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Sunday Worship at St. Dunstan's: August 2, 2020

Posted 12:52 PM by
The Reverend Patricia Phaneuf Alexander
Proper 13 (A) ~ 2 August 2020
St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 145:8-9, 15-22
Matthew 14:13-21


Let us pray: As we gather at your table, as we listen to your word, help us know, O God, your presence; let our hearts and minds be stirred. Nourish us with sacred story till we claim it as our own; teach us through this holy banquet how to make Love's victory known, Amen. This past week I was invited to take part in a meeting with some of the folks at the Diocese who are working to create a new School for Christian Faith and Leadership. It won’t be a traditional “brick-and mortar” school, but rather it will be a curated menu of offerings to help each of us progress along our path of discipleship. This is a really exciting project, and I was delighted to participate in this conversation about what it means to walk with Jesus in 2020. While those of us on the Zoom call each brought a unique perspective to the discussion, we all agreed on one thing right away: The “path of discipleship,” the journey into a deeper relationship with God, is not linear. It is not a straight trajectory from Point A to Point B to Point C. Imagine how boring life would be if it were! Instead, it seems that there are seasons to the spiritual life – times when we feel particularly close to God, when we sense God’s nearness, palpably, and times when God feels very far away or even altogether absent. I have heard from a number of you who have experienced some of this waxing and waning during this pandemic, having had moments in which God has seemed as near as your next breath, and others when you’ve wondered if God was there at all. I’m right there with you, in the feast and the famine: I’ve had times of abundance and times of scarcity, times of great joy and times of deep sorrow, times of faith and times of doubt. (For whatever it’s worth, I haven’t found that there is a predictable rhythm to these fluctuations, so I’ve learned to strap on my seatbelt and just go along for the ride.) 2 In the tradition of Ignatian spirituality, the poles between which we navigate on this journey are known as consolation, or closeness to God, and desolation, feeling more estranged from God. Movement along this continuum may not be predictable, but it should be expected. It is part and parcel of the spiritual life. If we look at the whole arc of the Gospels, we’ll see that even Jesus Himself experiences periods of consolation and desolation. One moment He is baptized, with the Spirit of God descending on Him like a dove and the voice of His Father proclaiming “You are My Son, the Beloved” – and the next He is driven into the desert to be tempted by the devil. One day He enters Jerusalem to a chorus of “Hosanna in the highest” – and just a few short days later the same crowd shouts “Crucify him!” Consolation – desolation. If you’ve been following along with Matthew’s Gospel this summer, you know that for the past several weeks Jesus has been on a triumphant tour of the area around the Galilee, healing and preaching and teaching. Huge crowds have started following Him, and it might seem as though He is at the height of His career. And yet: What the Sunday lectionary unfortunately doesn’t tell us is that between last week’s reading (those short parables about the Kingdom of God) and today’s story about the loaves and the fishes, Jesus has gone through what we might call a wilderness period, a real time of desolation. First, He returns to His hometown, to Nazareth, to the place where He grew up and where “everybody knows His Name” (to quote the old “Cheers” theme song), only to be rejected. The people there “take offense at Him,” and Matthew tells us that Jesus does not do “many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief” (Matt. 13:58). And as if that weren’t enough: Soon after, Jesus’s beloved cousin, John, the one who baptized Him and prepared the way for His earthly ministry, is arrested and executed for standing up to King Herod. John challenges the morality of the Roman ruler, and his head winds up on a platter. As former President Obama reminded us this week, that’s what tends to happen to those who “stand up to the powers and principalities” and say “No, this isn’t right.”1 Dr. King was assassinated; Congressman Lewis was beaten within an inch of his life. In this world it’s dangerous to be a prophet. And so, after hearing this gruesome news, Jesus “withdr[aws] in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” This is where this morning’s Gospel picks up. We can 1 https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/07/read-barack-obamas-eulogy-for-john-lewis-fulltext/614761/ 3 imagine that Jesus is heartbroken, deep in grief over John’s death, and He wants nothing more than to retreat from the world and spend time alone in prayer. We probably also can empathize: When the sorrow around us gets to be too much, we, too, may long to pull back, hunker down, and shield ourselves from pain. It’s an adaptive – and protective –human response. But Jesus does not stay in that place of despair and desolation for long. Very soon, Matthew tells us, the needs of the world crowd in on Him again. We know what happens next; this is perhaps one of the most familiar stories in all of Christian Scripture. In