July 31, 2011 – 7th Sunday after Pentecost

by Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley

Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21; Matthew 14:13-21

When he came ashore and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them. –Matthew 14:14

Let me begin by stretching our imaginations.  Today’s Gospel is one of the most familiar in the New Testament.  It is the only story of its kind recounted in all four Gospels, the feeding of a vast number of people:  Matthew and Mark each say 5000 men.  We are told that they are in a wilderness place, somewhere near the Lake of Galilee.  There are no interstates to get there, and no traffic jams.  Maybe you rode a donkey, most likely you walked, and if you came from as far away as Jerusalem because you were attracted to go hear Jesus preach, that might have been a journey of several days.

As the passage begins, Jesus has withdrawn by boat to a remote place — presumably to pray with his disciples.  Word comes to him that a crowd has assembled.  When he lands and sees the expectant crowd, he is filled with compassion, and he heals the sick.  The Greek word in the text splagknon means “moved in one’s innards,” literally “a grinding of the heart.”  He has a gut feeling, a sense that they are like sheep without a shepherd.  They are hungry, hungry for a way to make sense of their lives as a people subject to their Roman conquerors and the puppet collaborators who run their country.  You might almost say they are like us, citizens of a country worried by the possibility of a devastating  breakdown of government and the prospect of great economic disarray and hungry for a word of comfort or encouragement.

The day moves on towards twilight, and the disciples begin to wonder what kind of compassion Jesus is showing to cause people to go without their dinner.  The disciples make a sensible suggestion — send them away to the nearby villages to buy food.  But Jesus tells them to gather up what little food they can find.  In short he trusts that they have more sense than to be in a wilderness place without preparing for it.  In Matthew’s telling of the story the disciples ask for and find five loaves and a couple of dried fish.  He blesses.  They eat.  And there is enough for everyone and then some — more than twelve baskets.  Was this magic, producing food out of thin air; or did Jesus appeal to a deeper sense that people have in them to share in community what they may initially horde for themselves?

Matthew ends his account with an interesting variant from the other evangelists.  To the statement “Some 5000 men shared in this meal,”  he adds “not counting women and children.”  Of the four Gospel writers, we know that Matthew in particular wrote for a Jewish audience, and by calling attention to the presence of women and children —  not applying the generic word men to refer to both sexes — he was flying in the face of Roman custom and that of the court of Herodias, the puppet Jewish ruler, with their strict pecking orders about who should be seated and especially their exclusion of women altogether.

For Jesus, compassion was unrestricted, open to all.

During these summer Sundays, our Gospel readings center on Jesus’s teaching about God God’s love, God’s faithfulness, justice, and compassion as they are revealed to us.  Jesus’s name for such a vision was the Kingdom of God, what life will be like under God’s reign, and it was his preaching of that vision which led the crowds out into the wilderness to her him.  The characteristic mode of his teaching was to tell parables, stories drawn as often from the world of nature as from human relationships.  My colleague Darrell Huddleston has in his recent homilies described some of the parables in detail.  For example, Jesus invited his listeners to consider seeds randomly sown, often in ways which are unexpected.  No farmer, 2000 years ago or last May, would imagine scattering seed in a rocky place, or on the hard soil of a path.  No shepherd would simply abandon 99 healthy sheep in his flock and go off recklessly searching for the one which is lost.  Jesus describes a vineyard which thrives without any attention.  He points to a tiny mustard seed which becomes a robust and large as a tree.  And Jesus never explains his parables, simply throws them out and demands that we wrestle with them.  They are like the koans, sayings a Buddhist monk is assigned to meditate on, almost riddles to ponder, “Does a tree falling in the woods create a sound if there is no one there to hear it?”  The point of each of these sayings is always the same: God’s way are not our ways.  God’s grace is extravagant, beyond our wildest imagination.  It literally blows away our ordinary expectations.

In the end, whether dealing with prodigal parents and wayward children, women seeking for lost resources, or a field that produces an unexpected crop, the parables leave the hearers with the challenge (which is the heart) of all preaching: Do we want to live by the logic of grace?  Will we throw in our lot with this kind of extravagant and unpredictable God?

That’s what Jesus said about God.  We can imagine that his preaching to the throng who came to hear sounded like that.  I can imagine that they were impressed.  I always am when I take the trouble really to listen to what he is trying to get across to us.  But what in fact makes this story unique is not what Jesus said, but what Jesus did. As he finished what must have been a very long sermon, since it is now late in the day, the disciples are satisfied that church is over, and it is time to scatter and forage for food.  “They don’t have to leave,” Jesus says simply,  “Why don’t you give them something to eat?”  Like many another preacher, Jesus has talked about the need to feed the hungry.  What confounds his followers, he is not content just to talk about human need, but to do something about it.  No wonder the disciples were confused.  No wonder they grumbled.  They were being challenged to understand God in a fresh way.

And what in fact did Jesus do for those hungry people in the wilderness?  “Filled with compassion,” we are told, moved in his very gut, he took the bread, looked up to heaven and blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to the multitude.  Take, bless, break, share. In a very short time, those words became the pattern for what Christians did whenever they gathered to remember Jesus.  It is what we do this morning:   Take, bless, break, share. This service has been called many things — the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, the Mass.  One of the earliest and most expressive names is Holy Eucharist, which comes from the Greek word eucharistein, thanks-giving.  There in the wilderness, he fed them bread for their bodies; more important, he fed them with himself, his spirit, his love.  As a wise teacher of the New Testament puts it, the story of the feeding of the 5000 draws together all that Jesus offers to those he loves:

(1) (Jesus has) deep compassion and sympathy for the multitude, whose shepherd and leader he yearned to be;

(2) (Jesus shows) his ability to satisfy the deepest needs (our spiritual as well as physical hunger). . .although for this he needs helpers;

(3) (the Kingdom is) the place of fellowship, orderliness, and thrift…

(4)Jesus is (able to kindle in human hearts) the impulse to see others with the same compassion as he does; and

(5) the duty of the church is to concern itself about the economic and material needs of humanity if its ministry is to be a full-orbed one.

That seems like a lot of words to describe what Jesus is about.  We can perhaps summarize what he asks by describing two things which Roberta and I do this morning.  With the gentle prodding of Heidi Clow we dropped our equivalent of the loaves and fishes in the parable into the baskets at the entry of the church, food slated for the Weare Food Pantry, symbolic of the hungry crowds around the global village.  And at the offertory, many of us will drop a couple of extra dollars in the plate, to go to a place which seeks to exercise the compassion Jesus represents to us.

And as we continue our service and gather around the table set in the midst of us, you may have the sense that the one who presides at the table is the same Jesus who on that hillside in Galilee took the bread, lifted his eyes to heaven, blessed it, broke it and shared it that we might know the gift of new life in the midst of the old, find forgiveness where we know brokenness, and hope when our eyes are downcast.


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