This sermon was preached by the Right Reverend Denise Ferguson on St Oswald’s Day: 6 August 2023
Matt 14:13-21 – Feeding the Five Thousand
Holy God, as we worship together and explore your Word, may we have ears to hear, minds to understand and hearts to respond. Amen.
Today we commemorate Oswald, Christian, soldier, and King of Northumbria; the saint for which this parish is named. I am not going to unpack the life and ministry of St Oswald, because I am sure you are far more familiar with his story than I am. However, there is a reason why he is remembered in the Christian calendar, and why this parish has been named for him.
One of the significant characteristics of Oswald’s life and ministry was his missionary zeal. Having been exiled to the Scottish Island of Iona, he was converted to the Christian faith, and baptised by the monks of St Columba.
When he returned to Northumbria to reclaim his throne in 633, he carried with him this newfound faith and a missionary zeal for others to share in that faith.
Together with Aidan, it is recorded that they achieved the conversion of a large part of the district.
Such was the impact of his life and ministry, that after his death in 642, the English honoured Oswald as a martyr and shortly after he was canonised.
The original Gospel reading set to commemorate Oswald immediately preceded todays Gospel reading – it recorded the death of St John the Baptist.
Ali and I agreed that it wasn’t exactly edifying, so we chose to use the Gospel of the day – being the tenth Sunday after Pentecost. If we haven’t heard it, why am I mentioning it?
This story of the death of John the Baptist does impact on what we have heard in today’s Gospel.
Think about it. Jesus had just received the news that his cousin, friend, prophet, evangelist and herald, John had been killed. As one commentator wrote ‘John literally loses his head on account of a drinking party that got out of hand, and on account of his public condemnation of Herod’s larger family for their equally public immorality. He gets killed not because he heralded Jesus as the Christ and not on account of some big, cosmically vital theological issue but on account of having aggravated the wrong people by pointing out the sordid and lurid nature of their lives.’
John’s death doesn’t make sense.
At the beginning of today’s Gospel passage Jesus had just received this news, and in one short, not even very descriptive sentence, Matthew sums up Jesus’ devastation at the loss of his friend ‘Jesus withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.’
I can’t imagine what was going on in Jesus head at the time. John was the God-anointed prophet who was the herald for Jesus’ mission and ministry. Jesus came to save lives, but now his presence and his message had cost John his earthly life. It just didn’t make sense.
I imagine that Jesus was hurting, bewildered, confused, and overwhelmed with grief and possibly guilt.
So, distressed, he withdraws to a deserted place, a place of wilderness to be alone with his thoughts and his sorrows.
Every time I read a passage in scripture something different stands out. How many times have we heard this passage of the feeding of the five thousand and pictured baskets of unending supplies of bread and fish being handed from one person to another and not really consider a wider context?
Let’s look at this from a different angle.
This passage tells us that Jesus was in a deserted location, a place of wilderness, a barren place where there was no food or resources, and the people followed him there.
In his own time of need, with tear-stained cheeks and red rimmed eyes, weighed down with sorry and grief, Jesus, out of his own desolation responds to the people and their deep needs with compassionate love.
That, for me, is where the theme of today’s service – Trusting in the Truth of our Call – really struck me.
Despite his own sorrow and desolation, Jesus knew he had been placed on this earth for a purpose, and despite the depth of grief at the death of his cousin, friend, and companion, in an act of great selflessness, he reached out to those who had followed him, hounded him even, and met their basic life need – because they needed food to live, to survive.
And they were fed and nourished and restored, with no appreciation or understanding of the cost to Jesus.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the only miracle to appear in all four Gospels. It is a miracle that carries multiple layers of meaning. We are reminded that the place to which Jesus withdrew was not just a quiet, remote, serene, or even a ‘lonely place’ as some translations describe it. In the Greek it is described as an eremos place, which translates as solitary, lonely, desolate, uninhabited, a desert, or a wilderness.
We see elsewhere in scripture that a place identified as a wilderness is often a symbol for chaos, a place where Jesus encountered temptation, where the people roamed for forty years before discovering new life. The wilderness is a place that depletes life.
However, John the Baptist’s message, drawing on the words of the prophet Isaiah (35:1-10) called for the people to prepare the way of the Lord, and the wilderness will be transformed, and the desert will rejoice, and flowers will bloom in the wilderness. The desert will sing and shout for joy.
The Miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, not only gave life to those who shared in the endless supply of bread and fish, it gave Jesus a new purpose in the midst of his own despair. It reminded him that he had a calling and a task to fulfil. It empowered him in the depths of his own wilderness, and grief and desolation to reach out and give the people a sign of hope. In doing so, through those baskets of bread and fish, that utter underserved, grace given abundance, Jesus pointed to the promise of transfiguration and transformation of the whole world from chaos, back to the cosmos, the creation that God intended “in the beginning.”
Today’s Gospel reading, important enough to feature in all four Gospels, isn’t some esoteric symbol to point to an unexplainable mystery. It is a profound truth of the way in which God, through Jesus wants to engage with the world, and how we too have been called to be agents of that message through the fullness and utter humanity of our own lives.
We all have places of wilderness in our lives. Times when we experience turmoil when we feel overwhelmed by the chaos swirling around us. All we want to do is to withdraw and tell the world to go away.
However, there comes a time when we, in the fragility of our own humanity, with unapologetic tear-stained faces and red eyes, standing unsteadily on our feet can in turn witness to the hope we have found in God, through Christ to enable another’s journey. We are called to Trust in the Truth of our Call.
Our response doesn’t have to be the feeding of the multitudes. It may be as simple as sitting with someone in their pain and weeping with them – and God will use that moment to not only touch their lives, but to transform our own.
Like flowers that, against all odds bloom in the dessert, we too are gifted the opportunity, through God’s love, grace, and abundance to continue to grow, flourish and change despite the wilderness we may find ourselves in.
All that from a few fish and some rustic bread…
While stepping out of the wilderness to receive God’s abundance can be a deeply personal journey, it is also one that affects people from all walks and aspects of life.
I noticed in your newsletter that Ali will be preaching at a service in the Cathedral in celebration of 30years of women and girls joining the Cathedral Choir. It struck me that it is now 31 years since women were first ordained as priests in this diocese – but at that time women and girls were still not able to sing in the Cathedral choir.
In so many places both locally and around the world there are many who for decades have trusted and believed in God’s faithfulness as their call to ministry, in many different forms has been denied. To many of us this denial has appeared irrational and discriminatory. This discrimination continues.
Only last week the Episcopal Church celebrated the 49th anniversary of the Philadelphia Eleven, women who had been exiled into the wilderness, whose call to ordained ministry was finally acknowledged. Alison Cheek, born and raised here in South Australia, was one of those women. Their ordaining Bishops courageously stepped out of the norm of centuries of discrimination against women, and others who ‘didn’t fit’; they pushed through their own experiences of doubt, and isolation from the challenge they brought to the status quo of the day, to be agents of God’s promise of transfiguration and transformation of the whole world from chaos, back to the cosmos, the creation that God intended “in the beginning.”
Next year is the eightieth anniversary of the ordination of Florence Li Tim Oi as Priest in the Church of God. The first woman to be ordained priest in the Anglican Communion on 25 January 1944. Her ordination that was later denied and she was sent back into the desolation of the wilderness. I can’t imagine what that experience must have been like, but despite her own pain and grief, she remained faithful to her calling.
Next Saturday, in the Diocese of the Murray three women will find themselves standing in the shadows of women such as Florence Li Tim Oi, the Philadelphia Eleven, those first women and girl Cathedral Choristers, and all the women who have consequently been ordained priest in the Anglican Communion, as they are ordained Priests in God’s Church.
I pray that this will be a life giving and abundant act of God’s grace for each of them and that, as the whole people of God who profess to embrace God’s love for the whole of the cosmos, won’t subject them to the desolation of a different form of wilderness.
May it be a time and place where the wilderness will be transformed, and the desert will rejoice, and flowers will bloom in the wilderness. Where the desert will sing and shout for joy.
May this act of courage, by women who have remained faithful to and trusted in the truth of God’s call on their lives open more doors for others who are still bound by the wilderness of discrimination, in Australia and around the whole of God’s world.
As I said, all that from a few fish and some rustic bread, and an English Christian Soldier King who was transformed from his own wilderness experience of the Gospel.
I think that’s enough for us to ponder today. Amen.