From Grief to Justice

Matthew 14:13-21

We might want to rush to the ending of the story, proclaiming bread for the poor. Jesus the compassionate, Jesus the wonder-worker, creates an abundance where people felt scarcity. Like Moses, who showed people manna in the wilderness, here is a new Moses who will provide bread and justice. It’s a great text to read for a food drive or for joining the Poor Peoples’ campaign. This reminds us of communion, as Jesus holds up the loaves and fish and shares them. We are a people called to eat together, share together, feed the world together. It is a story so important that Mark’s Gospel tells it twice. It is the only miracle story that is told in all four Gospels. It is an event rich with symbolism and history and promise. It is a movement moment.

But I’m already ahead of the story. We have to start at a discouraging moment. Jesus starts on a boat looking for refuge. Understand what has just happened to Jesus. He heard the devastating news that John the Baptist is dead. He is worse than dead. John was beheaded, a vicious form of capital punishment meant to send a message of fear. Don’t step out of line, don’t speak truth to power. News trickles out that this execution was not just an act of law and order, it was cold-blooded vengeance. King Herod was having an extravagant birthday party, no doubt with the most wealthy and influential people. His beautiful daughter’s dancing delights him, so Herod offers her anything she wants. She could ask for jewels or a cruise to Athens. But Herod’s wife bears a deep resentment of John, and longs for vengeance. She convinces her daughter to ask for the head of John on a platter. Not just an execution. A head on a platter. Not on a pike. A platter. A serving dish. A serving of cruelty to show off her power, her importance.

This is why Jesus is sailing to some quieter place to grieve and get some perspective. This is not just a political event. For Jesus, this is his cousin. Their mothers were pregnant together. Baby John leaped in his mother’s womb when pregnant Mary came to visit. They likely fished together, swam together, John probably dunked Jesus under water long before baptizing him. They told jokes and traded baseball cards. As they got older, they dreamed together, hoped together, imagined a new world they would work to create. John was the bolder one, outspoken and challenging. Jesus was more studious, introspective and knew how to touch the heart. John baptized Jesus and ushered him into ministry. Perhaps he was always giving Jesus a not so gentle shove into action. Put down your books Jesus, we have work to do. Did John roll his eyes when Jesus went off on a 40-day retreat in the wilderness? “The ax is at the root of the tree, Jesus. It’s time to act. What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” John was always preparing the way for Jesus. Who will prepare the way now? Who will give him that nudge, that shove to action when he is so prone to debating scriptures in the synagogue? Who will be the lighting rod and voice of moral clarity? It’s on Jesus’s shoulders now. His beloved cousin is dead.

What happens next is an introvert’s nightmare. Jesus longs for space to grieve and renew himself. Instead, the text says people followed the boat on foot and gathered others until a great crowd awaited Jesus on the other side of the lake. He sees them and has great compassion for them. Jesus is moved by their need and suffering, but perhaps also touched by their shared sense of grief and fear after the injustice of John being beheaded. They get it. What happens next when an autocrat like Herod can ignore the law, disregard decency, and destroy anyone brave enough to challenge him? Jesus, where is our hope in a world like this, a world where leaders say, “It is what it is.”?

We get it too. We know what it is like to be in an angry and anxious crowd. We know the scandal when our leaders act above the law. We know the horror when those who are to serve and protect us put a knee to the neck of man until he can’t breathe, ever again. We may feel like we are next to be served on a platter to the greedy, corrupt and decadent. We understand why someone might run around a lake to catch up with a boat if the one sailing can guide us through troubled waters and steer a course through the storms of injustice.

I wonder what the shoreside atmosphere was like. All the text tells us is Jesus healed their sick. Was it also something like a memorial service for John the Baptist? Some wept and others plotted revolution, and many were just tired and afraid and just wanted to be together for comfort. Did Jesus give a stirring eulogy, remember the words and deeds of John, and an exhortation to follow his witness and testimony? Something akin to Obama speaking at John Lewis’s memorial service? Or did Jesus have no words yet?

Perhaps it was more like the somber procession by the casket of Emmitt Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman. These moments of grief and anguish are powerful. Sometimes when we plumb the depths, we end up not with despair and desolation, but with courage and determination. When Mamie Till Bradley brought her son’s body home to Chicago, she insisted on an open casket, so everyone could see the brutality of racist violence. In August of 1955, tens of thousands came to the funeral and processed by the mutilated body of Emmitt Till. By December of 1955, people were marching in Montgomery, Alabama, walking to work to boycott segregated buses, and young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as a new leader.
Shared grief creates energy for change. It can shatter us, but it can also make us say, “no more.”

I don’t know what happened at the lakeside with Jesus. But I don’t think we can separate the gathering crowd from the brutal beheading of John the Baptist. Jesus thought he needed to get away, to be alone to grieve and think, some time for self-care. Instead, he got this crowd. But maybe that is exactly what he needed. He saw that instead of grieving his cousin alone, thousands joined him in his pain and loss. He was moved in his gut with compassion for them, because just maybe they got it. This was a moment, an inflection point, a catalyst for a new direction in public mission and ministry. But it was a moment almost missed.

The disciples were tired too. At the end of the day they were concerned about the approaching nightfall, and people being hungry. It was a practical concern. They urged Jesus to send people home so they could buy food, then maybe they could rest too. But Jesus saw it differently.

“You give them something to eat.” Jesus said. They had not planned for a massive potluck. “All we have are two casseroles and five side dishes, Jesus. Just some lasagna and bean salad. We were just planning to feed…well, 12 of us and you.”

“Bring them here to me.” Everyone sit down and let’s pray. “Oh Lord, by your gracious hand we are fed. We thank you for the loving hands that made this tuna casserole, and this coleslaw. May this be a place where all are fed, all are welcome and all are made well. Amen.” Let’s eat! I don’t know how the food expanded and the text is full of mystery as to the nature of the miracle. All I know is I have attended potlucks for 50 years, and there are never enough people signed up, it looks like scarcity in the beginning, but by the end, there seems to be a lot of food left over. The text does not tell us whether the sharing created community and people were moved to share what they had hidden away or if there was some kind of miraculous expansion of food.

Here is what I do know. All were fed. There was enough. The message to Jesus’s disciples, both the 12 and all of us listening today, is also clear. God desires bread for all, bread for our bodies, and liberation for our souls. And who is going to give it to them? You give them something to eat. You be the change you long for in the world. Just as the disciples were probably dumbfounded as they looked at five loaves and two fish, we may feel our resources are small compared to the world’s great need. But I think Jesus was saying to gather what you have, and you will find you already have everything you need. Because it’s not about how much we have, but who we are together. We are God’s people, and it is time.

This is a moment, a moment when grief and anguish are transformed into energy and hope. Just like John’s beheading, and Emmitt Till’s lynching, and George Floyd and Brianna Taylor’s unjust murders. Just like the disciples want to send everyone home, we may want to shelter in place and wait for this pandemic to pass us by. But it is time to break bread together, time to come to terms with our grief and complicity, and time to gather and share our resources for the great banquet of the beloved community. From our shared grief, may it blossom to love and justice.

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