Karin Liebster, Pastor for Faith Formation
Romans 9:1-5 Psalm 145:8-9;14-21 Matthew 14:13-21
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let’s picture this, dear friends.
Jesus hears of the horrific way his cousin and fellow kingdom of God proclaimer John dies at the hands of Herod. Now he wants to retreat to a place somewhat out of public view, to process and stay under the radar for a while.
As he rows himself along the shore somewhere on the north-western part of the Galilean Sea, only a few thousand people follow him on foot. All right, no quiet retreat. On shore, maybe on the hillside, Jesus spends the rest of the day curing people. Out of compassion, he can’t help it.
Then it’s time for dinner.
Now Jesus makes a worshiping body out of these healed people. About 15-20 thousand of them, if we add family members to the 5000 counted heads of household. He makes one body out of them in the eucharistic sharing of crumbs, two fish and five pita shaped loaves among all these people.
The crumbs amount to a full sating of all, with the full-fledged promise of God’s life-sustaining faithful presence that accompanied God’s people already way back in the desert, giving them manna, fresh each morning, and sweet water from the rock. It is the same life-sustaining, faithful, whole-making presence still and will be forever. In the promise and the realization, the present on the hillside, the past and the future fall together, symbolized in twelve baskets of leftovers.
What strikes me about the scene described here, is its sheer physical feel. Here are real bodies with real needs and Jesus tends to them.
And then these real, physical, needy, hungry bodies make one body of worship.
What a contrast is this physical bodily sacramental gathering into which God has entered, to the physicality of John’s brutal beheading at Herod’s birthday party resplendent with all the decadence of wealth and power.
A similar physical presence meets us in Paul’s anguish, in the opening paragraph of his treatise on the question whether God can be trusted as faithful if the Jews who own all of God’s promises reject Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. Paul is so anguished, that we feel it in his words, hear his voice quivering.
The physical, close up experience of bodies, the physical compassion and anguish stands in contrast to my own current moment.
This week we surpassed the number of 150 thousand in the United States who died of COVID. I cannot imagine such a number even if you named me a city of that size. The economic hardships are at the door, have crossed over the thresholds into people’s lives, real, physical experience of evictions or power cut off. Can you imagine even half a day without AC, now?
We would think a pandemic and its economic fallout would somehow equalize us – all can be affected after all, across the spectrum. But, the hardships as well as the illness hit us in grossly unequal measure.
Especially in light of today’s gospel of close up, sweaty compassion and sharing a feast of crumbs, I am starkly aware of my privilege. I feel ashamed in a way, because while more than 150 thousand fellow citizens and their families, and millions of workers are thrown into an intensely negative experience of body, physical, and economic hardship, for me all this is removed, takes place elsewhere, remains a disembodied experience.
And to make it even more complicated, the declared goal is that we shall not experience COVID in our own bodies, compassion if you will has to remain a dis-embodied experience because staying healthy is our contribution to slowing the pandemic down and eventually eradicate the virus.
Looking at our readings, Jesus and Paul tell me that faith does not play out in disembodied, lofty spiritual abodes; the sacramental presence of God’s lifegiving power is not inside my head or heart or imagination. How can I bridge this split?
Dear friends, for just a moment, I want to juxtapose our difficult situation with another really difficult, terrible situation. It has nothing to do with our troubles, but therefore offers maybe through the eyes of a fellow Christian a helpful, hopeful perspective.
The current issue of the bi-weekly Christian Century has a reflection by Richard Wu, a master of divinity student. He grew up in Hong Kong where his only worries had been homework, grades and childhood crushes. A recent visit to his hometown had him witness for the first time in his life one human being shoot another human being, rubber bullets fired into a crowd of pro-democracy protesters. He writes, “to walk around Hong Kong these days is to be constantly aware of one’s body – of its utter helplessness against tear gas, rubber bullets and worse.” The protests “confront us with the inescapable truth of our physical bodies: their susceptibility to pain and death.” “…to be from Hong Kong these days is to grapple with death. While this is deeply jarring, it also reorients us toward the central fact of our existence: our mortality.” (Christian Century, July 29, 2020, p.30)
The author reminds us of Paul’s gospel word, how out of Christ’s death we actively begin to live a new mode of life, – baptism: a birth into existence finally as a human being.
Finally human, alive, a new mode of life. Sisters and brothers, worlds away from us, the reflections of Richard Wu juxtaposed to our own struggles of faith bring out this core Christian tenet that is so easy to forget: we are alive because we have already died. Risen, birthed into existence finally as human beings.
And this fact, this reality throws us into the midst of things, gives us energy and vision and courage and tenacity to find ways to embody Christ’s compassion and Christ’s sacramental presence in our own situation. Wu applies what this means for life in Hong Kong, he writes about the collaboration of the many social bodies that are engaged in building a buffer between the state and the mostly young protesters whom they often protect with their very own physical bodies by going in between the fronts. His understanding of the church’s role is very much that of physical presence.
Looking again at the feast of crumbs and compassionate communion there on the Galilean hillside above the Sea, the whole scene exudes that same sense of having been birthed finally into a human way of existing, caused by the compassionate acts of Christ and the sharing of what they had for dinner. The gifts that the people had, became under Jesus’ blessing the gifts of God, now returned to the people in the feast that fed them all, and the process made of them the people of God.
So, dear people of God, even while we do not celebrate communion today in worship, maybe it is time to share any crumbs that you may have around the house, whenever you are in community of some form, and reflect how in this time we do physically, bodily, even sacramentally embody the full-fledged promise of God’s life-sustaining faithful presence.
Where can we contribute to someone’s health, to someone’s economic need. Where can our careful yet fearless view on the problems we face discern a path forward. What can we do to support decision making locally, statewide and nationally that will improve the sanity and wellbeing of our fellow citizens. Where can our calm presence deescalate a heated debate, an anguished situation. What would refresh a tired, exhausted, discouraged nurse, doctor, teacher, administrator.
In addition to our civic participation, reaching out with a phone call, a conversation, or the real presence, real experience of sharing even the littlest feast of a porch visit, a drink, some munching – in these experiences we are graced with surprising abundance and likely some shape or form of healing.
Dear sisters and brothers, God’s blessing and abundance is ours in that we share it, freely, abundantly, fearlessly, adjusted for our circumstance, but not less fervent, compassionate or abounding in steadfast love.