Sermon: Abundance in the Midst of Grief

Sunday, August 2, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (gospel and sermon start around 19:08 — now with greatly improved audio!)
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Our gospel reading for this morning is a very familiar and well-loved story.  The feeding of the 5,000 is one of the only miracles that appears in all four gospels.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all thought that it was important to share this story – which says to me that this story tells us a lot about who God in Christ really is. 

It’s a story of mind-boggling abundance.  And that title – “the feeding of the 5,000” – really doesn’t do it justice at all.  After all, that 5,000 number only counts the men – if you include just one woman and one child for every man, that’s 15,000 people right there!  That’s like double the population of Schuyler!  I mean, just think of the logistics of putting on our pancake supper or the soup at the Holiday Fair every year – and all that is for just a few hundred people.  Now imagine trying to scale that up to serve every single person in Schuyler – twice over.  🤯

Yet as powerful as this image of divine abundance is all on its own, this story actually becomes even more powerful when you read it in its context.  Because this story contrasts starkly with what is going on in the verses around it.  

The story that comes right before this one – at the beginning of Matthew 14 – is one that the lectionary chooses to skip over.  And understandably so, because it is both gross and tragic.  Our gospel reading gives us a hint at it, the way that it’s printed in the bulletin.  It starts out, “Now when Jesus heard [about the beheading of John the Baptist], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”  

John’s death takes place as part of a feast that could not be more different from the feast we read about today.  King Herod and his wife Herodias had hated John the Baptist for a long time.  John was critical of their marriage since they had both left their spouses for each other – not to mention that their marriage had serious political consequences.  So Herod had thrown John in jail to try to shut him up; but he was afraid to actually kill John because of his followers.  

Herodias, on the other hand, wanted John dead.  So she hatches this scheme at Herod’s birthday party.  Her daughter dances for the guests, which greatly “pleases” Herod – the guy who, remember, is her uncle and now her stepfather.  Gross.  Herod is so pleased, in fact, that he promises to give the girl anything she asks for.  And at her mother’s suggestion, the girl asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  So John is brutally murdered by agents of the state because of fear and a desire to hold onto power.

This is the terrible news that reaches Jesus at the beginning of today’s gospel reading.  This is the grief that he is carrying.  John was a prophet whom Jesus greatly respected and admired – and more than this, he was Jesus’ cousin.  Jesus is mourning a member of his family.  And he was surely grieving over so much corruption and violence and brokenness among the very people he had come to save.  So it makes sense that he’s trying to find a quiet moment alone to deal with this grief.

But Jesus is not alone in his grief.  His disciples had surely gotten to know John the Baptist as well, and they were probably grieving too.  And it’s pretty easy to imagine that many of the people in the crowds who followed Jesus had also been followers of John.  They had lost a great teacher – and so, naturally, they were seeking out Jesus, desperate for a word of hope, a word of good news, in the midst of their grief.  

We tend to think of the story of the feeding of the multitude in really rosy terms, like a big, joyful picnic down by the seashore.  But the truth is that this is a story about people who are feeling sad and lost – a story about people who are looking for healing, who are longing to be fed. 

And I don’t know about you all, but I find all of that grief very relatable.  Life has changed so much over the last five months and there is so much that I’m missing.  I miss getting to see all of you together here.  I miss getting to gather with my friends and family.  I’m sad about a lot of the ways that this pandemic has shaped our lives.  I mean, just last week, my great uncle Elroy died and I had to watch his funeral on Facebook Live.  And it’s not even that we were particularly close, but I wasn’t able to be there for my family, and that made me really sad.

And I am also sad and angry about all the injustice and prejudice in our world that seem to keep on going, pandemic or no pandemic – the same old violence and corruption that just keep on happening over and over again.  Today, we read a story that is literally thousands of years old about an innocent man – John the Baptist – being murdered by the state.  Yet this story is still fresh – in the stories of George Floyd and Botham Jean and Breonna Taylor and too many others to name.  I am frustrated and furious that so little seems to change.  I grieve that the world is so broken, and that it often feels like so few people care enough to do anything about it.

Like the crowds by the seashore, I often find myself feeling sad and lost, longing for good news, longing for Jesus to bring healing to a sick and broken and hurting world.

And it’s from this place of pain and grief and longing that today’s gospel reading becomes really powerfully good news.  Jesus meets these people in the midst of their grief and he is filled with compassion for them.  He heals the sick among them – and remember, we’re talking about a crowd of thousands upon thousands of people.  We don’t know exactly how many of them Jesus healed, but we do know from the reading that Jesus was at it until late into the evening.  In this story, we see the abundance of Jesus’ deep love and compassion for his people in action.

And of course, that’s not even the main event of this story!  After this long day of healing, Jesus’ disciples come to him and say, hey it’s getting pretty late – let’s send these people off so they can find something to eat.  But Jesus isn’t done with them yet.  So instead, he tells the disciples: You give them something to eat.  The disciples have no idea where Jesus expects them to come up with the food to feed all these people.  All they’ve got between them is barely more than a snack: five loaves and two fishes that wouldn’t feed 50 people, let alone more than 5,000.  

But the disciples do as Jesus asks.  They bring him what little food they’ve got.  Jesus gives thanks and blesses the food, then he breaks the bread and starts giving it to his disciples to hand out.  They start to give the food out, and somehow they just keep on giving it, basket after basket, row after row after row of people, and the food never runs out.  It’s a miracle: twelve dudes feeding a crowd larger than the entire town of Schuyler with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  And there is so much food to go around that afterward they gather up twelve whole baskets full of leftovers.  This story is God’s absurd, astounding, amazing abundance at its finest.  Christ shows up for his people in the midst of their grief and hunger, and he meets them with abundant compassion and extravagant love.  

And Jesus makes the disciples part of this work.  When they suggest sending the people away to buy food, Jesus doesn’t say to them, “Nah, I’ve got this; just stand back and let the pro show you how it’s done!”  He says “You” – “You give them something to eat.”  He helps them take the gifts that they bring to the table – literally – and use them to serve others.

The disciples respond to Jesus’ call with faithfulness.  Even though they don’t see how their small gifts will make a difference, they agree to use them anyway – and through them, Jesus works literal wonders.  This can be true for us as well.  We are also called to use the gifts we have been given – however small they may seem – to serve God and to serve our neighbor.  And it may not always be clear to us how our gifts and our actions can make a difference.  But what we see in this story is that even when we trust God with a little, God can take that little and multiply it and make extraordinary things happen.

Even in this time, in the midst of our own grief, in our time of exile and national brokenness, the good that we can do carries.  That good might be reaching out to check in with a neighbor, or donating our time and money to a food pantry, or educating ourselves and speaking out against injustice.  Whatever it may be, God invites us to take part in the work.  God invites us to share our gifts and our time and our compassion.  And we can trust God to multiply these things abundantly – with baskets and baskets left over. 

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