fact, it is the only miracle story of Jesus recorded in all four Gospels; I’ll say more about that in a moment. A throng of people follows Jesus to His deserted place, and Matthew says that He has compassion on them. Compassion literally means, “to suffer with,” and Jesus is suffering, right alongside them; He understands something of their pain. Then, as night falls, the disciples come to Him complaining that they have nothing to feed the crowds. Resources are in short supply. Rations are scarce. They ask Jesus to send the people away, so that they may go and buy food for themselves. That seems reasonable enough. And yet, there in the midst of desolation, staring scarcity in the face, Jesus tells them, “You give them something to eat.” You give them something to eat! Dig down within yourselves, within your resources, and see what you can come up with. And God will do the rest. Wait and see. We know what happens next. First, Jesus commands the crowds to sit down on the grass. (We might ask ourselves: Why is this detail important?) Then Jesus takes the five loaves and the two fish, looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the loaves, and gives them to the disciples, who feed the crowds. And Matthew tells us that everyone eats and is filled – or, as the Greek renders it, is satisfied. Their needs and desires are fulfilled. They want for nothing. And to top it all off, there are leftovers! Twelve baskets full. There is more than enough. Disaster has turned to opportunity. New life springs from desolation. As you might imagine, much theological ink has been spilt trying to “explain” this miracle story. Some say, for example, that Jesus guilts folks into coughing up the scraps of bread and morsels of fish they have been hoarding for themselves. (Think about those signs in the grocery store reminding us to take only one package of toilet paper so that there is enough for everyone…) Maybe that is how it happens. But if we focus too much on the mechanics of the miracle, we risk missing out on the fact of it. 4 Again, this story of the feeding of the multitude appears in all four Gospels – a rare occurrence, in and of itself! – which suggests that there is something so profound, so essential, about this account that each Gospel writer chooses to include it in his own version of The Good News. This also gives the story greater credibility. But whether we choose to believe that Jesus miraculously multiplies the resources or not, the bottom line is that something astonishing takes place. If nothing else, the disciples’ worldview has been exploded. Their horizons have been expanded. Their vision has been enlarged. Even when confronted with overwhelming need, the disciples are given what they need to care for others in God’s Name. And so, I would argue, is Jesus. Called back from His retreat to come face-to-face with the hunger around Him, Jesus’s own sense of desolation is transformed. Scarcity yields to abundance. Sorrow gives way to joy. And what happens to Jesus can happen to us. I don’t think it’s at all accidental that in shaping his Gospel Matthew chooses to juxtapose the death of John the Baptist at the hand of Herod on the throne in Jerusalem with the feeding of a crowd on a hillside in Galilee. On the one hand, the King who has all the riches and authority of the Empire at his disposal uses those vast resources to silence his opposition. Fear and paranoia lead – inevitably, perhaps – to death and destruction. Herod sees no alternative than to enact violence to preserve his power. In God’s Kingdom, on the other hand, yes, of course, there are moments of fear and desolation and lack, but they are overcome ultimately by God’s promise of provision, of consolation. As the Psalmist says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5). The spiritual author Palmer Parker writes about the loaves and fishes in his wonderful little book, The Active Life. He says: In a universe of scarcity, only people who know the arts of competing, even of making war, will be able to survive. But in a universe of abundance, acts of generosity and community become not only possible, but fruitful as well.2 2 Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life: Wisdom for Work, Creativity, and Caring (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), pp. 125-6. 5 Where do we prefer to reside: In a universe of scarcity, or in a universe of abundance? There is no question but that we are living right now in a time characterized by lack, by scarcity, by desolation. We are acutely aware of the loss of life, as well as of the loss of the way of life to which we had become accustomed. We sing of gathering at Christ’s Table and we hear about Jesus taking-blessing-breaking-and giving the bread, yet we cannot partake of the bread and wine of Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ. The irony is not lost on us. And yet we the Church keep showing up, week in and week out, bringing to God our “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” to borrow language from our Eucharistic prayer, and Jesus assures us that that counts for something. In this time of desolation, in this deserted place, how might God be calling you and me to come face-to-face with the need around us? What might God be doing – even now - with our meager offerings? In the Name of the God of abundance, Amen.

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