“A Matter of Identity” Matthew 16:13-20

When we would go to visit my in-laws, there used to be time of day that was set apart.   At 11:00 a.m., all other activity stopped and they plopped down to watch “The Price Is Right.”    That venerable old “war-horse” of a game show captivated them, probably because of the amount of audience involvement.  Called by name, the person would “come on down”, and have to make a bid or a guess at the prize revealed.  Get it right, and you advance, miss and you’re over… and as soon as the prize was revealed, the shouts from the audience would begin….their estimations of what that prize was worth.  The contestant would take them all in, look around at loved ones with them for guidance, but eventually would have to make their own decision, their own statement of what they thought was right.

It’s not a quiz show happening in the Gospel for today, but there are a few similarities.  Jesus asks his disciples who people are saying “The Son of Man” is.

I have always read this as Jesus asking the question directly about himself, because in Mark’s Gospel he does ask “who do people say that I am?”

But when I look at it here, in this context, it starts out as a much broader question.  Who do people think the Son of Man is?   Who are they looking to for answers?

It’s not insignificant that the question is asked at Caesarea Philippi.  This is the seat of Roman power in the province.  The Tetrarch Philip named the city after Augustus Caesar as a tribute, and then added his own name as regional Governor for good measure, and so people wouldn’t confuse it for that fishing village further down the Mediterranean coast. 

It had a name before Philip changed it when he modernized it.   Paneas, it was named for the shrine of the old Greek god Pan, the god of shepherds, flocks and fields that resided in a nearby cave.  

In other words, the question being asked is one to do with identity, authority, and power.  “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”   Who “rules”?  Who is God’s favored or sent servant?

Oh, and “Son of Man” is a rather technical term in Israel’s history.   The “Son of Man” is the one who will be sent by God.   In some passages it is apocalyptic; the power at the end of time.  In others it has to do with chosen kings, who in Israel’s history was the shepherd of the people.  Sometimes the “Son of Man” title was associated with the spokespersons for God; the prophets, and so it’s really not a big surprise when the shouts start to come back from the crowd as if this was a “Price is Right” audience.  The suggestions run from the ridiculous to the sublime,

“Elijah”, some say. 

“John the Baptist,” others. 

“Jeremiah or one of the Prophets from of old.” Still others call out.

But it all comes down not to the shouts of the crowd, but to what YOU have to say, and Peter is the one who pipes up and makes his bid. “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  It is the winning answer.  But what exactly does that mean?  What are the prizes, or the consequences for getting it right?   Just take a look at the consequences for Simon, the Son of Jonah for getting this question right.

“You are Peter….”  Jesus says.  Simon receives a name change in full.   Jesus had been referring to him as Simon Peter for some time, but this is a declaration. It is a definitive moment in the life of this disciple.   You get this right, and you are no longer who you used to be at all!   You get this right and you leave behind the old self, the old identity, and the old habits.   From now on you will be “Rock”… or is “stumbling block!”

Is this what it is like for us as well?  When we confess Jesus as Son of the Living God, is there a name change for us? 

When you acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God and become a follower of him, you become a “Christian”.  

That is a name, a title, and that title has not always been positive.  It started out as a term of derision you know.  “These “Christians” were a bother to the Romans, and to the religious leaders in the Synagogue, and to all who were in authority.  They didn’t follow the rules.  They didn’t conform to the societal norms of the day.   They had strange ideas about economics, and how people were to be treated.    

The Christians were disruptive of Synagogue worship, insisting that Messiah had come in Jesus and that other Jews should believe in him.

The Christians were disruptive of Roman society, refusing to offer sacrifice to Caesar because there is but one God to which one should confess allegiance and give support.  A “living God”… not one of stone, or of simply flesh and blood, but a resurrected Lord who is one like us, a man, a human… but not like us either.

The name change ushered in conflict for Peter and for all the disciples.   From here on in Jesus begins the journey to Jerusalem.  From here on in the struggle for Peter will be whether or not he really wants that name.  Will he stand with Jesus?   Or, will he hide in the shadows, denying that he knows him?  That is you know the pivotal scene later in the Gospel, as we wait for the rooster to crow.

