This is a sermon I gave to my little congregation in Moose Lake, MN.
The first thing I’m going to have to do is another one of my little history lessons. I was thinking about that as I prepared and it occurred to me that maybe not everybody was looking forward to me being up here again and giving another history lesson. So, I’m working on being more entertaining, a little more engaging. But something was pointed out to me about this story that really brought it to life. To see what that is, I need to go over the book of Matthew, to the story that comes just before today’s reading. The book of John is very different from the other three, and in this case leaves out some details.
We get up here each week and read these stories as if they are complete within themselves, but of course they are not. In this case we have Jesus and a few thousand followers sitting out in the middle of nowhere with no food. Is this just some setup to tell a story about a miracle? What are they doing out here? Looking just before this story, we have the story of Herod imprisoning John the Baptist. John was Jesus’ cousin, and he did a lot of the work early in this ministry. For people who study Biblical times, not from a religious perspective, John is seen as the early leader of the movement and Jesus only stepped up after John died. And even though we know how it turns out, the people who were following this movement at the time do not. This is the story of how they dealt with this transition.
Herod has John in prison, but here in Matthew 14 it says, “he wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet.” So he doesn’t really want to kill him because of his fear of a backlash from the people. This may not sound like the same Herod from stories of Jesus’ birth who had all of the first born killed, and it’s not, that was his father, Herod the Great. Herod the Great was a conqueror and a controversial figure. He had converted to Judaism, but his loyalty was questioned, he definitely made deals with the Romans, but if he hadn’t, the Jews may have suffered even more. When he died, which would have been early in Jesus’ childhood, he passed his throne on to his son, also named Herod.
This Herod Jr. did not have the strength of authority that his father had, but he had a kingdom, and he could throw parties. Continuing in Matthew, he has his niece dancing at his birthday party and he likes that, so he offers her whatever she wants. She asks for John the Baptist’s head. Again from Matthew, “The King was distressed”. He was distressed because he now has to keep the promise he has made or he looks weak to his royal relatives, but he has to do something that will anger the people he is ruling, and weaken his already tenuous authority. And he does it.
In just a few more lines, we move in to today’s story, now knowing that the reason they have all gone out in to the wilderness is to mourn, and not just for anybody, for Jesus this is family, and this is someone who sees the world in the same way he does. Together they had this vision of healing and ministering and building a grass roots movement against these Romans and this sniffling little puppet ruler, Herod Jr, who had come and taken over their homeland. They just wanted to let people know that they are accepted and loved. They no doubt knew there would be trouble. They may have expected to get arrested, but they probably were not ready for this.
So here we are. We have Jesus sitting on a rock somewhere out across the Sea of Galilee surrounded by 5,000 men, all of them in shock and wondering what to do now. And a couple of the leaders, Philip and Andrew come up to him and say, “umm Jesus, we don’t have enough bread, and only two fish.” This is one of the times when I know how I would react. And sometimes I wish the Bible would let us in a little more on Jesus’ thoughts. He did after all come down to be human, and as a human, I would think he would be a bit annoyed at this question.
I recalled a scene from the TV MASH while I was thinking about this. If you remember Colonel Sherman Potter, he was the stronger military Colonel, not the bumbling funny one from when the show started. He would often yell his orders at Hawkeye Pierce and Hunnicutt. In one of the shows he told them to do something and they questioned his orders, Potter shook the stars on his epaulets and said, “you see these, when they give you these, they remove the bone in your head that makes you explain your orders, now just do it.” I can imagine Jesus feeling the same way, thinking, “why are you bothering me with the menu, I’m the Christ.” But of course he wouldn’t say that, because well, he was Christ.
What he does do is show some true leadership. He doesn’t explain, he also doesn’t get angry or scold his disciples for not having faith. There are other times in the gospels when he does that, but this is a funeral. He simply and gently says, have everyone sit down, he gives thanks for the meal, and of course everyone is fed.
I’ll say more about the miracle in a moment, but I want to wrap up what I get from the story, looking at in this light. I think what is being shown here is a contrast. These stories were not written down until a few decades after Jesus died, so the intended audience of them would have needed a little of the history lesson, although they would have been more familiar with Rome and the politics of the time, but as a story, the idea is still the same, find yourself in it, which character can you relate to? Here we have two parties. In one of them there is good food, nice wine, it’s a happy occasion, and you’re hanging out with the people in charge, you can do whatever you want, you want the head of John of the Baptist, you can have it. In the other party, you’re sitting on a rock, it’s getting dark and you’re wondering, where’s the justice and you’re hungry? But then what you do is you share your meager morsels, and all are fed.
Today we are really neither of those. We are neither royalty nor slave. We have an election process. We don’t have fathers passing on their throne to their sons. But we still have to make choices every day about what is right and what is just. We may be several steps removed from the people who make our clothes or grow our food, but our choices at the cash register affect the lives of many people. We can choose to share what we have with others and support each other in time of need, or we can just party.
Now the reading goes on to say that the saw this miracle and saw it as proof of Jesus being a prophet. That may have been what a 1st century writer wanted to get across, but as a 21st century man, I have trouble with it, I have trouble with all the miracles, and I’d like to address it in case there are others out there feeling the same way. A previous pastor of mine told of how it was common in these days that people would all carry with them a little pouch with some dried fish and probably. Jesus no doubt knew this and instead of organizing a big gathering of everything, he knew he could count on the generosity of the people there and if he just started passing a basket around, those who had extra would throw it in, and those who did not would take no more than they needed.
Rick has introduced the idea of “non-overlapping Magisteria” before on evolution Sunday. Magisteria being areas of study. Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist put forth this idea that there does not need to be an argument between science and religion. Science can cover what can be empirically demonstrated and religion can stick to matters of meaning and value. At times like this parable, they may seem to overlap, but only if you want to pick that fight. I am satisfied that in 110 A.D. or whenever the Book of John was written, miracles were an important and accepted part of writings such as these. These are not newspaper accounts, this is not a history book and it is not the inerrant word of God. As a United Methodist, we are not called to hold these stories to that level of scrutiny and doing so causes more trouble than it solves.
For this story, whether you claim a miracle occurred, or you call it a miracle of community the value of the telling of it remains the same.