Our Holy Scripture starts out so far from our immediate experience that it is perhaps by apocalypse, by revelation alone that its cargo of good news may be delivered upon the shoreline of our souls.
All are fed. All are satisfied. All are commanded. All are responsive. All are addressed. All are addressable. All consume under the voice like none other and all are consumed by the presence like none other.
His voice. His presence. Like none other. Jesus withdraws by boat. Jesus sees, has compassion, and cures. Jesus commands. Jesus rejects the disciples pragmatic suggestion that the crowd find ways to ‘shelter in place’. Jesus gives something to eat. Two fish and five loaves (or vice versa?). 2. 5. 12. 5k.
Here is lasting and ultimate nourishment for all. Here is an audible trustworthy voice for all. Here is a meal set for all. Here is a gathering around a common need and a common prayer for all.
No division, here. No separation, here. No doctrinal, religious, political, historical, ethnic conflict, here. One Lord. One voice. One gathering. One meal. One mysterious communion. All fed. All. ‘All ate and were filled’. That all were fed is astounding. That all were satisfied is miraculous.
We are closer in experience to the rest of chapter 14. John the Baptist’s head delivered on a platter, at the request of a young woman prompted by her mother, produced in the middle of a feast as a gift consequent on beautiful dance and an uttered oath—the brutality of the act, the tragedy of unexpected consequences to heartfelt offerings, the loss of prophetic voice, the portent of violence yet to come, the relative aplomb with which the news of his death is conveyed—these we recognize from our own world. Likewise, not before but after our reading, the anxiety and terror of those who are stumblingly trying to follow Jesus, the sinking of Peter as we tries to walk on water—the Rock sinking like a rock, the evaluation of his faith as little faith, the failed return in soaking wet to the bark, the nave, the boat of the community (our walk on the Lord’s day week by week)—these we recognize from our own church. We are closer in experience to what comes before and what comes after.
Here, in the mist, here, in the gathered community, here, in earshot of his voice like none other, here, now, we wonder at all fed. Voice. Command. Compassion. Presence. Prayer. Nourishment. Astonishment.
In this way we are like Jacob. Jacob is more at home with his experience before and after the angel. He has swindled Esau. He has feared his recompense from Esau. He has schemed to be returned to good graces with the one whom he fears will come and kill him. He assembles a massive bribe of animal husbandry. Then, after the angel, Jacob and Esau make a kind of peace, settled with gifts and pledges, even though Jacob is virtually certain that Esau has come to rid the earth of him. Fear and miscalculation, fore and aft, Jacob knows, as do we.
Yet it is from the nighttime tussle that Jacob gets his name, and not from the long trail of endless drama and conflict over land, progeny, cattle, and money. All night, that night, Jacob has wrestled with a man, a presence, a being, who gives the blessing of a name but also the curse of suffering.
Week by week we too struggle to remember our rightful mind, our right name, known in presence, a presence that seems like absence alongside our getting and spending, fore and aft. One who strives, one who struggles, one who wrestles with….Voice, Presence, Compassion, Command, Prayer, Nourishment. Astonishment.
Matthew has again fixed up Mark’s earlier version of this account, as he does also in the next chapter with the second feeding story. Matthew gives a terse summary, a curt, shortened account, in his use of Mark. Every rendering of the gospel, unto this very morning and this very hour, takes the measure of a particular moment, location, community, and ministry. Matthew quickens the dramatic pace, tightening the introduction, shortening the story, moving quickly to the point: all fed, all satisfied. The terror in the reign of Domitian, perhaps on Matthew’s horizon, near the year 90, may have influenced our gospel writer. In moving to the conclusion, Matthew leaves out the ordering of seating, the throng’s Markan self-selected arrangement by 100’s and 50’s, and refers to the guests as crowds not people. So doing, he further highlights the ordering command of the host. Is his sense of the church’s own development on Matthew’s horizon? In one sense, it is not so much the details in the changes that Luke and Matthew, writing 15 years later, inflict on Mark, as it is the very act of changing itself that carries the meaning. There is, there needs ever to be, freedom in interpretation, a freedom given and guarded by the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Holy Scripture. Given and guarded both.
Our reading today is one of very few found in all four gospels. John too carries a roughly congruent account, with 5 and 2, loaves and fishes. Our gospel today formed a center, one hesitates to say THE center, but a center in the earliest church’s pronouncement of the gospel. All fed. All. All means all. All satisfied. All. All means all. Week by week we too struggle to remember our rightful mind, our right name, known in presence, a presence that seems like absence alongside our getting and spending, fore and aft.
We may venture to apply the gospel today in two ways, one related to our Marsh ministry and our national summer preacher series this summer, and one related to our global experience of violence this summer.
Emerging adults need, deserve, receive, consume, and depend on Presence that seems like Absence. They are leading courageously faithful lives over against a panoply of chilling, prevailing winds. As a community of faith, we live and work in community with emerging adults.
Some will more easily and more readily avail themselves by their own volition of the means of grace offered here. Familiar words, music, hymns, architecture, time, place mode aid them on arrival. For others, and they are a part of the all in all as well, for our doors to be fully open will require a loving creativity, an earnest invitational spirit for us all.