All in all, those who take on the name change and who follow a living God instead of a god of tradition, or a military leader, or a god found in stone shrines long dead, find their lives greatly complicated.

Friends in Christ, I submit that the same thing happens still. 

When you are claimed by God and are given this name, “Christian” it complicates your life.  The title does not make your life easier.  Claim this name change and you will forever be asking yourself, “Is this what Jesus would have me do?”

That’s not the only consequence however.

“On this “rock”, this name changed Peter,… Jesus will build the church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.  Hello?!   Gates of Hell?    What does Jesus mean by that?  

I used to think that claiming the name “Christian” meant that I would become a target for the forces of evil.  But as Mark Allen Powell points out, gates don’t move!   You get this right, you get this name “Christian” or “Disciple” attached to you and now you can expect to go on the offensive.  We are beating a pathway into Hell’s domain that their strong gates cannot withstand.   We’re out to bring light to the places of darkness, to bring God’s reign into the places where Satan has his way right now.   That’s what this means. Jesus places in the hands of the name changed Peter, into our hands, the power in our hands to go on the offensive.  “I will give you the keys of the kingdom.  Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The power of keys resides in those who have been name changed.  You have the power to forgive.  

You also have the power to bind, to hold on to things.

So part of the prize for getting this question about Jesus right is not only having to endure the name change, not fitting into society, and facing open opposition from the forces and powers of darkness, but  the realization that I am going to be charged with things that have eternal consequences! 

The things that I can let go of, God can release. 

The things that you can let go of, God can release.

Oh, and what we “hold on to,” that even God doesn’t have the power to change.  God waits for us to do it, when we exercise the power now given over to us.

Such is the incredible power and scope of what God in Christ Jesus does to those whom he names. It is a promise that brings freedom and hope and change to this world.

This is a lot more than most of us ever bargained for!   I’m not so sure I want to be “called down” if this is what it’s all about.  

We have seen the end of the story.  We know how it turns out.   So while the consequences of following Jesus are still a little scary, a little overwhelming, they are not too much for us.  In baptism we have been “called down” by name to join in the work of proclaiming God’s Kingdom and working to bring it about, and to assail the dark places in this world.

So then, get into the game. 

Make your bid at the prize. 

There is a name for you to claim, “Christian”…. and a Savior who will claim you by name and give you all the promises the come with walking with him.  

Come on down, ……..Jesus did, for us.  That we might tell the world about that love that has come down for all, a love that all the gates of hell cannot stand against, because the key to the gates has been given to us. 

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“The Frustration of Not Being Heard” Matthew 15:21-28

Like most people I’m trying to figure out what to say or do in the wake of the events in Ferguson.  We are in the international spotlight, right here in Missouri.   We are making the banners for news as much as Hamas lobbing missles from Gaza, or ISIS moving through northern Iraq. The world is watching us, and they are asking, “How could this happen?    Why can’t people in the United States of America learn how to resolve things and get along?”  What makes things escalate to such events?

            Race relations in the United States is sometimes referred to as “complex.”  There are the old wounds that will not heal from the Civil War, the failure of reconstruction, the legacies of the Jim Crow laws and the ever present specter of white privilege which feels even more threatened by every successive immigrant wave in a long line of immigrant waves. 

            It’s complex, we are told.

            Nonsense! 

            Race relations in the U.S. are as simple as they are anywhere else, be that in the Middle East or in Africa, or on any other troubled corner of this world.  Those in the majority and those in power, (whoever they are) when threatened by the loss of power, privilege and authority will close ranks and stop listening.  We are ever tempted to label, demonize or criminalize the “other” – whoever they are, in order to hold on to our own position.

            Sunday Morning continues to be the most segregated hour in the United States despite decades of declaring that what everyone wants to be is “ethnically diverse and culturally rich.”

            And in each and every case, the common denominator is usually that those in power who should listen, fail to, and those who are on the margin then have no recourse but to raise their voices in frustration, and so they do.

            It is simply frustrating to not be heard by those who could make a difference!

            That is the touchpoint for this Gospel lesson, how it relates to the events of Ferguson and the Middle East and Iraq, or to any other troubled place on this earth.

            When you peel back the layers of Matthew’s account of Jesus today, you find  that this is a story about long held prejudices and the inability to listen.

