Sunday, August 02, 2020

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 14
16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

I open the backdoor, I see a new tree.  I look up from my book, I see a new tree.  I close my eyes and count to ten, I see a new tree.

And not just any tree.  This fast-growing and seemingly supernatural tree is known to some as the Tree of Heaven, the Chinese Sumac, the Varnish Tree, the Stinking Sumac (like rotting cashews?) while some cheeky gardeners and landscapers have been known to call it the Tree of Hell.  

It grows quickly.  It requires no care.  It is one of the few trees that will take root in a crack in the sidewalk and make a go of it.  And while this constantly reseeding tree will spread and quickly take over any space available, it has some internal weakness, and is known to drop branches or topple over in a strong wind.  In most places, it is classed as a noxious weed, and should be avoided, as it pushes out native species and is very hard to eradicate.  

I know, you’re thinking, “tell us how you really feel...”  But I can confess to you that I have mixed feelings about the tree.  It is an attractive tree, and I admire it’s tenacity, but the cost to the neighbourhood is too high.  Meanwhile, it does teach us about abundance, and the extent to which nature finds a way.  There may be no mustard tree in my backyard, but the Tree of Heaven is the next best thing, if explosive growth from seemingly nothing is what you’re looking for.  

Lectionary watchers, attentive to the sequence of readings we follow, are just now wondering if I have the wrong sermon.  The mustard seed and the yeast in three measures of flour is so last week, and this week we are supposed to be feeding the five thousand, or trying to understand this moment in the unfolding story.  Rest assured I’m on the right week, but I see a parallel—maybe a bridge—from the seeds and yeast to the five thousand on the hillside.  

Just ten chapters ago, Jesus was calling the disciples.  The first crowd appears, a direct response to the healing and teaching that has begun.  He shares the Sermon on the Mount, and the crowd grows.  There is more healing, more teaching, and soon Jesus is struggling to keep up.  “The harvest is plentiful,” he says, “but the workers are few.”  He sends out the twelve to share the load, but this only increases the need.  Soon we’re at five thousand, and when Jesus landed he saw them he had compassion on them and healed the sick—but the crowd remained.

Before we talk about feeding anyone, we need to recognize that this is a living parable, a sure sign of the kingdom embodied in the explosive growth of the crowd. Jesus is the leaven, the seed that grows, creating a plant where everyone can find shade.  The explosive growth from inviting an intimate group to walk with him, to facing a hillside of hungry souls, is just as kingdom-setting as the mustard seed or the yeast in flour.

So too the premise of the story.  “They need not go away,” Jesus said, “we should feed them instead.”  

“But Lord,” they said (something I’m sure Jesus was tired of hearing, or is tired of hearing), “we have food for ourselves, and no more.”  They actually gave the evening’s menu—five loaves and two fish—but the assumption was the same: few could be fed.  Soon, however, we learn that explosive growth is on the menu, and the kingdom comes to the hillside that day and everyone is fed.

I want to interrupt this sermon with an observation.  God in Jesus feeds the five thousand, something that all preachers agree.  Then things diverge.  On one end of the spectrum, feeding the five thousand becomes an early version of stone soup, with Jesus inspiring the crowd to share the food that was already on hand.  At the other end of the spectrum, the physical limitations of five loaves and two fish were overcome, in the same manner that the storm was stilled, the leper was healed, and the demons sent away.  

I can’t tell you what to believe, I can only point to what the world seems to need.  We need God to be active in the world, overturning our expectations, expanding our horizons, overwhelming us with the explosive growth that belongs to the kingdom alone.  Efforts to explain (or explain away) don’t live comfortably with the arresting and unexpected nature of God’s own realm.  When faced with longing and hunger, Jesus said “we should feed them instead.”  

In our time, on many levels, we face an explosive growth in need.  The hillside crowd continues to swell, with people who are hurting, lost, broken, afraid, grieving, isolated, alienated, oppressed, confused, angry, bewildered, or simply exhausted.  The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.  Now, more than even, we turn to God to help us address this need, in both ourselves and others.  We turn to God to open the kingdom store of loaves and fishes once more, to fill us—that we in turn may fill others.  “They need not go away,” Jesus said, “we should feed them instead.”

I want to conclude with words from our passage, words that transform this living parable in a sacrament of compassion:

Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied.  

May it be so.  Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home