(This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, August 2, 2020. You can find the entire service at www.ststephenlc.org.).
Let’s do a little test. I’ll say a word, and you think of what first comes to mind. I’ll start easy and then we’ll make it more difficult.
First word – Beach. What comes to mind when you hear that word? For me, the first thing that comes to mind is relaxation. The sound of waves crashing on the shore.
Ok, next word – home. What comes to mind when you hear that word? Maybe you think of a specific place, or Thanksgiving, or family. That all makes sense.
Ok, now a bit harder – politician. What comes to mind when you hear that? I’m willing to bet that there’s a mixture of thoughts that came to mind – some positive and some negative. Some may even have drawn sharp emotions too.
Ok, last one – hunger. What comes to mind when you hear that word? Maybe it’s a type of food. Or maybe just hearing the word caused your stomach to speak up.
This week, in preparation for the sermon, a colleague of mine asked this question – what are you hungry for? The answers included lots of references to food. But as I continued to read the answers, they got more serious and much deeper. People were hungry for interaction, a vaccine, singing, peace, civility, the truth, and more. The answers showed that many people were hungry for so many things that are lacking right now.
But it’s easy to focus on the problems that we face. We’re inundated with information about these challenges and problems. We hear arguments. And we can be left awfully hungry for an end to so much. As I mentioned last week, issues leave us hungry, but a person can fill us – especially if that is the person of Jesus.
In our Gospel today, we hear about the feeding of the 5000 plus. It’s a story we are probably familiar with. While that’s great, it also means that we have a challenge in actually hearing the story.
Right at the beginning of today’s Gospel it is easy to go right past the setting to get to the issue at hand. Jesus just heard about the beheading of John the Baptist. That’s his cousin. I wonder what was going through Jesus’ mind and heart at that moment. What was Jesus hungry for? We aren’t told, but when I hear what is written – that “he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself,” I can start to imagine the grief and sorrow that Jesus must have experienced. Maybe he was hungry to be with his cousin. Maybe he was hungry for the grief to go away. Maybe he was hungry for some solitude so that he could escape the unending question about how he was doing right then.
But the crowds come anyway. There is no escape for Jesus. And yet, what we hear is that “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Maybe Jesus was hungry for compassion and so he gave compassion. Maybe he saw all the sickness and brokenness and connected this hunger with his own in that moment. And he was moved. Jesus wasn’t paralyzed in that moment. He wasn’t overwhelmed by the issue of so much sickness. Instead, he had compassion. How does a person have compassion in the midst of great sickness? How does a person not suffer from compassion fatigue? The doctors and nurses who treat so many COVID patients might know a thing or two about this. It’s not by seeing the multitudes and numbers, but rather by seeing people and hearing their stories. Each one of these people that Jesus cured had a story. They were a person, not an issue. Issues can overwhelm, but a person can heal.
This went on for some time. And eventually the disciples decided that it was getting late. They wanted to stop. They wanted to go home. And so, they went to Jesus and told him to send the crowds away so that the personless and nameless crowd can go into the villages and buy food for themselves. The disciples saw a problem and offered a solution to that problem. It was pretty cut and dry. And when we don’t know the stories, it’s pretty easy to turn people into issues and problems to be solved. It’s easy to turn people away without guilt. When we don’t know the names of people, it’s easy to lump them together, slap a label on them, and send them away – the people are the problem. The solution is to send them away.
The disciples didn’t see people. They saw an issue. They saw a problem. And they had a quick and easy solution that would cost them nothing.
Our Gospel shows us the difference between seeing a person and seeing a problem or issue.
Hunger is a problem. So is homelessness. So is poverty. If all we ever see are the issues and the problems, then we’ll never solve these things. We’ll be missing the stories, the complexities, the mess. We’ll miss the names and the faces. Instead of having compassion, we’ll just move people along and out of the way because they are inconvenient, and we want to get home. We have our own problems and challenges to face after all. We’re hungry too.
What are you hungry for? Get past naming specific food. What are really hungry for? When we are hungry, we aren’t satisfied. What are you hungry for? What are you really hungry for?
If people are just issues and problems to be solved, if they are just arguments and stands that they take on issues, if they are opponents and enemies, then I wonder – how are we to see the image of God in them? Is the image of God in an issue, or a person? How do we fulfill the two great commandments – to love God and our neighbor – if the person we are dealing with is a problem or issue or enemy or anything else that we can label them as?
Henri Nouwen, whom I quoted last week, said the following, “In judging, we deal with our own fears by putting other people into little boxes and, in effect, declaring them dead. ‘Oh, I know him,’ we say. ‘I know that type. He’s not worth talking to.’ In doing this, we take the position that new life is no longer possible in our relationship with people. We have already decided who they are. We don’t want to be bothered any more. That is why Jesus says, “Do not judge.” Labeling people prevents us from seeing them as brothers and sisters and from developing community with them.”
