Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 6, 2017: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Matthew 14:13-21

Laura James, Feeding the Five Thousand

“Feeding the Five Thousand” by Laura James

The story of the feeding of the five thousand (which is probably better named, “the feeding of the ten thousand” since “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children”) carries the distinction of being the only miracle from Jesus’ ministry that is recounted by all four gospels. That feels significant, like coming across a passage highlighted in yellow in a used textbook. Someone before us wanted to be sure to point out that this scene is essential to understanding the meaning of the greater story.

The scene opens by referencing a tragedy that’s just taken place somewhere else: “Now when Jesus heard about the beheading of John the Baptist, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” (Matt. 14:13) John died at a feast, a birthday party for Herod the ruler, who’d wanted to get rid of John but was afraid of how the crowds with whom he was popular would react. But when he made a promise to his wife’s daughter that he would give her whatever she might ask for, and she asked for John’s head on a platter, Herod was forced to choose between his fear of the people and his public image, and he chooses to save face by having John killed.

This is all background information, but it’s important as we try to make sense of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the crowd to understand that feasts were happening all the time — it’s just that they were typically held by the wealthy as a way of demonstrating their power in order to cement their relationships with the class of people just below them in a system of cascading patronage that started much higher than Herod, who was himself a vassal of the Roman Empire.

nero-denarius-60-61-adWealth and food and power were all tied together in ancient Rome. The connection was made explicit in the currency of the time, which featured an image of Emperor Nero on one side of the coin and the goddess of agriculture — Ceres (from whose names we get the word “cereal”) — on the other paired with the words, “the annual harvest of the emperor.” Money was intended to represent the wealth that comes from having access to food, all of which was understood as trickling down from the wealth of the empire.

In reality, empire was (and still is) a violent way of ordering the world. It takes the good gifts of the earth and commodifies them, pretends that the things God provides for all people belong to only a few people who can then leverage our need for them into other forms of wealth and power. The underlying economic violence of this system erupts into moments of public violence, like John’s beheading or the president’s public celebration of police brutality,  that function to keep people in their place.

State Violence

This is what Jesus needs to get away from when he hears of John’s death, and the crowds as well. So they leave the so-called “civilized” places and head to the deserted wilderness, a political blank canvas, a fresh start, and there Jesus demonstrates a different kind of political economy by providing a feast that is the exact opposite of the one Herod had hosted.

The crowd that frightened Herod follows Jesus, and out of compassion for their plight Jesus heals their sick. The Greek word used here to describe the sick (ἄρρωστος) carries the connotation of weakness or feebleness, just the sort of people who lose out in competitions for “survival of the fittest.” Rather than bestowing the gifts of life and health only on those who have something to offer him in return, Jesus models a vision for community where the sick and the weak have access to health and healing on the basis of God’s compassion for all that is living.

But as the day goes on and the needs grow, the disciples worry that this shadow economy of lovingkindness will not be enough to meet the real needs of this massive crowd. “Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” they say. Send them back to that other economy where everything is for sale. These problems are too big for us to address on our own.

Of course, Jesus had recently been preaching about this very dynamic. He’d told them the story of a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree that shelters the birds of the air. He’d reminded them how just a little yeast is enough to leaven an entire loaf of bread. When he asked if they’d understood what he was saying, they replied “yes”; though, now he has to wonder. So, once again, Jesus shows those who would follow him how just a little — five loaves and two fish — can become more than enough, enough for ten thousand with a dozen baskets left over.

Of all the things the scripture wants us to remember, this is the miracle that shows up in all four gospels, highlighted in yellow by whoever owned this book before us: God uses small things to make big changes! God uses an oppressed and colonized people to break the power of Pharaoh. God uses a child conceived by an unwed young woman to call to account the power of Rome. God uses what is weak to shame the mighty. God uses small things to make big changes!

Of all the things I will remember as I begin now to leave St. Luke’s, I will never forget what this community has taught me over and over and over again: God uses small things to make big changes.

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I don’t have to tell you the whole story of how small we were. Let’s just say we had one person for each of those baskets of leftovers. But God used this small group of people who’d been defined by their deficits to build something powerful: a home for all manner of people like the mustard tree; a loaf that expanded in proportion to the needs and hungers of the people who came to this table.

I want you to be powerful. I want the church to be powerful. Not the kind of power that shows itself off with feasts that reinforce the violent status quo, but power that meets the weak and the feeble — you know, people like us — with love and compassion and offers a glimpse of a world in which the daily bread we’re always praying for is provided for all.

