You’ve heard me say many times – over the years – that context is everything. We hear into today’s Gospel reading that Jesus fed 5000 men, not counting women and children, so Jesus really fed somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-15,000 people. This kind of image is easily tattooed on our brains. It’s a huge event. No wonder Matthew captured the story for us to remember. Please allow me to share the back story so we have a fuller picture of what was going on in Jesus’s life at that time. Context is everything.
Before the feeding of the multitudes, we learn that Jesus had been confronted with horrifying news. Upon hearing the news, Jesus got into a fishing boat and rowed away from the shore to be by himself. To give Himself some distance, some room, hopefully to process what He had heard. Jesus had been told that His cousin, John the Baptist, the man who baptized Jesus and who paved the way for Jesus to begin His public ministry, had been beheaded by an order given by King Herod.
Any of us who have ever received horrible news can relate to Jesus needing to get some distance to grieve. To weep. To maybe scream. To beg God for some answers. To breathe. To be.
While He is out on the sea, I like to envision Jesus laying down flat on His back in the hull of the boat, literally adrift, contemplating His friend John’s death and His own ministry … and as He is drifting, softly at first, Jesus began to hear the increasing sound coming from the shore. Jesus pops His head over the side of His boat and sees the growing crowd. Jesus rows towards them, steps out of the boat and the crowd closes in on Him.
Scripture tells us that Jesus looked at the crowd and He had compassion for them and He began … one by one … curing the sick people who were among them. Scripture doesn’t say a word about Jesus’s own grief. About how challenging it must have been for Jesus to have to park His own feelings and thoughts to come to the aid of the people who had sought Him out. Every parent and caregiver among us can relate to this … having to drop everything, even in the midst of whatever is going on in your own life … to serve those who need help around you.
Hours later, the disciples come to Jesus telling Him to send the crowd home or they’re going to have a serious problem on their hands = namely: trying to feed the enormous crowd. Rather than sending the crowd away Jesus challenges the disciples to feed the crowd themselves, which I can only imagine completely freaked-out the disciples.
The disciples responded, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
Jesus tells the disciples, “Bring me the bread and fish, and tell everyone to sit down in the grass.”
Then, taking the five loaves and two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed the bread and fish, gave them back to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowd.
Scripture tells us “all ate and had their fill; and they took up what had not been eaten and filled twelve baskets with that which was left-over.”
So, to re-cap:
John the Baptist was murdered by a maniacal king,
His cousin Jesus was understandably crushed over the news,
Jesus takes off to get some space to try to wrap His brain around what had happened,
and what that would mean for Jesus’s ministry going forward.
As Jesus was out in the boat, the crowd followed.
Jesus responded to their need with lovingkindness.
He cured the sick among them.
And He fed them, so much so, that there’s was still more food left for others.
I think that’s my take-away for this Sunday. That just when we think we don’t have anything else to give, that somehow if we tap into Jesus’s example … when we find ourselves overwhelmed by life, we stop, look up to heaven, cry out to God, Who hears our prayers and then responds to our need by equipping us with lovingkindness to address whatever is before us. That’s my take-away.
By the time you hear this message, believe it or not, we’ll be about 140 days into our new reality of worshipping and working and living … all from home. 140 days. (I hadn’t stopped to count, how long it has been, until the writing of this homily.) One Hundred And Forty Days. I’m reminded in the early days when I bought into some of the early news coming out that this pandemic could be contained and eradicated in several weeks if we just followed the rules. In another month we’ll have been doing this for six months. Apparently Dr Anthony Faucci was right all along, that this would take every bit of a year.
In an email sent recently from our diocesan bishops, I was reminded about a ship named Endurance. In 1914, on an expedition to cross Antarctica on foot, Ernest Shackleton’s sailing ship, Endurance, was crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea. He and his crew were trapped on the ice, with no communication, for 20 months. For nearly two years they received not one communication from the outside world. In total isolation, they survived on an ice flow, without setting foot on shore for 497 days before reaching Elephant Island, where there were longer delays, followed by Shackleton’s 15-day small open-boat voyage, with five others, across 720 nautical miles to South Georgia. After three attempts, the crew was rescued. Not a single crew member was lost. There is much to learn from Shackleton’s story and his family motto, for which his ship was named: Fortitudine vincimus (“By endurance we conquer.”)
Shackleton survived – and conquered his circumstances – with the same outlook that got Admiral Jim Stockdale through seven years as a prisoner of war at the Hanoi Hilton. His philosophy, as described to Jim Collins, is known as the “Stockdale Paradox”: You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
In other words, neither despair or denial is helpful. What does help is a combination irreligious people find paradoxical: Clarity combined with faith. That is the way of the People of God. We call it “steadfastness.”
In our world, the world of a good God, a good creation, and plenty of trouble along the way, we are sustained by the steadfast love of God. The way things are is often not the way things are intended to be. That is not the end of the story. We have something even more than endurance. We have steadfastness. We live in the sure and certain hope of Resurrection.
In this time of disease and discord, disappointment and even dispair, we are sustained by the steadfast grace, mercy, and love of God. When the world wobbles beneath our feet, we stand on the promises of God. When our hearts melt in fear and our vision dims, we look to God’s fearless vision for our lives and for our world.
And we soldier on.
And as we soldier on, we also look up to our Heavenly Father and like Jesus, ask God to hear our cry, bless us, and during this time sustain us so that when the time comes we’re ready to go back out into the world and respond with lovingkindness. Until then, we have ample time to lovingly serve those most close to us.
Stay strong everyone. Stay safe. Stay smart.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog