Sunday, July 23, 2006

Proper 11B

Isaiah 57:14b-21; Psalm 22:22-30; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-44

Don’t Panic. So reads, in large, friendly letters, the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It is intended to reassure travelers, to put them at ease right from the start as their journey through Life, the Universe, and Everything begins. Don’t Panic.

Of course, from time to time, the assorted characters in Douglas Adams’ novels about that journey do panic, and not without good reason. One character, Zaphod Beeblebrox, finds himself on a desolate planet where he faces a sentence worse than death – he is to be placed in the Total Perspective Vortex. It is worse than death, because it shows its victims how insignificant their lives are. For inside the Total Perspective Vortex (incidentally no larger than a coat closet), they are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation…the infinite suns, the infinite distances between them, and yourself in relation to it…an invisible dot on an invisible dot, infinitely small.

It turns out to be no problem for our hero Zaphod, who believes he is the most important thing in the universe. Inside the Vortex, he indeed glimpses how infinitely small he is, but he also sees that entire unimaginable infinity of creation revolving around his invisible dot.

Far more often, those who entered the Vortex were unable to cope with the perspective of life it revealed. The immensity of the universe, filled with countless spheres separated from one another by vast, empty space; the staggering population of lives – of invisible dots – separated from one another by vast, empty space….It overwhelmed the mind and heart and spirit of its victims, not killing them, but turning the rest of their lives into a vast, empty space in which they would always see themselves as small and isolated and alone.

Such a terrible machine seems out of place in a novel that otherwise has its readers laughing till they’re out of breath, but then the terrible realization that such a perspective of life isn’t very fictional at all would just take our breath away anyway.

Did it take Jesus’ breath away, and the breath of his disciples, wouldn’t it have taken your breath away, to come away to a deserted place – other translations say a lonely place – and find it full of people? A lonely place full of people….people who were hungry and hurting and hopeful that their lives could be happier. A lonely place full of people….

And in the midst of that lonely crowd were Jesus and the disciples, surrounded and yet, I suspect, feeling themselves quite small and isolated and alone. They had come to this place to escape the crowd, to catch their breath, to attend just for a moment to their own hunger and hurt and hope before facing the infinite needs of the world again.

But there they were, that crowd, that ever-present always hungry, always hurting, always hoping crowd. Them. Jesus and the disciples had every reason to be angry or resentful or, in their weariness, despairing, and I suspect the disciples felt all those things. But Jesus looked at that great crowd from a different perspective in which the unimaginable infinity of creation is not full of empty space and invisible dots but is, rather, a closely knit fabric with countless colorful strands twisting around one another. And so Jesus saw not a crowd but a collection of people, and he had compassion for them, Mark tells us, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

It would have been so easy to just see a Them – that’s how the world teaches us to see. Us and Them. In that crowded lonely place it was Us, the helpers, and Them, the needy. In Paul’s time, as we heard in his letter to the Ephesians, it was Us, the Jews, and Them, the Gentiles. But the categories areunimaginably infinite. Us, from this country; Them, from another. Us, with one skin color; Them, with another. Us, from this side of the tracks; Them, from the other side. Us, college graduates; Them, no high school diploma. Rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, immigrant and native born, liberal and conservative, labor and management, gay and straight, old and young, Baptist and Episcopalian and Methodist and Lutheran and Catholic, Ole Miss and State….We’re really good at knowing what makes us Us, and them Them. And we’re really good at knowing why it’s better to be Us than it is to be Them. And while this knowledge helps us feel strong and significant and secure, it is also what separates us from one another, not so much by vast, empty spaces but by walls which may as well be infinitely wide. We are surrounded by Them, and they by Us, but if our walls keep us from seeing one is a lonely place full of people. “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” wrote Rudyard Kipling.

But there is another perspective. It is vision of the One who, according to Isaiah, dwells in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit. It is the sight of the One who was fully God and fully human. It is the perspective of the One who saw a great crowd with compassion, and who, Paul writes, created in himself one new humanity in place of the two (Jews and Gentiles, Paul means, but it could be any Us and Them), who created in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross. It is the perspective that allows us to sing, “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”

The whole wide earth – it may not be the infinite universe, but it’s still a pretty big place. And there are still a great many hungry and hurting and desperately hopeful people, including ourselves from time to time. And there are a great many people who look or act or speak or hunger or hurt or hope or believe very differently than we do. It’s overwhelming. Try as we might to distance ourselves, to make this big lonely crowded place smaller by putting up walls, the foundation we’re building on, whose cornerstone is Christ, just doesn’t support that sort of structure. Jesus would have us stand face to face, to look with compassion upon one another, upon that great collection of people that surrounds us. Kinda makes you want to be invisible, right? How can we, who are so small, step into such a big place, such a big crowd, such hurt, such hunger, such hope?

The disciples asked Jesus this very question toward the end of that long day in that not-so-deserted place. There may have been some compassion in their suggestion that the crowd break for dinner, but it sounds to me like the need for distance was greater: Send Them away, the disciples said, so that They may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for Themselves to eat. When Jesus breaks down that wall, You give them something to eat, the disciples desperately throw up another, answering, in effect, Jesus, we just don’t have it in us. How can we, who are so small, step into such a big place, such a big crowd, such hurt, such hunger, such hope? We just don’t have it in us.

Mark doesn’t say so, but I think that in that moment, Jesus saw his disciples as he had first seen the great crowd, and he had compassion for them, because hiding behind that wall, the disciples, too, were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them about Life, the Universe, and Everything from his perspective. You don’t have it in you? Well, what have you got? Jesus asked them. You've got something. How many loaves have you? Go and see.

You know what happened. They brought back five loaves and two fish. That was all they had. Well, that and, and this is what I think they hadn’t considered, they had those few loaves and fish, nearly invisible before the size of the crowd, and they had Jesus. And everyone was fed.

It is the only miracle story recorded in all four gospels – a cherished event in the life and ministry of Jesus. Many have wondered just how five thousand people ate dinner. Did he break off enough tiny bits for everyone, more a symbolic meal than a feast? Did others, when Jesus blessed the disciples’ generosity, begin pulling food out of their packs for a giant potluck picnic on the grass? Or did five loaves and two fish, by some divine mystery, simply feed everyone until they were full?

The real miracle, though, is not that a small amount of food somehow fed a large number of people. The real miracle was a change in perspective. We may be small, but we are not isolated, never alone. We are sheep with a Shepherd. We are a collection of people upon whom Jesus has looked with compassion, whom Jesus has fed with his word and with bread, with his body and blood. Whether we have five loaves and two fish to offer, or much more, or much less, if we offer them to Jesus, he will bless them and use them.

Molly Wolf, writes, “Whatever you’ve got, give it. You don’t know what price tag God puts on it, after all.” (How valuable that day were five loaves of bread and two fish!) She continues, “It is probably safe to assume that God’s values are not much like ours, and what seems unworthy to us may please God greatly. But don’t worry about it. Just give whatever you have most of. It will do.”

A change in perspective. How do we, who are so small, step into such a big place, such a big crowd, such hunger, such hurt, such hope? Don’t Panic. We go together, no longer Us and Them, no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. Amen.

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