With courage, our soon to arrive guests navigate the swells and tides of what Christian Smith describes in Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, (amoral sexuality, steady inebriation, rampant drug use, limitless greed, self celebration and adulation, and limited empathy for the hurts of others. )
With courage they navigate the swells and tides of millennial culture, what Charles Blow calls the ‘self(ie) generation’ (NYT, 3/8/14): (unaffiliated with religion, distrustful of politics, heavily indebted, largely unmarried, distrustful of others, digitally native: “all in all we seem to be experiencing a wave of liberal minded detachees, a generation in which institutions are subordinate to the individual and social networks are digitally generated rather than interpersonally accrued.” )
We have a meal to prepare. Learning that begets virtue and virtue that begets piety. Knowledge that begets action and action that begets being. For some, the offering may be the intervening word between illness and health, danger and safety, failure and achievement, loss and life. Salvus, salvus, salvus.
An Atlantic Monthly article this spring ended this way:
American higher education is the envy of the world.
American higher education has, however, one glaring deficiency: it does not teach its undergraduates how to live. It teaches them when the French Revolution was, what the carbon cycle is, and how to solve for X. It does not teach them what to do when they feel confused, alone, and scared. When they break down after a break-up. When they are so depressed they cannot get out of bed. When they drink themselves into unconsciousness every night. When they find themselves living on someone’s couch. When they decide to go off their meds. When they flunk a class or even flunk out of school. When they get fired. When a sibling dies. When they don’t make the team. When they get pregnant. When their divorced parents just won’t stop fighting. When they are too sick to get to the hospital. When they lose their scholarship. When they’ve been arrested for vandalism. When they hate themselves so much that they begin self-mutilating. When they’re thinking about suicide. When they force themselves to throw up after every meal. When they turn to drugs for relief from their pain. When they’ve been assaulted or raped. When their mind is racing and cannot stop. When they wonder about the meaning of it all. When they are terrified by the question “What do I do next?
Remember, revere, the presence that seems like absence, in community with young adults this year. Remember a promise of all fed.
We could use a measure of this gospel this summer as well. If your religious perspective and posture, if faith, if the community of faith mean anything, then surely they mean a voiced, steady rejection of the taking of innocent life, the slaughter of children, youth, women and men who become collateral damage in the course of violent conflict. At some visceral level we all can connect with what it would mean to have our own 7 year olds killed in the mayhem of warfare. When we pause in the presence of the Presence, a presence that very much seems like absence, we are chastened, numbed, brought to our very knees.. One of the great and lasting shadows upon human history and experience is our common, shared ready willingness, time and again, to try to apply short term solutions to long term problems. Women, men, families, communities, colleges, businesses, governments, religions, and yes, nation states are all prone to think short term solutions will avail for long term problems. They will not. We are tempted to think that a hidden tunnel on one hand or a drone missile on the other that partly hobble an enemy will bring some solution, when the long term issues lie in the structure of relationship across and among divided peoples. Short term victories can be truly pyrrhic ones. A short term ‘solution’– that is no solution– to a long term problem –that has only become a greater one.
Our gospel today promises nourishment for all. All. All fed. All satisfied. All. There are not expendable children, expendable only because they happen to be housed across some invisible line. It is the towering and powerful genius of today’s ancient and central narrative in Matthew 14:31 that restores us to rightful mind, to a steady hope. All fed. Our gospel affirms gathering of all in the face of separation for some, a command to all in the face of desire to exclude some, a blessing of all in the face of arguments to limit such blessing to some, a nourishment of all in the face of a shared human proclivity to make that all ‘all of our own not theirs’. It is the towering and powerful voice of Jesus, and him crucified, whose own compassionate presence in absence feeds us still, feeds all still, feeds all to hasten the day that all, truly all, truly all, are fed.
We sat in Lincolnville, Maine last Sunday, following worship, along a misty seacoast. We read the paper and were nourished in an old port side restaurant. Paper and food, word and table. Word and table, word and table, word and table. The news of the day, of these days, you know and well. You wonder sometimes, what is real and for real, what is the final realism. A familiar voice, with a familiar tune, carrying a familiar poem came over the simple, inexpensive, medium of the radio (the medium of the poor, and our choice of media here at Marsh Chapel, in part for that reason. Our proud participation with and support for NPR for that reason. “The lamp of the poor”, recently deceased Canadian novelist Alistair Macleod once recalled, is the translation for the Gaelic term meaning “moon”, ‘lochran aigh namb boch’.) Imagine all the people Living life in peace
Take heart. Lift your hearts. Hatred does not kill the possibility of peace. Terror does not eliminate the potential for change. The collapse of civility today does not do anything to the lived memory and experience of past civility, except make it more precious. The unspeakable tragedy of innocent death does not mark the end of the capacity for co-existence, for managed, enforced co-existence. Imagine—a common faith, common ground, a common hope.
Do you believe this? Will you live in such belief?
“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.” Matthew 14:19-20.
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel