The power of interruptions, 8 Pentecost, Proper 13 (A) – 2014

August 3, 2014

Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 17:1-7, 16 (or Isaiah 55:1-5 and Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-22)Romans 9:1-5Matthew 14:13-21

Have you ever noticed that wherever food is present, Jesus is there?

As often as he was praying, he was sharing food.

Late in his ministry, he even identified himself with bread and wine – staples in the Mediterranean diet, then as now.

Food: It nourishes, brings pleasure and comfort, fills us up – sometimes makes us too full.

Without food, we are cranky, confused. We might lose our way, become disoriented, lose balance.

Food: It’s basic, necessary, essential.

When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, they were given manna for food: nothing fancy, just filling. The people became so bored eating manna day after day that they complained to God; and yet, they were fed.

Today’s gospel tells another story of food – lots of food. There is so much food, that they have some left over!

This isn’t a banquet like the wedding of Cana story in John’s gospel, but food to tide one over, food for a journey, simple food: bread and fish. This isn’t even a meal, really. It is food to just get by. The food of our gospel story is basic fill-the-hole-in-your-stomach food, something to take the edge off, something for survival.

The people on that hillside long ago were not friends and family gathered for an occasion, so much as people who wandered away from home, seeking Jesus.

We know the story as “The Feeding of the 5,000,” one of the miracles of Jesus. Those of us either enlightened or listening closely know that it was actually many more than 5,000: the count was taken of men, “besides women and children.” How many would that be altogether, do you think?

So: Did it really happen as Matthew records? Where did the food come from? What did they do with the 12 baskets of leftovers?

Questions like these are so often the focus of discussion of this story. But is this even what the story is about?

There are many ideas about this story, many theories about this, from the conviction that it was an outright miracle of Jesus producing multiple and more-than-sufficient fishes and loaves, to the idea that the people produced the food from their satchels when prodded to share.

There is really no way to know. But this may not be the point of the story. And however it happened, is this really a story about food?

Consider again the story we have of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel: “Jesus withdrew in a boat to a lonely place apart.” What we’re not told in reading just today’s portion is that he was in a boat, withdrawing, because he had just learned of John’s death. John, his cousin, John who had baptized him.

It wasn’t the best of times for Jesus. He was trying to get a moment of peace.

And according to the gospel, when the crowds heard that he was near, that he was drawing apart, “they followed him on foot from the towns.”

So he fed the crowds, and after he dismissed the people, he again went off by himself.

He set out to do one thing: to get some space and some time away. This proved to be difficult for him, as we read in today’s story.

Is this familiar to you?

Rest, time apart, a few minutes alone, a break, some space – it’s something that we all seek at the end of a busy day, at the close of a tiring week.

Jesus was interrupted and responded, and then went on with what he was doing.

Parents recognize this dynamic, and so do clergy. People with demanding jobs, family obligations, social responsibilities – this dynamic is likely familiar to all of us. We get involved in what we’re doing, and we don’t want to be interrupted or distracted, and so we ignore what is nudging us for attention.

Several years back there was a series of television commercials sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons. There was one in particular which showed different scenes of children wanting attention: “Look what I made in school today!” and “I brought you flowers!” There was another one of a dog wanting attention from family members, and people wanting attention and to spend time with others. In each case, people were distracted, busy, un-interruptable. In each instance, the one seeking attention and time was “filled with joy and wonder in all God’s works,” what we pray for as a gift for the newly baptized.

In each case, the one seeking attention is ignored, put off.

In each case, it is an opportunity for ministry, for witness to the loving grace of God, missed.

This is, perhaps, one of the most challenging aspects of life: the constant interruptions and inconvenience of answering a call and still trying to get anything done.

Have you ever caught yourself saying, “I didn’t get anything done today”? Think, though: Didn’t you see some people, make some phone calls, run an errand, send an email?

Even within the interruptions there can be interruptions: You’re in a hurry to get out of the house, and you can’t find your keys; you find your keys, lock the door, and the telephone rings; as you’re rushing to your meeting, you realize that the car is out of gas, and then you remember that you have no money because you forgot to stop by the bank. And so it goes. Have you ever had an experience like that?

Such moments leave us vulnerable to a breaking-in of the Holy Spirit. Each point is a chance to find something lost, to greet a stranger, to learn something new.

In short, it is an opportunity for grace, a chance to bear witness to the Christ in our midst, with all that that means.

Jesus withdrew and was constantly interrupted by people clamoring for attention: Teach us! Heal us! Give us food! Prove yourself!

Lest you be tempted to think of ministry as limited to ordained ministry, those on the altar guild know there is always someone wanting something, right? Parents with children are used to being asked for attention, yes? You might be driving somewhere and stop to loan jumper cables, or walking down the aisle at the grocery store you pick up a dropped box of cereal, return lost coupons or a shopping list. A stranger might ask you for directions as you’re headed back to your office, or the passenger next to you on an airplane is nervous about flying when you had hoped to settle in for a nap.

These are the kinds of experiences common to all of us. A compassionate response, a helpful effort, ministry, happens in the interruptions.

You may like it, you may not – you probably experience a bit of each – but be on the lookout for such interruptions, because there may be something important happening.

We tend to think of interruptions as limited opportunities, small moments, but like the tiny mustard seed of last week’s gospel, such interruptions can grow into something we never imagined.

