All Saints’ Church / July 26, 2015
Proper 12 / Year B
I stood here two weeks ago and preached a sermon about John the Baptist being beheaded. And now, on this day when we get to talk about the loaves and the fishes, there is just one thread that I want to pick up from my sermon a couple weeks ago.
But first let me just say, it is totally okay if you were not here two weeks ago. I’ll fill you in on what you missed. And if you were here, please excuse my brief recap:
Yes, I want to go back to that beheading. John the Baptist, a prophet and a friend of Jesus’–a person who told the truth to those in authority, without fear of repercussion–the king beheaded him. The king could not stand to hear his truth. The king could not stand to have his power threatened.
I told you a story from an old episode of the radio show This American Life, where a four year-old girl sees a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the first time. “Who is that?” she asks her dad. And the dad says, “He told everyone to love everyone no matter what they look like.”
“Like Jesus,” she asks?
“Yes,” her father says, “a lot like Jesus.”
“Did they kill him, too?” she asks.
This is the question I repeated: “Did they kill him too?” John the Baptist, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr. And we hear in the bible about the beheading of John the Baptist as a reminder that Jesus is not the only one to suffer the consequence of telling the truth to those in power. It is something that happens again and again. In ancient contexts and in modern ones.
I’m telling you all of this again because I am hearing this refrain over and over in my head this week: Did they kill her, too? I am thinking about Sandra Bland, the 28 year-old woman who was pulled over by traffic police, arrested, and who died in police custody in Texas. The medical examiner says it was a suicide, her family disagrees. On social media, everyone asks, “What happened to Sandra Bland?”
Of course, I wasn’t in the jail; I don’t know. I doubt anyone in this room knows beyond a shadow of a doubt what exact circumstance led to Sandra Bland’s death. And it is that unknowing that is so hard. Did they kill her, too?
Yes. It is a real question today. Here’s what we do know: As her family said at her funeral yesterday, she had committed her life to ending racism in the South. She posted YouTube videos about police brutality against people of color. She was treated aggressively for a minor traffic infraction; it is a tragedy that she is dead. She should not have been in jail. She died there. She should not be dead.
This is scary stuff. Makes you feel frightened, maybe for your friends, maybe for yourself, maybe for your own children, for any of you who have to live in a world where the people with power do not have your best interest in mind. Where the people with power do not want to hear truth. Who will they kill next? What can we do about it?
I wish I were like Jesus this morning and I was asking that to test you, and that I myself knew what we should all do. But, um, I am not Jesus. I don’t know.
I do know that today we hear a different story: not a beheading, but a flip-side story, a story of abundance. A story of life.
This is the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. It goes like this:
Many people are following Jesus–he’s really cool, he’s healing people, you want to follow him around. There are 5000 people, and it’s Passover, and so Jesus says to his disciples:
“Let’s feed these people.”
But the disciples are skeptical. “We definitely do not have the money to do this,” they say.
“All we can say is there is a little boy with five loaves and two fishes. It won’t be enough.”
But Jesus says a prayer of thanksgiving over the bread and meat–incidentally, the word Eucharist, the word we use to talk about all that stuff we do over at the altar every Sunday to those little discs of bread and that cup of wine, is Greek for thanksgiving. So Jesus says Eucharist over the food and the food feeds 5000 people. Not only that, there are 12 baskets of food leftover after everyone has eaten, as much as they’d like.
A couple weeks ago when I was talking over my sermon with friends and colleagues, praying and mulling over what to say about the beheading of John the Baptist, everyone kind of gave me a reassuring pat and said, “Good luck. Sounds hard. Can’t believe King Herod killed the guy. That’s a rough one.”
And this week, as I talked over my sermon with friends and colleagues, a lot said, “Oh that’ll be easy. Loaves and Fishes, a classic. Abundance. You got this.”
But some also said, “Okayyyyyyy, wait just a second–
You don’t really think this actually happened, do you? You don’t really think that this food, like, multiplied. Like, what do you think actually happened? Or does it matter if it happened, or what?”
Here’s the thing: no one worried about that “actually happening” stuff with John the Baptist. It is very easy for us to believe in a beheading. In state killing, in wrongful death. It stinks. “Good luck preaching about it. Tough one.”
But a miracle, that is much harder for us to believe. Much harder.
The thing about this miracle, though: it’s in the Gospels six times. And there are only four Gospels, so in some of them it’s told twice. And it’s the only miracle that is in all the Gospels. That is to say: it’s an important one. Feeding is important. Enough food is important. God’s thanksgiving is a really important miracle. A child with a bit of food feeds 5000 people.
And so maybe the answer to this question of what we can do is to believe–believe in the miracle just as much as we believe in the story of execution. Believe in the miracle.
Yes, I do believe those people were fed. Yes, I do believe there were 12 baskets left over. Yes, I do believe everyone was full. Yes, I do believe everyone had enough.
I work 20 hours a week here at All Saints’ as your program minister, and I work the other 20 hours a week as the community coordinator at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Gowanus, where my primary job is to order the food for our dinner church services. Every time we gather together, we have a full meal and we eat it around tables.
I’m going to be honest with you, this is a stressful job. There are only so many chairs at St. Lydia’s, there is only so much food. I think we have in the All Saints’ sacristy enough communion wafers for every single resident of Brooklyn to have seconds if they wanted, but at St. Lydia’s, it never feels that sure.
I never know how many people will come, and I am constantly worrying about if there will be enough. What if more people come, what if they come late? We don’t have the money for any more food, I don’t have the time to cook any more food.
But time and time again, a whole year of working there, there is always enough. There is always, always enough.
I cannot explain this to you. I promise, I am not that good at my job. There is always enough.
Yes, I do believe those people were fed. Yes, I do believe everyone had enough.
And I know that we humans can not do this on our own–we cannot, by physics or anything else, feed 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. We humans are not doing miracles, we are doing beheadings. We are very able to build up these systems of power that ultimately destroy us. We can believe in that, but the miracles feel hopeless.
At Sandra Bland’s funeral, her mother said she had found her calling. She said, “her purpose was to stop all injustice against blacks in the south.”
Can you imagine that as possible? Can you imagine an end–a stop, the end–to all race-based injustice? A miracle.
In a world where we live with the reality of execution–where we cannot deny it–I want us to believe in the miracle. I want you to believe in the end of racism. I want you to believe in the end of not only mass incarceration, but the entire prison system. I want you to believe in a little boy with his arms outstretched, offering you five loaves of bread, two fish. I want you to hear God give thanks for this boy, for this food. This is God’s promise of life to us. I want you to stretch out your hands, and I want you to eat until you are full.
I want you to believe in the miracle. And then, I promise you, there will be plenty left over. Amen.