Do-It-Yourself Jesus

Mountain Wilderness

Do-It-Yourself Jesus  |  Matthew 14:13-21 

This is about the Do-It-Yourself Jesus. Put yourself in his place.

You just heard the news that the authorities pulled your cousin out of a jail cell and killed him, on a whim, for doing and saying things not unlike what you have been doing and saying. You are concerned, maybe even afraid, that the powers that be may want to do the same sort of thing to you.

Mountains with Clouds 4x2A whole group of people are following you around, wanting to hear what you say, waiting to see what you do. Right now, you are grieving, and you are tired.

So you decide to head out of town, keep a low profile for a little while and rest. When you get where you are going, in the edge of nowhere, the crowds still find you. You understand why Elvis shopped for furniture in the middle of the night.

Then you look at them, and you see people who need medical attention. Men are standing there with their whole families—grandparents, wives, children. Most of them are more afraid of the authorities than you are. All of them are hungry, and you don’t see a lot of medical supplies or food in anyone’s pockets.

What do you do?

In Matthew’s account, Jesus hears of the death of his cousin, John the Baptist, and withdraws to the wilderness. We aren’t told whether Jesus was afraid or prudent or simply grieving. A great crowd of people follow him there. Matthew records that Jesus went among them, talking, healing, until late in the day when the inner group of disciples suggested sending the multitude away to find food.

Their idea made perfect sense. They were in the wild, with few resources and limited means, and thousands of hungry people. It was like a modern day music festival, minus the music and the tents and the hotels and the entertainment and the food and the toilet facilities and the first aid stations.

The response Jesus gave them made no sense at all. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

It was ludicrous.

Some wag in the bunch had the nerve to point out that they had scrounged up a few loaves of bread and some fish. The disciples must have thought that the sight of such a pitiful pantry would shock some sense into Jesus.

Jesus simply worked with what they had, which was plainly not enough to go around, and kept passing it out until everyone was fed. They had more at the end than when they started. It was a miracle.

Many modern theologians say that upon seeing Jesus share his food, the people themselves had a change of heart and began to share food they had secretly stashed in their robes and pockets and bags. Whether Jesus fed that bunch of people by multiplying the bread or by changing their way of thinking, we cannot say with certainty. Either way, it was still a miracle.

Before anyone gets angry at the possibility that all Jesus did was change some minds, ask yourself which is harder to do—share your bread or change someone’s way of thinking. It may be that some of these modern day theologians are pointing at a greater miracle, one that lasted longer than a single meal.

Oh, and there was no sermon, at least not in Matthew’s account. That is something worth thinking about. Everything that Jesus did in this story dealt with a physical need: hunger, disease. The only prayer that is mentioned was one blessing the bread, and we don’t even get the words to that one.

Jesus thought that feeding people was a sermon. He knew that tending to their medical needs revealed the nature of God. No words could have explained the love of God half so well as what Jesus did.

• • •

I, JOHN, a novel, is available now. If you enjoyed reading any of today’s lectionary post, you may also enjoy an excerpt from the novel. The passage below is told from the perspective of John the Apostle, looking back on the feeding of the five thousand from many, many years later.

• • •

I didn’t really understand the fascination. We saw him walking on the water, but nobody asked about that, not often anyway. The other miracles – healing people, raising the dead – none of them carried as much panache as the feeding of the five thousand. Not that it was five thousand. That was a good round number, and it lets you know that there were a lot of people, but nobody counted them. I doubted Peter would have been able to count that high, not without help, and the rest of us were content to see that there were a lot of people.

It started with Andrew, of all people. We were near Jesus, which on that day was very much like being close to a rock star. There were the devoted fans, the vaguely interested, everything in between. It had been a long morning, and Andrew leaned over and whispered to me, “I’m hungry.”

Jesus heard him, of course. For all we knew, he may well have heard people having conversations in Jerusalem, or on the other side of the world.

“What was that?” he asked. “Did you say that the people were hungry?”

