The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
The Very Reverend Torey Lightcap

Matthew 14:13-21

The reading we just heard begins:
“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat
To a deserted place by himself.”
He heard “this.” What is “this”?
He withdrew “from there.” Where is “there”?
He went to “a deserted place.” What manner of place is that?
Above all, why? Why the fuss and consternation?

The section of Matthew that comes immediately before this one makes it plain
That it’s a dangerous time to be a prophet,
As we are plunged into the tale of Herod and John the Baptist,
Herod’s wife Herodias, and her daughter.
Herod loves how his stepdaughter dances at his birthday party,
And he promises her the world – anything she wants.
Her mother whispers in her ear, and she asks her stepfather for the head of John the Baptist.
The Gospel makes it clear that although Herod enjoys talking to John,
When it comes to the party and his friends, he wants to be the big man,
So he has John delivered up.

John the Baptist was a prophet.
What’s more, he was Jesus’ first cousin .
Imagine that you and your cousin are in the same family business,
And you just heard through the grapevine that your cousin was dead – murdered, in fact.
What’s more, he had been put to death for no other reason than that he was fulfilling his calling.

At the point that Jesus learns of this, he is in his hometown, Nazareth,
And he is experiencing great frustration with the people around him.
Then he receives this news.
I imagine a mixture of grief, confusion, and fear
Driving him to leave – get into a boat and to go to a place where no one else can be found.
The urge to hide out for a while until the right moment should come along.

Exhausted and emotionally wrung out, he finally puts the boat back on land.
And what is waiting there for him? “A great crowd.” Much need.
Many thousands of people stricken with all kinds of sicknesses, and hunger to boot.

It’s easy for us to imagine Jesus as some sort of proto Superman,
But we need to stretch, and be just as curious about his humanity as we are his divinity .
Please imagine for just a moment that Jesus has reached the end of his internal resources,
And the proverbial tank is empty.

Perhaps at this moment in our common life, with COVID seemingly around every corner,
Many of us can identify with Jesus at this juncture in his ministry.
The crush of our monthslong isolation and loneliness …
The inability to even shake the hand of a friend …
Basic questions abounding about simple things – access to food, shelter, medicine …
Concern over loved ones near and far …
To say nothing of the fear of the unimaginable – what would happen to us If …
Standing on the shore, surveying all that need .
Maybe the world is demanding more of Jesus right now than he is prepared to give.
Couldn’t it be, that, for at least a second or two,
The distress and the confusion are blinding and immobilizing?

Why? Why all these people right now? Why so much need in one place?
That’s what I would wonder if I were in his shoes.
After the kind of week I’ve already had?
Or aren’t we permitting him to be equally human – always on a pedestal?
Never truly “at our level”?

What, then, changes things for him?
If he has reached the end of his resources, is there anything beyond that point? Yes!
The text tells us that he “had compassion” on this throng of people.
The original biblical text tells us that when he saw them, his guts turned over in his stomach.
At the time, it was believed that the bowels were the place where love and pity resided in the body.
More than that, though, each one of us already knows this feeling for ourselves:
Those times when you see something that is so upsetting and so wrong,
You can feel your stomach jump. The body doesn’t lie.
Not anger exactly – that comes soon after – but at first, just a terrible shock.
That immediate, instinctual, physical response.
When the truth is crushing – and all you can do is react.

What moves Jesus out of self-pity and self-regard is regard and pity for others.
If he had been having a bad week, imagine the collective suffering in this tidal wave of humanity.

Shock gives way to clarity; compassion leads to action.
He “cures their sick,” it says.
And when pressed about the lateness of the hour and the need they had for food,
He does not tell them to disperse as he is advised, but instead does the opposite: he gathers them up.
Organizes them. And in the great pattern that we reenact every time we gather for Eucharist,
He takes the food, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them.

Along the way he teaches his disciples a beautiful lesson in faith:
Their disbelief and stubbornness are far exceeded by God’s miraculous grace.
In their economy there isn’t enough to feed the crowd; in God’s economy there is always enough.

When Herod wants to play the part of the “big man” and burnish his own ego,
Jesus is moved to do many profound acts of mercy in God’s name.
Where the way of the world presses in on Jesus on every side,
He finally will not capitulate, but is fueled by an instinct of compassion in the center of his being.
When his cousin has lost his life in an act of predictable injustice at the hands of a petty prince,
Jesus ultimately refuses to let that be the end of the story.

Can you imagine.
You are one of many thousands of people –
Frail, exposed, vulnerable, hungry, sick.
You don’t really have the means to do it, or even a good reason,
When you could be out trying to provide for yourself or others,
But in a last-ditch effort at hope,
You follow out the one lead you have –
That itinerant teacher and healer you’ve been hearing about lately,
And you bring your household along with you. The desperation in your cohort is thick.

But at the end of the day, your family is no longer sick –
And for the moment, no longer hungry, nor discriminated against: just fed, just a part of something.

It’s not a scene you have to theologize or make pretty; it speaks for itself.

Out beyond the horizons of our faith, as far as we can see within our given systems,
Wearing the blinders that teach us black-and-white thinking …
Out beyond preconceptions about who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s in and who’s out;
There is a land where the right and the good need no defending.
Where a full belly and a whole body are the norm.
Because that’s how God would have it. Because God loves us.

The table set before us today is a shadow and a reminder of that place and that time.
The kingdom of God is like a banquet with the board spread wide.
Jesus is the feast and the host.
I’ll meet you there.1

1 The last three paragraphs of this sermon are indebted to a poem by Rumi as translated by Coleman Barks: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field / I’ll meet you there / When the soul lies down in that grass / the world is too full to talk about. / Ideas, language, even the phrase each other / doesn’t make any sense.” The Illuminated Rumi . New York, NY: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., p. 98.