Sermon for Sunday, August 3, 2014
Proper 13, Year A
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer
Note: Amy Whitcomb Slemmer is a postulant for ordination to the priesthood being sponsored by St. Stephen’s Church.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Mother and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This week’s reading, the unavoidable headline news stories, the uncertainty and unrest around us, and the joyful baptisms of Hazel and Charlie are rich invitations for hours of contemplation, even in this fleeting moment of summer. However, our conversation will touch on these topics, raise some questions and offer some observations that may tug at you occasionally as you traverse the terrain of the upcoming week.
Today’s gospel lesson continues the string of summer stories about Jesus’ acts and spreading the good news. He has spoken in parables, healed the sick, exhorted the disciples to go into the world and expand his ministry, and here we find him tired, and looking for rest and solitude. Given my own surprise at changing the calendar to August this week, I wondered whether Jesus, in modern terms, was actually in search of a vacation?
Instead, He is beset upon by a crowd that has come together at the news of John the Baptist’s death, and want guidance and insight from Jesus. The disciples are eager for time with Jesus as well. As dusk is approaching, the disciples offer to send the crowd away, but Jesus tells them not to. Rather than shunning them or ignoring the needs of this crowd, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people.
A description of the feeding of the five thousand appears in all four gospels, which is like a neon scriptural flair signaling readers, preachers and students to pay close attention because something significant has happened, even as some of the minor details differ. All four writers, or groups responsible for this gospel story, wanted to include it in the history of Jesus’s life and ministry.
In Matthew’s telling, we know that the crowd is hungry, having been together all day, listening to Jesus, and to each other. So Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people, but the disciples protest because they only have five loaves of bread and two fish – probably what they expected to eat themselves, that night and perhaps the next — certainly not an amount sufficient to satisfy the enormous crowd.
There are many theories about how five loaves and two fish became enough to feed five thousand hungry people. If, like me, you spent time in parochial school, parsing out the details of this miracle was like a sport with points scored by thinking of the most outlandish possibly plausible explanations for how so little food went so far — not only to meet the needs of the hungry assembly, but to leave twelve baskets of leftovers.
A favorite theory involved the helpful assistance of a baker from one of the neighboring towns bringing in a cart full of additional bread, and Jesus being so busy attending to the flock that he didn’t see the smuggled bread. Another theory is that everyone actually brought their own fish and bread — sort of a potluck gathering, which begs the question of why the crowd would have been hungry in the first place. A final theory hypothesized that Jesus had squirreled away dozens of loaves in a secret cave, and then hit up his stores, or dispatched his disciples to retrieve the concealed bread when the crowd wasn’t looking. I hope this isn’t true, as it makes the whole drama of the story seem like a parlor game or sleight of hand, rather than the example of sufficiency that I think we are being offered.
Jesus does not dwell on the insufficiency of the loaves and fishes. His priority is addressing the peoples’ hunger. He knew that the people would be increasingly unavailable to hear his word, or to understand the world-changing ramifications of his teachings about treating one another as he was and would treat them, if they were hungry. He seems attuned to the futility of teaching and preaching while people are experiencing the physical discomfort of hunger taking up a larger share of their thoughts and experience as the gathering grew longer.
I don’t know whether any of you have ever experienced hunger. Not just the stomach pains or gurgling of a missed meal or skipped dessert, but the sleepiness of your body conserving energy accompanied by the complete uncertainty of when or how your next meal will arrive. Social scientists refer to this condition as food insecurity, and understand that this affects all aspects of a person’s life. Food insecurity is not confined to foreign lands; it is with us in this country, in the Commonwealth and even in our own South Shore community.
Being hungry, or living with food insecurity, permeates all parts of a person’s life and short-circuits what can be achieved. When a significant portion of your day is spent seeking food and nourishment, you are preoccupied with your own needs. You do not have the bandwidth or generosity of spirit to be thinking about others, or the world around you and how you might make it just a bit more like the kingdom of God.
A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of being with Governor Patrick when he unveiled the results of a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that named Massachusetts as being first among the fifty states with respect to childhood wellbeing. The authors considered housing, health, school readiness and hunger in the Commonwealth and found that with 99.8% of our children with health insurance, preschools available in most areas and with full enrollment, we are doing better than any other jurisdiction in this country, which is marvelous. What struck me about this event, however, was the Governor’s challenge to the assembled advocates and policy makers. He called our attention to the fact that the news was terrific, but that one in seven of our children go to bed each night in poverty – better than the national average of one in five children, but still thousands of young people in Massachusetts not sleeping in secure surroundings, or sure about their next meal.
The point the Governor was trying to make was that we are going to miss out on the full potential of the young people in the study who are in want. Children who go to bed hungry do not awaken ready to learn, or to bound into a new day mindful of the joy and new possibilities available. They wake to the experience of insufficiency, instability, fear and discomfort.
This week, I have been thinking about the experience of the Israeli and Palestinian children who live in and around Gaza. We have seen the unsettling pictures and videos of the violence and destruction in their world, and I have been wondering about their access to food, water and nutrition. Is hunger one of the deprivations that these children are experiencing? I imagine finding food and shelter now occupies increasingly large portions of each day, which must have a profound impact on their view of their future, on their community, and on their relationship with God and with one another.
How can the young people of Israel and Palestine be a part of any solution when their immediate needs are at risk? How can they maintain or enhance their connections to community when their survival is not assured? I know nothing more powerful for us to do, than what Jesus did with the loaves and fishes. We must pray. We must pray for the politicians to hear God weep. We must pray for the aid workers and humanitarians to safely fulfill their missions. We must pray that the child who sleeps alone in the dark will feel God’s loving presence and sense the power and connections we share.
Pray is exactly what we are doing for Hazel and Charlie whom we will baptize today. Today is a day of joy for them and for us as we prepare to welcome them into their new lives in Christ. Jesus’s message on the beach in this morning’s gospel story is that He will provide, and that in community – together – there is sustenance sufficient for all of us. This morning Hazel and Charlie are going to join our community. The grownups in their lives are affirming their children’s desire to be brought up in the Christian faith, to be counted among Christ’s followers, and we, as part of this sacrament, will covenant to support them and to help these children live into the fullness of new life as we embody God’s love. We will specifically promise to support them in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers.
We will practice our promise for their very first time as baptized babies this morning when we share the Eucharist, a familiar and comforting act, reminiscent of the meal that was shared on a shore nearly two thousand years ago. Our prayers will echo what Jesus asked, that the meal be sufficient and a blessing to those who participate in it. Our modern prayers are the same. And this morning, I invite us to consider how the nourishment of the Eucharist will suffice to meet our physical needs so that we can turn outward and see where there is more need to be met.
Let us pray that Hazel and Charlie will not know hunger, so that they will be nourished and ready to learn about God and the significance of their baptisms. May they know that today they were surrounded by their parents, Godparents, loved ones and new community in a living demonstration of the sufficiency and abundance of God’s love and blessing. Amen.