Friday, August 8, 2014

Jesus' heart is moved: The many banquets, and the great blessing. Mt 14: 13-21

“When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” To Jesus, it must have been like a dream…a bad dream; you know, one of those dreams that when you wake up, you can’t tell for sure that it wasn’t real; one of those dreams that leaves you deeply troubled not just that it happened, but because of what it might mean.

Jesus and John the Baptist had a long history; a deeply intertwined and meaningful history. Mary and Elizabeth were kinswomen; they were both pregnant during the same time-frame, and both under most unlikely circumstances…Mary, a young virgin; Elizabeth, old and barren. When Mary, at the beginning of her pregnancy, greeted Elizabeth, towards the end of her pregnancy, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb…John…leapt with joy over the proximity of the babe in Mary’s womb…Jesus. At the Jordan, John recognizes Jesus as the Lamb of God; later, Jesus says of John “There is no man born of woman who is greater than John the Baptist.” John’s death at the hands of Herod, Herodias, and Salome must have been devastating…deeply troubling…like one of those dreams. As Jesus sat in the boat, seeking solitude in a deserted place, he must have been thinking…and praying to his Father…about John; about Mary, and Elizabeth; about his life, and his mission; about how all of this would go. Can we even imagine what that prayer…that conversation with God his Father…must have been like?

And before he could even reach the deserted place…it was packed. How did so many people…”about five thousand men, not counting women and children”…get there so fast? How did they even guess where he was going? After his boat ride, his probably agonizingly brief opportunity to pray and to ponder…he was overwhelmed. The Gospel tells us “His heart was moved with pity for them.” In the midst of his own turmoil…perhaps maybe in part even because of his turmoil…he loved them. His deserted place was now filled with desperate people looking for what only he could provide. John’s death, surreal as it was, was now a part of Jesus’ life, and he had to move ahead. He cured their sick; he stayed with them. When the disciples wanted him to dismiss them all to look for food on their own, Jesus chided them: “…give them some food yourselves.”

What happens next overwhelms all of us, from then…until now, and to the end of time. The feeding of the five thousand is related in all four gospels; and in Matthew and Mark there is a second miracle of a feeding of four thousand that many scholars believe may be a retelling of the first. That would make six references in four gospels, and many also believe that the fact that there are multiple accounts lends strength to the reality of the miracle. The scale is staggering: a crowd of “…five thousand men, not counting women and children” equates to a total of maybe fifteen or twenty thousand. Five loaves and two fish is nothing. The significance of the fish is not clear; they are mentioned possibly just because they are a staple of the normal diet of the area at that time…but bread! Bread is life.

  And there are so many layers of symbolism, looking back into the Old Testament and the Manna in the desert, or the feeding of a hundred men by the Prophet Elisha with twenty loaves; and also the symbolism looking forward to the Last Supper, and then to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. God’s super-abundance is simply stated by twelve baskets of left-overs…one for each tribe of Israel; one for each of the Apostles. With just five loaves and two fish, Jesus satisfies…satisfies…possibly twenty thousand men, women, and children, and has food to spare! How could the impact of a banquet like that possibly be lost on anybody? It looms right there with the Manna, and the Last Supper, and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. One more observation of sorts: John the Baptist was beheaded in the midst of another banquet, one that was characterized by jealousy, pride, greed, excess, and revenge…what a stark contrast to Jesus’ banquet of healing, humility, satisfaction, and love!

As Jesus stood there with five loaves and two fish, lifting his eyes towards heaven, in his deserted place that was now filled with thousands upon thousands of hungry, desperate people in need of healing…just like us now…thinking back to the banquets of the Old Testament…stinging from the pain of the banquet that took the head of John the Baptist…and looking ahead to the banquet of his body and blood; his passion, death, and resurrection, and even thinking of us here, now, this morning, how huge are the words of blessing as he breaks the five loaves: “Baruch atah A-donay Elo-heinu Melech Ha’Olam Hamotzi lechem min Haaretz”.

