Facing Our Brokenness in a Broken World (Matthew 14:13-21; Isaiah 55:1-5)
Isaiah 55 reads as an invitation for anyone to share in the fruits of God’s new creation, the new world God is creating. The blessing is offered to anyone who will receive it. “Everyone who thirsts come to the waters” cries the prophet. God chose Israel to share that message. Not to be a people who thought of themselves as better than others, but a people called to offer life giving water to all the peoples of the world.
One of the New Testament readings listed for this Sunday, which we did not read, is Romans 9:1-5. In that text Paul speaks of his passion for the Jewish people, his own people, and he enumerates a number of things that set Israel apart – that constituted Israel a chosen people – the covenants, the Torah, the tradition of worship of the one God, and ultimately the Jewish Messiah. However, the privileges and advantages of being the covenant people of God were never intended for Israel exclusively. In the Isaiah text God’s steadfast love is not intended for just one nation or people group, it’s intended for all peoples. Israel was called to communicate blessing and chosenness to the rest of the world. All the world is God’s world. All people are God’s people. According to the prophet God made Israel to be a “witness to the peoples” of the earth of God’s “steadfast love.”
Being chosen doesn’t mean that God likes one person or group or nation more than God likes anyone else. In fact, the ones God often singles out for a particular service are generally quite flawed so that it is clear the calling is by grace. No one is more worthy than anyone else. Whoever God chooses for special tasks God chooses in order to communicate God’s love to everyone else. What at first feels like God being exclusive is actually God choosing a person or people to communicate God’s inclusive love and grace to all. The fact that so many Christians are locked in to claims of exclusivity (that God has blessed them but not others) simply demonstrates that we have a lot of growing up to do (that we are still very selfish and our selfishness is blinding).
I believe the passage today in Matthew 14 of Jesus feeding the multitude offers us a way forward. It gives us a pattern that can lead us out of our immaturity. It shows us how our chosenness and brokenness go together and that when we learn how to live in the balance of that tension we find our place and calling.
The story is a familiar one. I read stories like this in the Gospels as well as the one that follows about Jesus walking on the sea and calming the sea not as historical reports of actual events, but as parables. A different kind of parable than the parables Jesus told, but parables nonetheless. Some scholars call them metaphorical narratives, which is really just another way of emphasizing their parabolic and symbolic meaning. That is to say that the stories are true in what they teach.
A great crowd of people follow Jesus out into a deserted place. He is trying to get away with the twelve for a time of rest and retreat, but he is pursued by hungry people – hungry for meaning and hope. How will Jesus feed this great multitude? Can he give them the hope and meaning they crave? Jesus takes a few fish and loaves of bread – he blesses them and breaks them and then gives them to a hungry people. What I want you to see today is the great spiritual significance of this pattern that shows up again when Jesus hosts the last supper.
First, he takes and blesses. As I have already pointed out this is not an exclusive blessing; it’s a blessing bestowed on all. It is true of all human beings whether they belong to our religious tradition or not. This is our original blessing. I love the way the late Henry Nouwen talks about this. He writes:
“We have to dare to reclaim the truth that we God’s chosen ones, even when our world does not choose us. As long as we allow our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and lovers to determine whether we are chosen or not, we are caught in the net of a suffocating world that accepts or rejects us according to its own agenda of effectiveness and control.” Nouwen says that claiming this blessing, claiming our identity as God’s beloved daughters and sons is a life long task because we often have to battle low self-esteem, self-doubt, and self-rejection. And when we fall into this darkness – of self-doubt and rejection – we can be easily used and manipulated by people who want to use us for their own selfish ends.
Nouwen says that what we need to remember is this: “Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock time – our brief chronological existence – but by the One who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity.”
That is our original blessing – it precedes and is far more important than our original sin. In fact, our sin isn’t original at all. It simply part of what we have to live with and deal with in learning to claim our original blessing. Now if we trust and claim our original blessing as image bearers of God, as God’s beloved children in whom God’s Spirit abides, then there is no reason for us to try to conceal, deny, repress, or escape our brokenness.
And that brings us to the second part of the pattern: Jesus takes and blesses, then he breaks. We are all broken in some way. But that is not the first thing about us nor is it the most significant thing about us. The most important thing is that we are blessed. And when we claim our blessing, when we trust our chosenness, we find the courage and inner strength to face our brokenness. When we deal with our brokenness in the context of our original blessing then we are able to step toward our pain, our failures, our brokenness, rather than run from it. It’s by embracing our brokenness and living through our brokenness that we move toward healing and transformation.
Nouwen calls this living under the blessing rather than the curse. When we lose a family member or friend in death, when we fail in a relationship, when we go through a separation and divorce, when we lose a job or a dream dies, when we live through some act of violence that jars us and scars us, when some tragedy strikes – if we live this under the curse, then it’s easy to become bitter and resentful. It is likely we will become angry and depressed. But when we put all of this under God’s blessing, when we realize that none of this is a reflection of what God thinks of us, because God loves us with an eternal love, then the trial and tragedy we undergo can somehow be incorporated into our journey toward the realization of our full humanity. It can all be incorporated into the process of becoming image bearers of God.