The gospel parables of last week – the mustard seed, the pearl of great price, and so on – all these are stories of God’s abundance. So also is this story of feeding many.

Jesus sought time apart, time for himself, quiet time. He was interrupted. And his response? With grace and care, he healed the sick, and he somehow found food for the hungry. However it happened, all were fed. Five thousand men – not counting women and children, of course!

The faithful response to interruption models Jesus in a plentitude of grace.

Yes, the story is about food. Consider, though: It is also about interruption, about blessing, about goodwill, about possibility.

Jesus fed not only their bodies, but their spirits.

This is the message of our gospel story: Allow for interruptions as opportunities to show Christ in the world.

A joyous and generous response to a bothersome interruption is one of the great challenges – and opportunities – of the Christian life.

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.

 

Bring it here, Proper 13 (A) – 2011

July 31, 2011

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17: 1-7, 16; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

[NOTE TO READER: The Greek word “esplahnisthē” in the fifth paragraph is pronounced “Es-plah-NEES-thee.”]

Jesus’ cousin, the one who went before him to open the way, is dead. Both John and Jesus had started their brief ministries as courageous prophets, proclaiming God’s justice, calling people to repentance, inviting them to find their way to God. And now one of them, still young and vigorous, is dead at the hands of an immoral, weak king and his family. After hearing the terrible news brought to him by John’s disciples, Jesus withdraws to be alone, to grieve and to pray. This much we can guess, from the previous story on John’s murder and the beginning of today’s lesson.

Had such a tragedy happened to one of our close friends or cousins, our first emotion, even more powerful than grief at such a time, would be fear. “We’ve been involved in the same kind of ministry,” we would think. “We have called out the sinners and the powerful and the hypocrites, and we know what happens to prophets who tell the truth.” We would be afraid that death was just around the bend for us also.

Through human empathy, we can begin to imagine what Jesus might have felt after the death of John, but when it comes to fear, we have to rethink. We are confronted here by the one who always greeted his friends with, “Do not be afraid.” We can recognize in Jesus emotions that we, ourselves, have experienced; but fear is not one of them. What is probably evident in Jesus after the death of John is a sense of urgency – the realization that the end will come very soon, that when he sets his face toward Jerusalem he sets his face toward his own death.

But not yet.

For when he comes back from his time alone, he is met by crowds of people who have followed him and who are hungry for his words. He sees them, and as the Greek says in one powerful verb, esplahnisthē, he feels pain for them within himself, in his very body. First he makes them whole: he cures those who are sick. And as the other gospels declare when they tell this same story, he gives them the good news of God by teaching them. They are so riveted by him that they forget everything else. Twilight falls and they are still there as they have been all day long, men and women, together with children who are beginning to get restless and hungry.

The gospel writers disagree on who first noticed the failing light and the need for food – Jesus or his disciples – but notice they did. The disciples wanted Jesus to make an announcement, something like this: “Now, good people, you must go to the nearby villages to find food. We have no food here, so go in peace and take care of your own.” But as usual, Jesus surprised them. He said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” Not the general imperative, “Give them something to eat,” but the specific “You give them something to eat.”

We can hear their protestations: “But we don’t have any food, Lord. The baskets are empty; the food pantry is empty. We can’t feed so many people. Don’t you see? It’s physically impossible. Look, all we have is five loaves of bread and two fish, and there are nearly five thousand people here.”

We recognize the panic. We have been there. There is too much need in our world. Too many people unemployed, too many people hungry, too many people hurting. “We can’t do it all, Lord.”

But the Lord accepts no excuses. “Bring me what you have,” he says, and when the meager resources are brought to him, he does what they have seen him do again and again: he blesses the food.

Now, the temptation is great – and thousands have succumbed to it – to try to explain away what happened that day, on a deserted stretch of land near the Sea of Galilee. Interpreters have tried to rationalize the resulting abundance of food. The reaction is understandable: It is frightening to stand in the real presence of the creative energy of God! In order not to be afraid, we try to explain it according to the laws of nature. But we cannot. When the eternal enters the temporal with such force, our finite minds either close up or become arrogant. So it doesn’t help to argue about the word “miracle” when we are confronted with this story. What matters here is that they were all fed.

God in Christ takes what we have, blesses it, and works his goodwill through this blessing. God wants us to be fed, wants us to be whole, wants us to be nurtured. Jesus sets an example for his church in this act of feeding the five thousand. The living Christ wants us to take what we have and offer it to God, no matter how little it is, no matter how meager our resources are. When it comes to the needs of his people, God will not take no for an answer. God will bless, but the rest is up to us. We bring the resources, and we do the work. It was the disciples who were asked to organize the people and who served the food that continued to increase because it was blessed by the loving energy of the Creator. How can the church do less?

First we bring our weakness to the altar, saying: “We can’t do it, Lord. The needs are too many.”

Then we answer his question, How much do you actually have? “Well, very little, five loaves and two fish.”

“Bring it here,” he says. “It is enough.” And he blesses it. Then, wonder of wonders, we discover that, yes, it is enough.

“And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”

It is enough and more than enough, the gospel tells us. This is the good news. Thanks be to God.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of “Light to the Darkness” (Morehouse Publishing, 2008) among other books. She lives and writes in Boone, N.C.