That is: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth Bread from the Earth.”
Deacon Bill Whibbs

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Gods Plan for You: The day of parables

You may have noticed that over the past couple of weeks our Gospel readings have come with the option of a long version…or a short version. In each instance, the long version encompasses a number of parables that are somehow related…and the short version focuses on only one. This section of Matthew’s gospel, chapter 13 from verse 1 through verse 52, is referred to as “The Day of Parables”, and contains seven or eight parables, depending on how they are grouped, that all have to do with Jesus’ teaching the concept of the Kingdom to the crowds, to the tighter circle of disciples and apostles, and to the scribes and Pharisees who were always with him, waiting for him to stumble.

This section of Matthew’s gospel appears right in the middle of what Matthew has to tell us. In a true sense, then, this is pivotal…this collection of connected parables presents a pivotal issue for Matthew, and for the community in which Matthew lived, and for us now; for the community in which we live, from our nuclear families, to our beautiful yet troubled world.

Jesus loves to teach us in parables. A parable uses a common everyday experience to teach us something on another level, and if we are able to understand the point, usually leaves us with a choice. For so many parables to be concentrated in so short a time, the point must be especially important, and the choice for us must be a crucial one.

Matthew’s community was a Jewish community that was questioning what it meant to be a Jew after the destruction of the Temple. Those who accepted Jesus’ teachings knew the answer to that question…but what of the others who didn’t or couldn’t accept Jesus; those who were still looking for a physical kingdom in their time? The problem for Matthew was much like the problem Jesus faced with the Jewish leaders during his entire public life and ministry: how could he convince them of the Truth, when the Truth wasn’t what the Jewish leaders were looking for? The scribes and Pharisees knew the Law, and would not deviate from their strict interpretation; and they listened and weighed everything Jesus said and did against their standard. So he spoke in parables…pointed little stories designed to change the way people think. In verse 35, just a short time before today’s reading, Matthew tells us, referring to Jesus’ use of parables “I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world.”

The people Jesus was talking too clearly were not going to understand what he was saying without some kind of diversion; without a parable. And in the brief space of a single chapter, we hear eight parables…eight…that teach us what the Kingdom is…and it’s not what we think. In the parable of the sower, the seed he sows is the word of the kingdom, and when it falls on fertile soil, it produces many times over. Next, we hear that the thorns and the wheat…the children of the kingdom and the children of evil…must grow together until harvest. Then, the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, the tiniest of seeds producing the most robust of bushes. And again, the Kingdom is like a tiny amount of yeast in a huge amount of flour that when well worked, makes the whole batch rise.

Today we hear that the kingdom is like a hidden and unexpected treasure that causes the finder to sell all he has to buy the field where it lay hidden, and like a pearl of great value that is discovered after a long and arduous search that causes the merchant to leave everything else so he can possess it. And then, the kingdom is like a fishing net thrown into the sea to collect every type of fish, and when pulled ashore, the good fish are collected, and the undesirable are thrown away…not just thrown back into the sea…thrown away. Jesus pulls out all the stops, and gives the listeners parables based on what means the most to the people he was addressing: farming, baking bread, commerce, fishing…and with each simile, a different aspect of the Kingdom becomes a little more clear. Ultimately, what we learn is that the most important thing about the Kingdom is not what it is or isn’t…but what we do when we encounter it…when it encounters us. Do we accept it, or do we reject it? Do we embrace it, or do we push it aside? Maybe more importantly, do we allow it to embrace us?

Matthew saves one more parable of Jesus for the end. Jesus asks if the disciples understood “all these things”, and they said that they did. He tells them “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” The scribes are educated, smart; and those who have understood what Jesus has said will grasp that the kingdom is not so much a place as it is a state of being that sweeps together all that God has done before, and all that Jesus will do until he returns. We are in the middle of that sweep. We need to let go of what holds us back and allow the kingdom to embrace us and sweep us forward, the new with the old, into God’s waiting arms.
Deacon Bill Whibbs