Jesus knew full well that Andrew did not. Andrew, to his great credit, came up with a clever response.

“They are hungry, Lord.”

I had to admire the beauty of a statement like that. It seemed like a response to the question, but of course it wasn’t. Jesus knew the difference.

“What do you have to give them?” he asked.

We all began to look around, to feel in our clothes for an extra piece of bread that might be living there. It was ludicrous. None of us had brought much of anything. Jesus turned to Philip.

“Where can you buy some bread to give to the people?” Jesus asked Philip. “Andrew pointed out that they are hungry.”

Andrew was silent. I was also silent, sensing that there may be no right answers at the moment.

Philip looked across the sea of faces. “We don’t have anywhere near enough money to feed them. Look how many there are!”

Andrew had been mulling the situation over in his mind.

“There is a boy over there who brought some fish and a few small loaves of bread, but that won’t go very far,” he told Jesus. I have never known whether Andrew was dimwitted or determined to goad Jesus with the information.

“Bring them,” Jesus replied. I have likewise never known whether Jesus was messing with Andrew.

Andrew made his way toward the boy who had the little basket of food. Just negotiating the crowd was not simple, and getting that boy to relinquish his food was not going to be easy. Andrew managed to kneel down beside him. Their voices were too low to make out, though I was pretty sure that Jesus heard the whole thing.

In a few minutes Andrew had, to my amazement, gained the boy’s trust enough to get hold of the fish and the bread. He came  back through the crowd clasping the little lunch basket to his chest with one hand and holding onto the boy with the other hand. Andrew did not easily trust people, let alone crowds of them.

He knelt down beside Jesus and gave him the basket. I managed to peek inside. Andrew had slightly overestimated the lunch, or perhaps the young man had already enjoyed a snack. At any rate, I only saw a couple of fish along with a few small loaves of bread, not large and hurriedly made. I could have eaten all of them myself.

Jesus took the basket and lifted it up. The crowd fell quiet, pockets of conversation dying as people realized Jesus was doing something. He gave thanks, looking up into the sky, which I have come to believe was for our benefit. We believed that God was in heaven, and that heaven was in the sky.

Jesus told us to ask the people for baskets, or cloths, anything in which we might share food.

There are only two fish, I remember thinking. If we go asking for baskets, what are we going to put in them?

Our doubts aside, the people began passing baskets forward. At the same time, more people began to bring out food that they had stashed, food that Andrew had not seen. When they saw Jesus sharing his food, or sharing the boy’s food, they began to share what they had.

There still was not going to be enough to go around, no matter how well the people shared with one another. That is when the weird moment began, the thing that I never tell people.

Jesus kept breaking up the same two fish and the same loaves of bread, over and over. He kept putting pieces into baskets, into makeshift cloth sacks. Anything the people sent him, he filled with fish and bread.

In retrospect, I don’t really know what Jesus did, or how that much food appeared. I suspect that whatever he was doing, there was a limit to what my mind could process, and I could only see him breaking up the two fish because that was what my mind had learned to expect.

Whatever really happened was something that my mind could not understand. How could I explain watching a piece of bread being broken from a loaf, only to see and in some odd way understand that the bread was still whole, still waiting for the same piece of crust to be broken off? I was seeing something that I could not comprehend, and so I chose to see what my mind could comprehend.

There was more food until no more was needed, and then it stopped.
When it was over, there was more bread and more fish than the crowd could eat. Jesus stepped up onto a boulder so that he could look out over the people more easily. He looked down at Andrew.

“Gather up the bread that is left, so that it will not go to waste.”

We went around and gathered up the extra bread, each of us filling whatever basket we found. When the baskets were completely full, it all stopped. No more leftovers. The people were content.

Andrew was quiet for the rest of the day. He was not alone.


The Water Is Alive

Third Sunday in Lent  |  John 4:5-42

John writes of simple things. Light. Bread. Water. All of them speak to us of God, of this person Jesus.

