Hospitality in the Midst of Grief
I still recall where I was when Rick Hall died. Rick was a member of the church I grew up at, a diligent servant and tireless worker. His son Bryan and I were good friends and together we led the church youth group. Bryan and a few friends were over one Saturday night. I recall that I was playing a game of chess, a game that for the moment I was winning.
The phone rang and I answered. It was Bryan’s mom. She asked to speak to Bryan. Instantly I knew something was wrong. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a phone call that shares bad news, you know what I mean. You can sense it in the person’s voice.
I passed the phone to Bryan and waited for his mom to share the news that I had already figured out.
Afterwards I accompanied Bryan home. He was in shock and I was unwilling to let him travel home alone. Besides, I wanted to be present for my friend. We were the first to arrive at his house and over the course of next few hours and into the early hours of the morning other family and friends arrived. At one point there must have been twenty to thirty people present.
Hospitality in the Midst of Grief – Audio Sermon
As people began to arrive an extraordinary thing happened. Bryan’s mom realized that everyone arriving needed feeding. Before long cookies, crackers, chees, tea and hot cider was flowing out of the kitchen. In the midst of tragedy Bryan and him mom provided those present with a measure of grace and hospitality.
Those who had gone to provide comfort were on the receiving end of the type of hospitality that Jesus displays in our gospel lesson this morning.
On the surface our lesson from Matthew’s gospel is about Jesus feeding the 5000, a well-known and document miracle. However, when we situate this miracle story within its context it becomes much more than a story about multiplying loaves and fishes. When we consider it within the larger narrative of the gospel it becomes a story about transformative and radical hospitality. Hospitality shared in the midst of great grief.
Jesus has just learned that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been killed at the hand of Herod. Though the text does not explicitly state it we can ascertain that Jesus was saddened and entered into a period of mourning and grief over took him. What we do know is that Jesus decided that he needed some time to himself. So he took a boat to a deserted place to be on his own. When the crowd heard this they followed him as they wished to hear more of his teaching.
In midst of his own sorrow and grief Jesus tends to the sick and heals them. As night falls the disciples encourage Jesus to ask the people to head home as they have nothing to eat. Jesus’ response is to have the disciples share their own food with those assembled. Which sets the scene for the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Feeding the assembled crowd with the amount of food that would likely satisfy Jesus and the disciples.
The text lists those assembled as 5000 men, not including women and children. If we assume that all the men were married and their wives travelled with them, along with their 2.1 children those that were fed that day would be over 20,000. Can you imagine the entire population of Cobourg coming out to hear a preacher speak? Most preachers are happy if half the people present on a Sunday morning remember half of what was said, but 20,000 people showing up? How the food multiplied I leave you to speculate. Did it multiply? Did people bring food and seeing the disciple’s generosity decide to also share?
Of course none of this is possible if Jesus is unwilling to nurture, heal and teach those who are assembled. None of this happens if Jesus, in the midst of his grief, isn’t able to care for his fellow human beings. The feeding of the 5000 is an amazing story, a miracle, but to me the situation that Jesus was presented with and how he reacts to it are what inspires me.
Jesus could have told the crowd to leave. He could have requested the time to be alone with his grief. That he be allowed to mourn the unjust execution of his cousin in peace. Instead, in the midst of his suffering and grief, Jesus extends a hand of fellowship and cares for those around him.
While confronting his own pain Jesus heals the hurts and ills of those who have sought him out. It is this act of radical hospitality that I want us to focus on.
These past few weeks the nightly news has contained no shortage of ills in the world. Whether it is the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine or the conflict between Israel and Gaza. Of course there is the ongoing civil war in Syria which at three years and counting has long lost favour with our celebrity news structures. Finally, there is the discrimination of Iraqi Christians which has seen very little new coverage.
These issues that I have outlined are large and complex. However, it is a story related to the Iraqi Christians that caught my attention this week.
Other minority groups in Iraq, seeing the persecution of Christians have stood in solidarity with them. They have said we are Christian too. They haven’t converted to Christianity, rather they are saying if you are going to kill and steal from these people you will need to do it to us as well.
As one group experiences persecution, others are stepping forward and recognizing that what is happening is not right. What is happening is subversive and it is a radical form of hospitality. Hospitality that is offered in the face of severe and drastic conditions.
Friends, when I read the story of the loaves and the fish through the lens of the events in our world I start to ask new questions.
I wonder what the number of those present that day really represents. Is it the human need that is present within the world? Is it a reminder of the size of the task that is before us? Do all those who came for healing, all those people whom Jesus and the disciples fed, does it represent the call that Jesus has put before our own lives? To love our neighbours? To care for them in radical and new ways? To ask what that looks like, to search for how we can help. To find new ways to share the message of the gospel.
This week I read Pope Francis’ top 10 tips for happiness. One of those things was to stop proselytizing. That through our own life and witness we can better communicate the truth of the gospel. That’s what Jesus does in our story today. Jesus does not teach the people in our story today. He walks amongst them and heals them. He sits with them and journeys with them in their pain and joy. He experiences life with them. Then afterwards he feeds them.
Presbyterians are not known for being good at the traditional style of evangelism. It is a bit of a dirty word. But maybe that’s ok, maybe that is strength. Perhaps that frees us to more easily and accessibly consider other ways that we can demonstrate our faith.
If the people assembled are a metaphor for the need present in the world, are the loaves and the fishes a metaphor for our own meager resources? Do they serve to remind us that through God, with God, in God all things are possible?
Friends, I believe that in our gospel story today we are provided a glimpse at the radical, transformative power of hospitality. Hospitality is something that this congregation is good at. I’ve only been the minister here for three days and I already know that. How my family and I have been welcomed by you since arriving in Cobourg is a testament to that. From those who worked hard to fix up the office, a place you are all invited to visit for a chat with the pastor. The WA for providing the means to fill the fridge. For those who checked in on us while we didn’t have appliances to make sure we were doing alright.
All of this is a very personal example and it only encompasses the past week. However, all of it is an expression of love and an invitation to hospitality.
Friends, how do we in the midst of our busy lives, when we are weighed down by our daily burdens and distraction, how do we offer up the hospitality that Jesus demonstrates to us?
Are we willing to give of ourselves and our time?
Are we willing to look past the big flashy miracle of the loaves and fishes and allow ourselves to see the very common miracle that is present in the relationships we nurture.
Our challenge is to be open to God’s call to find ways to offer such hospitality to those that we meet. That is how we feed people and that is how we are fed. Amen.
Text: Matthew 14: 13-21