            Jesus is up in the Gentile province of Tyre and Sidon, that historic homeland of the Philistines and the Canaanites.   He is not in his familiar area.   He’s not walking the back streets of Nazareth or the hill country of Judea.  He is in a foreign land.  That’s important to recognize as you hear this story.

            Now to hear this story correctly you also need to know that there haven’t been any real Canaanites for nearly 700 years!  Assyria’s total conquest of the strip of land that stretches from Egypt to Mesopotamia displaced all the inhabitants of the whole region.  Jews and Gentiles alike went into exile.   New occupants were brought into this area as first the Assyrian, and then Babylonian, and finally the Persian empires took control and moved populations around as was their practice.

            In Mark’s Gospel when this story is told, this woman is called Syrophoenecian, which is more historically accurate.  Tyre and Sidon, the historical cities of the Phoenecian empire.  But in Matthew it is the old term of contempt that is brought back.

            She is “Canaanite,” our old historic enemy and “the other.”

            Now you can insert whatever ethnic, cultural or racial slur you’d like to there, whichever one would make you cringe, sicken your stomach and be an offense to your ears. I don’t need to say one, I know you can pull it up in your mind.   This ___________ comes up and starts shouting at Jesus and the disciples.

           You are on her home territory remember, when you hear the shout.  

           Put yourself on Troost Avenue in Kansas City, or in southern California near Tijuana, or the south side of Chicago or in downtown Detroit, or the University Avenue area of St. Paul, or in Ferguson, or Gaza, or any one of a thousand places in this world where we are more likely to talk about or past one another rather than to listen to each other.  Think of any place where you might feel uncomfortable, feel like an outsider, or be suspicious of your surroundings, and now imagine a local resident coming up and shouting at you.  

           Would you actually hear what they were saying?   Or would you only react to the shout — the shout of this ____________ woman, the “labeled” one?   Did Jesus?

          I’m not trying to cut Jesus any slack here or get him off the hook, but I am saying that as one who is fully human, Jesus is subject to all the emotions that we all are.  We know that he can be moved to compassion.  We have seen him weep tears at the death of Lazarus, and know the agony of self-doubt in the Garden of Gethsemane.   He can the delight of dandling a child upon his knee, and can empathize with the woman who anoints his feet.

         Dare we imagine that even Jesus can be startled?  Dare we imagine that Jesus can also be caught off guard?   Frightened even?  Subject to all the same prejudices of his own community, his own disciples, and his own upbringing?

          Dare we further imagine that as a mother with a sick child this woman’s voice might have taken on the frightening tone of a woman crazy with fear, grief and desperation?  Shouting because she doesn’t know what else to do?  Shouting because it’s so frustrating to not be heard or noticed by someone who has the power to do something?

            We have the benefit of clearly hearing what this woman is shouting because it is written down and recorded for us.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

            She knows who Jesus is.  She has heard even in this foreign land of what he can do, and her need brings her out to shout to him her need.

I wonder if Jesus heard what she shouted, or whether he just heard the shout and reacted to it?

            He did not answer her at all.  I think that is what troubles us most.  We are troubled that Jesus is silent, speechless in the midst of a request for help.  Would he be silent to me?

            I can understand the disciples’ comments. “Send her away….:   That is the comment ever made to the one with whom we think we have nothing in common.  The old enemy, the outsider, the one whom we fear, or the one who is bothersome…. “Send them away.”  We say, “Send them back, we just want to be left to our own business, our own privilege.”

            I can even understand Jesus’ comment to his disciples.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  It’s a comment heard so often.

            “I guess her trouble is really not my concern.  Perhaps it was a mistake to come up here.  Maybe it was a distraction from my real mission to my own people.   Jesus is almost in agreement with his disciples and the common belief of the time.   He is sent for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the fulfillment of old promises to the chosen people, the people of that privilege.

            Except this shouting woman will not leave him be, or let him off the hook.

            Even after Jesus calls her a dog, and yes; that is exactly what he calls her, what he says.   There is no mistaking it, no way of easing or excusing it.  It’s not the term for an affectionate puppy under the table that Jesus is referring to when he makes his caustic comment about it not being right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. He’s talking mutts and scavengers.  It is a comment meant to make her slink away and leave him, leave them alone.

