Sermon for the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
July 29, 2018 10:30 AM Proper 12B
Μετὰ ταῦτα ἀπῆλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς πέραν τῆς θαλάσσης τῆς Γαλιλαίας τῆς Τιβεριάδος. ἠκολούθει δὲ⸃ αὐτῷ ὄχλος πολύς, ὅτι ἐθεώρουν τὰ σημεῖα ἃ ἐποίει ἐπὶ τῶν ἀσθενούντων.
After these things, Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee of Tiberias. And a big crowd followed him because they had seen the signs he did for the sick. (John 6:1-2)
John’s being brutally honest with us. The great crowds that followed Jesus weren’t trying to improve their education or find spiritual meaning for their lives. The crowds came out to see Jesus because Jesus healed people—or so they said—he laid his hands on the sick and suddenly they weren’t sick any longer. And whatever spiritual refreshment you were seeking in your life—assuming you were seeking any spiritual refreshment at all—took a back seat to your failing eyesight or your weak back or your gynecological problems or your leprosy. You’d be willing to hear a religious talk if necessary, and you might even find that talk uplifting, but you came to see Jesus because of your Parkinson’s or your deafness or you came because your spouse or child or best friend suffered from the terrors of madness or the ravages of cancer.
People who wanted a rabbi went and found a rabbi; but no rabbi ever got crowded into a boat or followed on retreat by a great crowd of people wanting to know when the next Jubilee would occur or whether ceramic cookpots were kosher on the outside. But there were other kinds of teachers that could hold a rally now and then, but they didn’t do it very often because the Romans and their local quislings didn’t take kindly to the end-of-the-world revolutionary rhetoric that passed for holy instruction at meetings of the Zealots and Essenes. But anybody with a reputation for healing, from the most talented physician to the sometimes successful folk medic could always count on a following wherever they went.
Not that disease and injury weren’t spiritual issues for the crowds. The mysterious assault of an infection or the sudden eruption of a lesion more often left the victim wondering what god or demon she had offended to be punished so and what it might take to placate the affronted spirit. Accidents could happen, of course, but who knew whether a carpenter’s deep gash was the result of inattention or represented the malign influence of an angry divinity. Those who could afford the treatments of trained physicians would receive diagnoses and treatments based on observation and tradition, some of them remarkably far-sighted and effective; treatments from such physicians, though, were expensive, and the Jews of the Galilee would have to travel to a pagan city like Sepphoris or Caesarea Philippi to find one. Healing fell to the tender mercies of the local healers, some quite good at their craft and others barely capable of bandaging a finger. The rabbis decided that almost any injury at all justified breaking the Sabbath regulations to seek treatment since what seem to us like minor scrapes and bruises often led to infection and death so that any injury or “minor illness” should be treated on the Sabbath. Sickness and injury offered critical opportunities to get right with whatever gods you thought ran the universe before it was too late. Illness and injury are always spiritual matters, but they are especially so when one lived precariously balanced on the border between health and sickness and between sickness and death.
John wouldn’t be dishonest with us. People came for the healings, bringing their burdened souls with them but principally concerned to return whole to their jobs, their families, and their communities. If the Epicureans of Sepphoris could afford to scoff at people who turned out for the newest healer, the Gospel writer would not be among them. He knew the desperation of disease and the hopelessness of handicap. People followed Jesus for good reason; and the Jesus of John’s Gospel never despises them, never mocks their credulity, and never sneers at their transparent concerns for the health of their own bodies.
They came for the healings. They didn’t come for a lecture or for a picnic either; but Jesus knew that the people who came for the healings got hungry too, and John lets us know that their hunger concerned Jesus as much as their health did. John doesn’t like it that Jesus sounded perplexed when he asked Philip where they were going to buy bread to feed such a multitude and so John adds the comment that of course Jesus knew what he was going to do and his question was just a test for the disciples. Some test. I guess I hear the question differently, as an expression of concern and dismay: “Where are we going to buy food for all these people?” He cared, and as the host of this feast, Jesus thought it was up to him to feed his guests—just as it was up to him to heal them—just as it was up to him to nourish them with the word. Philip knew they didn’t have enough money in the purse to buy a crust of bread for a tenth of that assemblage, and Andrew joked that one kid had brought a lunch. Maybe they could divide it 5000 ways. It’s not that these disciples didn’t care about the audience’s hunger, but compassion can only go so far with five barley cakes and two small fish. Maybe we can understand why they made jokes about the size of the crowd because compassion alone certainly couldn’t feed 5000 people. Nor would the days be long enough for 5000 people to line up to receive individual healings for their diseases.
Charles Wesley in his hymn of 1747 has us sing,
Jesus, thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art.
The disciples, I think, didn’t always consider that unbounded compassion and love a virtue, not when it conflicted with the stark reality of a massive gathering of sick and hungry people out on a lonely hillside in the Galilee, and John doesn’t tell us what they made of Jesus having everybody sit down on the grass as though they were about to be treated to an afternoon feast. Yet they did what he told them to do and watched as the available bread and fish made for a copious repast with twelve baskets of bread left over. Miraculous, yes; but the miracle wasn’t the essence of the thing. Compassion was its heart. Love was its essence. John uses the special word σημεῖον, “sign,” to refer to the miracles, because for him the miracles of Jesus always point beyond themselves to something much more than the unusual occurrence they embody. The members of the crowd would be hungry again, and even those whom Jesus managed to heal that day would at some point in their lives fall ill again. The σημεῖον showed Jesus’s love for those 5000 souls, his concern for their needs, his compassion for their weaknesses. It was the feast of the Passover again, God’s care for those held in bondage, God’s love for the enslaved, for the weak, for the helpless.
I leave you this day, leaving you as the sign you are and have been for the City of Mt. Airy and the County of Surry of the love and compassion our Savior had for sick and lost souls on a Galilean hillside during the reign of Claudius Caesar and Herod Antipas. I found you working in our Lord’s image in compassion for the hungry through the Staples ministry and concerned for the needs of the sick through the work of Lyn’s Medical Loan Closet. I have been privileged to learn discipleship from you here and honored that you would let me preside at this holy table you provide for the needs of all who come here.
The important priesthood in this place remains unchanged. You are that holy nation, that kingdom of priests God promised our ancestor Moses to raise up and maintain. You lack nothing that you need for your high priesthood and want for nothing that could enhance your ministry here, for you already know the love of God and the compassion of God’s Son our Lord. I don’t know when it will be my privilege to worship with you again; but when I do, I will know you first by your love, then by your compassion, and then finally by your joyful spirit.
 “Love divine, all loves excelling,” The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Publishing Company, 1985), No. 657.