Can you envision what it would look like for St. Luke’s to step more fully into this story? We, who have gathered in deserted places to demand housing for our neighbors, who have launched pantries and dinners to feed our neighbors, who have marched to Springfield to protect our neighbors. What miracle of abundance is God calling out of St. Luke’s in the years to come?

Those are the questions you’ll be considering this fall, after I’m gone. All year long the Council and the Generosity Network has been laying the groundwork for a process of planning for the future that will engage our entire community in asking these sorts of questions:

  • What is the story we are telling about St. Luke’s?
  • What is the story we’d like to be able to tell about St. Luke’s?
  • What is the impact we make as St. Luke’s?
  • How are we being transformed as members of St. Luke’s?
  • How is the world being changed because we gather as St. Luke’s?

Do those questions seem too big for a church our size? Do you worry that we won’t have enough people, enough money, enough time, enough “pastoral leadership” to dream so big?

Haven’t you heard? Haven’t you understood all this? God uses small things to make big changes.

God uses small things to make big changes!

The miracle highlighted in yellow since the story’s beginning is you.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 17, 2014: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 45:1-15  +  Psalm 133  +  Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32  +  Matthew 15:10-28

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A protester in the middle of a smoke bomb in Ferguson. Credit David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via Associated Press

Well, to begin, let me just say that there is so much going on in the passages we’ve just heard that there is no way to do justice to all of the many themes and theologies at work here. That’s true every Sunday, and it’s especially true this Sunday due to the fact that in addition to a story of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers, in addition to a meditation on God’s faithfulness to God’s promises in Paul’s letter to the Romans, in addition to Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter, we are also dealing with the texts that come to us from the front lines of history. Depending on how you use technology, this may be literally true for you as it is for me, since I get text messages from the New York Times whenever they push a breaking story alert. So I woke up this morning with texts telling me that while I was sleeping, law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri used a combination of smoke and tear gas to disperse demonstrators whose protests over the killing of teenager Michael Brown last weekend broke the newly imposed curfew.

Given that we’ve been intentionally following the stories from Genesis all summer long, and that we’re midway through a cycle of stories centered on Joseph, the dreamer, I’d thought there might be a way to frame what is happening in the world around us through the lens of Joseph’s estrangement from his family, who sold him into slavery but ended up at his mercy when famine struck and their own food stores were depleted.  Listening to Joseph’s reunion with his brothers, I was moved by the depth of emotion that Genesis conveys. “Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it…” (Gen. 45:1-2)

Don’t you just feel like weeping?  

The image of a family divided by its own violent past, of brothers brought to the brink of ruin by their mistrust of one another, of the desire to be reunited almost perfectly balanced with the desire to be right, and vindicated. Joseph and his brothers — will they ever get over their tragic past, or will it define them for the rest of their lives?

_76259254_76257635Where to even begin? Is it Israelis and Palestinians struggling the share the same land, suffering the deadly effects of generations of violence that have made it almost impossible to maintain a ceasefire for a mere 72 hours?  Is it ISIS forces driving tens of thousands of Yazidis into the mountains of northern Iraq? Is it children and parents sitting in detention facilities in Texas and all along the border, awaiting deportation to places suffering famines of opportunity and failures at peace? Is it yet another young black man shot down in the streets, this time Ferguson, Missouri; last time in Sanford, Florida; and before that Queens, New York; Oakland, California; Staten Island, and the list goes on.

Don’t you just feel like weeping?

Joseph sends everyone away so that he can reveal himself to his brothers and they can be reconciled, but for all the tears and all the falling into one another’s arms, the reason I can’t stay with this story from Genesis on this morning has to do with the words that follow.  Joseph says,

“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life … God send me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, to keep you alive for many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God…” (Gen. 45:4b-5,7-8a)

The author of this story in Genesis is sharing a story from the past with an audience caught in the grip of yet another period of captivity, not in Egypt but in Babylon. To those people, suffering a humiliating defeat by a foreign power, the voice of God speaks through scripture to reassure them that God is still present, even where the suffering of God’s people is most intense, and that God can still bring life and healing and reconciliation to the most desperate of circumstances.

That’s a message we need to hear and to remember, but I just can’t lift this story up as a template for understanding the moment in which we’re living.  Joseph may be able to say, “do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here…” but we do not get to let ourselves off the hook quite so easily.

In the gospel story from Matthew Jesus speaks with a candor that seems perfectly suited to our situation.  He says,

Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles … Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. (Matt. 15:10b-11,17-18)

What Jesus says angers the Pharisees and confuses the disciples, because what he’s saying is that we’re not made clean or kept clean by keeping the laws set up to separate us from what is regarded as filthy in this world.  He’s speaking narrowly about dietary restrictions here, since food laws were an important part of the religious customs of the community, but it quickly becomes apparent that this conversation about purity is about people as well.

