The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13A)
August 2, 2020
O Lord, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church, and, because it cannot continue in safety without thy succour, preserve it evermore by thy help and goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
At this point in our Lectionary cycle, we are really starting to move through the Gospel of Matthew, and between now and November we will plough through the text until on the last Sunday of the church year, we shall reach the words Jesus speaks to us about the end times. Then we will hear the Great Commandment to love God and neighbour, along with the clear pronouncement that we will be judged, when the Kingdom comes to fulfilment, on the quality of our neighbour love. For as we will have loved the least of these our brethren, we will have loved God.
In recent weeks we have been hearing the parables of that Kingdom. We have been learning something about the nature of how God works, how the Kingdom functions. We discovered that invitation into the life of the kingdom is made with abundance, the way the sower scatters his seeds and the way the fisher folk cast their nets. We learnt that in the Kingdom, final judgement, the harvest, is not made until the season of growing is over, as all or roots are intertwined and we can’t properly judge from our own perspective in the midst of things, lest the good be plucked out with the bad. We learnt that, like the mustard seed, from the smallest of beginnings, extraordinary things can grow and blossom. We learnt of its extraordinary value from the story of the pearl without price. The Kingdom, in short, is like the natural processes of our world, organic, dynamic, important, patient, and yet still purposeful. God will accomplish the reconciliation of all things with love, and we are called to cooperate with this work, enter into it, be a part of this process.
Today we shift gears from the parables. Jesus has finished, for now, his pronouncement of the Kingdom through these evocative stories and he returned to his home town, where he received a less than hospitable welcome. He famously moved on with his words “a prophet is not without honour except in his own country and in his own home.” Meanwhile, Herod has become fearful of Jesus, and has arrested John the Baptist and beheaded him at the behest of Salome. This is, in fact, the news Jesus hears that prompts his withdrawal from the crowds “in a boat to a lonely place apart.”
Having learnt of his friend’s death, Jesus is seeking some solitude. He is, however, pursued by the crowd and when he disembarks, he finds himself confronted by “a great throng.” What does he do? Does he tell them do go away, to leave him in peace to mourn his friend? No. He acts consistently with his own values, with his personality. “He had compassion on them and healed their sick.” We see Jesus’ reaction in the face of personal tragedy, and rather than turning inward or bitter, he responds with love for others, with action. He foreshadows his own proclamation about how we are to live, and by showing compassion and love, by healing the sick, he is showing compassion and love, healing intention for God.
Jesus’ disciples see that he must be tired, that he must want some of that peace he had sought in coming to this “lonely place,” and suggest that Jesus “send the crowd away” to feed themselves. The disciples, noting the needs of the crowd for food, feel that they can both get Jesus the rest he needs and see that the people have a chance to satisfy their own hunger. Jesus, however, is not finished with his work. “They need not go away,” he tells the disciples, “you give them something to eat.”
The disciples are astonished at this idea, as they barely have enough for themselves: “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” But Jesus says, “bring them here to me.” And for the first time, we hear familiar words: “taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.” For the first time, Jesus performs those particular actions, he takes, blesses, and breaks the bread, and gives them to be distributed to the people. He will do this again when he feeds the four thousand and at that last meal he shared with his friends before his death. The result of these actions, of Jesus’ love for the crowds is that “they all ate and were satisfied.”
Jesus has made a meal for the people in which there is enough for all, in which all are satisfied. He has chosen to make this offering to the tired and hungry crowd rather than making them trot off and get food individually. He gathers the community of his followers and offers them the nourishment they need, and in abundance. In short, he acts in accordance with the very nature of the Kingdom of God, about which we have learnt in the parables.
He gives abundantly to all who have come to him, regardless of who they are or what they might or might not have done; whether by our standards they are deserving or not. He scatters the bread and fish as abundantly as the seed strewn by the sower, as heedlessly as the net cast into the sea. He makes no premature judgement of who is worthy to be fed at the table to which he has called the people, just like the owner of the field full of intertwined bearded wheat and bearded darnell refuses to judge too hastily. He does this all beginning with the smallest quantity of material and yet it grows up, is turned into a great bounty.
The feeding miracles reveal the consistency of the God’s nature; that God always acts like God’s best self. Jesus shows compassion for the plight of the people, even as he suffers over the loss of his friend. Jesus has the capacity to dig deeply into the love that is the core of his being and share that love even in moments of greatest grief, exactly as he will show us on the Cross. He never turns away from the needs of his people and reveals who he really when he takes, blesses, breaks, and gives us the bread of life. Jesus is truly present to the people when he ensures that all are fed, and that there is enough for all who come to the table.
We remember what Jesus has done with what seems to be so little. In these actions, of having compassion on the crowd, healing and feeding them, Jesus does more than a magic trick or two, he reveals who he truly is, what is at the core of his nature: generosity, abundance, and love. He shows that in loving his neighbours, this crowd of strangers who none-the-less are his neighbours, he has expressed his love for God, and his abiding loyalty to the nature of God, his own nature. Jesus will always act consistently. I have heard on the news a lot lately Maya Angelou’s adage, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time,” with particular reference to the bad behaviour of public officials. Here, however, we can see that this is exactly true of Jesus in feeding the five thousand. Jesus has acted in accordance with his preaching and teaching. He proves himself no hypocrite. Jesus reveals that he has acted and will always act in keeping with his nature and, more than this, his actions reveal not only who he is, but who God is.
This knowledge can give us strength and solace, to be sure that in and through whatever we face, trials, separation, disease, and disruption, God will always be God’s self. As Saint Paul told the community at Rome,
neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God in Christ is always there for us, offering us the bread of life, offering it without worrying that there is not enough or that it will run out. Abundance, generosity, and compassion are hallmarks of our God, even in the darkest moments, even in a “lonely place” when the “day is now over.” And goodness knows, many of us have felt ourselves in such a place over the past five months. Even in those places, God will feed us and feed us abundantly and in doing so, we know how much we are loved as God draws us deeper into the working of the Kingdom, making us stronger and better prepared to act ourselves in the image and likeness of God, loving our neighbours in return abundantly, knowing there is enough for all.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Saint James the Apostle, 25 July 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume