Sermon on 9 Pentecost, 8/2/20: Life’s Essential Workers

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Ps. 17: 1 – 7, 16; Genesis 32: 22 – 31;  Romans 9: 1 – 5;Matt. 14: 13 – 21

Jesus said, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ Matt. 14: 16

Why is it so often the case that we do not miss or appreciate what we have, what brings us joy, what brings meaning into our daily existence, until that item is no longer in our possession?  (If you desire, we can replace the “what” with the personal interrogative pronoun “who.”)  This year 2020 has caused us to reconsider what/who is truly essential in our lives.

From my serious dabbling into a pre-med curriculum during undergraduate college, I learned “officially” that there are basically three things which we need, in order to sustain ourselves: air, water, and food.  Essentials all!  For a period of time, we can survive with water and food, but never without oxygen.  One does not need a college-level course to grasp these “facts of life.”  We live them every day, and so have come to accept them as a right, not necessarily codified in law or etched into the lintel of official buildings, but as an inherent right that they will always be available, there for us.

Yet, that is not necessarily so.  Mr. George Floyd did not call out that he was hungry.  Mr. Floyd did not tell his tormentors that he was thirty.  Both essential for sustaining life.  However, George Floyd cried out for air.  The writer of the Creation Story in the Book of Genesis, without benefit of a sophisticated science laboratory, understood that some essentials are more essential than others.  Long before Adam sought to satisfy his appetite with an apple, God breathed life into Adam’s body/soul.  “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”  (Gen. 2:7)  Is it any wonder then that psalmist and prophets alike have described the spirit of God, the breath of God, as our ultimate sustainer, our ultimate essential?

As days have slipped now into weeks into months into a half year, with no immediate end yet in sight, we have come to appreciate the effort and sacrifices which others, almost all unknown personally to us, expend on our behalf.  “These others” have been designated by local and state authorities as “essential workers.”  These are the individuals who, in spite of and because of a virus that does not discriminate by gender, class, ethnic background, are “required” or given leave by governmental officials to venture out each day, and at all hours of the day and night, so that we, you and I, may be provided with the three things that sustain our physical existence.

Perhaps rightly so, our minds turn first to those in our supermarkets who, behind masks, tally our purchases.  They are, in a sense, our first responders.  However, there, in the backstory, are those who labor, sight unseen, to produce and inspect those goods we would purchase; those who continue to monitor the purity of our drinking water, who inspect and repair our bridges and roadways, in order that frontline essential workers may provide us with essential; who provide electricity that powers our machinery which cools our homes in sweltering heat or pumps the petroleum needed for other machines which deliver essential medical supplies; those who rush still into burning buildings, in other to rescue us from life-threatening danger.  And, yes, there are those who monitor the purity of the air that we breathe.  These “others” are only some of those countless others who are committed to ensuring that more than “five thousand men, besides women and children” are provided with essentials of life.

And Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

To be sure, the actual words of the gospel appointed for the ninth Sunday in Pentecost, or Ordinary Time, address the need for physical sustenance, and are given to us as a miracle which Jesus performed for “about five thousand men, besides women and children.” (Matt. 14: 21)  Teachers, preachers, and theologians have used this story, in order to reinforce his divinity of Jesus.  So important is this act that all the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—have recorded a version of this deed.  The writer of John’s gospel adds an even more exciting twist, by recording that a child, an otherwise unnamed boy, in the crowd of five thousand men and an uncounted number of women and children, provided the loaves and the fishes.  These comestibles were to have been the boy’s own vittles, not for general consumption, for there were, of course, no mall-like rest stops on ancient roads, where one could purchase food, one of life’s essentials.

What intrigues me, though, are not the numbers.  Rather, for me the miracle of this occurrence is that even those who experienced it came to understand their dependence on others, whose sharing is essential for their survival.   What intrigues me even further is a clear demonstration that out of a little, greatness and positivity can emerge.  For me, this story is the complement to the parable of the mustard seed, the tiniest of seeds, about which we read just recently in Matthew’s gospel, a seed that grows into a tree, a large bush that offers shelter to birds and others in the natural order, and provides shades for humans.

John’s version of this event fascinates me even further, for it provides you and me with insight into the human dilemma.  Imagine this, if you would: just as a boy (remember: not included among the ca. 5000 men, but among the women and children) is getting ready to eat the five small barley loaves and two fishes his mother or father had packed for him, or perhaps by him himself, the figure of an adult male stands before him.  What’s more, the man asks for his lunch!  And not for the man himself, but for the Teacher, the man who has been healing and teaching!  Could it be that the boy felt intimidated by this adult or, on the other hand, awed that the Teacher, gifted with healing powers, had taken notice of him?  In this crowd?!  Would not this latter, in and of itself, be a miracle?

