Homily for Proper 13, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
August 2, 2020: Virtual Worship in a Time of Pandemic
As the days stretch into weeks, and the weeks stretch into months of our physical distancing, it’s right and good that we start talking about our mental health, in addition to our physical health. This time has been stressful…and distressing…for a lot of people. Many of us are wrestling right now. So perhaps during this particular time and place, we relate to Jacob like never before. We may wrestle all night long with worries, with fears, with “what if” scenarios or “when will it end?” questions. Sometimes we don’t even know what, or who, we are wrestling. Sometimes God shows up for us right in the middle of that, reminding us who we are, and sometimes these struggles change us in permanent ways. The lesson of Jacob’s divine wrestling match reminds us that walking away with a limp can be a reminder of our strength, not a sign of weakness.
This week’s lessons convey a lot of wrestling, as well as a lot of walking away. They also reveal a lot of stress. Scientists who study stress remind us that our human bodies physically respond to stressful situations. Stress activates our adrenal glands to secrete epinephrine, which moves throughout our entire body almost immediately, impacting every part of our system. Stress activates what has commonly been called the “Fight or Flight” mechanism, where seemingly beyond our conscious control we are overwhelmed with the compulsion to either wrestle or run from the immediacy of the dangers that our bodies instinctually perceive.
I’m going to admit, I’m a “flight” responder. There have been several times in my life when I have experienced deep pain or tragic grief. In those moments, my only thought has been to run away and be entirely by myself. It isn’t that I don’t love or care for those around me at those moments…it is as if my body is acting of its own accord, compelled to flee. In those solitary moments, emotions spill out of me in all kinds of crazy ways. And often, I pray…or at least, I recognize what I’m doing as prayer. Through my ugly shouts and tears during those times of flight, I have come to know that our God of mercy hears me. Once I reach the other side of that acute stress response, I often find that something has been deeply moved in me, and I have a new sense of clarity about what I need to do.
Maybe you wrestle, like Jacob. Maybe you flee, like me. Either way, these responses are how we operate as human beings. And either way, God sees us.
So, with that acknowledgement of our humanness, let’s revisit today’s Gospel lesson. We need to start just a bit earlier, though, because this week’s lectionary really doesn’t give us the whole story. Right before today’s lesson of the feeding of the 5,000, we are told a tragic story of injustice inflicted by the Roman Empire. Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great, whose mercilessness we hear about in the story of Jesus’ birth) had imprisoned Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. John had prophetically spoken out against Herod’s relationship with Herodias, who was his own brother Phillip’s wife. At a court-sponsored banquet, Herodias’ daughter…Herod’s step-daughter…dances for him. He becomes enamored with her and promises her anything she asks for. Herodias prompts her daughter to ask for a gruesome gift: the head of John the Baptist on a platter. This is an act of pure spite and retribution. And as things go in the powerful empires of this world, Herod grants her request. John the Baptist is summarily beheaded and his head is delivered by court servants on a platter to the girl, at the banquet.
It’s a horrible, graphic murder based in treachery, lust, greed, and power. That banquet was everything evil and despicable about the empires of power and greed in this world. Just before we enter today’s appointed portion of the Gospel, Jesus’ disciples are the ones who go and claim John’s body and bury him. And then, they deliver this news to Jesus.
Our lectionary reading begins in mid-sentence, which depicts Jesus’ action as if he were going off on retreat. It sounds very serene to go off in a boat by oneself. But I think there’s a really important lesson for us hearing this Gospel lesson in its full context, the way that the Gospel writer tells it. When we do that, we hear the whole story differently, picking up from the moment that the disciples bury John the Baptist and deliver the message of his brutal death at the hands of empire to their friend: “When Jesus himself heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a quiet place. And having heard of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.”
In this week’s Gospel, we have an image of a human, hurting Jesus whose bodily response to a brutal and unjust death, I might suggest, was to flee as far away as he could. If we truly believe in the full humanity of Jesus, along with his full divinity, we can feel the weight and the power of this tragic and unjust death on his person. We can feel his human, cellular response to the overwhelming grief overtaking him, compelling him to withdraw to a quiet place by himself.