            But she will not, and this is where it gets interesting; because the shouting stops, and in a calm and reasoned manner she points out that all she’s asking for is crumbs.

            By this time, I want her to ask for much more.

            I want her to get up in Jesus’ face and say, “Listen, Son of David, either God’s got something for me or this God of yours is worthless!  Either this Grace you’ve been talking about is grace and it’s for me too, or this whole Kingdom that supposedly transcends every earthly Kingdom is just some pipe dream that you’ve been peddling to your own folks.”

            That’s what I want her to do, pin and needle Jesus and slap him up alongside the head until he gets some sense because this Jesus that I’m seeing in this story is pretty disappointing. I don’t want a Jesus who is startled by her shouts and dismissive of her needs and who joins in bad mouthing her.   This is not the Jesus that I would want to follow anywhere!  I’m not sure this Jesus would do anything for me either!

          And maybe, this is the point for us as well.  Maybe no one wants to be part of a church or a community who is startled by the shouts of those who are different from them, or who is dismissive of the needs of others, or willing to join in bad mouthing those “others” out there.

         Maybe what Jesus has to repent of here, is exactly what we all have to repent of as well.  A God that is too small.  A God who is only concerned with a few folks, some people – the privileged folks. 

         Maybe this story is meant to show us the way to do it, the way to learn how to do it because it seems that even Jesus has to learn to do it, fumble his way into seeing how big God’s intention for this world really is.

         Jesus doesn’t get it right at first.  He does have a knee jerk reaction to the outsider, to the foreigner, to her shouting to that one who is “other.”

         Jesus too, is tempted to just go along with what his inner circle, those close to him want him, the cultural pressures of his day want him to do… to just send her away.

         But in the end Jesus does something that you or I find difficult to do.  He actually listens to her.  He discovers what she wants.  He learns that what she demands is not something outrageous.  It is a basic human need, and it is within his power to grant, and it is in fact a sign of faith.  She understands very well how big God is, how far reaching God’s grace is meant to be, even before Jesus does.

          Maybe that’s what this Gospel, and the events of today are meant to press us toward.   Dare we think of God as bigger than our own vision, and dare we listen to the other to hear what God may be inviting us to do with them?

          I don’t have answers to the troubles of our day, but looking at this Gospel I can tell you what changes Jesus.   It changes when he listens.  He changes when he listens to the other whom we would rather dismiss, ignore or make go away. 

         Dare we do the same?   Listen?   And in the listening discover just how wide God intends this Kingdom’s reach to go, and maybe diffuse the frustrations that have for so long come about because those outside our circle are tired of not being heard?

“It Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time.” Matthew 14:22-33

attachment          “It seemed like a really good idea at the time…”   Many a good story has ended with that phrase.   

            It’s the premise of a good number of funny home videos, and picture sequences.  What starts out as being a perfectly good idea, ends up in hindsight being not such a great idea at all, even if it does get the job done!

            For some reason I can’t get the phrase “it seemed like a good idea at the time…” out of my head as I read the Gospel lesson for today.  

            I’m sure it seemed like a perfectly good idea to send the disciples on ahead.  It had been a long day, multitudes had been fed, baskets of leftovers gathered up, the disciples were just ready to get to the next stop.

            Jesus, similarly with his need to retreat from the crowds and spend some time recharging his personal batteries no doubt welcomed some person time alone.  So with the best of intentions they part ways, the disciples, some of them seasoned fishermen to their familiar boat, and Jesus to the solitude of the hills and the setting sun.  

            What could possibly go wrong?

            I am struck by how much of life is spent making some seemingly simple decisions that end up turning into a momentous events.

         Think about all the events in your life that started out as just a normal day, a decision you’ve made a thousand times before that suddenly became something quite different.

        What happenstance caused you to meet the one who became your life partner?  Where were you going?  What did you do differently that day?  What did you see when you looked at that person this time that you had never seen before?

      What task have you done a thousand times that suddenly becomes something else because of circumstances?   The slip of the knife while peeling the potato. 

       The detour that takes you past things you’ve lived close to your whole life but never seen before.  The word spoken that you wish you could take back again.

