Good morning Christians, seekers and friends!
How are you faring dear ones? I know that we have all been trying to find a way within our current world context. But with all of our early expectations and predictions about the new Coronavirus being dashed, we are now living within a world where we don’t know what to expect or what to hope for. We are in a liminal time—in between our old normal and an as-yet-unknown future. A close friend recently asked me, “What do you think God is doing in this time? What are we to learn?” And I had no answer at the ready. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits- all answer. But I have one suggestion, Christians. Ask God.
Now I know this sounds rather pat. Just Ask. However, I would suggest that it is one of the bravest and holiest things we can do. Because if we are honest, we Christians have sometimes given up – thrown up our hands while saying, “It’s God’s will.” But how do we know God’s will for our lives if we don’t ask God? Now I know a good follow up question would be: “How?” To this question, I do have an answer. Take your questions, fears, even anger to God in prayer. And read the scriptures to find out for yourself how God has responded to God’s people throughout the ages. A beloved parishioner asked last week why we so often choose the Epistle over the Hebrew Scriptures as our first reading. Her question is an important one – our Christian religion is rooted in the Hebrew scriptures, and without the Jewish people, our faith in Jesus would be baseless. If we don’t address all the history that led up to Jesus’ coming into the world, we can lose valuable insight. My answer to her was that the preacher, looking at the gospel for the week, begins to question how best to apply the gospel lesson to our current lives and situation. The preacher then chooses whichever other given passage seems to most speak to what the Spirit, through us, is bidding us to say ‘to God’s people’ about our gospel. But do read both the New Testament and the Hebrew scriptures…. That is how we see the arc of the history that Dr. King talked about.
In this liminal time, if we want to know how God is working in our lives in the midst of this pandemic—knowing our history as children of God gives us guidance. Reading scripture also shows us how open God is to our questions, our complaints, and even our ‘demands.’ The Hebrew scriptures are a treasure trove of examples. In today’s reading from Genesis for example, we find Jacob, who first deceptively received his father’s blessing, literally wrestling with an angel of the Lord to receive his blessing as well. He wasn’t giving up the blessings he sought by attributing it to “God’s will.” And God responded not just by giving him any old blessing but saying, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
God responds, and God’s response addresses our real-life needs if we ask. This is not to say that God fulfills our wishes like our own celestial slot machine or Santa Claus – but that God absolutely answers those who come to him in faith. As we read through the scriptures, we are given example after example of how God cares. And God’s love isn’t just something ethereal and abstract—a Platonic form or idea of love that is ‘above’ our reality. God’s love responds to our very real experiences and needs.
Let look at today’s gospel which relates one of Jesus’ best known miracle—the feeding of the five thousand. Most of us who’ve hung around the church for a while have heard this story preached on more times than we might care to enumerate. We’ve heard folks exegete the passage based on the number of folks fed, the number of fish, the number of loaves, and the number of baskets of bread that remained after the 5000 men, women, and children ate. We’ve heard reasons why these number are significant (just a hint folks… the numbers in scripture are always significant). We’ve heard about why Jesus’ breaking of the bread is important in light of our eucharistic theology. But one of the things that is very often overlooked about Jesus’ miracle is why it happened. We know from Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, that he didn’t work miracles like some kind of a first century magician—a biblical David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear displaying his power to a chorus of oohs and ahhs…. Jesus’ miracle was born out of compassion for tired and hungry people. Because Jesus loved them, he responded to their need. What the disciples suggested about sending the crowd into the nearby towns and villages didn’t address their needs. All night diners were not a thing in the time of Jesus, and sending folks off as evening was falling would not only mean that they would remain hungry– only somewhere else –but it would also put them in harm’s way, potential victims of the robbers and thieves on the roads who preyed upon travelers. So, Jesus says, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
If the disciples were surprised, they shouldn’t have been. Jesus had been consistent in his priorities of care from the beginning of his ministry. While we have been reading through the gospel of Matthew throughout this season after Pentecost, I invite you to read chapters 1-14 on your own. Now I know we Episcopalians are not necessarily known for our Bible reading, but this is a great opportunity to follow Jesus’ ministry from the very start. Read it like you would a novel or a story – walk with us as we travel through the Gospel through the rest of our liturgical year. If you’ve never sat down to read the Bible like this, it really can be both fun and informative. You can get a sense of how Jesus’ ministry unfolds and expands. And honestly, Bible chapters aren’t long…. In this Bible the whole of Matthew only takes up 28 pages…. And this gospel is filled with the words and teachings attributed to Jesus himself. This Bible was given to me by my Dad when I was a little girl….I chose this Bible because all of Jesus’ words are in red….and look at how red these pages are. If these word’s come right from the Son of God, they are a good source for discerning God’s will.
In Jesus’ ministry we can see him doing many things but reading through the gospel of Matthew we can better notice the way that he did the things that he did. Jesus teaches, heals, and feeds. As you read Matthew, you notice that Jesus attends to more than just the spiritual needs of his followers. We are told that Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee and he “… went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Jesus not only taught his followers about the law and the prophets, but he also cared for those who followed him who were sick and hungry. And his healing and his miracles are merely the reflection of his love and the promise of the Kingdom of God. He cures every disease brought to him….and he feeds the 5000 men, plus women and children. All that he does, this is God’s will.
As Warren Clark notes, God’s will as shown in the Matthew “…was in stark contrast to the world of the first-century Roman Empire which, [like our society today], was marked by significant inequalities concerning food access. Many people …struggled on a daily… basis for adequate food and nutrition. The empire was …[ruled] by a ..small group of elites who enjoyed abundant… and good quality… food. But most of the population lived… with inadequate calorific and nutritional intake. The petition in the Lord’s prayer that God will supply daily bread reflects this situation….
“Food access [also] reflected the elite’s access to power that controlled resources. The lack of food was one of the ways many people experienced the injustice of this disparity of power. It is also one of the reasons we see so many sick people in the gospels.”
So Jesus healed because he knew it was God’s will. He fed the hungry because it is part of the good life promised in the Kingdom of God. In the Hebrew scriptures God led the Israelites through the wilderness and provided them with food and drink. He promised them a land of milk and honey. And later, when the people of Israel did not care for all of its children, the prophet Ezekiel condemned Israel’s leaders or ‘shepherds’ for not feeding the sheep/people.
Jesus definitely sees his primary role as a shepherd – one who both leads and cares for those who follow him. We can see this when before Jesus commissions his disciples we read in chapter nine, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” He commissioned his disciples so that more people could be healed, fed, and saved. Today we hear this echoed again in our reading: “When he went ashore [after teaching them], he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” When the disciples ask Jesus to send the crowd away, Jesus refuses. In the Kingdom of God around which Jesus’ Good News is centered the hungry are provided for and fed. Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea twice in Matthew’s gospel as part of his teaching. In 9:13 Jesus tells the Pharisees: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” And in chapter 12, he again says to Pharisees who criticize his hungry disciples for eating on the sabbath, “… if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”
A dear friend asked me what I thought God was doing during this time and what we are supposed to learn. Dear Christians, there are no one-size-fits-all answers. But do ask. Do pray. Do show mercy. Do have compassion and raise your voice for justice. For so many of the children of God are still harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Wrestling with our own angels, we can take God’s blessing and with it, we shall overcome.