The Death of John the Baptist
14 About this time Herod the ruler heard the news about Jesus 2 and told his officials, “This is John the Baptist! He has come back from death, and that’s why he has the power to work these miracles.”
3-4 Herod had earlier arrested John and had him chained and put in prison. He did this because John had told him, “It isn’t right for you to take Herodias, the wife of your brother Philip.” 5 Herod wanted to kill John. But the people thought John was a prophet, and Herod was afraid of what they might do.
6 When Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests. She pleased Herod 7 so much that he swore to give her whatever she wanted. 8 But the girl’s mother told her to say, “Here on a platter I want the head of John the Baptist!”
9 The king was sorry for what he had said. But he did not want to break the promise he had made in front of his guests. So he ordered a guard 10 to go to the prison and cut off John’s head. 11 It was taken on a platter to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 12 John’s followers took his body and buried it. Then they told Jesus what had happened.
Jesus Feeds Five Thousand
13 After Jesus heard about John, he crossed Lake Galilee to go to some place where he could be alone. But the crowds found out and followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus got out of the boat, he saw the large crowd. He felt sorry for them and healed everyone who was sick.
15 That evening the disciples came to Jesus and said, “This place is like a desert, and it is already late. Let the crowds leave, so they can go to the villages and buy some food.”
16 Jesus replied, “They don’t have to leave. Why don’t you give them something to eat?”
17 But they said, “We have only five small loaves of bread and two fish.” 18 Jesus asked his disciples to bring the food to him, 19 and he told the crowd to sit down on the grass. Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish. He looked up toward heaven and blessed the food. Then he broke the bread and handed it to his disciples, and they gave it to the people.
20 After everyone had eaten all they wanted, Jesus’ disciples picked up twelve large baskets of leftovers.
21 There were about five thousand men who ate, not counting the women and children.
The key verse in this set of two stories is verse 13.
13 After Jesus heard about John, he crossed Lake Galilee to go to some place where he could be alone.
We usually don’t read the two stories together, but I want to focus on Jesus, and to understand the feeding of the 5,000, we need to look at what has happened to Jesus before the feeding.
According to tradition, John and Jesus were cousins. John’s mother, Elizabeth, was Mary’s cousin. You may remember that when Mary found out she was pregnant with Jesus, she spent part of her pregnancy visiting Elizabeth. John and Jesus knew each other, of course. John is the one who baptized Jesus and who proclaimed the arrival of Jesus.
John was also a prophet. One of his targets was Herod, the ruler of Galilee. Herod was appointed by the Roman government, and he had married into a Jewish family, so he was supposed to be a good ruler for a state with lots of Jewish people. But his personal credentials were not so good. He was cruel, selfish, greedy. John got on his case because he divorced his first wife to marry his sister-in-law, who divorced her husband to marry Herod. That was against Jewish law. Herod hated John for that criticism, but he was also intrigued by his preaching. Some fictional accounts suppose that Herod invited John over to chat sometimes. To prevent John from criticizing him publicly, though, he had him imprisoned. Herod’s wife wasn’t satisfied with imprisonment; she wanted him dead. Herod played right into her hands when her daughter was granted a reward for dancing. When Herodias’s daughter relayed her mother’s suggestion for the prize, Herod was in an awkward spot. He was in the middle of his birthday party—lots of guests, lots of food, lots of drinking, no doubt. He couldn’t think fast enough to deny Salome’s request and it wold have been embarrassing in front of all his guests to renege on his offer to her. He was trapped. So, John was beheaded.
When Jesus heard, how did he react? All we know is that he wanted to get away to a place by himself. He wanted to be alone. He was grief-stricken and in no condition to talk to anybody else. He needed time to mourn. But he didn’t get that time. He got in a boat, crossed the sea of Galilee, hoping to escape the crowds. But the crowds wouldn’t let him escape. They walked all the way around the sea to meet Jesus on the other side.
Imagine Jesus as the boat pulls ashore. Instead of solitude, he is greeted with a crowd of people. What were his options? Stay on the boat. Head the boat back from where he had come? Push his way through the crowd and have his disciples try to get rid of them?
He looked at the crowd; instead of turning away, “He felt sorry for them and healed everyone who was sick.”
