Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Yesterday I looked over all my filed sermons on Matthew’s story of the feeding of the five thousand. Every three years, for the past fifteen years, this has been the lectionary reading on the Sunday following my vacation, and of those five appearances, I’ve preached on it four times. One might deduce that this is a favorite story, or that I am lacking in imagination. Both would be correct. But what I love about this story has nothing to do with the miracle itself, so let’s dispense with the unimportant things right off the bat. This is not a story of historical fact. It is allegorical. It means more than how Jesus made five loaves and two fish stretch to feed 5,000 along with women and children. When I was a child, I was taught this story, as you were, I imagine. I could just picture all the baskets of crumbs, the crowds sitting on a hillside and Jesus’ incredulous disciples. I can still see the Sunday School drawings of five loaves and two fish and I can vaguely remember the efforts of some Sunday School teacher explaining to already suspicious children how such a miracle happened. It wasn’t a wasted effort. Children always need to learn about sharing. But we’re adults now and though, even as adults, we need to be reminded about sharing, there is more to this story.
The drama over raising the debt ceiling, the national deficit, increased revenue, and decreased spending, has consumed news reports of late. It’s a complicated subject and I am not nor will I ever be an economist, macro, micro, international, market, or any other stripe. I have sometimes asked Dartmouth professor Nancy Marion to explain some economic concept to me and she does remarkably well, given that she’s brilliant and I’m, well, not. But you don’t have to be an economist to know that what’s happening in our legislative and executive branches of government, on both the federal level and state level is only just a tiny bit about money. It is mostly about power, and personality, callousness and cruelty, and an astonishing indifference to repercussions. It is about what people really value, how we think about poverty and wealth in our common life. It is about the role of government, and our mutual responsibility for our state or nation’s weakest members. It’s about greed and scarcity and abundance. It’s a huge issue, not only because of the dire and largely uncertain repercussions of any decision finally reached, but because it lays bare the moral fabric of our nation.
So, I don’t know much about economics, but I think you’ll forgive me for that, because I do know about the Christian life, discipleship to Jesus, and the conflicting loyalties that life of discipleship so often reveals.
You know, of course, that the feeding of the five thousand immediately follows the news that John the Baptist had been murdered. A pawn in another vicious game of power with sexual overtones, John was beheaded. However complicated John made Jesus’ ministry, the news of his death sent Jesus off “in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” It was heart-breaking news, and when the crowds heard it, they followed Jesus on foot from the towns – thousands of them. When Jesus came back to shore, he saw them and he had compassion for them. That’s the most important part of the story, really. Well, that and the clear and unmistakable truth that even in a time of great sorrow and political defeat, when the movement had been dealt such a crushing blow, when the people felt empty and without resources to go on, Jesus reminded them that what they had would be enough, even though it seemed like not very much at all. It will be sufficient to your needs.
The obsession with the debt ceiling debate has very nearly obliterated other news. The eastern horn of Africa - Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia - are suffering the worst drought the region has seen in decades. Church World Service is urging donations and persuasive action. Beginning today, right now, we can all switch from using the word drought to describe what’s happening in eastern Africa to famine. Doing that one small thing would shift our attention from conditions to human repercussions. There are other stories of economic disaster, human suffering, soldiers still dying, safety nets disappearing. My home state of Minnesota has had quite an interesting summer what with a government shut-down for three weeks. But since the world is watching Washington for good and fair action concerning our national economy, we too can keep our focus there when looking through the eyes of this story about grief and abundance.
Over my vacation, I gathered with my extended family twice – once for my nephew’s wedding in New York, and once for a huge family reunion in Indiana. The Indiana reunions began in 1978, the summer following my father’s premature death. To my recollection, we weren’t actually thinking of a reunion so much as we were getting together with my mother’s brothers’ families, all the aunts and uncles and cousins who were just such wonderful people. We went to Indiana that year because we were still grieving. It was a healing experience, so filled with love and nourishment and laughter, that we decided to plan it again as an official event. Over these 33 years, we’ve managed to get together fairly often, and of course, new people have come into the family mix in the form of spouses and children and children’s children. Often, more often than not actually, our family gathering has included a deep awareness of death – my father’s death first, then my grandmother, and one of our cousins, and recently a beloved aunt and just a few weeks before this year’s gathering, a dear uncle. My mother is now the senior member of this clan – a royal role. Three, maybe four of the generation below me are pregnant. We don’t know for sure, but we think maybe 74 people came and went during the two days we were together in Indiana.
We are not of one mind politically or religiously in this huge family. We are selective in our conversations about public events. Among us are a significant number of teachers and musicians. There are two clergy. Two days together is about right inasmuch as that may be as long as some of us can stand filtering our political and religious perspectives. But those two days are so precious – a wild mix of tears, hugs, laughter, singing, and pinochle.
All of us have or will one day experience deep grief, because we love. How do we find the comfort and strength to go on? There is of course the thing we are actually doing today, worshipping together, praying and singing with one another. We are, in a sense, coming to Jesus as the crowds did, seeking comfort and nourishment, hope. We will find, when we grieve, that the laughter and hugs and tears of people we love will sustain us. It will be sufficient to our needs.
All of us will be profoundly impacted by the decisions that are being made in both Concord and Washington, because we’re citizens. Vulnerable people in our communities will suffer the consequences of political stupidity. People who have made bad decisions about their own individual lives will not receive the help they need when they need it. We are, in a sense, coming to Jesus as the disciples did, telling him to send these needy people away because we cannot hope to do for them what they need with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Like the disciples, we are prone to buy into the myth of scarcity, weighing things like deserving, interest rates, prioritizing. We will find, like they did that caring for others will be the very thing that will provide all we need.
The Christian life is, at every turn and in every way, a life of contrast to the prevailing winds of our culture, especially when it engages in this zero-sum, us and them, parsimonious, mean-spirited, tight-fisted, selfish, calculating and dangerous game now being played in Washington. I imagine that if Jesus were to receive the news of what is going on in our nation’s capital in the same way he received the news about John the Baptist, he would withdraw to a deserted place to pray. But he would come back to the needy people and to his obtuse disciples. He would use what was there at hand, however modest, and it would be enough.
That’s the allegorical read on this story. And I believe it. I really do. Amen.