Surely there is no way that the boy, being only a child, can imagine that the Teacher was requesting his lunch in order to feed all the folks gathered on the level grass and the knoll.  Healing was one thing, but to multiply the five loaves and two fishes would be preposterous, unimaginable, and thus I make the assumption, this thought probably never entered the boy’s mind.  But still, he was being asked to share with the Teacher.  Even that was a dilemma.  What could the boy say? “Go pick on someone else.  I have just enough for myself.”  Was he just speechless?  Above all, how did Andrew—and Jesus—persuade the boy to share his lunch?  Would you have dreamed of sharing your lunch with a crowd of that size?

I ask these questions, in order to lead us to consider a different dimension of this story, whose outcome we know.  As people of faith, we believe that Jesus could have fed 5,000 or more people without asking for any human help, as he is the living Word, according to John, through whom everything was created.  However, Jesus, without fanfare, places a child under the strobe light of the fading sun, by asking for his help.  Surely, there must have been adults who had secreted away provisions, for remember, there were no rest stops with malls where one could purchase food or drink.  Through Andrew, Jesus invites the boy into an act of stewardship in which the boy gives what he has, so that God may bless, in this case, an extremely hungry crowd.Michelangelo,_Creation_of_Eve_01

We remember that this is God’s design for the universe.  Genesis records that, when God made human beings, God created us in God’s image.  Both the man and the woman share this image.  God created humans for a special relationship—a covenant relationship in which we are God’s valuable possession, which means that we possess the potential to be a holy people.  To be holy is to belong to God, and to be in relationship with God, whom we have not seen, is to be in relationship with each other.  That is what we like to call “a win/win situation,” do we not?  When we win, God wins, and when God wins, we win.  But it is also true that no one truly wins, until everyone wins.

The child’s response, whether rendered voluntarily or through obeisance to adult authority, tells each of us something important about our individual selves.  The ways we imagine this part of the story reflects our usual instinctive response when Jesus asks us to be stewards of the bread of our lives and the fish we have worked so hard to catch.  And we may logically ask: what are really five loaves and two fishes among more than 5,000 hungry people?  Yet I suggest, this is a miniature, but important example of how God’s win/win game is played out. The gift of an anonymous boy illustrates to you and to me the power which we each hold in our possession.

A pandemic has curtailed our intersecting with others as we were accustomed and long still to do.  No longer presently able to drop our loose change into the jug at the end of the center aisle and to deliver non-perishable foodstuffs to our local food bank, we may think that we have been deprived of tangible means of exercising of our concern and love for others.  How then may we respond to the question: ‘and when did we see you hungry and gave you not to eat?”

Dismay, however, not!  Life’s essentials are not an either/or binary.  Whereas I began our meditation considering physical needs, we are also cognizant that we have spiritual, emotional, psychological needs which give meaning to life and which must be nourished. Jesus acknowledges this, as he teaches that one does not live by bread along.  To be sure, food is essential, but of equal value are other nourishments: love that values our unique individuality; friendship; respect; satisfaction from what we are doing and jobs that support love one; justice for the marginalized; hope for the oppressed and ignored.  And still the list of hungers is not yet complete.  The hungers which must be satiated are innumerable.

Look again at what Jesus does.  He asks his closest friends for help in performing his miracle.  He asks the disciples where to find food.  In John’s version, Andrew finds and asks a child to give up his small bundle, in order to feed 5,000 men, plus women and children.  In receiving the child’s gift and using it to bless all the hungry with food, Jesus shows us who he is.  Although of the house and lineage of David, Jesus could not be more completely and totally different from David.  Although an authority of the highest order, Jesus held a position of authority not to please his own whims and desires.  Rather, he was come to make real the possibility of the win/win situation of creation.

As the bread and fish from the child became food enough to feed all who were hungry, so Jesus, the Bread of Life, has become the “bread” to feed every hunger—physical and spiritual—that human beings could ever need.  But Jesus also shows us that God asks our help in feeding the world with God’s blessings.  Our lives, when given in love to God, are blessed and become channels of grace.

Biblical history teaches: God longs to have us join in the divine game of blessing.  When we join in the game, we can watch Jesus perform miracles in the midst of our lives.  It is in so doing that we each become ESSENTIAL WORKERS.