Imagine that. Imagine just losing your best friend in a violent manner. Imagine your grief. Imagine how little energy or patience you would have. And a bunch of people show up, neither knowing or caring about your feelings. Imagine.
Jesus forgot about his feelings. Instead, he saw only their feelings, their ills, their eagerness to hear a word from him. It took all afternoon. Evening was approaching, as was the time for an evening meal. They were by the seashore, far from any shops or inns, far from any food. The disciples were concerned—-probably because they themselves were hungry—and told Jesus to send the crowd away so the people could fend for themselves. Jesus has a better idea. You feed them, he says to the disciples. They immediately point out that they only have five little loaves of bread and two fish—-not even enough for them. Jesus dismisses their excuse:
8 Jesus asked his disciples to bring the food to him, 19 and he told the crowd to sit down on the grass. Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish. He looked up toward heaven and blessed the food. Then he broke the bread and handed it to his disciples, and they gave it to the people.
Of course, the disciples were being realistic. And they were thinking in terms of scarcity vs abundance.
We usually think of the multiplying of the fishes and loaves as a miracle, but Professor David Lose says that is not the miracle. He points out that two other miracles occurred.
The first miracle is not what Jesus did but why: Jesus had compassion, even while struggling with his own grief. The miracle is compassion. Despite his own weariness, his need to be away from people, he healed and fed them. For hours, he was surrounded by people, none of them offering sympathy, all of them needing him to use his energy to heal them.
The second miracle is that Jesus uses the disciples to tend to the people. Matthew tells us there were 5,000 men, plus women and children—would that have amounted to 10,000? The population of Eldridge is just over 5,000. Can you imagine the crowd?
The disciples aren’t usually part of the miracles. But Jesus enlists them, expects them to make food appear. What happens here is a change in perspective, a change that we need to practice more often. The disciples see scarcity; Jesus sees abundance.
The disciples say “We only have five loaves of bread and two fish.” Jesus says, “Thank you, God, for this good food,” and he shared it.
What changed for the disciples?
If I had been a disciple, I think I would have seen my role as being somebody important, but only because I was invited to tag along with Jesus.
Have you ever felt like you were a little more important than others because you were best friends with somebody important? I’ve fallen for that any number of times. It manifests itself in name dropping, in choosing where you go and with whom. I don’t think I would have expected to do more than be a sort of body guard for Jesus, taking care of him, making sure he had food, making sure he had a place to sleep. That’s the kind of disciple I would have been. I would not have understood that I was expected to be part of the miracle.
We twenty-first century disciples have much in common with the first century disciples. We follow Jesus, walk with him. We wear crosses around our neck to show that we know somebody important, that we know Jesus.
But Jesus expects us to work miracles. Jesus expects us to not only give allegiance to him; he expects us to work like him and he expects us to think like him.
We, too, can work the miracle of compassion. Even in the midst of our own troubles, we can offer compassion. How many times have you seen this happen? One example I can think of is a mother whose son was disabled when he was about 18. She cared for him day and night, along with friends and family. He had a good life, bu twas struck down by pneumonia when he was in his thirties. A month later, the mother was diagnosed with cancer and died within the year. In the midst of her pain, she cared for her son, not letting anyone know that she was sick. I also think of every young mother, tired beyond words, who still makes sure her children are clothed and fed and comforted. I remember my own mother, who read to us, but who could never get to the end of the book without falling asleep. That’s operating like Jesus.
I think of Corrie ten Boom—her books were quite popular in the seventies. She and her sisters and brother were sent to a concentration camp. Corrie suffered all the indignities that every other prisoner suffered, but Corrie constantly cared for the other prisoners, praying with them, singing hymns with them, so that even in those horrendous conditions, they experienced comfort.
The other miracle we can embrace is to see abundance instead of scarcity. There has never in the history of the church been a church council who did’t operate of scarcity—-we don’t have enough money. We have an announcement on our bulletin today—we need your money. How many people have left the church because they felt like the only thing people valued in them was their money? Yes. We have to have money to do what a church does. But if we change our perspective from seeing too little to seeing enough, we can accomplish miracles. Instead of focusing on the negative of what we can’t do, we can focus on the positive of what we can do. I’ve told you before: the reason I accepted the call to this congregation is that some of you said, “We want to be a presence in the community.” That is operating out of a mindset of abundance. We want to be a presence in the community because we have something to offer, because we want to offer compassion, because we care. Even in the midst of our own concerns—-high heating bills, slippery sidewalks, we can look at what we have to offer each other and the community. We are like the miracle of the loaves and fishes. We are small in number, but through the Holy Spirit, our power is multiplied.
