At that time, Jesus saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Then he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.MATTHEW 14:14-22
Previous to the events in today’s gospel, Jesus had sent out the twelve disciples to wander from village to village, doing what Jesus himself had done. They preached, they cast out demons, they healed the sick. They did this while making themselves vulnerable by taking no money on their journey. The disciples returned, and with great joy they reported what had happened. They knew the power of God that could come from their participation in Jesus’ ministry.
Then Jesus and the disciples got news of the death of John the Baptist, killed by Herod Antipas for preaching against Herod’s adultery. Jesus decided to withdraw to a deserted area so as to keep a low profile while Herod was enraged. We do not know how long Jesus and the disciples had isolated themselves before people found them, but eventually a large crowd came to them where they were.
People follow us when we stand for something. When we stand for it to the point that it costs us something, whether we are persecuted or simply on the margins, people see that we have something worth holding on to. So in today’s gospel the people go out of the cities to find Jesus
At this point, the supplies might have been running low for Jesus and the disciples. The disciples protest, “we have only five loaves here and two fish.” They did not have remotely enough food for themselves, let alone for a crowd. Sharing at that point was harder, in one sense and yet people with less are much more likely to share than people with much.
Jesus tells his disciples to feed the crowd. This sounds to me like an impossible task it’s like asking a child to lift a car. What use is that? Surely that would just exasperate the disciples? Is Jesus just preposterously unreasonable?
It might seem that way, but earlier in the gospel, the disciples had already experienced that God provided for them when they went out on their first mission. Even though they took nothing with them on that first mission, they were able to give! Jesus even told them when he sent them, “freely you have received, freely give.” Give what? They had no money and no extra tunic! And yet it worked, somehow.
But now, when they are in the wilderness, when the euphoria had worn off, when they had been hiding out and nothing exciting had happened, they forgot that God can provide. They forgot that God does not just provide for me so that I can have. God provides for us so that I can give. The greatest poverty is not when you have nothing. The greatest poverty is not understanding that you are called to give. When the disciples withdrew into the desert to spend time alone in silence and contemplation, that prepared the disciples so that they had something to offer the people, but they did not realize it at the time.
On Tuesday, we begin the fast of the Dormition. This period goes until the 15th of August which is the feast of the death of Mary. The kind of quietness and contemplation that Jesus and the disciples practiced as they withdrew is a demonstration of what our fasting periods do for us. We settle down. We turn off the TV and the iPad and we focus on cleansing our own hearts so that we are of use to others. Our confessions and our attendance at church are a kind of offering to God which he multiplies so that it feeds others.
We are a counter-culture. We are boldly proclaiming through a silent and unobtrusive lifestyle that meaning is not found in acquiring things and experiences. We unapologetically tell the world that life is not better when I am unchallenged. Life is not better when I congratulate myself on my virtue.
We want to practice poverty so that we can teach poverty. We tell people what is not fulfilling by not looking for fulfillment in those things. We will pray a short prayer service called the Paraklesis on weekday evenings during the Dormition fast. Paraklesis means calling out. In that prayer service, we call out, singing things like “the passions disquiet me.” That means that my own impulses and my sins are causing me not to have peace.
Our songs in the Paraklesis say that we are “surrounded by enemies.” The enemy is our own listlessness and insatiable appetite. We put aside time during the next two weeks to not be controlled by impulses so that we can the safe haven. We practice silence so that we can offer people a peaceful place to rest. We are telling them all to sit down on the grass so that we can distribute to them what Jesus has given to us. We offer our time in the services so that we can make a welcoming space for people to come to. We bring ourselves back to a place where we can remember to whom we belong so that when people wander into our church we can show them whose house it is.
Come to Paraklesis. Read the words. Fast in such a way that your life is calmer and quieter. Take long walks. Fill up your time with something else. That is our gift to give the world. No one else is offering that. There is other Church where people call themselves Christians and offer fasting and silence as one of their chief expressions of the Christian faith. This is true life. When people find us, they recognize that this quiet counter culture is something they need.
We get to be the ones who hand out the fish and loaves to the five thousand people when we follow Jesus out into the desert.