Bread in the Wilderness

I don’t know about you, but I am getting soooooo tired of Zoom. Let me clarify: it’s not Zoom as such – and indeed thank God for it, given how much worse things would be without it. It’s more… this whole socially distanced life is getting pretty stale. And, with no sign of things improving any time soon, it’s hard to hold on to much enthusiasm or zest for life.  At least, that’s how it seems to me right now.

And the future doesn’t seem much brighter. I left university during the last recession in the nineties, and I vividly remember how hard it was to find work. How are things going to be for people in this new world, which will probably be more challenging than the “recession we had to have”, perhaps as bad as anything since the Great Depression in the thirties?

Things feel heavy. I lever myself out of bed without enthusiasm and go about my day muttering.

I am, I guess, sad. As I imagine many of us are. Worried for ourselves, and worried for the state of the world. Where is God in all this?

As our story opens, Jesus is also feeling the weight of the world heavy on his shoulders. He has just heard that his cousin and collaborator John the Baptizer has just been murdered in a barbaric banquet promise by Herod, and it must have hit him like whatever the first century equivalent of a freight train must have been. Like a tower falling on you.

Jesus must have asked himself: What sort of world is it where someone could be murdered for the sake of a drunken dinner party boast? Where the poor are trampled underfoot for the sake of dynastic scheming? Where the man who has been lavishly rebuilding the Temple of the Living God as one of the wonders of the world could have a prophet of that same God killed? And, perhaps, what would it mean for him and his own ministry?

Like us, Jesus is sad and worried. He needs some time out, so gets onto a boat and heads across the lake to get a bit of down time.

There’s a way of thinking about the life of faith that is as seductive as it is wrong. It thinks of faith as a sort of a crutch which means that we’re insulated from the worries of the world. That it’s all retreating to the other side of the lake to be alone. That we think that “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world” and so we can safely retreat into our holy huddles of self-congratulation and unworldly piety.

In fact, ironically, faith can make things harder rather than easier. A church community is bigger than your circle of friends and family, so you end up caring about a lot more people than you otherwise would. We’re committed to a certain way of being in the world – a life that prioritises gathering together and singing and sharing food – and it has been snatched away from us. Inevitably that means it is harder for us than it would be if life mainly consisted of lying on our sofas watching TV. The thick layer of connectedness and practices which sustain our lives are under a lot of pressure.

Like Jesus, we are trying to do something. Participate in something bigger than ourselves, see ourselves as connected to the biggest story of all. But lockdown makes us feel stuck, unable to help others, barely able to cope ourselves. We are forced into a priority of care for ourselves which feels very alien to our vision for ourselves and the world.

So, like Jesus at the beginning of the story, we aren’t at our most positive. The world feels out of joint. We are at a loss. Perhaps we, too, need a little time out to chillax.

But, just like Jesus in the story, we are surrounded by a suffering world. People heard that he was in the area, and came flocking in their thousands. Five thousand, not counting women and children, according to Matthew. They came looking for something. In this account of the story – and there are six different versions of it in the four gospels – he healed their sick. In Mark’s version, he teaches them “many things.”

They didn’t come as disinterested searchers after truth. It wasn’t a university symposium, or some procession of impressively high-minded philosophers and theologians. They were poor and needy. Last week we read about a guy who was so excited to find treasure in a field that he threw ethics to the wind, hid the treasure, bought the field, and had it away with his ill-gotten gains. He wasn’t high minded: neither are the people in today’s stories. The Kingdom, it turns out, isn’t the private property of some high-minded elite. Jesus is shocking in how little he seems to care about our motivation for seeking the Kingdom. He seems much more concerned that we do in fact seek it.

The day is drawing on, and the disciples, sensibly and pragmatically, think that Jesus maybe has to be reined in a bit. Time for a helpful solution: Teacher send these people away to buy food for themselves.

Jesus’ reply is surprising. No, you feed them. We miss the emphasis in English, but in the original Greek it is very strong. This whole hungry people problem is your problem, and you have to solve it.

If I had been there, I might have been a little put out by this. I can easily imagine myself grumbling resentfully that I hadn’t invited all these needy people out into the wilderness, and so why is it my problem? We don’t have anything like enough food for all these people – we’d need wagon loads of bread and huge mounds of cheese or whatever.

However, and we must imagine a bit of a brief pause for consultation between the disciples, they produce five rolls and two fish.

I don’t know what they thought was going to happen. But probably not what did, in fact, take place.

Jesus got the crowd to sit down, and then blessed and broke the bread, and distributed it to them. And by the time the meal was done, they were completely full of bread and fish, and there was even leftovers.

What does it all mean though? Is it just a cool magic trick? Or is there something more at stake?

As always, there is a lot going on here. We could talk about miracles, or the importance of generosity, or the missional point that God wants our collaboration – after all, Jesus said to the disciples “you” give them something to eat. But I’ve been spending quite a bit of time on this passage, and when I was praying through it the other night it occurred to me that I resonated a whole lot more with the hungry crowd than with the disciples.

There are days when even a twelfth share in five bread rolls and two dried fish can feel beyond us.

There are two key resonances in the passage from where I sit. From the perspective of the story, one looks backward, and the other looks forward.

The backward looking one is the story when God fed the people of Israel with manna in the wilderness. It’s a story about God’s provision and care. Evidence of God’s commitment to his promise to the children of Israel to give them a hope and a future.

The forward looking one points to the last supper. Just like in that story, Jesus blesses, breaks, and gives the bread to the disciples. Basically the same words are used in both stories.

Jesus feeds the disciples, who only have a little, and feeds the great multitude, who have nothing at all.

This is pretty challenging to me – I’m an action-oriented person, who wants to see visible change in the world. It reminds me of a summary of the Gospel which speaks to me powerfully.

There is a Messiah. It’s not you.

I have to loosen my grip on all my fears for the world, for the church, and for our congregation, Which isn’t the same as just throwing my hands in the air, exclaiming that it’s all too difficult.

But it does mean living out of the reality that it’s God, and God’s love, which is primary.

Which is all very well, you may say, but how does one actually go about it?

There is certainly a role for understanding. But there is also a strong role for what an earlier generation called the Spiritual Disciplines. God feeds us in the wilderness, but we have to show up. Five thousand people were sitting on the grass, but a lot weren’t.

Here are some ways we can show up.

Communion. That’s a key part of what’s going on here. How do we consciously make our practices around communion part of that story of God feeding her people?

Community: how we are together as community profoundly affects our ability to be present to God.

Prayer: this has always been a challenge for me. I find quiet times unexciting, and I’m easily distracted. Yet, just like Jesus heading out to a quiet place to pray, I, too, need to set aside frequent, intentional time with God.

Scripture: Our tradition gives a high place to the reading, study, and imaginative engagement with Scripture.

The point, though, is that we don’t do these things to earn God’s favour: we are already loved by God more than we can possibly conceive. The point is that we have to bring our fragments of bread and fish for Jesus to break and distribute, to transform us, our community, and the whole world. And right now, what we have to offer is largely our attention.

There will be a time for action. But, for the moment, it seems to me that this is a time of waiting. God is present in the world. Herod’s murder of John the Baptizer didn’t get rid of God. COVID-19 won’t get rid of God. God always turns up, ready to feed us, as we turn our gaze towards him.

A sermon preached on Matthew 14:13-21 on Wednesday 29/7/20 for the Ninth Week after Pentecost Year A at Preston High Street UCA

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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