       History is full of events that seemed almost inconsequential but that ended up turning into big things.   Who could have foreseen that the assassination of a relatively minor crown prince could plunge a world into war?

            When we look at this Gospel story of Jesus walking on the water, we often approach it as if Jesus had something really profound to say to us from the beginning.  We think of it as all planned out.   Jesus does this, sends his disciples on ahead of him to prove a point, to drive home a message.   It is as if he had planned to take a stroll on the water all along.

            I’ve heard sermons on how the point of this miracle is to show the disciples (and us) that Jesus has command over the elemental forces of nature.   As God in creation first moved over the face of the waters so Jesus moves now, proving his power to those fearful disciples.  Those who once just followed him, by the end of this story now worship him!

            And to be sure, that is the case!  It does show us that, it is a theophany, a revealing of God.

            But what if the whole thing is a little bit more like real life is for most of us?  It just seemed like a pretty good idea at the time, and it ended up taking Jesus and the disciples places they never would have expected! 

            So the boat is far from shore, the wind is against it, and Jesus sees the disciples struggling.   Sure, he could have calmed the storm from his present location on the shore that evening, but somehow it seemed like a good idea to go out and reassure them in person.

            What could possibly go wrong?

            How many times have we started out with really good intentions, thinking that we would be received one way, but ending up causing something else to happen?

            The surprise party that was not exactly appreciated.

           The cleaning binge where we finally got rid of a bunch of what we thought was junk, but our spouse thought was something else.

           Oh, there are lots of times that our intentions and actions, well meant, are not immediately appreciated by the recipients.  

           So it is that Jesus walks out meaning to assure the disciples and ends up, well, “scaring the bejesus” out of them.”

            Peter has what must have seemed like a good idea at the time.  Scared spitless, assured by Jesus’ voice that it is indeed him, he just wants to make sure, and so Peter cries out to Jesus over the wind and waves, “Lord, If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

            It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, although for the life of me I can’t see how!  Crying out to someone that you’re not even sure they are who they say they are over the top of a storm, on a pitching sea, and then for proof asking to do something that should be impossible for you to do?  Does that sound like a good idea to you?  What could possibly go wrong?

          Maybe Peter was distracted by the wind and waves and took his eyes off Jesus.   Maybe Peter began to trust in his own two feet too much, and down he went.  Or maybe Peter had no business leaving a perfectly good boat in the first place or asking this of Jesus.   Maybe it was his own desire to show off or find special favor that did him in.

            We will never really know, and in the end the sinking of Peter doesn’t seem to be as important as the fact that Jesus doesn’t let him go under, even if it is with a bit of a scolding

          “You of little faith,” Jesus says, “Why did you doubt?”

         And maybe that is what most resonates with me, because regardless of how it is that Jesus finds himself out on the lake, or Peter finds himself stepping out of the boat, or ends up sinking, the point is that all of these characters in this fantastical story started out just doing what seemed to be a good idea at the time.

          Is there a word of grace in that for those of us who find ourselves from time to time doubting?

          Is there a word of grace in this series of events for those of us who find ourselves doing the best we can, launching off with the best of intentions in mind, and often stumbling into circumstances and events that leave us feeling very much like we are neck deep and sinking?  Or that the wind is against us?

        The story of Jesus walking on the water is, as I said, a “theophany.”   It is a sudden revelation of God in our midst, and somehow I take incredible comfort that such things are not canned and pre-planned or all scripted, but that they take place while we are doing what seemed to be good idea at the time.

        This is the God who became incarnate, enfleshed, so that God would understand our situation, our limitations, and our needs.

       If we do bone head things from time to time, it’s a consolation to me that Jesus does a few of those too, and meets us in the midst of them.  Not that he’s stupid, but that he too is just  doing what seemed to be a really good idea at the time.

       It seemed to be a good idea to heal the sick.  Oh, he caught all kinds of grief for it from the Pharisees, but it seemed to be good idea at the time.

      Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors and most anyone who would break bread with him.  He caught a lot of grief for that from the Pharisees, and the temple officials, and even from his own disciples from time to time.   But it seemed to be a good idea at the time, offering love and forgiveness to those on the margins of life.

