Picture from Radical Tenderness Project by Kristen Trudo: https://www.radicallytender.com/karen/
On August 6, 2017, I was invited by Rev. Rebecca Turner, my former supervisor at Faith Aloud, to preach and preside at Christ Church United Church of Christ in Maplewood Missouri. I chose the Matthew 14:31-21 story about Jesus feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, and initially titled it “God’s Banquet.” It’s still an accurate title, but as the sermon wove itself into the threads of my heart, I would give it an equally true name: “Love Letter to Sad Revolutionaries.”
Because we know people who engage in movement / liberation / social change work, the kind of change your entire life kind of work, whose hearts are always a little broken, who can’t leave but who are so traumatized that it feels impossible to stay, who don’t want to hear the word “movement” ever again.
This is for the people who were never in it for ego. The people who held suffering in their hands and refused to let it go, until it might transform into something new. And maybe they are still waiting.
Here we go.
Matthew 14:13-21 NRSV
Feeding the Five Thousand
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. 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. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
God’s Banquet / Love Letter to Sad Revolutionaries
Five loaves and two fish fed over five thousand people. All ate and were filled, and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. THAT was the miracle.
So many people fed with so little. THAT was the miracle, or was it?
Maybe I’m wrong, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Jesus wasn’t really planning on dinner that day. He didn’t want to be around people AT ALL. Here’s this rabble-rousing rabbi, prophetic preacher, street medic, organizer of a poor people’s movement, who suddenly can’t stand to be around his beloved community? He can’t get on a plane or go for a drive, so he does the next best thing and hops in a boat to get away, take a breather, go FAR FAR FAR away from anyone he knows, at least for a little while. Maybe some of you know what that’s like.
Some of you know that’s not someone who wants to have a dinner party. That’s someone who has a serious case of sadness. Jesus. Is grieving.
Let’s rewind for some context.
Earlier in chapter 14, before the feeding of the five thousand, Matthew tells the story of how Herod the Ruler killed John the Baptist. John the Baptist was a co-organizer of the resistance to Roman rule, who agitated religious leaders for conspiring with the state, and wore itchy camel’s hair so that he could never be comfortable. John the Baptist refused to stay asleep to the suffering of his people, he preferred to stay WOKE.
And Herod the Ruler hated him for it. John the Baptist was always gathering people in the wilderness and getting them all riled up about changing their ways and talking about how oppressive the empire of Rome was. I mean, don’t these people have JOBS to do instead of whining in the wilderness, and didn’t John understand that the empire of Rome is the greatest empire there ever was, and if he hated the modern trade routes and clean water systems SO MUCH, why doesn’t he JUST LEAVE and GO BACK TO WHERE HE CAME FROM?
Then John the Baptist had the nerve to say that Herod the Ruler couldn’t have Herodias, because of some Jewish purity laws about avoiding incest or marrying someone else’s wife. Herod would have let it go if it weren’t for the fact that John the Baptist had SO MANY FOLLOWERS. John the Baptist was consistently doing protests at the Jordan River because “Water is Life,” and people were turning up and turning out in droves.
Herod the Ruler knew that if he did anything to John the Baptist, there would be huge public backlash. He might even have a rebellion on his hands.
But then Herodias’ daughter who was also Herod’s stepdaughter danced before Herod and his guests, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised her anything she wanted. And like any beautiful daughter of a powerful woman, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.”
Herod the Ruler made a promise, in front of his distinguished guests, and he couldn’t have them or the public think he was a weak man. So, ignoring his fears of rebellion, he gave the command to execute John the Baptist, a popular political prisoner. Matthew chapter 14 verses 11-13 said, “The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother.
His students came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself…” and you know the rest.
Matthew wrote miracle stories about Jesus as lessons to the early Jesus movement. So many people fed with so little. THAT was the miracle, or was it?
Those who have experienced the deep grief of mourning a life taken far too soon know that grief has the ability to make time stop, the world stand still, your eyes into oceans, and your food into sand. Everyone mourns differently, but Matthew’s Jesus does what many of us might do: retreat, isolate, push people away.
And yet, the people hear the news of John the Baptist’s death, and they follow Jesus, this sad revolutionary in a boat, on foot from the towns. It’s a giant funeral procession, but it’s also a wake for those who are woke, a resistance march for a popular political prisoner. Jesus goes ashore, and he sees a great crowd, and that’s when it clicks: “I’m not alone.”
Maybe the miracle is not so much that many were fed, but that the meal happened at all.
That this poor people’s movement came through for this sad revolutionary in a boat, and reminded Jesus that he wasn’t alone.
That the people followed him with more faith than his students, because they had created a movement family who were more willing to stay out late in the wilderness, than go home and wait for oppression to break in during a no-knock raid.
That the people reminded Jesus that he wasn’t just an ocean of pain but he was also a healer and street medic who brought people into community.
That when the people learned that John the Baptist was executed by the state, they didn’t hide in fear, but left their homes, and held a public repast for John the Baptist, a meal to honor John’s life and to encourage the living to go on and continue his witness.
That this meal had twelve baskets left over, symbolizing abundance for the twelve tribes of ancient Israel that lived under Roman occupation in modern-day Palestine.
The good news is that even in a world full of grief where good people are taken far too soon, we don’t need to wait for miracles to happen. God is in and among us, the sad, the lonely, the grieving, and the willingness to come alongside those in pain is miracle enough to sustain us for the long journey to liberation.
Thanks be to God.