There is a scene in Leonard Bernstein’s musical work simply titled Mass that illustrates this. Toward the end of the work, the priest, adorned richly in splendid liturgical vestments, is lifted up by his people. He towers high above the adoring crowd, carrying in his hands a glass chalice. Then suddenly, the human pyramid carrying him in his glory collapses (as all human aspirations of glory do), and the priest comes tumbling down. His vestments are ripped off. His glass chalice breaks and shatters into many pieces. As the priest walks through the debris of his former glory – barefoot, wearing only blue jeans and a T-shirt – children’s voices are heard singing, “Laude, laude, laude” – “Praise, praise, praise.” Suddenly the priest notices the broken chalice. He looks at it for a long time and then, haltingly, he says, “I never realized that broken glass could shine so brightly.”
When we embrace our brokenness, when we live through our brokenness in the light of God’s blessing, then our brokenness can reflect the mystery and beauty of God’s grace and presence. As we face our brokenness and bring our brokenness into the light of God’s blessing, we find meaning and the capacity to care for and extend love and grace to others. Here is the third stage of the pattern: Jesus blessed, he broke, and he gave. Giving is the final stage of the pattern.
Our Gospel story highlights the power of the Spirit that drove Jesus, that motivated and compelled him to do what he did – to challenge the powers that be, to confront injustice, to break down walls and barriers, to welcome the excluded and condemned, to heal the sick, liberated the demonized, and feed the hungry. The text says that when Jesus saw the great crowd of hurting, hungry people he had compassion for them. Jesus was living under the blessing of being the Beloved. He had heard the voice of the Father say, “You are my beloved son, on whom my favor rests.” He was living under that voice of blessing, which is the same voice of blessing that we need to hear and live under too.
Jesus, no doubt, was weary. He was tired. He needed some solitude. He was trying to get away from the crowds. He is just one human being. As Luke says in Acts 2, “a man appointed by God” to do some great works, but a man nonetheless. I’m sure we would have been upset with the crowds hounding us for favors. But because Jesus lived through the human condition under the blessing of God he was able to draw from the compassion of the Spirit who empowered him.
It’s interesting to contrast Jesus’ response and the response of the disciples – which would no doubt be our response. When the disciples face the tragedy of the human condition, when they face the brokenness of the people, all they can see is what can’t be done. “Send them away” they tell Jesus. Maybe they can find some food, some help, some healing, some hope on their own. We have nothing to give them. And maybe they were right. Maybe they didn’t have anything to give them. Maybe they had not yet learned to face their own brokenness in the light of God’s blessing. But Jesus living under the blessing of God, living in the power of Spirit, the power of divine compassion says, “Bring them to me.”
We are not sit back and bask in God’s blessing, but rather, we are called to spread God’s blessing out of compassion and gratitude. We who are blessed and broken are called to give. And there are all kinds of ways we can do that. I would say: Just start where you are with the people you rub up against every day. Many of them are hungry for a more meaningful life. Some of them feel lost and alone. Some are struggling with feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt and low self-esteem. Some try to cover their faults and brokenness and appear better than they really are. Some are blind to the kind of humility and grace that could heal their souls and give them some real joy and peace. We pray to Jesus and Jesus looks at us and says, “You give them something to eat.”
We are called to give of ourselves in mercy and also in justice. No one was left out. There was plenty to go around. They had more than enough. The problem we face in our world when it comes to matters of justice, of everyone having enough not just to survive but thrive is not a resource problem. We have enough resources – at least at the moment. Our problem is a distribution problem. We are called to give indiscriminately, but if we follow our Lord, then we have a special obligation to give to, stand with, and advocate for the oppressed and impoverished and most vulnerable among us.
We might think of ourselves as a little piece of fish or piece of bread. What can we give? What do we have to offer? We tend to focus on what we can do, the talents we have to give, our special abilities, and so forth, and we often think we have little to offer. We tend to forget is that the greatest gift we can give is not so much about what we can do, but rather, it’s more about who we are. So the main question is not, “What can we do for each other?” But rather, “Who can we be for each other.” Am I willing to share the gift of who I am with others?
If we bring our lives under the blessing of God, if we claim our true identity as God’s beloved daughters and sons, we can face and embrace our brokenness, and our very brokenness becomes a means through which the blessing of God is extended to others.
It’s an interesting detail in the story. When they gathered up what was left they gathered up twelve baskets full. But the twelves baskets were not filled with whole loaves of bread or whole pieces of fish. Oh no. It was filled with broken pieces. God feeds the multitude, heals the sick, and liberates the oppressed with broken pieces. The Christ is able to multiply many times over what little we are and have, if we will just bring it all under the blessing of God and be willing to open our broken lives to others. Our brokenness confronted and embraced with the blessing of God will become a source of healing and help and hope to others.
Our good God, we sometimes look at ourselves and just see our sin, our failure, our weaknesses, our shortcomings and we tend to feel sorry for ourselves, or feel useless and of little value. Help us to look past all of that and see what we are by virtue of your original blessing, and help us to realize that nothing can sever us from that blessing, from the love you have for each one of us. May that love, your love, your welcome and acceptance, your compassion empower us to face our brokenness and give ourselves to one another and to our world – acting mercifully and justly whenever and wherever we can. Amen.