In the noon-day heat of the story, Jesus sits by a well and tells a woman about water that is alive. Those who are raised in Christianity, who grew up surrounded by its imagery, will not even pause at the words—living water—being already steeped in such language.

OverlookingStream 002Living water.

It is an odd phrase, particularly in modern English. In Greek in the first century, the phrase meant water that moves. Living water comes from a stream or a gushing spring: it is water that is not still, unlike the water of a well. In John’s gospel, though, the words point to the source of life.

The woman doesn’t seem to understand. Jesus tries again. He claims that the water he could give would keep springing up inside the drinker, an odd thing. The woman, being of a practical mind, takes his words literally and so misunderstands, thinking only of freedom from hauling buckets of water from the well.

Jesus stops trying to explain the water. He finds other ways to open her mind.

We might see that like Jesus and this woman, God waits for us at the point of our need. When she arrived at the well, Jesus had arranged to be there. That gives us hope that when we find ourselves in the noon heat with an empty bucket, God is already there waiting.

Like the gospel writer, we might also pay attention to simple things. While God could make an appearance with trumpets and a chorus of angels, this gospel tells us that God is more likely to be present in a drink of water, the taste of bread, the sunlight. The evidence of scripture is that God prefers simple things.

Light. Bread. Water. These are the most basic things we need for life. John uses them to teach us of the nature of God.

On A Different Mountain

First Sunday in Lent  |  Matthew 4:1-11

Last Sunday the lectionary marked Transfiguration Sunday, a remembrance of the story of a mountaintop experience in which Jesus transformed into a glorious figure. Moses and Elijah made a striking appearance as well.

Valley thru Trees 003For the first Sunday in Lent, we remember a different story of visiting a mountain. This time Jesus has the devil for company.

We know the story of the temptation of Christ, though we may wonder who told the details to Matthew. Jesus has purposefully fasted for forty days and nights. Along comes the devil with three temptations: turn stones into bread for your hunger, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and let the angels catch you, and worship the devil to gain the whole world.

We get that last temptation, because it is reasonably clear to most of us that worshipping anything less than God is wrong, even in order to get everything in the world. The other two, well, it is a little more difficult to find anything wrong with the ideas.

Throwing oneself down from the pinnacle of the temple is not unreasonable, given that one was up there anyway and angels are really going to catch you. No harm done, and it would be amazing. The idea seems to be that one should not put God to the test, just for the sake of doing it. God doesn’t perform circus tricks on demand.

That first temptation, though, is the hardest one of all to understand. What is wrong with having a little bread? Provided one has the power to do it, and nobody in the story seems to question whether Jesus actually could turn stones into bread, why not?

On one level, it seems to be about observing human limitations. Human beings cannot, generally speaking, turn stones into bread. On the other hand, human beings cannot, generally speaking, heal the sick, raise the dead, feed thousands of people with a child’s lunch, or pull tax money out of the mouth of a fish. Yet, in Gospel stories Jesus did all of these things.

Maybe it was also a question of doubt. The devil does not propose the bread simply as food: “If you are the Son of God…” Such a miracle would prove, presumably to Jesus himself or to the devil since no one else is present, that he is indeed God incarnate. Still, self-doubt doesn’t seem to be a problem. The gospels do not record an instance of Jesus wondering about his own identity, except in the eyes of others.

The real problem of these temptations is that they would alter the true nature of Jesus. He was an authentic human, complete, what our species aspires to become. Acts of self-doubt, or self-acclamation, would have torn the fabric of Jesus’ being, would have made him less than he was.

Perhaps that is how we can measure temptations that come our way. Regardless of the hunger that might be filled, or the apparent lack of harm, or the ends that we might achieve, we measure our choices by the injury done to our humanity, to our souls. There are worse things than hunger,  obscurity, and the lack of wealth.

Matthew tell us that Jesus went up on another mountain, and this time he was followed by crowds of people. Maybe when he sat down to speak, he remembered his own temptations.

“Blessed are the poor,” he said. “Blessed are the meek…blessed are the hungry….”