Let’s pause for a moment and honor the sacred and holy space of Jesus’ deep, human grief.
I think it’s important that we recognize that we are currently living in a world where other cousins, siblings, mothers, fathers and friends are painfully and deeply grieving and responding to death from a rampant and ravaging pandemic, as well as from unjust deaths at the hands of the authorities and servants of the empire. In response, they might be fleeing, or they might be fighting. Either way, people in our lives and communities are immersed in and overcome by the pain and grief of injustice and death. And maybe we are, too. This is a holy, hurting space that Jesus deeply understands.
Maybe, alone in that boat, Jesus wept. Maybe he cried or shouted his lament to his heavenly Father. We don’t know what Jesus…fully human and fully divine…experienced in his solitude. But we do know that people who cared about him and who heard about this painful grief and unjust murder started gathering, marching, and supporting. They set out on foot, not even caring if they packed their lunch. They went together, like we still do, to collectively mourn and keep vigil in solidarity. They came in the thousands. They were, we are told, a great crowd.
This is what we do when we grieve injustice and those who speak out against it. In Galilee. In Minneapolis. In Portland. In Louisville. In Atlanta. In Richmond.
As Jesus moved through his anguish and came to shore, he met the crowd who had come to support him. He saw them. He had compassion on them, we are told in our translation. In the Greek, that word is one of my favorites: ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (esplanchnisthē) which is used only a few times in specific contexts: when Jesus chooses to heal a person who has been blind since birth, when Jesus heals a young woman whom others say has died; and in the parable we know as the Good Samaritan, when a priest and a Levite pass on by on the other side, while the outcast Samaritan goes over to the man in the ditch, sees him and feels ἐσπλαγχνίσθη. You see, this isn’t a general sense of compassion. This is deep compassion and mercy sourced in the pain of grief and human empathy which transforms us to action: I see you. I will respond.
Jesus’ well-meaning disciples probably suspected the large crowd might be overwhelming, so they offered to send them off to get something to eat. But Jesus saw them. So, Jesus says No. In fact, he does more than that. He invites his closest friends to step aside from their own misgivings about the crowd and step into the depth of his enormous compassion. Jesus extends a transformative invitation: care for these people, “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples are confused and concerned. But Jesus, having moved deeply into his own grief and now moving back toward them, is moved again with mercy and compassion. He takes whatever they have to offer which happens to be five loaves of bread, and two fish. He looked toward heaven and in a sequence of actions that mirror those we have patterned our Christian life around for generations to come, he took, blessed, broke, and shared that offering with all who gathered there. Actually, he did one better. He collected his closest friends who had also carried the weight of that grief with him and charged them to give the gift of God’s abundance to the tired, hungry, weary crowd who were sitting in the depths of collective grief. Holy Service. Jesus offered his friends transformation through actions of service grounded in faith.
This story, my friends, is about so much more than an abundance of food. A platter of death and injustice served by the empire was now replaced with baskets of abundance lavishly revealing God’s grace, delivered by the hands of God’s servants. This story has everything to do with God’s transformative healing and grace in this broken and grieving world.
So this week, I want to invite you to sit with our lessons in your own quiet places.
- Where is the stress of this time and the pain of injustice hitting you the hardest?
- In what ways are you fighting, or fleeing?
- Where has God touched you, even if that place has caused you to limp a little?
- What is Jesus holding out for you to serve to the crowds who are hurting?
Maybe reach out to a friend or a neighbor this week and ask them one of these questions and share your own response. Just listen. We may find that Jesus is feeding us more abundantly than we realized, and we may find in our sharing that there is even more left over than we thought we had in the first place. We may feel like we have only crumbs and virtual Zoom boxes of church right now, but we are beloved and Jesus sees us. God is in these gifts. God gives us words on which to feast on during our own time apart. God gives us community and a relationship of prayer to transform us. And transformed, God gives us the honor and responsibility of sharing the abundance of God’s grace…of being the Body of Christ…to a hungry, hurting world.
It is not just a miracle. It is OUR miracle.