stuck in the middle with you

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I preached this week for our church. The passage was Matthew 14:13-24—the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand—which is one of my favorites. Since our sanctuary is not air conditioned, we filmed in Ginger’s office.

One of the songs that was popular when I was in high school that has managed to stick around for almost half a century is a tune by the Scottish band Stealers Wheel called “Stuck in the Middle with You,” which includes the memorable lines

clowns to the left of me jokers to the right
here I am stuck in the middle with you

A pandemic anthem well before its time, don’t you think?

I did too, as I worked on my sermon this week—only to be reminded that Ginger had referenced the song in her first virtual sermon back in March. But since March feels like it was years and not months ago, the song bears repeating because we are still stuck—or so it seems.

As August begins, we have gone almost five months since we last worshipped together in our meeting house or chatted at coffee hour. I am way behind on my NHQ–my Necessary Hug Quota. Because of my knee surgery in April of 2019, which sidelined me from cooking for most of the summer, our barn has gone almost a year without people gathered around our table for dinner. How I wish we could be together so we could share what we miss and the griefs—yes, plural—we are all holding. Whatever stories we are telling in these days of protest and pandemic, they are grief stories: stories of being stuck in the middle without resolution—and without each other.

I was grateful to find that the lectionary passage was the story we most commonly know as the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which you may not know is a grief story of its own. Our reading starts in the middle of things, as lectionary passages often do. The first sentence is the giveaway: “And hearing this, Jesus withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place to be by himself.”

“And hearing this . . .” The English teacher in me wants to say, “Your antecedent is unclear. What did he hear?

The first twelve verses of Chapter 14 give us that context. The short version is John the Baptist was murdered by Herod on a drunken whim. His disciples buried him and then came to tell Jesus. And hearing this, Jesus did all he could to get away from everyone and everything to grieve the loss of his cousin, colleague, and friend. But he couldn’t get away. The crowds of people hoping for healing were relentless in both their need and pursuit of him and they followed him out of town into the desert, as did the disciples whom, I imagine, were doing their best to deal with their grief over John’s death as well as Jesus’ sorrow, which was new to them as well.

When Jesus became aware of what was happening, Matthew says, “. . . he was moved inwardly with compassion for them” and instead of continuing to run away Jesus turned back into the mass of people and began to listen to their grief stories, to share their loads, and to offer healing. This went on all day and into the evening. The disciples’ response was a little less compassionate, though I think they thought they were trying to help. “We’re out here in the desert and it’s after supper time; don’t you think we should send them into the villages so they don’t starve?” Part of being a disciple, it seems, meant living with the grief of inadequacy, which was wearisome, I’m sure.

Jesus’ response was direct: “They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

Their response was also straightforward. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fishes.” In Matthew’s version, they didn’t even have a cute little kid who was offering his sack supper. They just knew they didn’t have enough. The hunger of the crowd was not something they could solve. It didn’t matter what they did, they couldn’t fix the problem.

“Bring them here to me,” Jesus said. Then he turned to the crowd and asked them to recline, as they would if they were going to eat. (For our purposes, let us imagine they were masked and appropriately distanced.) He blessed the food and then gave it to the disciples to distribute. With several thousand people on a hillside, it is hard to grasp the logistics of it all, but the people seemed to know that dinner was being served. They sat down and began to pass the food as it came to them. Everyone ate and there were leftovers.

The willing suspension of disbelief has always come fairly easily for me, so I have never had much of a problem with taking the miracle stories of Jesus at face value, or, as one of my seminary professors used to describe them, as parables in event, which is to say the miracle of this meal is pointing to something other than the amazing set of circumstances.

The state of my life often affects what I see in the story. These months we have spent in quarantine, as many have turned mask-wearing into a violation of their constitutional rights, have helped me to see that the miracle in this story is that a whole mountain of grieving people looking beyond themselves and feeding one another.

I don’t think Jesus knew, necessarily, that it was all going to work out when he started passing out bits of bread and fish. He just knew it was the right thing to do. If you have food and you see hungry people, you feed them. You offer what you have. And then see where it goes.

The lectionary passage stops with the count of how many were fed and, in doing so, leaves the story too quickly. But the next verse, verse 22, says, “Then he insisted that the disciples embark into the boat and precede him to the other side, until he should dismiss the crowds.”

The day had begun for Jesus with an ambush of grief that had sent him searching for self-isolation. It ended with him being not quite ready to leave when dinner was over: “You go on and I’ll catch up. I want to say goodbye to everyone”—and, yes, I realize that is an extrovert’s take on the story. Still, Jesus found some healing there as well. As the disciples walked down to the water, I imagine them hearing Jesus humming,

clowns to the left of me, jokers to my right . . .

And then they went on to the next day, which held new grief of its own, and some old stuff as well.

Jesus didn’t take care of people or tell the disciples to feed the crowd because it made everything better. Healing people didn’t bring John back to life. Handing out fish and bread didn’t eradicate the Roman occupation. But they were the right things to do. The hopeful things.

Vaclav Havel was a playwright who became the president of Czechoslovakia in the late 80s. He told of something that took place just a few weeks before he unexpectedly became a head of state. He was out in the countryside at a dinner party and fell down a sewer pipe. In his words, he almost drowned in that “fundamental mud” but someone had the wherewithal to get a long ladder and saved him. That he was in a sewer and that he became a state official were equally absurd circumstances. In that context, he wrote about hope.

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.

We have more days coming that we can imagine when we are not going to know how long this is going to last, or what is going to happen next, or when life will feel recognizable again. The days ahead are also going to leave us feeling like the disciples, more often than not, when it comes to how what we think we have to offer stacks up against the needs around us. Whatever happens, even in life beyond the pandemic and quarantine, life is not going to feel like the life we think we remember. But Jesus, to use Havel’s words, didn’t do what he did because he knew it would all turn out okay, he did it because he was certain it made sense to share what food they had. And then he stayed to talk, and to listen.

One of the verses of our song for today goes

trying to make some sense of it all
and I can see it makes no sense at all
it is cool to go to sleep on the floor
‘cause I don’t think I can take anymore . . .

So much of life right now doesn’t make sense, from the virus to the vitriol of our national discourse. Truly, there are clowns to the left and jokers to the right. The world feels full of naysayers, nutjobs, and ne’er-do-wells in every direction. It doesn’t make sense to keep screaming at each other. It doesn’t make sense to just wish that life would go back to normal—whatever that was. It doesn’t make sense to just hunker down and take care of ourselves and let everyone else fend for themselves.

What does make sense is to do all we can to let those stuck in the middle with us know that we are all wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. What does make sense is to see these days as open space that offers us the chance to change, how we treat one another on both personal and societal levels. We are stuck in the middle together. What makes sense is to offer all that we have to a hungry world. To feed one another any way we can—even the clowns and the jokers. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

P.S.—Seems only fitting for this to be our postlude.

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