Have you noticed all the burning in our Gospel readings lately? The past few weeks have had a high incineration count coming from the stories Jesus tells. The weeds are plucked up from the good wheat and thrown into the fire. The bad fish are taken from the net and thrown into the fire. There’s weeping and gnashing of teeth. I’m not sure if fish have teeth, I’m pretty sure weeds don’t. I’m definitely sure that all of these readings make me very uncomfortable. In fact, in staff meeting two weeks ago Leslie noted that my voice audibly dropped off at the tail end of a particularly fiery Gospel passage. She gently reminded me that you can’t just mumble through the verses you don’t agree with. There’s nothing wrong with burning weeds, mind you, in fact I was more than ready to slash and burn my whole front yard earlier this week. But who needs judgement, who needs end times, who needs burning when you have the world as it is right now? There’s more than enough burning going on already. The last thing I need in my life is a Jesus who says things that could easily conflate the ruthless destruction all around us with God’s judgement.
I don’t need to catalogue for you the terrible things happening in the world this week because I know you and I know you know about them already. I know this congregation reads the news and responds to it. I know that when the imperial powers of the world relentlessly pursue the slaughter of civilian women and children you pay attention. I know that when we see our brothers and sisters forced by genocide into exile you respond. I know that when our empire arms its borders to the teeth and imprisons children seeking refuge that you are already calling for justice; that when our own city heightens its pursuit of our temporarily encamped homeless population you are there with food and shelter. What you’re doing here with Jesus is one of the only things that gives me hope. I can only imagine that the reason why there’s so much weeping and gnashing of teeth in what Jesus says is because he saw it all around him in his own time, too. I imagine he saw the insidious way the empire of men could so easily grow up to choke out the empire of God. I imagine he saw clearly that the empire of greed, self-security and hard-heartedness could only end in its own destruction. Where among the burning is life? Where is hope? Jesus speaks to an occupied people. Even as Jesus preaches his parables, his own beloved friend and teacher is held prisoner of a king.
When we see Jesus this morning his disciples have just told him that John the Baptist has been executed. He responds by withdrawing to an isolated place, which may be the modern equivalent of turning off our news feed when it gets to be too overwhelming. The second thing he does is help the sick folks nearest by him. In other words, when personally confronted with the deep evil of the world, Jesus turns to something familiar and close at hand, the compassionate healing of his neighbors. When folks naturally respond to receiving the compassionate care they so desperately need by flocking to him in droves, the disciples respond with some crowd control. Ok Jesus, I think we’ve reached capacity, we’re not really resourced enough to meet this kind of demand, I think we’ll need to cut the line off right here so these folks can call it a day and go get something to eat, ourselves included.
Jesus looks at the disciples. “You give them something to eat.”
Jesus terrifies me when he says this. I imagine it as a response to any number of the prayers or complaints which I’ve brought before him in the past week. You give the Christians of Syria and Iraq somewhere to live. You protect the Gazan children. You disarm your own borders, you shelter your own homeless, none of them need to be turned away, you give them something to eat. It’s no wonder to me that the disciples respond with a contradiction. “We have nothing here but a few loaves and fish.”
“Bring them here to me,” he says.
We have, in this story, one of the cornerstones of Christian community. How many faithful cooks have muttered the words “loaves and fishes” as a brief prayer under their breath when they see just how many people are piling into the Parish Hall for dinner? This story can also be a pattern of prayer to aid us in all of our work with God. The first step of this prayer is to ask “What does Jesus want?” Here’s a hint: if it sounds impossible you’re probably onto something. The second step is to ask, “What do I have to give?” Perhaps the deepest grace of this prayer practice is living into the anxious space between these first two steps, because in every single case I can imagine there is a vast chasm of difference between what Jesus wants to do with us and what we have to bring to the table. We may have the willingness to reconcile with an estranged friend family member but don’t see how it could ever possibly happen. We may donate our lunch money to a food pantry one day a week, or sign a petition or send funds to a hospital and wonder whether our seemingly small actions make a difference. It’s the third step that helps us see the bigger picture, which is paying attention to what Jesus does next. How is Jesus taking the many broken pieces which we offer him and transforming them into more? Where else is Jesus doing this work in our community, who else is bringing bread? Where does the plenty come together? The small things which we can contribute to the compassionate work of serving Christ in the world can add up to so much more than the sum of their parts, and it is an essential prayer practice to watch for the ways that is happening all around us. We are not hopeless. Through the burning and the terror and the pain we bring our broken pieces to Christ, in whom they are transformed to be the bread of peace for a hurting, hungry world. May God be that peace through us, this day and always.