There are times when the author of a story writes themself into a narrative corner. In the interests of a good drama, they have created a situation in which the hero is greatly challenged, even overwhelmed by the opposition and the circumstances faced.
|About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
August 2, 2020
Genesis 32:22-31; Matthew 14:13-21
The writer wants to make the challenges real and significant, so that the reader or the viewer will feel genuine concern for the fate of the hero. This is necessary if the hero is to be appealing to ordinary people and if people are expected to identify with the hero. It’s why even someone as all-powerful as Superman has kryptonite that can bring him down and make him vulnerable.
But sometimes the author is too clever for their own good and gets their hero into so much trouble that they have no idea how to get them out of it.
The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus came up with a convenient solution. When his hero could not be delivered from peril, an actor playing a god would be lowered onto the stage with a crane—called a mēchanē—and resolve the situation. The Latin term for this plot device is deus ex machina: god from the machine.
The Greek playwright Euripides really liked this plot device and used it in half of his tragedies. It wasn’t universally popular, and some Greek critics looked down on the practice, like Antiphanes who wrote;
when they don't know what to say and have completely given up on the play just like a finger they lift the machine and the spectators are satisfied.
But the practice of deus ex machina—with either literal gods or simply unanticipated external circumstances or luck—continued in tragedy and drama, and continues up to this very day. It happens in the movies like The Wizard of Oz, Superman, Avatar, Pacific Rim, Saving Private Ryan, and War of the Worlds.
And there’s a reason it keeps showing up: because we like it. We like happy endings and we want the hero to be saved. And if God, or space aliens, or a previously unknown ability, or microbes want to come to our aid and make that happen, we’re all for it.
II. THE TEXT
Which is one of the reasons that we find scripture lessons like today’s so satisfying.
Jesus has just heard the news about the death of John the Baptist and has decided to withdraw for a time by boat into a deserted place. But when he arrives at the other shore, the crowds have found him. Viewing them with compassion, he heals their sick and in need.
Just pause for a moment to consider this. Jesus learns of the death of John the Baptist and decides to take some time apart for himself and finds a large crowd who wants something from them. He gives it to them out of his abundant compassion for them. This, right here, is already unexpected. If Jesus had said, as he does in Jesus Christ Superstar, “There’s too many of you; heal yourselves!” we could hardly have blamed him and would likely have lauded him for good boundaries and self-care. But he heals them.
When it is evening, the disciples come and say, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” When Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd they respond that they only have five loaves of bread and two fish. This is quite a predicament our heroes have gotten themselves into.
The text says there are five thousand men in the crowd, using the Greek word that specifically means males, which means that there were actually a great deal more than five thousand people there.
Jesus comes to the rescue with a power we didn’t know he had before, a deus ex Nazareth if you will, and miraculously turns those five loaves and two fish into enough food to fill a multitude. So much so that they even have twelve baskets of food left over. It’s the surprise and unexpected ending to this story.
But here’s the thing: was it meant to end this way?
III. YOU GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO EAT
When the disciples first present Jesus with the situation they find themselves in, his response is direct, “You give them something to eat.” In Greek as in English, commands don’t usually include the pronoun. That is you say, “Come here,” not “You come here.” As we might remember from school, the you is implied.
So, when it shows up, it has special significance. Special emphasis. Jesus doesn’t just say, “Give them something to eat,” he says, “You give them something to eat.” Jesus is made aware of a massive problem—thousands of people have come out to him and they’re lacking in food. Jesus turns around and tells the disciples that they should solve this problem themselves. All they have is five loaves and two fish.
In Mark’s gospel, this story serves as another instance of the disciples’ lack of faith. Jesus has to solve their problem for them. But that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening in Matthew’s gospel. So does Jesus really intend to put this all on us?
Because, I’ve gotta tell you, it usually doesn’t go well when we do that.
A. Working out Our Salvation
See, the temptation in religion is to make it entirely about us. Everything ultimately is centered around us. Even salvation.
