by Dr. Sam Laurent, Campus Minister of the Episcopal Center at Duke
Jesus is not in the mood to face the crowds. It takes a lot of energy to be Jesus, to give of yourself and your energy and to face the demands of a crowd whose need for healing knows no end. Jesus has just gotten word that John the Baptist, who baptised him and prepared the way for his ministry, has been beheaded under the authority of Herod. The first verse of this passage is clipped by the lectionary, so you may not know that this is immediately after John’s death. In full, the verse reads “now when Jesus heard this he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” He seeks solitude because he grieves. This is a personal loss for Jesus, and perhaps a moment when the violence that awaits those who speak truth to power comes into clearer focus.
So he retreats. Perhaps he seeks the clarity he found in his 40 days in the desert, galvanizing his resolve and his vision for ministry. In the face of John’s gruesome death, we could easily understand needing time to regather oneself. Perhaps it was pure grief. Compassion is the noblest and best virtue, but it’s absolutely exhausting, too. To care about people is to eventually grieve them, and Jesus cared very much about John the Baptist.
Whatever his inner state, we can imagine Jesus was not thrilled to see the crowds coming down to the water. I’m going to run the risk of speaking for all of us and say we can imagine his exhausted sigh even more easily now, 4 months into our pandemic distancing. Each day’s news only seems to increase the grief and forestall the much-anticipated return to normalcy. Just a quick break from the constant virus anxiety would be so nice. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is hurt, and he wants a brief break from being the public-facing branch of the Trinity. But the crowds were relentless. Such is the suffering of the world.
Deep in my quarantine-weary bones, I yearn for Jesus to row close to shore, respectfully tell the crowd to come back later because he needs a nap, and row back out. But people needed healing. His compassion got him into this situation. So he healed them, and that’s the part that amazes me. All day, apparently, he healed them, for evening fell and the crowd was still gathered, here in this deserted place.
Remember the mustard seed from last week, or better yet, the yeast that leavens bread. Unseeably small granules that as a collective breathe out and inflate loaves of bread. This is literal inspiration, the blowing-in of life from the tiniest corners of the creation. Jesus, one person amidst the crowds, is building the kingdom of God one person at a time. One touch, one kind word, one assurance that God sees and loves this particular life. Each healing another pocket of lightness, breathing the Spirit into God’s people, leavening the common life.
And so it is evening and they sit, in their multitude, here by the water in the deserted place with only two fish and five loaves. The disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds home, lest they go hungry, but he instead asks for the food to be brought to him. This is the familiar part, where Jesus somehow feeds the masses—five thousand men, plus women and children whom God numbered but the Bible didn’t—let’s say ten thousand people, a little more than Cameron Indoor holds, with two fish and five loaves.
It is not just a magic trick. This is an expression of the way of God’s abundance. Bread, the most fundamental of foods, is usually involved in these things. Think of the manna in the desert, bread falling from the sky. Think of the last supper and our ongoing observance of it in our Eucharistic feast. The loaves and fishes are infinitesimal compared to the material hunger of the people gathered, but the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed or like baker’s yeast, and somehow, the food is enough. When all had eaten, the leftovers filled 12 baskets. The small dinner became a manifestation of abundance. All were filled, and there was still more.
I urge you not to spend too long wondering about the exact mechanics of the feat. The Bible is not much of a technical manual. Instead, notice the extremes of scale. Jesus and the crowds. Five loaves, two fishes, and ten thousand hungry souls. The seed and the plant, the yeast and the bread. It was an instance of the kingdom of God. Jesus and the food were too small in the face of the need, and yet they were enough.
Our fatigue in this season is well-earned. It has been a hard year. It has been a hot summer. We are becoming more and more aware of the injustices in our society and of our failures to contain the COVID pandemic. As a parent and a campus minister, my life is shaped on two major fronts by the decisions of schools, and I feel rather powerless in the face of it. Things happen, and I make tentative plans to deal with them until the next thing happens. Trying to connect with incoming students and care for returning students is real work in reasonable times, and it feels like playing frisbee in a hurricane right now.
I am—and I bet you are, too—in a particularly good place to resonate with the smallness and fragility of the mustard seed or the yeast cell. If there is one thing worth highlighting about the kingdom of heaven this week, let me submit that it is that in the face of monolithic forces like injustice and hunger and suffering, the kingdom of heaven comes as one person at a time, one seed, one cell at a time, and it is somehow sufficient. Jesus was enough for the day. The food was enough for the evening.
And by God, we are enough for the present moment. None of us are called, on any particular day, to singlehandedly turn the tide of the pandemic. None will achieve racial justice alone. That’s not how things work. We are called to make it through each day and to risk getting our hearts broken. The most impressive part of the story, to me, comes when Jesus had compassion for the crowd amidst his own grief. His sufficiency was a given. His presence was a miracle. The kingdom of heaven is sufficient. Jesus’ willingness to extend the kingdom of heaven to the crowds is amazing.
Jesus was willing to let the world be the world and to care for the people in front of him. That he did until the end, and that we can practice. When the scope of things, the very bigness of our problems, paralyzes or numbs you, you can follow the example of Jesus. You are enough. The Spirit moves through you, and through those you love, and though you cannot fix every problem you touch, you are enough for today,. You will be enough for tomorrow. You are like the mustard seed, like the microscopic yeast. Great things unfold downstream of the small ripples we make today. To find the energy to answer the call each day is the true spiritual task of these times. The practice of compassion, of sharing God’s love, is enough, and will see us through. Love will suffice.