Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Matthew 14:13-21 Feeding the Five Thousand
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘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.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Since early March, when I first began to hear of the spread of Covid-19 from my colleagues in Washington state and into the first weeks of safer-at-home policies, it became clear that we who live in Maine and have access to cars and woods are luckier than many of our neighbors across the country. Because as we realized we would need to create some space between ourselves and people that we don’t live with, we still had the wilderness as a place of sanctuary. We have been hiking and gardening and kayaking as much as we can, as safely as we can. I even began making videos of myself reading Psalms in the woods because, if we couldn’t meet safely in the church sanctuary, reading scripture in the sanctuary wilderness seemed the next best thing. The wild spaces feel like places of abundance here.
From conversations we’ve had, I’m not the only one who has felt like this. So, when you hear, at the beginning of today’s scripture reading that Jesus withdrew to a deserted place to be by himself, you may think of your favorite hideaway in the woods and the sense of comfort and maybe even safety that this place brings you. I'm going to ask you to imagine something a little bit different though. Rather than remember how peaceful you find the natural world around you, I'm going to ask you to imagine the wilderness as a place in your world where something bad is most likely to happen to you.
Imagine that you are in a place where it is hard to find enough to feed yourself and your family. Imagine a place where you can’t run to the grocery store for dinner, even if you have a little money. Imagine living in a way that the wilderness only reminds you of the work you have to do to clear it for farming, and the people and animals that might harm you in the process. Abundance looks pretty different in this place.
This world that I’m asking you to imagine is one in which what you have to eat will mostly come from what you can grow or what you can barter for or buy with meager wages. If you grew up in a farming family, this might feel familiar to you. Though, in the world of this Bible story, if you are lucky enough to have land, a significant portion of that food will go to feed the armies of the empire that have taken over your home-country. In this place, abundance isn’t the wilderness. It’s cultivated land with long, plowed fields. It’s enough rain to make the crops grow and no pests to ruin your harvest. It’s a time when no soldiers are trampling or stealing your months of hard work to feed their own bellies. The wilderness is where the foxes and jackals live and the bandits roam. The wilderness is where you have even less of a guarantee of finding food and often very little access to clean, potable water. It is a place of scarcity outside the bounds of cultivated farmland and walled, protected cities. It is probably not a place where you go for relaxation, unless, apparently, you are Jesus.
Now, imagine being so desperate that you willingly follow Jesus into danger. Maybe you are very sick. Your illness makes it hard for you to plow your fields and mend your fishing nets. Maybe your illness has left you isolated and disconnected from your community and your family. Or, maybe your child is sick and you cannot bear to watch her die. Thorns, thieves, and wild animals may not seem more frightening than a life lived in such pain. So, you go to the dangerous wilderness to find Jesus. That is where we begin our story today. A crowd of needy people in a place of great scarcity looking for healing. What they get is an added measure of compassion that they may not have been able to imagine.
Even though Jesus was in the midst of his own grief, he saw these sick, desperate people and had compassion. You’ll remember that Jesus went to the woods after learning that his cousin John had been violently murdered by the king. Upon hearing of this grisly death, Jesus withdrew to the wilderness. He did not seem to fear what lurked there. It couldn't be worse than that which lived inside the palace walls. And, as he left the town, the sick and the ones who loved them, followed him out into the unknown.
Most of the time, when we talk about this reading, we talk about two incredible acts: the healing of all the sick people and the feeding of these same people with what looks like very little food. These were incredible acts. But, we should remember, that even in the biblical record, Jesus isn’t the only one who can perform miracles. Others might have had powers that allowed them to heal and feed people. I’m going to suggest to you, following the work of a scholar named David Lose, that the most powerful thing Jesus did in this story wasn’t the food or the healings. It was the compassion at the foundation of the acts that tells us the most about Jesus.
In his commentary on this passage, Dr. Lose talks about how in Jesus’ time, and too frequently in our own, people with greater power in a society have an easier time getting food. The background that isn’t explicitly mentioned in this story is that there was small group of elites who had ready access to good and healthy food. There was an enormous group of poor people who did not. I learned from other scholars that in Roman society of this era, the Empire used food as a tool to manipulate people into service and fealty to the Empire. It was taken for granted that with the cost of a few pieces of bread and the spectacle of the circus that the Empire could leverage the desperation of the poor masses into cooperation with the ruling elite. If you do what you are told, you get food. If you don’t, you won’t.
Psychologists remind us that when you feel like you don't have something that you really need (like money, food, emotional support, housing, a meaningful worship community), all of your mental and emotional energy is oriented towards managing that scarcity of resources. It is hard work being poor. People in this church know that. While you may become quite adept at the strategies that allow you to survive and find the things that you need that are scarce, in the long run, spending so much time managing that stress of not having enough is not good for people. Study after study shows us, and we know in our own bones after the stress of the last several months, that living without what we need prevents us from functioning at our most full and healthy capacity. And, it can even negatively affect how we make decisions about our long-term well-being. The empire of Rome counted on the poor people they conquered being unable to manage anything more than merely surviving in order to stay in power.
But Jesus demonstrated that the Empire of heaven lived by different standards than the Empire of Rome. The empire of heaven would not manipulate your need in order to demand your allegiance. The empire of heaven would not create scarcity within your community to ensure that a small group held onto power. The empire of heaven would be generous without conditions. In healing and feeding the people, Jesus demonstrated that God does not demand you suffer so that God can reign. No, God is not the emperor and you are no longer simply a peasant. You are a beloved child of God, and you will be fed.
While our lives are very different that the lives of the people in this story, we know that there are hungry and sick people who would walk out to the scariest place they can imagine if they thought it would help them feel well again. We know that there are people who haven’t worked or haven’t worked enough to pay their bills since March. We know that there are people at risk of eviction. We know that students, parents, and teachers are worried about school in the fall. And, we know that there are people worrying that they will never get better from a virus that we have no cure for. Just as the empire was part of the context of the original story, Covid-19 and our national response to it, are part of ours and affect how we read and respond to it. That compassion that lived in Jesus still lives in the Body of Christ, in this body of Christ. How will we gather up our loaves and fishes and make sure that the people who are in the wilderness right now get fed?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.