Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost. St. Paul’s on the Hill, Ossining, NY
“Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
We often have ideas about what is spiritual, and then we make sure that Jesus fits those ideas. So, the way today’s gospel reading starts off, it looks like Jesus is going on a summer retreat—quiet time, maybe a few spiritual exercises, get refreshed and relaxed. All of these things make sense in their own way, but sometimes our ideas of the spiritual let us skip over the way spirituality works in real life.
The lesson in the lectionary starts, “Jesus withdrew…”, but the lectionary leaves out the first clause of that sentence. It says: “After hearing these things Jesus withdrew…” What things? What was Jesus hearing? You actually have to scramble back in your Bible a bit to find the reference. At the beginning of the chapter it says: “At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus, and he said, ‘this is John the Baptist, he has been raised from the dead.’ This connection gets lost because Matthew inserts here a story to explain the significance of the connection that Herod is making. The story is, perhaps best known from the Richard Strauss opera, Salome, which created quite a scandal when it was first performed, since it featured sex, violence, incest, John the Baptist losing his head, and innovative ways of plating for a banquet. Since we think about sex and violence at other times and not on Sunday morning, we leave that part of the Bible out of the lectionary. The Herod in question was one of several sons of Herod the Great (the Herod who reigned when Jesus was born) who were named Herod. I won’t go into the complex details of the Herod family soap opera, but when John the Baptist publicly said that his marriage was not legal or moral or right, Herod had him thrown into prison and later had him executed in exchange for a dance by his step-daughter. So if Jesus hears that this Herod is equating him with John the Baptist, there’s trouble brewing.
Jesus gets on a boat and heads out of town. The description makes me think of some of the reservoirs in the desert where I come from. If you get on a boat and cross the lake, you’ll end up in a place where there are no roads, no houses, no farms. He would be in a deserted place by himself, out of danger while things cooled down. Not quite our idealized concept of a spiritual retreat. In fact it’s more like the real life that we experience, with concerns and crises, problems that need to be solved.
Somehow, the place wasn’t isolated enough, lots of people saw where he was headed and they all walked around the lake and were there when he got off the boat. So this is the situation that Jesus and his disciples were in when the events in today’s Gospel took place. “He had compassion for them and healed their sick.” Which, of course, is just the kind of thing that had attracted Herod’s unwanted attention, but they were sick, and needed healing. I can just see the more practical and prudent among the disciples, thinking about the situation and saying, “Jesus. Send them. Away.” Then the argument ensues. Jesus says, “Feed them.” “We don’t have anything.” “Oh?” “Well, maybe two loaves and a couple of fish, but that’s not enough. Let them go buy their own food.”
“Bring them here to me.”
Jesus extends hospitality at a time when it is not really convenient, when good advice would be for him to save himself by avoiding these people. And the disciples, they are trying to think of ways to save him from himself—their logic is impeccable, there isn’t enough food. And Jesus says, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat.”
In the midst of all of our problems and anxieties, sometimes miracles happen. What has been impossible is made possible through God’s welcome. Jesus didn’t let the disciples focus on the impossibility; rather he led them into hospitality. You don’t become a hospitable person or a gracious host by waiting until you have more than enough. Those who are generous, are generous to others when they have little and when they have much. So, the disciples opened up their lunch box and Jesus gave it away. And he kept giving, and he keeps giving. It doesn’t necessarily make sense, especially if the focus is on ourselves and what we get out of it. But Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and they all extended hospitality, and what they thought they couldn’t do, happened anyway. “And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” Twelve more baskets to give and to welcome others with.
I have found St. Paul’s to be a welcoming and giving community. You have extended hospitality to me and my wife. That foundation of hospitality is important as you move forward spiritually and as an organization. As Jesus leads you to grow in generosity and love, don’t expect that there won’t be changes or that there won’t be miracles. It wasn’t the lack of food that made those disciples uncomfortable; it was all these extra people hanging around at a difficult time when it would be better to be inconspicuous. Expect Jesus to have new miracles for us all.
Let’s share what’s left in those baskets.