Face to Face (July 25 – 31)

Sunday, July 31, 2011
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Weekly Theme
Face to Face

Weekly Prayer
God beyond all seeing and knowing, we meet you in the night of change and crisis, and wrestle with you in the darkness of doubt. Give us the will and spirit to live faithfully and love as we are loved. Amen.

Weekly Reading
Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

All readings for the Week
Genesis 32:22-31 with Psalm 17:1-7, 15 or
Isaiah 55:1-5 with Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

Focus Questions

1. What story is at the heart of who we claim to be?

2. What do you think the world is deeply craving?

3. Why do we see our resources as “few”? Are they really?

4. What do you need enough to draw you out of your safety zone to pursue it?

5. What does it say to you that no requirements were imposed on the crowd before they could be fed?

by Kate Huey

Food, and the sharing of it, are powerful in many ways, in feeding our bodies, but also, symbolically, in feeding our spirits. Isn’t the offering and sharing of food–whatever bit of food we have–at the heart of hospitality, just as much as offering shelter, just as much as inviting someone into our homes, our churches, our lives? And don’t we feel nourished in more ways than one if we eat our food in the company of others? That seems to be what this story, told by all four Gospel writers, is about: Jesus knowing, and satisfying, our most basic human needs, our deepest hungers. Feeding the hungry (not just ourselves but a hungry world) is also at the core of the gospel: as Fred Craddock reminds us, Jesus told us that “the question, What did you do in the face of human hunger? would be on the final exam (Matt 25:35).” In this story, Jesus sets an example for us (in school we used to call this “giving us a study sheet”), but he worked through his disciples then, just as he works through us today.

First, though, we set the scene: things have not being going well, so Jesus has to teach in parables (the insiders–his followers who have ears to hear–will know what he’s saying, and the powerful outsiders won’t). Still, in his hometown, his own people “took offense at him” (13:57). Then Jesus hears the bad news that John the Baptist has been murdered by Herod (again, the powers-that-be in action). A certain tension arises between Two Meals: on one hand, Herod the guilty has thrown a big birthday party for himself, a feast for his cronies, ending with the murdered John’s head served “on a platter”(14:11). That meal is marked by lust for many things, including blood, and unfolds into the horrific murder of a great prophet. Even Herod knows this, and “was grieved” (14:9). Food was there, and companions, yet this meal was not blessed.

On the other hand, as Jesus withdraws to “a deserted place,” a rugged place, the scene is set for a very different meal, with different hungers fed and a very different experience of power and of community. Both Herod and Jesus give commands, but one set of commands is death-dealing and the other is life-sustaining. What draws people into the company of a man like Herod, and what draws them into the company of Jesus? Herod sits in a palace, with guards and a prison below. Jesus stands on a deserted hillside, far from the seat of one kind of power, but right at the heart of a much greater power. But Roger E. Van Harn observes that because Herod feels threatened by Jesus, or at least by “these powers at work in him,” he becomes an even greater threat to Jesus. Fear is a most dangerous thing, and Herod is motivated by fear just as Jesus is moved by compassion.

Perhaps Jesus’ own needs were very different from those of the crowd. With John dead, perhaps he did think that it would be wise to flee to a remote place. Perhaps. No one knows for sure. But we can be sure that Jesus’ own heart must have been broken by John’s death. Barbara Brown Taylor says that Jesus had “lost his prophet,” and the crowd had undoubtedly heard the news, too: “Sometimes, after very bad news, it does not matter what you eat as long as you eat it with someone.” Perhaps, in that deserted place (ironically, now filled with a crowd), they were all able to draw strength and consolation from being together and looking to Jesus with hope and longing, and in sharing a meal together.

Jesus, disregarding his own needs as usual, goes to work, fueled by compassion at the sight of the sick people gathered around him. This story is so familiar that we seldom linger at the scene, or perhaps we’re distracted by trying to figure out (to explain?) the nature of that miracle. (Just how did that happen? Did bread and fishes suddenly materialize, or did lots of folks reach into their pockets and bags and, amazingly, share with one another? Can miracles be explained?). I think about the crowd itself, and how it would have felt to leave my village behind, my home (if I had one) and the market where I might buy food. The lifeline of most folks was evidently stretched to its limit, perhaps because their attention was so drawn to this man Jesus that they forgot the basic necessities of life. If I had been there, at least I would have had the company of others, presumably a lot like me–a person in need, a person moved by hunger, spiritually as much as physically. As I think about how all that must have felt, I hear the question Jesus asked back in Chapter Eleven: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” So we might wonder what would draw us out into a deserted place, and what we most want to see, to feel, to touch. What do we hunger for most? What would draw us out of our safety zone, our comfort zone? What are our deepest needs–not our wants, but our needs?

