The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
31 July 2011
A Sermon Preached by Philip H. Towner, Ph.D., Diocesan Intern
14-21; Romans 9:1-5
Last Monday night, late afternoon in NYC, I went through Passport Control at Heathrow Airport. Amazingly, the Immigration Hall was almost empty and I went straight up to one of the kiosks. While the officer was dealing with me, at the next kiosk was an older woman and what looked like two sons in their twenties or so. Indian or Sri Lankan. Things were not going smoothly there. I could hear the officer say, “If you don’t have your passport, I don’t know who you are.” As I picked up my passport and headed through, I heard the young man reply loudly and with certainty: “Well, I know who I am.”
We may not have lost a passport, but the issue of identity is a very current topic. Identity crisis. Identity theft. Virtual identity. We face questions surrounding our identity, some really just irritating and some quite profound. You don’t have to be a Camus or a Kafka, or a Woody Allen, to hear that nagging whisper of despair and absurdity just around the corner, even in the midst of faith. Less profound and closer to home, the claims and clamor of a normal week, and the things we get up to in it, can interrogate and batter our identity. Then there is what we do to ourselves. We move through a variety of identities as we move through the week, changing from one to the next as if we were changing clothes. Who are we in professional, academic, domestic, or church spheres? Who are we in relationships, friendships, with colleagues, with family, on dates, online? Just who are we?
The Gospel text this morning relates an event that was a fixture in the memory of the early church. It occurs in all four Gospels. For most of us too it is a set piece of the Jesus-story. It’s a story about wilderness, about Jesus, about disciples and their capacity to see the surface, to underestimate, and to be surprised; it’s a story about crowds who hunger in more ways than one, and about being fed to the full. It’s a story about all these things and one or more of them might be the door you use to enter the story. But it’s also a story about identity.
The air surrounding this story of the Feeding is thick with it. Three chapters earlier, John the Baptist, hearing of Jesus’ exploits, sends disciples to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we await another?” A little later, the crowds, observing a healing, ask: “Is this the Son of David?” And just ahead of our text, we find Herod, who had executed John, puzzling over the reports he is hearing about Jesus. Who is this guy? His hypothesis “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him." And it is when Jesus hears of John’s death that our story today begins.
A simple story, really. The setting is the wilderness. And there we find Jesus, several thousand people, and the disciples. Not much dialogue. We can retell the story quickly: 1. Jesus has just heard the news of John’s death; of course this news comes just after having been rejected in his hometown. Not one of his best days. 2. For privacy, he goes by boat across the Lake to the wilderness. 3. The relentless crowds follow him on foot. 4. When Jesus sees them, he feels compassion for them and goes among them healing the sick. 5. The day wears on: enter the disciples. Ever observant but not quite seeing, they point out to Jesus what they believe to be obvious: a. we’re in the wilderness, and b. it’s getting late. So, c., they advise sending the crowds away to buy food for themselves in the nearby villages. 6. Surprise number 1: Jesus says, “you feed them.” 7. “Right,” they think, “we have nothing, except five loaves and two fishes.” 8. Surprise number 2: “Bring them to me.” From that point on, Jesus instructs the crowds to sit; he takes the loaves and fishes, blesses them, breaks them into pieces, and in some kind of bucket brigade fashion, the disciples distribute to the masses. All are satisfied, and afterwards twelve baskets of fragments are collected. Never mind what must have been fairly complicated logistics. Matthew is not interested in this. The story is over.
Or is it just beginning? What’s the takeaway here? It depends what set of spectacles we are wearing. What the crowds thought that day is hard to say, though there were certain cues they would not have missed. But the Gospel writers, with the advantage of hindsight, organized these events and arranged the elements of each episode to tell the story of Jesus for their specific audiences. Each took pains to vector the reader or hearer, then and now, back into the sacred redemptive drama of the Jewish Scriptures. Matthew had a point to make. First, think back to John the Baptist’s question from prison, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples—“Go and tell him what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, the gospel is preached to the poor, and blessed is anyone who does not take offense at me.” The short answer would have been, “Yes, I am he.” But the longer answer places Jesus into Isaiah’s story of God’s coming to redeem God’s people. Now Jesus is the central character. But for Isaiah and Matthew, the mother lode event, the secret to mapping Israel’s genome, was the story of God’s descent, in fire, smoke and thunder, to Mount Sinai, and God’s interventions in the Exodus and wilderness miracles to bring the people to him there. Back to our story.
The Wilderness as a symbol evoked thoughts of danger, evil spirits, scarcity; but it was also the place where God met people and drew them into covenant. The people surrounding Jesus remembered Mount Sinai in the wilderness and the miraculous provision of manna from heaven. It could not have been far from mind as Jesus fed them. Jesus assumes the role of Moses, but more than Moses. And a new Exodus is underway.
The Crowds were mainly the poor, the largest social group in Palestine of that day; oppressed by the landowners; exploited by the Roman forces and by their own religious leaders. They were descendants of that earlier mass of refugees whom God drew to Sinai through water and into wilderness to tell them: “you shall be my treasured possession.” Descendants also of the desolate Jewish people, to whom God cried out through the prophet, Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” For the crowds surrounding Jesus, the promises of God were a lifeline. Now, in Jesus, they dared to think this promise was coming to pass.
The poor who ate their fill that day might not have noticed the “twelve baskets of leftovers”. But for those who told the story and heard it afterwards, it reminded of the number of Israel’s tribes and tied the miracle of feeding to the promise of the restoration of Israel. In Jesus, God was among his people, and the new Exodus, the ultimate Exodus, was underway.
But this is not just a story about Jesus. Wherever we read of God’s great and miraculous manifestations to people—to Abraham, in the Exodus and at Mount Sinai—it is the people who are defined. Jesus’ compassion and provision for the crowds, his very presence among them, defined them as God’s children.
The miraculous Feeding is one episode among many in that grand story of God’s redemption, in which God defined a people for blessing and then doggedly pursues them to bless them. That story extends beyond the Jesus chapters to our own day, and God still pursues us. Where are we in this story? How do we enter? Who are we?
We wander in wildernesses, some of our own making, some thrust upon us by circumstances; we hunger, we yearn for remedy, we long for God. Like the disciples we sometimes see only the surface, and yet we’re ready to serve. Our week can be a cameo of Israel’s wandering. And we profit when God comes among us, corners us in our wilderness, and reminds us of our identity in Christ. We can enter the story of the Feeding miracle. Our Feeding miracle is the Eucharist, where we begin again, where Christ dusts off our true identity in him, where we prepare to take our place as disciples who mediate God’s blessings to the crowds. His presence among us, and our full participation in him, determines our identity as children of God.
Philip H. Towner, PhD
July 28, 2011
© 2011 Philip H. Towner