August 7, 2017

9th Sunday after Pentecost, The Rev. Kate Reuer Welton

Read today’s scripture lessons: Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21. Listen to the sermon by clicking the microphone icon in the upper-right corner.

The Rev. Kate Reuer Welton is the Campus Pastor for Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

This story is so familiar to so many people, churched or not.  Whether in pop culture, or Sunday school, many of us feel like we know the “feeding the 5,000” story.  And so, I’m going to invite you to listen again, but this time with a little bit of context.

If you’ve been in church the last several Sundays, or following the scripture that has been read, what you’ll remember is that we’ve been reading the 13th chapter of Matthew for a long time – a chapter devoted almost entirely to giving us different, very tactile images of what the kingdom of God will be like: seeds sown in good soil; yeast mixed with leavened flour; the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, etc.  Lots of images of what the Kingdom of God is, and isn’t, and what our role is in it.

And then we skip from these images of the Kingdom of God – these long readings on who we’re called to be in this world…to Jesus feeding the 5,000.  The part of the narrative that we skip in these readings, I think, is understandable – but it also dislodges and dislocates today’s reading in significant ways.

Following these Kingdom of God texts, in the first part of the 14th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew – we hear about a feast that King Herod threw for his inner circle.  Herodians, of course, were a tight, exclusive, wealthy and bloodthirsty bunch.  They were known for extravagant feasts, and the one we hear about today was no exception.

At King Herod’s lavish birthday party, a young woman danced so beautifully that he promised her whatever she wanted.  At the advice of her mother, she asked for Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist to die.  Now, I invite your own reading of the gruesome details, found in Matthew – but John the Baptist was beheaded, and the disciples were then called to the party to retrieve and bury the body.

And then they went to tell Jesus.  “When Jesus heard this…” …

On the heels of a lavish, gruesome, exclusive, gross feast, we have an entirely different kind of feast….

Now when Jesus heard this( news about his cousin, the one he loved and the one that baptized him,) he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself….

and then, when he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them – his heart went out to them – and he cured their sick. 

In response to licentiousness and excess and violence, Jesus has compassion.  He heals.  He feeds.

he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven (in what is an incredible act of trust in the one who sent him), 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. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 

Now, no matter what you think the DNA of this miracle might be –

  • a mysterious act by Jesus?,
  • a spontaneous gesture of generosity among everyone who had bits and pieces of food stored in their clothes?,
  • a story meant to point to our sacrament of Holy Communion,
  • or maybe something else – or maybe all three of these

No matter what you think of this miracle, parsing it out tends to occupy all of our attention in this passage.  But then we miss some of the best stuff! The tension between these two feasts is extraordinary.

Though Jesus is certainly grieving, he doesn’t respond with cynicism and he doesn’t let his disciples do that either.

16Jesus said to the disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 

Jesus responds by seeing the people in front of him, sending his heart out to them, healing them, and feeding them.  He refuses to give into a system of scarcity and violence and cyniscm and mistrust- even though that certainly would have been the logical thing to do.

Instead, he ushers in a Kingdom rooted in the abundance of God, lodged in compassion and justice and deep and abiding trust.

Here is the good news, brothers and sisters:  into a system that has always had its share of excess and brutality and despots who leverage fear and scarcity to maintain their power – into just that system, Jesus breathes new life.  Compassion.  Abundance.  Healing.  He doesn’t encourage an abdication of the world, but instead breathes the good news of life in God right into the mess and mix of his world, and ours.

And so, I wonder, what good news do you hear in this story? Are you in need of healing?  Or compassion?  Or are you hungry?  Jesus meets you there.  Maybe you are riddled with fear, or consumed more than you’d care to admit, with gaining entrance to the exclusive, Herodian feast?   Jesus meets you there.

I don’t know what it is for you.  It’s certainly many things for me at many different times.

But for me, as the campus pastor at the U, my story of scarcity is one I repeat every year at about this time.  And the pew research team, and the barna group, and buzzfeed lists, and it seems like every religious news story every where feeds this narrative of scarcity.  Young adults are leaving the church in droves!  No one cares about Jesus!  We have to get it right, or…?  Or what?

Or the church will cease to exist?  God will cease to be God?

I don’t actually believe that, in part because once students arrive on campus, I have this very stark counter narrative – a narrative of abundance and hope.

  • A story that includes 50-60 students walking up to 30 minutes across campus at 9pm on a Wednesday night in the freezing cold to worship. For pete’s sake!  To worship!  Not to get free food, or to hang out…no to worship.  This is certainly good news.
  • I see these bright and beautiful young adults being so real with each other on a campus and a youth culture which preferences narratives of perfection. I witness them courageously naming their mental illness, their experiences with sexual assault, their grief and loss, their failing grades, their parents’ job loss, their doubts and fears…and I see them resting in God’s love, and proclaiming their belovedness to one another, as fellow children of God.
  • I see them reaching out, in faith, and in solidarity with their Muslim and Jewish roommates and classmates, who are increasingly targets of hateful speech and action on campus. I see them serving in the community, hungry for opportunities for justice making.  I witness them discerning lives that have purpose and meaning, in corporate office buildings and labs, in churches and school sand hospitals.  All of this as an expression of their faith.

This is the new life that Christ is breathing into our church, which can fall prey to living in Herodian anxiety about its future.  Christ breathes the new life of Compassion.  Abundance.  Healing.  Hope.  Jesus is showing up on campus – right into the mess and mix of his world, and ours.  Into my, and our anxiety about scarcity and death, Jesus shows up and brings new life.

I’m certain that Jesus shows up here as well, at Gloria Dei.  If I were preaching at 9pm on a Wednesday night, I would invite you to turn to one another, and name where Christ is breathing new life into brokenness, scarcity, and anxiety.  Where do you see abundance, hope, and new life?

Instead, I’ll just leave you with the gorgeous words from the 55th chapter of Isaiah, a reminder that God’s faithfulness to humankind endures, an ancient invitation to the abundant life:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
12 For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

May it be so.  Amen.  Amin.