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how will we pay for it?

Matthew 14:13-21

· lectionary,theology,economics,black lives matter

Jesus 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.

Matthew 14:13-21, NRSV

Famously antifascist theologian Karl Barth once said that we ought to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. In this Year of Our Lord 2020, that means preaching with the BibleGateway app open in one tab and Twitter in another, right? Accordingly, today’s homily will be on Jesus' Feeding of the Five Thousand and the headline “U.S. Congress Is Nowhere Near a Coronavirus Deal.”

To sum up the latter, Democrats and Republicans find themselves once more in gridlock over how to offer crucial aid to Americans who have been battered by the ongoing covid-19 pandemic. Senate Republicans’ proposed “relief bill” would do the following:

  • Cut unemployment benefits from $600/week to just $200/week.
  • Allow the moratorium on evictions to lapse while providing exactly $0 for millions of Americans who might soon be facing homelessness.
  • Provide no health care benefits, no funding for the Postal Service, and no aid to state and local governments.
  • Grant immunity to employers who put their employees at health and safety risk on account of covid-19.
  • Leave intact hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy.
  • Funnel an additional $25 billion to the Pentagon when Congress passed a staggering defense budget of $740 billion just last week.
    • Sen. Bernie Sanders further points out that this includes $2 billion for F-35s, $1 billion for surveillance planes, and $1.75 billion to build a new FBI building – all while militarized federal agents terrorize protesters in Portland, OR where I live and elsewhere.

The Senate bill is unlikely to pass, but budgets are moral documents, and it couldn’t be clearer where the GOP’s priorities are. Democrats’ plan is better, according to Rep. Ilhan Omar, offering hazard pay for frontline workers, nearly a trillion dollars for state and local governments, and an extension of the $600/week jobless benefit. (It’s worth pointing out though that many Democrats greenlit that military budget, joined Republicans in handing out trillions of dollars in aid to billionaires and corporations, and still refuse to endorse Medicare For All in the midst of a global pandemic.)

Why is it that we can afford a $740 billion defense budget and trillions in handouts to corporations and billionaires who have only profited from death, disease, and despair – yet we can’t afford unemployment benefits and healthcare for everyday Americans? Why are resources so scarce when it comes to promoting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – but so abundant when time comes to over-police poor neighborhoods of color or feed the military-industrial complex? Why is it, when we dare to suggest that the social order should protect and serve the most vulnerable, the question is always thrown back in our face: “But how are we going to pay for it???”

That's not the kind of question Jesus was prone to ask.

When he meets the crows by the sea of Galilee in this week’s Gospel, he has compassion for them and heals the sick among them. When the day grows old and the crowd goes hungry, Jesus has compassion for them again, using five loaves and two fish to feed the multitudes. For the Galilean peasants and day-laborers who flocked to Jesus, hunger at day’s end would be far from unfamiliar. They would be well-acquainted with the manufactured scarcity of Roman Imperial rule, in which money can always be found (read: exploited) to pay for more centurions but never for more bread. They would be well-acquainted, indeed, with the question, “How are we going to pay for it?” Not as performative political handwringing, but as a genuine, aching, bodily concern: how are we going to pay for it? How are we, the people, going to pay for enough to go around?

This scarcity-consciousness is behind the disciples’ suggestion that Jesus send the crowds away to find food for themselves, as it is behind their hesitation to give what little they have to the common store. What are five loaves and two fish among so many?

Jesus doesn’t operate from scarcity-consciousness though. He operates from God-consciousness. His question isn’t “How are we going to pay for it?” It’s, “What does God want?”

What does God want?

What does the HOLY ONE require of us but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God? (Micah 6:8) To feed the poor, to clothe the needy, to uphold the widow and the orphan, to give sight to the blind and to set the captives free? If God wants people to get healed, or to be fed, then okay – that’s what we’re going to do, with God's help. We start with whatever we have: five loaves, two fish. A mustard seed, a bit of yeast. Not so much, maybe, but enough to begin, and to trust that God’s cosmic abundance will provide, if our intention is strong and our hearts are true. To trust that when we commit to liberty and justice for all, we are participating in God’s dearest dream for Creation. To trust that where there’s a will, there is a way, even if it’s not obvious to us at first glance.

Even Empire proves that: when it really wants to do something, like install an army base in the Middle-east or militarize the police, it finds a way. So if We the People really want something—and if that something is part and parcel of what God really wants for us—then we can find a way, too. It’s not a matter of carving up scarce resources and fighting over the scraps amongst ourselves; it’s a matter of spiritual and political will.

Witness leaders like Rep. Omar and Sen. Sanders, who campaign tirelessly for programs of social uplift. Witness the #BlackLivesMatter protests again the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, forcing cities to reckon with histories of systemic racism and rethink their budget priorities, their moral priorities. Witness the courageous organizers and allies who keep mobilizing, keep showing up to the struggle, keep building the collective will to transform our politics and our economy, one conversation, one act of civil disobedience, one election at a time. Witness anyone who uses what little they have to support a family member, a friend, a stranger in crisis during this pandemic. Blessed are they, and all who live from God’s world-changing abundance.

Our question is not, “How will we pay for it?” Our question is, “What do we really want?” Let us start there, and with God’s help we can sort out the rest.

‘Cos where there’s a will, there is a way. We just gotta want it.

Image: Swanson, John August. Loaves and Fishes, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved July 28, 2020]. Original source: - copyright 2003 by John August Swanson.

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