Ha Na Park Sermon ~ When Bread Speaks

Matthew 14:13-21

Photo taken at Badlands, Drumheller

Photo taken at Badlands, Drumheller

Silence disturbs me. Now, I’m not speaking about God whispering to me in the midst of a very busy day, “Be still, and know that I am God”. That kind of silence addresses our need for a time of calm to find the centre, the ground of our being.

The silence that disturbs me is the silence that I have kept; the silence that I regret: silence born from anxiety, the failure to find the right response to a bad situation, failure to express myself in a timely and sensible way, the inability to express my real feelings, real concerns, my core humanity.

In the summer of 2002, I was a participant in a two-week long study trip to South-East Asia. The other group members were students and professors from the Religious Studies department of my university. There were ten of us; we were all close. All of us were Christians, from different denominations, and all of us studied world religions, their faith and traditions.

We were in Myanmar; it was early evening. We were heading to a restaurant, all in a van. A Burmese man was driving the van, with his co-worker sitting next to him. We all sat in the back; those seats were separated from the drivers by a glass window. We were tired, but excited by what we had learned and experienced that day. Our favourite professor, Kil, was making jokes to cheer up his tired students. (Quite saucy jokes.) We were just about to drive into a crowded rural marketplace when I noticed our speed:  we were going fast-  too fast to move safely through the town square. No distinct road lines, no side roads. It was just an open market square, unpaved and very busy. Children, women, and older people walked and ran and clustered together, and we were headed straight for them – but none of us cared. The driver was trying to get us to the restaurant as quickly as possible and we, the tourist group, were laughing and having fun at the end of a long day. We were in our own little world of jokes and happy anticipation, then BANG. We hit a person. The van stopped. The next thing I saw was a man lying beside our van, with just one drop of blood coming out of one of his ears.

What really shocked me was what happened next. It didn’t take long for Professor Kil, the man who had taught us the religious and spiritual path and all the great concepts like transcendence, compassion, the importance of reconciliation, to suss out the situation. He gave us orders, trying to protect us, “As soon as the other vehicle arrives, hurry to get out of this van. If we stay here longer, and the local people get mad at us, we can get in trouble -even more as we are foreigners.”

Soon enough, another vehicle arrived, we all moved to it, and in just thirty minutes, as scheduled, we were sitting at the table and were eating. But in the whole process, and during the meal, no one talked. No one talked about what happened just thirty minutes before. It seemed that we had no permission to talk about it. I wanted to bring it up, but a senior student gave me a sign, “Be silent.” We could have set a time for reflection, after one or two days, or even for allowing ourselves a quiet time to mourn what happened, and pray. However, that didn’t happen. Through the two weeks of the trip, we had an unspoken agreement that we don’t talk about it – and we never did.

This still bothers me. This disturbs me. I regret that I have kept that silence. I didn’t know the Burmese person, his family, his community. I still don’t know how their lives changed after the accident. Yet, what I know is that we, as the group of ‘tourists’, who came from a more affluent country, possessed the power and privilege to tour their home, but we didn’t show compassion when it was most needed. While we were touring their communities, we didn’t care for their safety at all. And if we mourned the consequences of our carelessness, we did it alone, and in silence.

I believe this may be at the root of why I am disturbed and grieved when the church, the community that I have given my heart to, does not come forward to speak the truth and to stir up open conversation, to set a time for mourning communally as we witness justice and peace being broken and our humanity being diminished by injustice and violence.

Last Sunday, I appreciated it when Gordon asked us “What are the three most popular news stories we hear these days?”

I heard one of us answer, “The situation in the Gaza Strip.” (And I how much appreciated that answer.) We know that the Israeli Military Offensive in the Gaza Strip is not only ‘popular’ news. It is also not the only controversial issue that we, as a Christian community, are asked to keep neutral on, not to take any ‘side’.

The truth is that in responding to the humanistic catastrophe, especially the indiscriminate killing of children who have no place of safety in the shelled and besieged strip, there are no ‘sides’. We mourn all victims: the Israelis and the Palestinians. Especially the children among them. They can’t be just death tolls. They are not human shields, instruments of war, declaration of war. They are, individually and collectively, a grievable life. We mourn. We need to break the silence; we need to say, stop.

We need to break the silence because it’s our responsibility to make it right; we need to show that the Kingdom of God is not buried, hidden or silent. All the parables and the stories that Jesus uses to explain what the Kingdom of God is like tell us that the Kingdom of God is a paradox, more than a box, in the very middle of two extremes, hidden, not to offend anyone. No – the kingdom of God has tension: hidden, yet always inclining to be revealed and revealing. Like the light that cannot be kept under a bowl, or the leaven in the bread that is about to rise, the Kingdom of God does not support silence – it cannot countenance inaction.

Now, I wonder, if we imagine that what we experience in our time happened in Jesus’ time, and that we were with Jesus, what words would we hear? What would Jesus say during these times of deep political and philosophical divides, these times when the sight of dead children brings confusion and silence?

Today’s Gospel story, a very well-known one – feeding a large crowd -, is set in the context of John the Baptist’s death: a political execution. It begins by telling us, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” We can imagine the wrestling that went on inside Jesus and the disciples, and the crowd that day, to hear the news that John the Baptist was killed.

Even Jesus needed time for himself, to be alone. He needed the time. However, the story tells us that the crowds didn’t leave him alone; they searched for him and wanted to be with him. They followed Jesus wherever he went – to the mountains, to the shore. In the end, the story tells us that when Jesus “Saw the crowd, he had compassion for them, and cured their sick.”

I wonder whether the crowd was simply looking for a healer who would cure their physical disabilities, or if they actually needed a comforter, a messenger, a Messiah who had the words to say to them, to help them understand how one chosen by God could be so cruelly killed.

We don’t know. Coming back to ‘silence’, when you look at today’s Gospel reading, you don’t find any part which tells us that Jesus said one word about the persecution of John the Baptist, even though the news had been widely spread. Did Jesus ever say anything? In the text as it is passed onto us, no. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t make a speech. What we hear as Jesus’ response is only this: Jesus said to his disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

And what did He do? What did Jesus do? Jesus, who was originally trying to withdraw himself, to be alone, heartbroken and devastated, chose to be with the crowds. He cured their sick, and gave every person and all their children bread and fish, all equally and enough. He showed compassion. So He may teach LIFE, not the hatred, not the terror, not the fear, not the retribution, but life. The greatness of compassion. The wonder of grace. The powerfully demonstrable luminous aspect of humanity in the very face of its vulnerability by the misuse of power and violence. And the love of God that God has towards all humanity, regardless of enemy lines, ethnic lines, race lines, religious lines, economic lines. So He may teach LIFE that is for all. He also teaches that what makes us people of God is our way of behaving. It is also the rule of thumb for Israel. Jesus was Jewish, after all. God says that if you visit those imprisoned, act mercifully to the widow and the orphan, … welcome the stranger in your midst, … tend the sick, … do justice and love mercy, THEN you will be God’s people and this LAND will be your land.

Jesus broke the silence by breaking the bread and feeding all – a powerful demonstration that teaches LIFE. So are we invited to do the same.

Sermon delivered on August 3, 2014 at the United Church in Meadowood.

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