
Marianne Williamson, who writes often on miracles, knows this, “No matter what is happening in our lives, we choose how we wish to think about it. And the greatest gift we give ourselves is often our willingness to change our minds. Despite what might seem to be the saddest and most intractable situation, we have the power to believe that something else is possible, that things can change, that a miracle can happen. This gives us vision, which gives us conviction, which gives us power.” (Do you hear the echo from Lindsay’s sermon last week?)
Let John Lewis’ final words to us resound: “When you see something that is not right (perhaps like a hungry crowd without food) you must say something. You must do something…Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.
Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart (in other words to do something about what most troubles you in our world) and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring (do you hear the echo of ElizaBeth’s sermon?) ..So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
Isn’t that what Jesus did for the crowds?
Think again about what you see as the biggest problem in the world. Who shares this concern with you? Who else cares about it? Who cares about the people affected by it? What is one step you can take to create a miracle? Amen.