       He called the little girl back from her sick bed, Peter’s mother back from her fever, the young man on the funeral bier back from the dead, and Lazarus back from the tomb long after there should have been a stench, and none of that seems very practical, but it seemed to Jesus to be a good idea at the time, and in those actions we learn of his power over death itself.

       Sometimes we think of the bible as a story that was scripted out from start to finish, and we think of God as being the omnipotent, omniscient being who knows about everything before it all happens and who knows how everyone will act before they even think about it.    I suppose that’s all right, there is a some comfort in believing in someone who can anticipate the future.

       But when I read the scriptures, more often they seem to show a God who is willing to shake his head at people’s antics, some of which are outright stupidity, and foolishness, because he loves them, and still God works with it all as it happens, because it seemed like a good idea to us at least at the time.

      As humans, we surprise God from time to time, and we disappoint.  We lack faith sometimes, to be sure, but still God comes to find us in our greatest need, even by the most unconventional of means.    Jesus did it back then, and he does it now.  

       It seemed like a good idea at the time to walk out here and save them.

       If Jesus was willing to take a stroll across the waves to those who called out to him way back then, don’t you suppose he might just do the same for you in the trouble you find yourself in?   And, if Jesus didn’t give a second thought to walking out across on the water, as silly and preposterous as that must have looked and seemed, don’t you think Jesus is just as willing to do silly and preposterous things just to get to you, wherever you may find yourself right now?