We imagine that if we are good enough, if we do the right number of good deeds, if we say our prayers, if we tithe to the church, if we’re good little Christians, then we earn a punched ticket to the good part of the afterlife.
That’s such a tempting way to look at things, especially because making it all about us gives us some measure of control. Sure, we’ve been told it’s all about God’s grace, but what if the paperwork gets lost? Shouldn’t we show up with our own records of worthiness? Shouldn’t we at least have a spiritual resume that vouches for us?
Even after the Protestant Reformation, we still find ourselves seduced by thinking we have to do everything. We might accept that salvation is not accomplished by doing the right works, but surely it’s about believing the right things? There’s still something we can do—it’s just with our minds rather than with our hands.
B. Building the Kingdom
In addition to trying to make ourselves the center of salvation, there’s another way we run into trouble. When we focus on what we’re doing we can often forget that our visions of the Kingdom and God’s aren’t always the same thing.
We frequently have a pretty low bar set when it comes to what that Kingdom is. Throughout history all manner of associations have been made with the Kingdom of God. Various political movements and events have been tied to this understanding. The now practically unheard of “Liberty Party” was, at its founding, described in terms that made it equivalent to the Second Coming. Over the centuries and years, we have often looked for the Kingdom as something we build. And in so doing, we usually settle. We decide that the Roman Empire is the Kingdom, until it falls, and then St. Augustine has to remind us it wasn’t. Then we decide that the Church is the kingdom, until it falls into corruption and Martin Luther has to remind us it wasn’t. We decide that colonies–like the Plymouth colony–or nation states like the British Empire or the United States are the Kingdom, until we fail to live up to our values and a Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us that that wasn’t the Kingdom.
What’s worse is that we try to construct Utopias that aim at erecting God’s Kingdom but wind up creating yet another human institution, that oppresses, that destroys, that perpetuates injustice. We cannot seem to get this right. Even when we’re really well-meaning and trying our best, we cause harm.
See, we get into trouble when we think it’s all about us doing everything.
IV. COUNTING ON MIRACLES
But is the other option any better? Waiting for God to take all the initiative?
It reminds me of that old joke that probably everyone here has heard about (or is now already thinking about): the man caught on his roof during a flood. A man in a boat comes by, “Get in!” “God will save me,” replies the man. Some time later another boat comes by with some people in it: “Get in!” they shout. “God will save me.” Finally a helicopter flies overhead and drops a ladder. “Climb up!” the voice over the loudspeaker says. “God’s going to save me!” the man shouts back. Finally, the waters rise higher and higher and the man drowns. When he gets to heaven he asks God, “Why didn’t you save me?” “What do you want?” says God. “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”
As silly as that attitude is for the sake of the joke, we see it all the time. “I don’t need a mask; God will protect me from COVID.” There are entire theologies out there that reject modern medicine because of a belief either that the body isn’t real and sickness is the result of mental and spiritual error or that argue that if you truly had faith you’d trust in God to heal you or your child. I don’t need to take any precautions, God will keep me safe.
That cannot be a better alternative that trying to do everything ourselves, can it? Can the solution to arrogant insistence on our version of the Kingdom of God or all-too confident reliance on our own abilities really be to just pass all personal responsibility and initiative off to God? Is the response to “You give them something to eat?” really “Nah, better not, Jesus. You know how badly I’m likely to screw that up”?
Now, it’s fair to say, “But why shouldn’t we wait for God to do something? Have you seen the size of the problems that are out there?” Indeed, that’s true. And to be fair, when Jesus told the disciples to feed all the people who’d gathered there, that was an impossible request. Did Jesus really think that the disciples could feed the crowd? That they’d stashed away enough food in their packs to feed ten thousand people? On its face, the request seems absurd; Jesus must have meant to do everything all along.
But is that how we’re supposed to live out our Christian faith? Just counting on miracles?
V. THE BOTH/AND
Well, we’re Methodists, after all. Which means that we are not an either/or people. We haven’t been since our founding—John Wesley was not an either/or person. He was a both/and person. And so it should not surprise us that the answer to the question: Should we take initiative or should we wait for God to do something? is “Yes.”
