Alison Long’s Homily from August 2, 2020

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My first thought when I read the gospel reading for today was that this whole scene is a pandemic nightmare – thousands gathered on a beach, coming from multiple towns, crowded together, sharing food? It’s too much. I had to quell a small tide of anxiety at the thought.

And we know what this would look like today: half the people before Jesus wearing masks, half refusing. And we have to wonder how Jesus would handle it. Just exactly how would feeding all these people work during a pandemic?

This is NOT a pandemic story.

It IS a miracle story. And a story occurring in the midst of tragedy.

John the Baptist has just been killed by Herod – in, arguably, one of the more graphic stories in the gospels. There was a lavish banquet, plenty of food, live entertainment, and a beheading with some flair.

The disciples of John hear of this, bury their leader’s body, and are the ones who bring the news to Jesus. When our story opens, Jesus, upon hearing the news, sets off for a deserted place. We can assume he wants to be alone to grieve or pray. But people hear that he’s around and instead of seeking solitude, Jesus has compassion for them. He stays, healing them, and when the disciples remind him of the late hour and suggest he send people away, Jesus refuses, commanding instead that the disciples feed them. I imagine them looking around, looking at each other, making that face they probably made a lot when Jesus responded to them in this way. And they see they’ve got….2 fish and 5 loaves of bread. Now, anyone who’s planned a meal (if you can remember back that far) knows numbers are everything and the disciples weren’t expecting 10 or 15 thousand people that night, so along with their 2 fish and 5 loaves, they’ve also got a problem. I like to picture them doing the math in their heads. Very quickly, since it wouldn’t take long to come up with ‘not enough.’ Jesus, for his part, is unphased. He receives the offering, blesses it, and instructs the disciples to pass it out. Everyone eats their fill and 12 full baskets remain. It’s a miracle story.

The first draft of this homily told a story of scarcity culture, born in fear where there’s never enough – enough space, enough money, enough food, enough time. I was going to explain away the miracle. That the big reveal wasn’t the magical multiplication of food, but the transformation of scarcity culture into one that recognizes there is, indeed, enough to go around. One person shares and it encourages another to share and so on and so on. And we go from zero to 60 on the humanity front. Everyone’s filled and there’s some left over and we’ve all learned a lesson about sharing.

But I kept getting stuck. I kept coming back to the very first verse. “When Jesus heard that Herod had beheaded John the Baptist, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place.” A deserted place. The Greek word here is er-AY-mos: solitary, lonely, desolate, uninhabited. A wilderness. And it bugged me. Because I knew what I wanted to say and this didn’t really fit.

But I couldn’t get past it. Because important things happen in the wilderness. It’s never accidental that we find ourselves here. For Jesus, this is the third time he finds himself in the wilderness in Matthew. The first was with John the Baptist. The second was when he was tempted by the Devil. And this third time is, in some ways, because of John the Baptist again.

When we meet Jesus in Matthew 14, this is where he is. It’s where he’s chosen to go. A deserted place. John the Baptist spent his life bringing people into the wilderness, {winding back the clock by going back to the place where Israel emerged from oppression and was transformed into a new people) in order to bring them back to the beginning – to remember their origin stories, and so it’s fitting that upon hearing of his death this is where Jesus chooses to go. And people follow him, into the wilderness – which is maybe equally remarkable.

t’s a stark turn of events from Herod’s banquet just before. The carefully curated guest list based on privilege and means has been replaced by some 10,000 strangers seeking something they don’t have. The live entertainment and dancing has given way to public healing. Gone is the lavish table spread – in its place, an impossibly small serving of 2 fish and 5 loaves.

Yet, there’s a communal sense that this is where people need to be. This is where promise lies.

And, indeed, the wilderness is where origin stories happen. Creation in Genesis comes from an absolute and chaotic wilderness, Noah braves a watery wilderness with the flood, and Moses and the Israelites have to wander through the wilderness in order to reach the Promised Land.

There are a few constants in the wilderness that are important to note.

It’s inhospitable because we’re not meant to stay. Characterized by rough terrain and a lack of adequate food and water. A place where there’s no room for error. It requires caution, diligence, discipline, and most of all, faith.

It strips us down so we can make room for something new. A stark and unapologetic reminder of who we were before everything got in the way. Before we got in the way. In the wilderness, we’re forced to empty ourselves of what we think must happen and how. The disciples, as usual, are a perfect example of all of us. Assuming the wilderness is playing by our rules. Assuming we know the right way out. Just ‘head back to town. Find food.’ If we bring our preconceived notions about where salvation comes from into the wilderness, we can be assured we won’t see it.

It’s a space of transition, where the old has to be shed to make room for what awaits. It’s an opportunity to grieve, but also to see the potential of what lies ahead. It’s room to make the shift. The wilderness is where hope and promise are born. Where those first inklings that things could be different, better, more equitable, are uttered – quiet, like a whisper, and then louder, like a beacon.

It’s a space of grace. We often associate the wilderness as a place devoid of others, but the reality is that it’s a place where God is particularly, and powerfully, present – without fail.

So it turns out, this IS a pandemic story.

Things have changed for us. We’ve moved from the lavish dinners out and gatherings with friends into the wilderness of isolation and fear and social distancing. We didn’t choose this wilderness: we’re more grumbly Israelites than the eager crowd following Jesus. But we’re here.

And it turns out, we’re in need of a good origin story. We’re in need of a wilderness – one that’s inhospitable enough to keep us moving, uncomfortable enough to strip us down, promising enough to truly change us, and filled with the absolute presence and grace of God.

Israel was a mess when Jesus arrived on the scene. John the Baptist, and then Jesus, reminded them of the story BEFORE the mess…so they could use their discomfort to find God’s promises and start over again. Being born again is not just for individuals and evangelicals. It is also for communities…and nations…and the world God loves. And it’s what happens in the wilderness.

Time in the wilderness takes us back to the very origins and reveals what came before everything got complicated and everyone got lost.

We’re wandering through multiple wildernesses right now. The immediate wilderness of a global pandemic. The long, drawn out wildernesses of racism and sexism, poverty and greed, of disease and suffering, war and nationalism. And it’s revealing what came before. How we got here. What life was like before we outgrew God.

Time in the wilderness is radical. It is NEVER a place we WANT to go. But it is the only place we can go when it is no longer safe where we live.

Almost no one these days is safe anymore, for one reason or another. It is not safe in our country to be an immigrant. Or to be poor. It’s not safe to be sick. It’s not safe to be from China. Not safe to be Black. Not safe to be a woman. Not safe to wear a mask. Not safe to not wear a mask.

To follow Jesus today is to trek to the only place Jesus tends to go in times like this: to the wilderness. But we won’t stay here forever. And while we can simply share what we have with others around us, the good news is that we will receive much much more in this wilderness: a gift only God knows right now, one of true and unexpected grace that will open up a new world of promise for us and for our children.

Thanks be to God.

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