Jesus leaves that place and heads to Tyre and Sidon, a district filled with people regarded as unclean because of their ethnic background, because of their proximity to Gentiles, because of their worship practices and a variety of other reasons. There were lots of reasons why these people weren’t well regarded, but a lot of it boils down to the fact that they were different. Jesus’ presence draws a woman whose daughter is oppressed by evil forces, and this woman begs for Jesus to help her.

At first Jesus keeps silent. Then his disciples ask him to get rid of her. Finally Jesus responds, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus implies that this new world, the reign of God of which he has been speaking, God’s in breaking reality, is only for some people, only for God’s elect, only for a few.

But this mother is not easily deterred. She kneels before Jesus just as the leper who sought healing knelt before him after he preached his sermon on the mountain, just as a ruler had come kneeling before Jesus pleading for his daughter.  She kneels as a sign that she recognizes God’s authority at work in him, but she persists in pleading for her child.

Next Jesus says something so ugly we can barely recognize him.  He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Matt. 15:26)  There are so many explanations that have been offered that try to make sense of Jesus’ harsh words to a woman so clearly in need, and no one interpretation can say everything.  I’ll tell you what I think.  I think the writer of Matthew’s gospel is intentionally trying to shock us with a visceral dramatization of the principle Jesus has just presented in his teaching about what defiles.  

Under the law, under the cultural norms and expectations of his time, Jesus is perfectly justified in narrowing the focus of his concern to his own people, who he calls the “lost sheep of Israel.”  It’s like those who say we have to attend to our own house before we go messing around in other people’s affairs.  The problem with this kind of thinking is that it reinforces false distinctions between “us” and “them.” Those false distinctions lead to jealousy, violence, enmity and war. They lead to slurs and racial stereotypes. They lead to religious crusades and ethnic cleansing. They lead to abuses of power and violence in our streets.  They lead to Joseph and his brothers weeping over the great distance between them and the tragedies of their past.

It’s a short walk from “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” which is why Jesus has just taught, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”

Then comes the miracle.  In fact, I would say that there is not one miracle in this story, but two.  The first miracle is less visible, but perhaps more significant.  In the face of rejection and humiliation, this Canaanite woman finds the strength to stay engaged in the struggle for healing and liberation.  She does not accept the label she is given, instead she uses it to redirect the conversation toward an even deeper reality.  She says, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And we’re reminded that after feeding the five thousand, there were still leftovers.

This Canaanite woman, who has called Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David” knows that in God’s economy there is always enough for everyone, but she also knows that religious folk and people with power sometimes need to be reminded to practice what they preach. So she persists in the face of discrimination, and I think that is the first miracle.

This Caananite woman could be anyone.  She could be the mother in Gaza or in Israel calling for an end to violence and a lasting peace so that her child can be released from the torment of growing up with one eye always toward the sky.  She could be the mother waiting with her children to be sent back to a life of violence and hunger when just beyond the walls of her detention center there are tables overflowing with food, and plenty of scraps and more to be shared. 9720539-largeShe could be the mother marching in the streets, scrubbing blood off the sidewalk, weeping for her son.  She could be your neighbor here in Logan Square, fighting for an affordable apartment in a zip code where condos sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, wondering if there isn’t still a crumb to be shared with her family as well.

Whoever she is, whoever he is, whoever they are, they’re pushing back against the conventional wisdom that says “me first” or “take care of your own” or “blood before water” or “to each their own” or “I got mine, you get yours” or “not in my backyard” or “not my problem.” They’re pushing back against easy religion that says that all you have to do is eat the right food, or wear the right clothes, or pray the right prayers, and they’re demanding that someone do something to create a future different from our past. To free our children from the demons that torment them.

In the face of a miracle of resistance, Jesus says “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”  Then comes the second miracle, and her child is finally healed.

Sisters and brothers, we have been estranged from our own families for far too long — for some of you, like Joseph, it is literally members of your immediate family with whom you can no longer speak, but for all of us it is estrangement from members of the human family into which we were born, invisible bonds made clearer by our baptisms that tie us not only to those who share our faith, but to those who challenge it.

As we come forward this morning with prayers for healing, I encourage you to be bold. Pray for a miracle, that you and the whole world around you might find the strength to persist in the face of silence and complacency.  With faith in the God who made us, and is always making us whole. Amen.

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