Homily for Pentecost 8
August 3, 2014
In the modern world, we are fascinated by stories of super heroes with super powers standing out from the multitudes and saving the day while the rest of the population stands back and watches with grateful awe, that is, unless a flying car, train or toppling high rise falls on their heads (super heroes do tend to be quite destructive).
We live in the era of Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, the Avengers, and, oh yes, Catwoman, Aquagirl, Wonder Woman, and Atomic Betty. At the moment, there are several movies of that genre playing in Vancouver, including Guardians of the Galaxy, Hercules, Lucy, and X-Men.
This fascination might be an expression of optimism about our human potential, or a yearning for justice and the overcoming of evil, or possibly the desire for revenge, or maybe a need to live vicariously through larger-than-life figures. And modern as they appear to be, today’s superheroes are very reminiscent of the Greeks gods of 2500 years ago.
As we consider today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 14: 13—21), it might be tempting to portray Jesus as the super hero with super powers, although as one who feeds and heals people and doesn’t create a lot of collateral damage in the process. But I don’t think that’s where the Gospel today is meant to take us.
The Eucharistic significance of this passage is unmistakable. Like a priest presiding at the Eucharist, Jesus takes bread, looks up to heaven as a way of recognizing the true source (for the same reason we say “Lift up your hearts”), he blesses and breaks the bread, and then gives it to the people via the disciples. But no priest celebrates the Eucharist as a sign of his or her own glory.
Given the obvious Eucharistic symbolism, what is the real miracle here?
People indeed love super heroes and their super powers, and let me say that I do not completely dismiss the idea that Jesus might have produced food out of thin air. Who really knows for sure what he could do? However, I think something more important was going on than a mere display of power.
If it had just been a food giveaway what would the effect have been? About the same as a giant food giveaway at Safeway – there would be a huge crowd of people elbowing each other to get to the front of the line and trampling over the people who most needed the food. There would be some immediate need being dealt with, but it would appeal to all the wrong motivations in people, and ultimately it wouldn’t change anything. There are lots of cautionary tales about what happens when people are just given whatever they wish for. With that kind of mentality, followers of Jesus might be tempted to say, “We don’t have to do anything – Jesus will do it for us,” an infantile and passive way of looking at the Christian faith, which is a call to discipleship – a summons to follow in the way of Jesus.
Jesus didn’t want a crowd trailing around behind him just looking for giveaways and special effects and entertainment. When he said “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (Jn 4:48), he himself indicated this was not the goal. His goal wasn’t to create dependents or groupies or parasites. Just giving people food would have kept them in a self-centered mode, but his goal was to teach them to live for others, to become conscious of the needs around them, and to open up to each others
So the fact that Jesus asks for what is already present in the way of food is critical to the story – he doesn’t magically create something out of nothing. The people in any case would not have been absolutely empty-handed. Unlike the crazy tourists who routinely wander off into the woods around here, we have to assume these people would already have had personal supplies of food, but carried discreetly.
Jesus confronts the very human tendency to run away from our problems, pretend they aren’t there, or get somebody else to fix them.
Had the great crowd gone off at that moment, as the disciples were advising, we can imagine that it would not have created a very good impression (“The disciples told us to go away”). Jesus convinces the people to sit. Getting people to sit down when they are tempted to run around in panic is a key aspect of spiritual life. “Don’t just do something, sit there” is sometimes the best approach. As Richard Rohr suggests, only when we are fully present can the banquet begin.
Jesus puts the onus on the disciples. To become considerate rather than dismissive of the people around us is always a critical step on the spiritual journey, and so getting the disciples to start the process by sharing their own food is an essential step in this miraculous process Jesus puts in motion.
In this approach, we can see the shifting of the mantle from the great Messiah to his disciples who will be his Church. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “YOU are the light of the world” and today’s Gospel illustrates this shift in responsibility, as opposed to portraying Jesus as unique, or as a superhero, drawing all the attention to himself. Jesus’ goal at this point is to inspire them to take up their own Cross and find their own super powers.
