Proper 13 (18), Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
2 August 2020
Psalm 17:1-7, 15
When we started our Breakfast in the Park we received push-back from the Downtown Business Association. Some went as far as to suggest that the only reason people without fixed address, with substance abuse, and mental health issues were in the park was because the small group of volunteers from Peace Lutheran showed up on Thursday morning with Cheerios and coffee. It was almost as if to suggest that cheerios and coffee created homelessness and a host of other social issues.
I have shared before that we were grateful for the new friendships we made at the park. We were also grateful that it drew attention to an issue that was often treated with denial, ‘These problems exist elsewhere but not here.’
One of the questions we were asked was why we provided a breakfast. A friend and Christian brother involved in outreach to marginalized youth, answered, “because people are hungry.”
Why do you feed people? Because they are hungry.
I am not sure I realized at the time that the answer was not only true but also aimed at moving the act of caring for others out of the political arena where people would accuse others of agendas. By saying, we feed people because they are hungry, we state that our motivation is driven by nothing other but by the love of God and neighbour. And that was certainly true.
I thought of my friend’s words as I read Matthew’s account of the feeding of the 5000.
Jesus tells the disciples to tell the people to sit down. He does not ask whether people are worthy or whether there is political and ideological agreement. What Jesus provides is for all and is not attached to conditions.
Now, the story begins by Jesus learning about John the Baptist’s death, his cousin and possibly his mentor.
Not only would Jesus have been grieving for John, he would also have been aware of the danger it put him in. 5000 men plus women and children is an assembly that would have been noticed. Herod was wondering about Jesus. The Romans would have noticed as well.
Perhaps that is the reason the disciples wanted him to send the people home. The less attention you draw the safer you will be. But that is not the way of Jesus, even if it has often been the way of the church.
Now, was this significant assembly of people a political demonstration? Probably. They were there for Jesus. Is the Gospel political? Of course it is. Feeding the hungry is political, proclaiming a different and better reign is political, questioning the social order is political.
And yet, it is not the politics of left and right, or whatever paradigms you have competing for power. Because the Gospel is not informed by our politics, but our politics is informed by the Gospel.
A few years ago 10th Avenue Alliance Church did renovations to one of their buildings, and for the meal program they offered they asked people to enter through the back. This made the neighbours notice that the church had a meal program and the neighbours complained to the City of Vancouver. The City turned to the church and said, “You can’t do what you are doing without a social services permit.” And the church replied, “We don’t need a social services permit. We do what is essential to being a follower of Jesus, essential to being a Christian.”
Was it political? Of course, it was. But it was the politics of the Gospel.
The religious climate in Canada is different from that in the United States, but because we are so close and we share the same language, people sometimes assume that our religious culture is the same.
In some places people have begun calling themselves progressive Christians in order to distinguish themselves from, I suppose, they would say, ‘regressive’ Christians.
That terminology has always made me uncomfortable. The problem with calling myself a progressive Christian is not only that there is no binding definition (other than my own, or informed by politics), but that by doing so I put others down and divide the body of Christ.
If someone wants to exclude themselves by engaging in something other than the politics of Jesus, they can. And while I will have theological and ecclesiological objections, they are not my enemy.
At the feeding of the 5000 there was no check on whether all 5000 were deserving, either because they were needy or because they had the approved political convictions. In fact, we know that most of those soon deserted Jesus. But Jesus had time for them, even at great risk to himself.
I think what bothers me about some dividing the church into progressive and regressive, believing and apostatizing, is that it creates enemies while it assumes itself to be righteous.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan, helps me see this problem more clearly when he explains the difference between the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life:
“I call contemplation the tree of life, as compared to the other tree “in the center of the garden” of Eden, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9), because these two serve as ideal metaphors for the two minds.
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents “either-or” dualism, which we are strictly warned against, and even told not to eat.
The tree of life promises access to eternal things (3:22), grows “crops twelve times a year,” and sprouts “leaves that are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). It accesses the deep ground of God and of the self. The contemplative, nondual mind is a tree of continual and constant fruitfulness for the soul and for the world.”1
Rohr says that we were forbidden to eat from the Tree of Good and Evil because all that God had made was good. But once we had eaten from the tree we began dividing the world into us and them, and became prone to a self-righteous dualism that sees ourselves as good but others as bad.
In the Letter to the Ephesians we learn that Christ is our peace. Here is a passage from Ephesians 2 in the translation by Eugene Peterson, “The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. … Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody.
Christ brought us together through his death on the cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.” (Eph 2:14-18)
In the feeding of the 5000 Jesus does not divide the crowd, nor does he establish a theological or political litmus test for people to be healed or fed. And better yet, while Jesus speaks the blessing over the gifts, he gets his disciples to serve the people and thereby learn to overcome their tendency to divide the world into us and them.
Christ is our peace and has removed the hostility between us. Thanks be to God.
1 Richard Rohr, The Naked Now, page 105, quoted by Paul Nuechterlein in Healing Tribalism, https://theologyandpeace.com/2018/08/04/healing-tribalism/, accessed on 30 July 2020