Wesley was—and we United Methodists are—Protestants through and through. But we’re not like other Protestants. We have some interesting quirks. And I’m not talking about the loud singing.
See, Western Christianity had something of a dilemma: the Catholics insisted that salvation was on account of works. The Protestant reformers insisted that salvation was by faith alone. But then the question could be reasonably asked: If God does all the saving, then why do I have to do anything? If it’s all by God’s grace, then I don’t even need to be a good person or do good deeds. If I did, that would mean that we are saved by our works, not by our faith. This is the Protestant dilemma. It’s the “Why be good?” question.
Now, the Reformers, Martin Luther first of all, believed in justification by grace through faith because he believed, like his spiritual ancestor Augustine before him, that human beings were incapable of doing the right thing. Anything good you did was only because God gave you the grace to do it. Left to your own devices, you’d chose the evil option every time. The Calvinists would refer to this as the total depravity of humanity.
But Wesley didn’t think that way. Wesley had spent a lot of time studying the Eastern Fathers, the writings and teachings of the all-too-often-overlooked-in-the-West Orthodox tradition. And the Orthodox have a different understanding of human nature. They do not see human beings as totally depraved. They do not see us as incapable of doing good. They believe in something called synergia, or synergy as we would more likely call it. Synergia means “working together” and they believe that God and humanity work together. That God provides the grace to empower and human beings can choose of their own free will to respond.
What this means is that for Methodists, our good works are not the requirement of salvation, they are the fruit of our already having been saved. God has already accomplished our salvation and God’s grace empowers us to become holier in our personal lives and in our social lives. This is known as sanctification, and it’s another Eastern idea.
As strange as it may sound, on these points, we Methodists have more in common with the Orthodox than with the Presbyterians or the Lutherans.
And thus we come to the response to our dilemma: do we try to feed the people or do we wait for God to take action? The answer is yes.
In the end, we recognize that we are not God. We cannot without God’s help solve all of the problems of the world. We cannot erect the Kingdom of God ourselves. But we do the work of the Kingdom anyway. We testify to the Kingdom by living into the Kingdom with our actions.
In humility, we can acknowledge that the job is too big for us. We have five loaves and two measly fish. But we know that God will bring the Kingdom, and in the Kingdom no one will be left unfed. And so we can live into that Kingdom as best we can in the here and know, trying to feed as many as we can. Even as we await the coming of the Heavenly Banquet, and leave the door open for a miracle.
We know that the problems of structural racism and injustice are too great. But we know that God will bring the Kingdom, and in the Kingdom there is a multitude from every tribe and nation and race. And so we can live into that Kingdom as best we can in the here and now, working for justice, standing up to hate, examining the invisible structures of injustice and oppression. Even as we await the Great Multitude and leave the door open for a miracle.
We know that war and violence are a problem seemingly too great to solve. But we know that God will bring the Kingdom, and in the Kingdom the wolf lies down with the lamb, the lion eats straw like the ox, the swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. And so we can live into that Kingdom as best we can in the here and now, working for peace and reconciliation. Even as we await the Peaceable Kingdom and leave the door open for a miracle.
We are limited in our abilities and when we forget that, we get ourselves into trouble. But at the same time, we are called to take action. Jesus told us to feed the multitude, knowing we couldn’t do it. But in that command, he gave us his expectation that we would unite our faith and our action, that we would trust in God and in him, but also work to live out the values of the Kingdom in the midst of the broken world.
Deus ex machina endings are always seen as cheap shortcuts. But there are those, like Tolkien who defended their use, arguing that they reminded us of our connection to the powers of the divine. They don’t just work because we like happy endings. They work because they remind us that we are not alone in this work. The labor to build a just, righteous, and peaceful world is not our work alone, it is God’s work.
Our savior calls us to take up the work, but then stands beside us in the lonely places and finishes it with us.
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.