Monday, July 31, 2017

Soul Food

Matthew 14:13-21
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis           

I was in San Salvador, listening to the story of a member of the Legislative Assembly who had previously been part of the devastating Civil War. It was a very dispiriting conversation. He was talking about his own commitment to see that the poor in El Salvador could attain justice, particularly with regard to land ownership. At the end of the war, there was a large-scale land redistribution plan, by which each soldier, from both sides of the war, were allocated enough land to live and have a subsistence farm. It was a grand idea for a “do-over,” that was meant to be reflective of the year of Jubilee in the Scriptures. But, the reality was very different. Some soldiers from the FMLN – the side against the government forces – were allocated land that was very distant from where they and their families lived and worked. Others were still scattered in the mountainsides, waiting to ensure that they could emerge safely and walk home by the time the deadline passed for them to claim their land. Others had no papers to prove their identity because their villages had been bombed or ransacked. Others had no transportation or were injured or not yet convinced that they could safely enter government offices. Even the media, by which the redistribution process was announced, were all owned by persons who would benefit from buying unclaimed land. For a variety of reasons, some of which seemed purposefully difficult and others of which seemed circumstantial, many of the poorer folks were unable to claim their land. Then, when someone would seek some kind of redress, the legislator told us of how the lands were being privatized, how the courts required everyone to use attorneys that they could not afford, and how the police were enforcing laws selectively, and so forth. It was a tale of those thousands of little ways that those with power and privilege can construe the rules of the game to make it seem as if everybody has an equal shot, when they don’t.

While the legislator was talking, I began mapping the journey that one might take in order to attain the simple justice of getting what was promised. I drew a line for the ‘land redistribution process’ and each path led to closed doors. So, I drew a line for the public services – the police, the city hall, and other local agencies – and each line led to closed doors. I drew a line to the court, the legislature, the market, and each path led to closed doors. I know that a conversation like that can easily turn into a gripe-fest, with everyone acting as if the universe is out to get them. But, this man was speaking in such a methodical and comprehensive way, being very circumspect but making sure that we saw this process from the perspective of the poor, and it was the single most frustrating monologue I had ever heard. I finally wrote on the side of my doodle, “What else is there to do?” A man named Doug had been watching me map out the conversation and had occasionally reached over and added a closed door. When I wrote that question, he scribbled, “War?” After staring at it, I drew a closed door and wrote, “They tried that. 75,000 dead later, they get this” with an arrow at the map. 

When we read the story of the “Feeding of the 5,000,” we often imagine that Jesus went out into the wilderness for some “quiet time,” to pray and get regenerated for his work. We imagine that the crowd heard that Jesus was in the wilderness and they all went out there because they wanted to hear him teach. So, we imagine that feeding story itself is a logistical miracle or maybe a physical representation of how Jesus was ‘feeding’ them spiritually. But, we think that because we’re not paying attention to how Matthew is telling the story. What precedes this story is one of the most tragic events in Jesus’ life. Herod, the ruler of the occupying army in Judea, had just put John the Baptist to death. It was one of the most egregious executions imaginable. John had been arrested because he called Herod to task for committing adultery, when Herod took his brother’s wife into his palace for political gain. But, Herod would not touch John’s life because John was very popular with the people and Herod feared how they might react. Then, one night, Herod made a vow in public that resulted in him having to follow through by beheading John. It was a senseless death that is representative of how ruthless people with power can and will do anything to maintain their power. The greatest prophet that the people of Israel had known in years was put to death by a foolish king who made a foolish vow out of a moment of drunken, incestuous lust.

Matthew says that John’s disciples buried his body and went to tell Jesus what had happened. And that is when Jesus went out into the wilderness. And when the people heard, that is when they went out into the wilderness. The wilderness was the place where John lived, from which he would go to the Jordan River and thousands who were living under the reign of Rome would empty out the towns and listen to him proclaim that the Reign of God was had hand. Jesus, and the people who were gathered in the wilderness with him that day, were not on a mountainside retreat. These folks were gathered in that wilderness because every path they could possibly take for justice led to a door that had been slammed shut. They were not on a spiritual retreat; they were a dispirited people. And when Jesus saw them, he had “pity” on them. That word, “pity,” is more than meets the eye. The root of that word is a biological term that refers to the internal organs. It is not a sentiment but more of a visceral reaction – “gut wrenching” may be as literal as we can get. That is how Jesus reacted when this dispirited, desperate crowd joined him in the wilderness.

If ever there was a moment in the gospels when the time was ripe for a Hollywood-type attack on the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem, this was it. 5,000 desperate men, plus women and children – we could be looking at an angry horde of 12,000 people here, ready for someone to arm them and lead them to a better way. Instead, Matthew says, Jesus healed those who were sick – a word that could be translated “dispirited,” because it can mean more than physical maladies. It is after this activity of Jesus giving (literally, giving “therapy”) to the dispirited, that the disciples and Jesus have an intriguing conversation. The disciples want Jesus to send the crowd away, because it is late and they are hungry and all of them are out in the middle of nowhere. But, Jesus says, “They have no need to go away. All they need is here.“

Can you imagine what the church of Jesus Christ would look like if they learned to say, “They have no need to go away. All they need is here.” What would it be like if the church of Jesus Christ learned to meet desperate, dispirited people and say, “You have no need to go away. All you need is here.” I wonder how many of the folks who showed up in Murietta and shouted “Go away. We don’t have money, or jobs, or space for you here” turned around the next Sunday and praised Jesus in church. Every time we break the bread and share it, we are witnessing that the hungry, the dispirited, those who seek justice, those who have run into shut door after shut door, those who have nowhere else to turn, need not go away because where Christ is present, everything they need is here.

They have no need to go away, when Christ is present. Sometimes we’re the disciples, getting over our doubts and believing enough to participate in something mind-blowing. And sometimes we’re the dispirited, desperate crowd, finding abundance in places where we only see emptiness. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for bringing Good News to me with your sermon. Powerful, and a new way to understand the context of the feeding.