A gathering of the wounded

August 6, 2017

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace using Matthew 14.13-21, at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 6th August 2017, the 8th Sunday after Trinity.

This May and June was such a tragic time in the life of our nation. I never thought I would have to set up three prayer stations three weeks in a row for the victims of national tragedies: the May 22nd bombing at the Manchester Arena which killed 22 and injured nearly 200, the 3rd June London Bridge attack which killed 8 and injured 48, and the Grenfell Tower fire which killed over 80. I hope I never have the need to set up such a memorial again, but I am comforted by the fact that the candle stands and prayers many churches provided did help people in their sorrow.

After each of these tragedies those affected gathered for a vigil of remembrance and prayer. Flowers were laid and candles were lit and those who mourned met one another and shared their grief together. Gathering and praying, lighting candles and stretching out our arms to comfort the grieving is one of our main ways of responding to tragedy and I believe that it is part of our vocation as a cathedral to offer space for those who wish to pray or keep silence together.

Yet it does strike me, after pondering the gospel passage this week, that, despite the technological innovations, human lives are just as fragile as they were 2000 years ago. Life is still short and dangerous. Which brings me to today’s gospel, the famous story of the feeding of the 5000. This story is important. It is so important that, out of all of Jesus’ miracles it is the only one to be written about by all four gospel writers.

There are many interpretations of the miracle itself. It is regarded as an echo of the miraculous manna in the desert, and therefore a pointer to Christ’s divinity. It is an example of God’s generosity and abundance in that there were twelve baskets left over after the feeding. It is a call to be generous in feeding the hungry and a prefiguring of the heavenly banquet. But what is the context and why did these hungry people gather in the desert?

Today’s gospel begins with the curious words. “Now when Jesus heard this.” Heard what? Well this is what he heard. John’s disciples arrived and told him,

“Your cousin has just been murdered”

When you hear news like that your first reaction is to ask.

But how?  He was only in his early thirties. Who did this? Herod had put him in jail but Herod was also respectful and slightly terrified of John.

And so John’s disciples elaborate telling Jesus just how this tragic event happened.  A party –  A girl dancing so alluringly that Herod was moved to grant her any request she chose. This girl could have chosen anything. She could have had a palace of her own. Instead she listens to the vindictive words of her mother and asks for the prophet’s head on a plate. And so John is beheaded and his head given to this girl. His disciples take the body and bury it; and then they tell Jesus the terrible news.

This must have been horrendous news to receive, and, as many people would, Jesus wanted some space on his own to process the information and  grieve.

The gospel story continues “When the crowd heard it.”  I used to assume that the thing the crowds had heard was that Jesus was alone in the desert – but I don’t think that anymore. Now I think it was because they too had heard about John’s death, and like the people of Manchester, and of Southwark, they wanted to gather and to mourn the loss of a figure who was important to them.  I wonder if Herod’s latest act of brutality was just too much for some of these people.

The wilderness was the place where John lived. So perhaps the reason Jesus and the crowd went there was because it was a place closely connected with John. It reminds me of the mass of flowers by the gates of Kensington Palace after Princess Diana died : a place closely connected to her.

When Jesus saw this crowd he had compassion on them. Actually the Greek is far stronger than that. It means “To be moved to one’s bowels”  He saw their devastation and it was gut wrenching to behold.

Thus Jesus, despite his own grief, or perhaps because of it, immediately stretched out his hand and began healing. This was not a curious crowd of miracle-chasers. It was a heartbroken crowd and his immediate response was not to preach at them, but to pray for them.

Perhaps with hindsight we underestimate the potential danger in this situation. This is a crowd of 10,000  if we include the women and children and this crowd is devastated. Scripture says Herod feared them because he knew they regarded John as a prophet. If Jesus had wanted to, at this point, he could have stirred this crowd into an avenging army and begun a revolution. But he didn’t. Instead he healed them, and, then, Luke tells us he spoke to them giving them words of hope about the Kingdom of God.

Jesus took one look at that miserable, tear-stained group of people who were desperate enough to walk miles out of town to the wilderness, and his guts were wrenched. He showed compassion and talked and told stories about the future Kingdom, giving them hope and comfort, and he talked, not just for a few moments, but for a very long time, so long that the sun grew low in the sky and they grew hungry. The disciples wanted to send them home but Jesus didn’t want to disperse them yet.  “They don’t have to go away. You disciples, you give them something to eat.” The disciples protested that they didn’t have anything to give, only a tiny amount of food. But a tiny amount isn’t nothing. It is something.

Jesus blessed and broke those loaves, but he didn’t feed the crowds. The disciples did. The food was multiplied in the hands of the very disciples who gave them out. All Jesus did was give the blessing. Perhaps this is one definition of prayer. Placing our lives and our resources, meagre as they are into the hands of God, and then seeing what God asks us to do with them.

Today Jesus is still asking us to feed the physically and spiritually hungry.  “You give them something to eat.” In my mind it echoes Jesus’ words to Peter in John’s gospel. Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep. There are still many people who are hungry for hope and hungry for some kind of meaning in life. If someone needs a shoulder to cry on,  give them one, even if you are hurting yourself. If it is words and stories that give hope then speak those words. Don’t leave their spirits to starve. In this miracle we too are being called to offer comfort to others, even in the midst of our own pain. Just as those disciples who had previously lived with John were called to give out the food with their tear stained hands. For in offering comfort we often find that ultimately, we are the ones given comfort ourselves. Thanks be to God.