The disciples above all were not allowed to spread fear. Rather, he dismisses their impression that they don’t have enough. The sudden threat of scarcity no doubt would have put everyone into a defensive and hostile mode. We all know how quickly rumours flow through a crowd. Alarmed by the disciples’ fears, it would instantly become a situation of everyone for themselves, like hoarders clinging desperately to things even when there is more than enough to go around.
And as it turns out there is plenty to go around – baskets full. What looks like a potential disaster becomes a moment of great blessing and I believe it was because people opened up to each other and shared with each other. The miracle Jesus performed is the transformation of the crowd from an unwieldy number of self-serving and self-seeking individuals into a Eucharistic community.
The Gospel taught Jesus’ followers to confront their selfish, fearful tendencies and to find it within themselves to become like Christ in their own circumstances – to be the one who offers the bread of life, rather than merely being consumers of someone else’s efforts and generosity.
This early model of the Eucharist,* our prototype, you could say, reveals that Jesus creates the Table at which all are welcome, the Table of Plenty where everyone’s contributions and gifts are not only welcome but necessary. There is no distinction made between Jews and Gentiles, or between men or women or children in this great act of sharing. The motive for doing it is simply compassion, and the goal is to unite all humankind in one Communion, where the emphasis is less on doctrines and particularities of belief, but on mutual support and what we have in common.
I think we can see in this parable of the feeding of the multitudes that Jesus was telling a new story, teaching the people a new model, a new way, one not based on fear and scarcity and self-serving — an invitation to people to live in a new sense of God’s presence and grace. This is the model we are trying to symbolize in Holy Communion.
And in turn Christians are called to be the kind of presence in the world that yeast is in bread, or like that one pearl that you discover in the midst of all the other stuff you encounter or think you’re looking for in life, reminding us how one gem of a person can make your day or even your life. 1900 years before Gandhi said “you need to become the change you want to see in the world,” that is exactly what Jesus was teaching his followers.
The Gospel reveals what a beautiful thing it is to discover that God provides, but not always in the way you might expect. How wonderful it is, how miraculous, when people choose to do the right thing, whether it is feeding the hungry, tending the sick or housing the homeless, rather than expecting God (or someone else) to do it instead.
Superheroes embody our own longing to be transcendent, to be more than we are, or to be other than we are; they evoke our yearning for power to confront our fear of evil and death. They can also justify escaping from personal responsibility. Life just seems so overwhelming and people seem so, well, impotent. I think today’s Gospel is meant to show we have great power within us, but it is not achieved by putting ourselves first. The presence of Jesus is meant to reveal the glory of being fully human, not by escaping from reality but by embracing it. This is the unique witness of Jesus, that it is by being fully human that we regain our connection with the divine – the transcendent – and that it is by putting others first that we reveal the glory of God.
His approach is not Hocus, Pocus, POOF!** As Jesus reveals to us, to be fully human means being compassionate; it means being willing to struggle and suffer and sympathize with others; it means developing a conscience and a capacity to care; it means being a person dedicated to the whole – the community – rather than just being out for yourself and your own private salvation.
Instead of being the super hero who gets all the attention and glory, Jesus is trying to turn his followers, his disciples (that is, us) into everyday super heroes who will have the courage to use our own powers to their maximum potential in creating a world of justice, equity, and peace. Communion is only possible when people are willing to share.
So the Gospel reading today begins to shine with a new significance and relevance: the people were out in an empty kind of place, a wilderness, and it seemed to the disciples that they had nothing to go on. They thought they were out of resources, but they were wrong, because they had each other. They thought they were powerless to deal with the situation, and they were wrong because they underestimated the power of God’s grace and generosity to inspire them to share.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
*It’s interesting that Matthew, acknowledged as the Gospel writer with the most obvious grounding in Judaism, would have added so many obviously Eucharistic references to the feeding story, rather than emphasizing the connection between the Eucharist and the Passover.
**The words “hocus pocus” were originally taken from the Latin words of institution said by the priest at the Eucharist
RCL-appointed readings for Pentecost 9:
Genesis 32:22-31 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved. The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. The LORD upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings. The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them. The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy. My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.
Romans 9:1-5 I am speaking the truth in Christ–I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit– I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
Matthew 14:13-21 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.