Jesus and Moses

We’re not the first to hear this story, of course, although much of it might go right over our heads. When the early church told this story that was at the heart of who it claimed to be, many of its members would have remembered even more ancient stories. There’s the very similar story of Elisha in 2 Kings 4, when a few loaves fed a hundred people, with a dialogue–and results–that were very much the same (plenty for all, and lots left over). Presumably the early Christians would have also made the connection with the story of Moses and the people of Israel wandering in the desert, hungry and lost, seeking just like them (and us), and being fed by manna from heaven. (John J. Pilch observes that Matthew never missed an opportunity to link Jesus with Moses.)

Even today we remember the story of manna from heaven, and as Christians we gather at the table and remember what Jesus did with bread on that hillside. The words used by Matthew here are familiar from the Last Supper account and from our own celebration of the Eucharist as well: the verbs–take, bless, break and give–are simple but powerful, and apply to our lives just as they apply to the bread we share with one another and with the world. In fact, this work of the church goes on in every age and every wilderness, Thomas Long writes, for “the church is always in the desert, the place where it cannot rely upon its own resources, which are few. The church is hungry itself and is surrounded by a world of deep cravings….” 

Scarcity or abundance?

Long’s description of the church’s resources as “few” deserves further reflection. Most folks in churches (pastors and lay members alike) would say that their church “needs” more money, more members, more “help.” Our perception is one of scarcity, not plenty, even when we truly desire to act compassionately (the disciples around Jesus could have been motivated by compassion when they urged him to send the people into the villages for food). More important than “how” the miracle worked is the “why,” of course–Jesus’ deep compassion for the suffering of the people, and his response. The “what” for us (the “so what?”) is the command to go and do likewise, but how can we do likewise if there isn’t enough to go around? And that gets to the deeper issue of true abundance under the appearances of “not enough.” Barbara Brown Taylor says that where the disciples saw scarcity, “Jesus operated under a different set of assumptions…. Jesus knew beyond a shadow of a doubt…that wherever there was plenty of God there would be plenty of everything else.” We know from Genesis and the story of creation (and our observation of nature) that God has provided far more than we need to survive, but we have failed to share generously. We have too often hoarded and held back. 

Still, abundance is there, and somewhere, deep down, so is the generosity. John Pilch claims that the kind of sharing that may have happened in response to Jesus’ own trusting generosity and blessing (an explanation many offer for the miracle; a miracle, I read years ago, is “a great wonder”) would have been far more likely in that culture than in our own. Still, it seems hard to believe that the disciples who saw little were not astounded to see the abundance right before their eyes, however it happened. David Bartlett identifies this story with the “more promising parables” we have been reading in recent weeks, of tiny mustard seeds that grow into great trees and a little leaven that makes bread for many. 

How do we respond to a great wonder?

But what about the “so what”? Barbara Brown Taylor has a problem with miracles that “mesmerize” us and lead us to leave everything up to God. “Miracles,” she writes, “let us off the hook. They appeal to the part of us that is all too happy to let God feed the crowd, save the world, do it all.” Are we really disciples of Jesus, following in his ways, responding as we believe he would respond to the need around us? Roger E. Van Harn says that our response is indeed a matter of discipleship, which is “not merely a matter of managing limited resources; it is a matter of giving what we have in faith, hope, and love in acts of worship.” (The same could be said of stewardship, which is one spiritual practice of Jesus’ disciples.)

And so, it’s not going to happen unless we participate, Taylor says: God tells us, “Not me but you; not my bread but yours; not sometime or somewhere else but right here and now….Stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead.” Bread, a simple and most necessary thing–both physically and spiritually–is indeed a powerful thing, and the sharing of it is at the heart of our life together in the church. Does your church’s celebration of the Eucharist have something to do with the feeding of a hungry world? What are we waiting for?

For Further Reflection

Beatrice Stoner, 21st century
In the church we have overemphasized one’s “response-ability,” the capability and inclination to respond, almost to the exclusion of one’s “receive-ability,” the capability and inclination to receive. A reluctant receiver gives reluctantly, while a conscious receiver is more likely to give generously.

James Russell Lowell, 20th century
All the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action.

Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century
Mercy has converted more souls than zeal, or eloquence, or learning or all of them together.

Seneca, 1st century
There is no delight in owning anything unshared.

M. F. K. Fisher, 20th century
People ask me: “Why do you write about food, and eating, and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way the others do?” . . . The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.