Sermon from August 6, 2017 * Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Any busy, overwhelmed pastor and congregation can relate to this scripture passage. Like many pastors – after the Lenten study series, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, the crowds and the energy output, Jesus tries to take a mini-vacation. He rents a boat, I imagine it was a little sailboat. Jesus spent a lot of time with fisherman boating around the Sea of Galilee, so he probably knew port from starboard. He gets out into the water, the wind fills his sails, and he starts to relax and ponder.
If Jesus was a modern-day pastor, he might have already consulted his ministry coach by phone call to define what issues he needs to discern. Based on Matthew 13, he has 3 big issues. Number one, he has a scale problem with his ministry. He has been teaching and preaching in several towns and the ministry is hitting a growth ceiling. Classic church growth theory says there are pastor sized churches under a 100 on Sunday, program sized churches between 120 and 200 members, and then you move into more corporate sized, multi-staff churches, multi-site mega-churches-and at each stage you need a new administrative model to handle the human need. Jesus has already moved from 12, to 100 to 5000 people. He has got scale issues, he needs help and more leadership.
Jesus has some personal issues. He was just preaching at his hometown in Nazareth, and people were not supportive. “Hey bigshot, we knew you when you Mary’s boy, when you were just a handyman. What makes you think you are all that, coming here telling us all these strange parables and radical thought?” That has got to hurt. Just when he is taking a big vocational leap, a little support would be nice. Jesus is finding out the basic human truth that when you reach for your true goals, best self, the way you feel God calling you. Many people will not be supportive. They find his dreams threatening, his goals too expansive, his ideas are too unconventional. To be true to himself, he must walk away from home, all the naysayers, and get his support elsewhere. As Jesus says, a prophet is without honor in his hometown.
Number three, his ministry is struck by political turmoil. The news cycle is devastating to the sermon writing process. Just when you think you are done, the health care repeal vote is in a dead heat, ICE agents arrest a man who has lived and worked in the community for years without trouble, more Russia collusion bombshells, North Korea. How do you preach in this news cycle? If you avoid it, you offend one group, take on the issues you offend a different group. Here is the real reason Jesus is in the boat. John the Baptist, his cousin, mentor, the man who baptized him, was just executed. The story out of Herod’s Palace conveys avarice, hubris and cruelty. At a big party, one of the dancing girls delights the crowd, and Herod says “Ask for whatever you want. She talks to Herod’s wife, who says, “Ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.” Vicious, cruel, callous. We are in “Game of Thrones” territory here. Herodias is angry that John the Baptist has criticized them, and he now pays the price. Herod is trapped into this unpopular move, because he can’t say “no” to his daughter. Trevor Noah and Rachel Maddow are mocking Herod, calling for resistance. People are in the streets, knitting hats with cat ears, getting arrested.
Jesus has a lot to think about while he sails, and by the time he reaches shore, everyone is waiting for him. All 5000 people wondering what to do next. So, before we got to the action of the passage, let’s pause and acknowledge that even for Jesus, building a community happens amid many real-life challenges of administration, difficult relationships, and political strife. It’s not so simple as preaching good sermons and healing a few people and everything flows smoothly.
Jesus dives back into his work, spends the day preaching and healing, and now as the sun goes down, the disciples come to him and say, “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.” That is not much of a plan. It boils down to “let the free market take care of them. I’m sure they will be fine.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” I’m sorry, what Jesus? “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” This problem is beyond us. Maybe Bartholomew, Andrew and Philipp can form a study group about food insecurity. Perhaps this is why we never hear about Bartholomew in the Gospels, we lost the committee minutes.
18And Jesus said, “Bring them here to me.” Now a miracle is about to happen, but when I say miracle I don’t mean some supernatural force outside of the laws of nature suddenly create lox and bagels out of nothing. Let’s read this carefully. He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. What happens when a crowd sits together? There is more togetherness, more intimacy. He begins to break bread and share food. 5000 people are watching this take place. These people are poor, but they are not stupid. Can you imagine 5000 people walking for half a day to some remote place, and only one person thought to bring a few loaves and fish? There must be food out there. Where did all these people come from? To get this number, people are coming from more than one town, from multiple little fishing villages, perhaps a few from Tiberius, which was a Gentile city. This is like Woodstock, unplanned, people don’t know each other, how are they all going to eat, they need a catalyst to bring them together.
When Jesus breaks the five loaves and shares them, it is an invitation to everyone. John’s Gospel makes it even more dramatic, saying that the five loaves and two fish were donated by a small boy. If he has food and will share it, everyone better step up and be generous.
20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
They had all the resources they needed.
I think the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew’s Gospel is the culmination and turning point of Jesus ministry, beginning with his retreat to reflect on his dilemmas out on the Sea of Galilee, to the next step where he moves from itinerate preacher and healer to galvanizing a movement that has its own momentum, sustainability and leadership. He just shared a half dozen parables on what the Kingdom of God looks like, and now here is the living parable, 5000 people together, gathered from the whole region, fed like the Israelites in the wilderness by the new Moses. It’s the summer of love.
Let me just bring up one uncomfortable question. What about John the Baptist? What about Herod’s execution of his cousin? What will Jesus do in response to this injustice? Jesus does not have the option of Herod coming up for re-election, and Rome is clearly the dominant military power. Jesus does not mention John again until Jerusalem, instead he is focusing on building the Kingdom of God, which means everyone eats, everyone shares, people come together and look to their own resources and leadership.
The church must always speak truth to power, as John the Baptist did, and the church does this best when it is forming community, caring and inclusion. Here is a different historical example. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the heroic German theologian, made a monumental decision in 1939, to leave his teaching post and go back to Nazi Germany, right as Hitler’s army was rolling across Poland, and preparing its blitz on London from the air. Bonhoeffer sought to renew and rally the church, through creating a new movement, forming an underground seminary, and he published a book in 1939, with a surprising title. It was called, “Life Together.” The first line was from Psalms 133:1: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for people to dwell together in unity.” His main point was that the church is a community of love, where Christ is at the center transforming our lives. Bonhoeffer’s answer to “Mein Kompf”, my struggle, was “Life Together.”
No matter what the social challenge, whether it is speaking truth to unjust power of Herod, or Hitler or the current assault on the common good and the rule of law, our primary task is creating the Beloved Community, where people are welcomed, known, loved and empowered. Here is the Good News. To do this work, we already have everything we need!