Jesus has come into this congregation and said, “What do you have?” We have responded with our five loaves and two fishes in the form of desserts and bottles of water and worship services and food donations and Bible study and invitations to come worship with us. Our five loaves and two fishes have indeed fed more than ourselves.
And we’re not finished. As long as we focus on what we have, we will be able to work miracles. Jesus doesn’t expect us to feed ten thousand people. But we are given, as humans created in God’s image, so much to share. The most important thing we have to share is the Good News—the Good News that we have hope through the death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Don’t underestimate the value of that news.
Even if we don’t see people in the pews on Sunday morning, rest assured, they know we are here, they know that we believe in the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and when the need is felt, our community knows that we are welcoming, that we won’t turn anyone away. Our community knows that any one of them is welcome to join us, whether it be once in a great while or every Sunday. We are not invisible. We are valued for who we are: followers of Jesus.
So, two things to think about this week: Compassion. Abundance. You may you receive compassion and abundance. May you share compassion and abundance. Amen.
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat
24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
Jesus Explains the Parable of the Weeds
36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
Jesus was neither farmer nor gardener, but he probably knew people who were. After all, he grew up in a small town, and, as we know, small towns are surrounded by farm fields. Some of us have lived on farms and we know about weeds in fields that are supposed to grow something to eat. On our farm we had a one-acre field in front of the barn and a three-acre field behind the barn. Our dad decided that instead of having to maneuver the cultivator in those small fields, we kids could weed them by hand. Oh, how we complained. But we went out in the morning after breakfast and pulled about three rows clean of jimson weed and button weed(velvetleaf), the most prevalent weeds. And then there were the hayfields. The culprit there was sour-dock. They were taller than the alfalfa and had about a million weeds per stock. My dad tried to make us think they were bad for the cattle, but I don’t think they were. They just didn’t look nice folded into the bales. So we were instructed, after the hay was mowed and raked, to go out and pick out the sour-dock stalks. I think they were later burned.
The hayfield story compares to Jesus’ parables about weeds and wheat growing together. It’s easier and safer to pull the weeds out after the harvest. If we tried to pull the dock out of the alfalfa before it was mowed, we’d pull up the alfalfa with the weeds. That’s the situation Jesus uses to illustrate this parable. Just as his listeners in the first century could learn from this parable, so can we.
At first glance, we might think that this is about how we should act as Christians. And it is! But modern Christianity often gives the impression that the main job of Christians is to rid the world of evil by sorting out the bad people from the good people.
Hence, we see a lot of judging, a lot of condemning, a lot of finger-pointing.
If we read this parable closely, we see that we do not do the judging. Ideally, we Christians represent the wheat, mixed in with the weeds. Jesus does the judging. We do not pull up the weeds. We do not burn the weeds. We just be the best wheat we can be, growing as best we can, even when the weeds growing around us steal some of our nutrients, cast shade on us and try to shut us down.
I have noticed that weeds can be tricky. When they first come up, they often resemble the flower I think should be growing there. So I don’t pull them out because I might be pulling out a flower. Especially in the spring. Is it crocus or grass? Is it bind weed or morning glory? Is it achillea or ragweed?
I think another good lesson for us is learn to know the “weeds” better. Instead of judging, judge twice, as we suggested in last Sundays sermon. Get to know the weed. I’m attaching a link to a website that shows pictures of common weeds. Many of those weeds have beautiful flowers or medicinal uses. I used to annoy my retired farmer neighbors (not on purpose) by letting some of my “weeds” grow. I love smartweed in bouquets. I think milkweed is absolutely elegant and the blooms are amazing close up. I’d never kill violets—their leaves and blooms are both beautiful. There is no yellow like dandelion yellow. And Queen Anne’s Lace—-so beautiful in bouquets and in the garden. I’ve added plantain to my list of “let live” plants—I pretend they are miniature hostas. I still pull bindweed. And I don’t allow nutsedge, even though it looks like the “spikes” the flower nurseries sell to go in pots of geraniums. And purslane—-it looks like a sedum and it’s supposed to be very nutritious, although I’ve never had the nerve to throw it into a salad. So I let it grow until it gets out of control and then pull it. And pigweed—-supposedly it’s long roots pull up nutrients out of the deep to improve the soil. And lamb’s quarter—its leaves supposedly have lots of vitamins. Maybe like dandelion leaves. My German grandmas always put dandelion leaves in hot potato salad in the spring.