“Take A Look At This…” Matthew 14:1-21

“Take a look at this….” How does that phrase strike you? It is you know, one of those opening lines that can go either way.
Sometimes it is an invitation to wonderment. While on vacation in Alaska we awoke one morning as our ship slid into Glacier Bay with this view. The sea as calm and reflective as glass, the mountain perfectly reflected in the waters, a mirror of the blue sky. “Take a look at this!”alaska 262
Or the evening news comes on and Brian Williams with wit and dashing comment introduces the “feel good” story of the night. “Take a look at this,…..” he says, and then runs the clip.
Sometimes however, it is an invitation to be made aware of something that isn’t so wonderful at all. In the mundane, around the house or around the workplace experience the “Take a look at this….,” is almost always accompanied with a desire to have you see something that isn’t right, or that needs your attention, or that marks a mistake you have made, or a failure. It’s the rest of the news cast, if you will. One depressing story about what is wrong with this world after another. “Just take a look at this…”
I want you to think about that invitation to “take a look at this…” as we look at the Gospel lesson for today. There was no “nightly news” in the first century, but without a doubt news got around.
Good news, and bad news.
In Matthew’s Gospel before this event of the feeding the 5000, there is another story taking place that informs it. You need to see it, although it is a bloody, awful story, because it sets the stage for what happens in the feeding.
Our Gospel reading today begins with “Now when Jesus heard this..” which begs the question, “What is it that Jesus heard about just before getting into the boat and going to the lonely place?”
Matthew 14 begins with the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. It’s a story filled with palace intrigue and abuse of kingly power that makes “Game of Thrones” seem like child’s play.
Herodias is a scheming and conniving woman, power hungry, willing to divorce her deposed husband Philip in order to be wife of the current King of Judea, and marries her husband’s own brother to remain attached to the man currently in power.
John in typical “Prophet who calls for Repentance” fashion denounces her actions, and so incurs her wrath. She bides her time, trying to find a way to rid herself of John’s criticism. The opportunity presents itself in the midst of Herod’s birthday party. She has her own daughter do a hoochie-coo dance that so titillates the king that he’s willing to thoughtlessly promise her anything as a token of his appreciation.
She asks for the head of John the Baptist, at her mother’s urging.
Now Herod, not wanting to look weak in front of his rich and powerful guests orders the deed to be done, and the Baptist’s head is served up in the midst of this sumptuous feast on a platter.
It’s a bloody, decadent mess, the whole thing. As much bad news as anyone can imagine, even for that day and age.
This is what Jesus hears about before he jumps into the boat to be by himself. Likely he is in need of contemplating what such things will mean for him. Will he suffer the same fate at the hands of the rich and powerful?
But the crowds catch wind of his movement and follow him into the wilderness.
They have heard the “bad news” too, no doubt, and as we are want to do when there is nothing but bad news all around, they are hoping for some word from Jesus that reassures. But just what do you say to a bloody mess? What words will assuage the fear, or drive back the darkness, for a people who are powerless living under the dominion of the powerful who care for nothing but their own interests?
This is the world of these two stories. It is a world without that modern phenomenon of the “middle class.”
If you are Herod, Herodias, Salome or the people in power there are sumptuous parties and banquets and all the awfulness of excess gone awry that accompanies it.
If you are like those in the gathering crowd in the wilderness, you are wondering where the next meal will come from. Your diet is simple, your portions are meager, and your means of eking out a living are always in question.
So, when the moment comes, when the hour is late and the crowd is hungry, this becomes a singular moment for Jesus. He has worked this day, despite his own desire to get away healing their sick. What else can he show them that will give some sign of hope for the future in a world run by the likes of Herod.
It is as if Jesus, in this moment, is saying, “Take a look at this….”
And so, the powerless and the pitiless are given a banquet very different from Herod’s birthday bash.
The crowds in the wilderness are not told to go somewhere else and find whatever you can.
What does the Kingdom of Heaven look like that Jesus has been telling parables about all through chapter 13?
“Take a look at this….”
And so 5 loaves and two fish are produced, and blessed, broken and shared. And for the first time in a long time you aren’t sent packing to look out for yourself. No, here, in the wilderness as the Israelites did of old, the call is made to trust in God to provide.
Here in the wilderness they share what they have, and they discover it is more than enough, and abundant, and they have left overs!
What is it that makes Herod shake in its boots when he learns about Jesus? It is that Jesus can gather 5000+, and more, and he can make them sit down and share with one another.
What is it that catches the attention of Rome? It is this word of a Galilean preacher who “stirs up the crowds and they follow him.”
Rome does not like crowds.
The rich and powerful like their privilege and their position, and they prefer citizens who are sheep, scattered and fearful of the future.
Citizens who are fearful of the enemy, whatever that may be identified as, are easy to keep in line. You offer them protection, you tell them that you will keep them safe, and maintain the peace and they will jump at it, no matter how much personal freedom it may cost.
Citizens who are fearful of the intrigue of the powerful and dismayed at the evening news are easy to keep in line. After all, what can one man do in the face of Herod, or even his wife. Look what happened to John when he spoke out!
People who live in fear are easy to control.
People who look for a single great leader to solve all their problems are easily manipulated, and Herod, Rome, know that, depend upon it.
So Jesus will not be the Messiah the crowds may want him to be. He will not take on Herod and Rome by raising armies and sweeping in a new world order by force and action. He will not join the parade of other heroes and leaders who started out with good intentions and who ended up compromised by this world, serving up heads on platters just to hold on to their own position, status or power.
Instead Jesus, in this moment and with these actions delivers a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven, and it happens in their very midst.
“You give them something to eat.” Jesus instructs his disciples. “They need not go away.”
“We have nothing here….” the disciples reply in protest, “but five loaves and two fish.”
: . “Bring them to me.”
And here is where the miracle of the Kingdom starts.
They brought them to him.
Everything else that follows depends upon that action. If the disciples decide it’s futile. If the disciples look at what is in their hands and determine that it’s not of any significance to God, not something that can be used, not something that will go far enough, not something they are willing to let go of or share…. It’s all over.
There will be no miracle today, and no vision of the Kingdom right here in our midst.
It is a risky venture for Jesus, placing this action squarely back into the hands of his disciples. Blessing, breaking, giving it back for them to do whatever it is they will do with it.
It is risky still.
It is still what Jesus does, as a sign of the Kingdom.
He imposes nothing on us.
He does not take us by force.
He simply asks that what we have, we bring to him. He blesses it, and hands it back, and says this is the way the Kingdom is brought in. This is what it looks like, a banquet of beggars each feeding one another, seeing to the needs of one another, sharing with one another.
Kings and people of power do not understand this.
We barely do.
But every once in a while in the midst of doing it, we catch a glimpse of a very different kind of world, and a very different way to rule things. Not with might, or imposition, or seeking our own way, but with sharing and daring to trust in God to provide and make it work.
“Take a look at this…”
This is the Kingdom, and the great feast, where all receive what is needed for life, and it is in your hands.