Profound words. Words that I think carry just as much, if not more meaning now, than when they were written. In an age when we seem bent on putting people into little boxes, I wonder how the little boxes help us live out our faith, how they help us follow Jesus, how they help us see the image of God in others, how the little boxes satisfy the hunger within us and others?
There’s plenty of little boxes for us to put people into – there’s the poor and rich boxes. There’s the lazy and work alcoholic boxes. There’s the Democrat and Republican boxes. There’s the redneck and ivory tower boxes. There are the American and foreigner boxes. There are the white and black boxes. There’s plenty more boxes to choose from. An endless supply. And yet, I don’t know about you, but the more people we put into these little boxes, the less satisfied our hunger is – in fact, our hunger usually gets worse. It’s as if we are trying to fill our stomachs with empty calories and our souls with coverings for our eyes so we can’t see the image of God, we can’t see the person we put in the box.
Have you even been put in a little box by someone else? How’s that feel? From my experience, it sucks. I don’t want to be put in a little box, labeled, and then dismissed and ignored because anything I say will be spun to fit into that little box. That’s dehumanizing. That box is no different than a coffin, meant to bury someone and put them out of our mind. Lord forgive me when I do this same thing to someone else. It never satisfies the hunger that I have. It only makes me hungrier.
When I see the image of God in someone, I don’t want to see it in, then I have run out of reasons and rationalizations to avoid praying for them. I’ve run out of excuses to not show them love, regardless of how they respond to me. And further, if I can’t see the image of God in someone, no matter how bad I judge them to be, then I’ve lost sight of the image of God in myself too. And when I’ve lost sight of that, then all I see are impersonal issues to be debated and arguments to be won at all costs. Little boxes that are hungry to be filled. That will never be satisfied.
Henri Nouwen said, “we must stop judging ourselves. We put ourselves in boxes, too. “I have lived fifty years,” we say. “Don’t expect me to change. I can’t do anything new or different.” This self-rejection is really a step towards death. It can lead to suicide – physical, psychological, or spiritual.”
It’s time to stop filling little boxes to satisfy their unending hunger.
How do we do this – it starts with Jesus. Jesus didn’t fill little boxes. He dismissed the boxes, pulled people out of them, and satisfied their hunger. Jesus said, “They need not go away.” They need not be put in the little boxes. They are hungry and only people can be hungry. See their faces, know their names, hear their hunger. And “You give them something to eat.”
Jesus pulls us out of the little boxes that are never satisfied. The little boxes that gnaw at us, and feed on us and our fears and our deficiencies, our guilt and our shame. Jesus pulls us out of these little boxes with their labels. He knows that our lives are complicated and don’t fit nicely into these labels and little boxes. And he feeds us. And he sends us out to pull others out of their little boxes. To remind us that we aren’t labeled food for the boxes to satisfy the labels and arguments and prejudices of others. And neither are other people either.
Jesus draws on a different vision. A satisfying vision. A vision where the hungry are fed and finally satisfied. The thirsty are quenched. It’s the vision of Isaiah 55. Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; And you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Come gather at the banquet and each rich food and be satisfied.
See the people around you – hear their names and their stories. Hear how complex and complicated their lives are. See the image of God in them, and in yourself. You and they are not issues to be solved. You and they are not labels. You and they don’t belong in little boxes. You and they are to be loved. To be seen. To be heard.
You and they have worth and value inherent in your very existence. Are you hungry? What are you hungry for? Are you hungry for the kingdom of God? I am. Are you hungry for right relationships? I am. Are you hungry for love? I am. Are you hungry for forgiveness? I am. Are you hungry for kindness? I am. Are you hungry for truth? I am. Are you hungry for wholeness? I am.
Come, all who are hungry and thirsty. Be satisfied. Winning arguments won’t satisfy. Being right won’t satisfy the hunger we have. It never has. It never will. Only Jesus satisfies. Jesus feeds us. And sends us out to feed others too.
But we can only do that if we see the image of God in ourselves and in others – everyone – neighbor and enemy, homeless and sheltered, rich and poor, American and foreigner, Democrat and Republican, mentally ill and well, black and white, LGBTQ+ and straight, and so many more.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be fed. Jesus feeds us that right relationship with God and with others. Jesus satisfies our hunger.
What are you hungry for? What are you really hungry for? Come. Come out of the little box you were placed in. Jesus has his hand there to pull you out. Take a seat at the table. The banquet is served. Jesus is the host. And we are invited. He knows each of our names and our stories. And he satisfies our hungers. Eat what is good and delight yourselves in rich food – the rich food that God has prepared for you. Thanks, be God. Amen.