So, who are we to judge the weeds, to try to remove them. We don’t know the stories behind the “weeds,” the people we think are wrong or evil or bad.
The image we get of Christians in all flavors of the national media is that Christians think they are only ones who know what goodness is and we apparently act like we’re here to first point out, then eradicate all the non-Christians. It makes us look arrogant and mean.
In fact, eradicate was not quite what Jesus had in mind for us. If anything, we are called to make disciples. How do we do that?
This is where the parable of the weeds stops and the commandments of Jesus kick in: Make disciples of all nations. “19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 19)
How do we make disciples? Baptize. Teach. Baptizing has become a ritual that is restricted to the clergy, so most of us can’t baptize. But we can certainly bring someone to the font, we can surely make the life-giving water available. How do we do that? You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. So how do we find the thirsty ones? The other half of the command is too teach. Again, that seems to have become the job of the clergy, but I think all of us teach through our actions, through our words.
Our actions and our words are visible to the world. When I worked behind the counter at the Operahouse, my goal was to make every person smile. It wasn’t that hard. Maybe I asked how their day had gone. Maybe I complimented their hat or mittens or handwriting as they wrote a check. Maybe I asked them something about the movie or the weather. Just to engage people, to show that you see them, can make such a difference. How often do we feel like we are invisible, like no one notices us, like we are not wholly accepted in the times and places we in which we have to live and work?
Bullying is a topic we hear a lot about these days. But being ignored can be just as painful. When I would go to conferences by myself, I would feel weird eating by myself. I felt like such a loser when everybody walked past my table to join friends. But I found I could do a couple things. If we were turned loose to eat at local restaurants, I learned that sitting at a table by myself was uncomfortable. So I started sitting at the bar, which was generally full of other people without a lunch mate. When you are sitting at a noisy crowded bar, it is a lot easier to strike up a conversation. Actually, that works at Heinie Jo’s and the Dixon Legion. The only reason I know more than the people who attend church here is because I talked to them at the bar.
If I was at a conference where they were feeding us on site, I found somebody else sitting at a table all alone. So, even if we were two losers, we each had a friend for the duration of lunch.
People want to be friendly, but they are afraid to make the first move.
Some of us have a knack for talking to everyone in every store, in every waiting room. Some of us like to mind our own business. Starting a conversation is not an easy task, nor is it always appropriate. But keep your eyes open, keep your hearts open.
It’s easy to get in a rut, to think we know everybody and everybody knows us. It’s easy to think we know who is friendly, who is worthy, and who is not. It’s easy to sort out weeds and wheat, but that parable only goes so far.
What does always apply is the Golden Rule. On the other hand, it is so easy to sort people out according to what we believe and think and care about . It is so easy to dismiss people who think differently or look different or talk differently.
You may wonder why God allows weeds to grow at all. Why does God allow people to be bad? Well, first of all, God does not allow or make people to be bad. That is a result of our sinful nature, our vulnerability to choose what is evil or what is good. Why doesn’t God pluck out the weeds before they cause trouble? God will, in God’s good time. In the meantime, God is not calling us to be the weed eaters, God is not calling us to cleanse the earth of evil. God is calling us to simply be, to be the strong, healthy wheat that grows toward the harvest.
That is not the kind of answer we want from the Bible. We want the Bible to have all the answers. Truly, the only answer the Bible gives us is “You are saved.” If we did not have a Savior, if we did not know for sure that our sins are forgiven, if we did not know for sure that God has prepared a place for us, any other answers in the Bible would only cause fights. In fact, the Bible has caused plenty of arguments.
This parable is not about us sorting out the good from the bad. This is about us being the best we can be, even in the midst of conflict, in the midst of illness, in the midst of war, in the midst of crisis.
It will be a long time before we are able to go outside and pull any weeds. In the meantime, think about yourself as having potential for a good harvest, for being fruitful, for being the wheat that grows so beautifully in the fields of creation. Amen.