Readings: Isaiah 55:1-3; Psalm 144; Romans 8:35,37-39; Matthew 14:13-21
Some years ago the Christian community of Mosul in Iraq was obliged to make a stark choice: either pay a tax in order to live in an Islamic state, go away with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing, or stay and be killed with the sword. This is not a story from ancient times or from the middle ages, it happened just a few years ago. The vast majority decided to go away with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. The people they were dealing with had already shown that they meant business, having slaughtered their way through Syria and across northern Iraq. For the Christians of Mosul it meant walking up to forty kilometres across the desert, carrying their children, until they found a place of safety, arriving tired, thirsty, hungry and, one can imagine, deeply sad. A whole civilization and culture which had survived so many things across the centuries may now have been destroyed forever.
Suddenly the world seems to be very insecure and full of great political and physical dangers. Not just in Iraq. The normal decencies of civilized living seem to be suspended as people act and react out of fear, humiliation and hatred. Every situation is being exploited by people gripped by fear, hatred and violence. Politicians in different parts of the world are building their power by playing to people's fears, hatreds and humiliations. The normal decencies that used to guide debate and discussion seem to have fallen away as people take to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the other social media to attack, mock, decry, complain and protest. Some of this is very good and necessary but much of it is done in language that is itself violent, humiliating, dismissive, disrespectful. Fear, hatred, violence seem to be the things dominating world affairs at the moment. And put with all of that the massive question of migration in the world, the normal problems, so to speak, of famine, thirst and disease, and the many other tragedies cutting across people's lives and leaving them permanently wounded ...
A great feeling of impotence and irrelevance might well overtake us as we try to reflect on scripture texts and wonder what the Christian faith can offer in such circumstances. Is God not just Santa Claus for grown ups, the wishful thinking that there is, as today's psalm says, a God of great kindness who is good to all and near to everyone who calls on Him? Against a strengthening chorus of agnosticism and atheism the Church's voice seems feeble, unrealistic, even at times hypocritical. Many good and intelligent young people have decided they do not want to stay with what the Christian faith teaches: it seems to them, at least in the way the Church lives it, unintelligent and morally bankrupt.
Jesus can sometimes be presented as a kind of Santa Claus for grown ups but we must always remember that his engagement with the world ended in failure. He was not able to answer the world's problems. He was not the solution to the world's problems. They are as bad, if not worse, than they were before He came. In the face of fear, hatred and violence, he too was powerless and he died as just one more innocent victim of those forces. Today's gospel reading reminds us of this: 'when Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist', it begins. This is a turning point in his ministry, a defining moment as we say nowadays. He saw clearly what his destiny too was likely to be. John had died protesting at injustice. Jesus will die preaching the kingdom he had come to establish, the project of his life, it seems, unsuccessful.
The first thing the readings ask of us today is that we listen and look, heedfully and hopefully, to the generosity of God. And that we continue to do this no matter how bleak and dark the circumstances become. 'I will renew with you the everlasting covenant' - so the voice of God, barely heard perhaps, but distinct and certain, whispered in the desert, sounding in the night, patient and persistent in spite of the agitation of fear, the restlessness of hatred, and the screaming fury of violence. Under the shadow of the looming cross, Jesus is moved with pity for the people and goes on doing for them what he has done in more promising times: healing them, feeding them, teaching them.
The outcome is in the hands of God, times and hours known only to the Father. John the Baptist remains faithful in his campaign for justice and accepts death without knowing whether that death will be remembered or how that death might contribute, if at all, to the good of the world. Jesus remains faithful in his mission of preaching the kingdom, engaging with the forces of evil that are attacking the lives of the people. But his engagement with them is not on their ground but on his. His are not the weapons of fear, hatred and violence, for to fight those things with those things is to descend ever further into the abyss.
Paul's extraordinary litany at the end of Romans 8, today's second reading, makes what might seem like an absurd claim, that we are more than conquerors, that we conquer overwhelmingly. Faced with the powerful forces of the world - anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword, death, life, angels, principalities, present things, future things, powers, height, depth, anything at all in creation - any of this, all of this, loses its power, because none of it can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That whispering voice - 'I will renew with you the everlasting covenant', 'I have loved you with an everlasting love' - penetrates through all these things.
That love, poured into our hearts, will of course move people to work for solutions, for political and economic solutions to the problems that are destroying people's lives. Man does not live on bread alone but he does live on bread. The gift of God is an enabling gift, not a soothing cream to take the sting out of human life, but an empowering gift. 'Give them some food yourselves', Jesus says to the disciples when they come whinging to him. The miracle happens in such a way that it might seem as if the disciples themselves have worked it, it allows the bounty to appear to come from them: there was one basket of scraps for each of the apostles. The gift is within our efforts for this is how grace works, a power which enables our efforts from beginning to end.
Listen heedfully and look hopefully to the generosity of God. He is the creator who wants things to be and who sees them as very good. He is the redeemer who wants our salvation and who renews with us the everlasting covenant. The kingdom does not consist in food and drink, nor does it consist in political and military strategies. The kingdom means righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. That Spirit is given when Jesus is glorified and Jesus is glorifed through his failure, his death at the hands of fear, hatred and violence. He is the Victor, our Champion, and Conqueror, not in the terms and categories of the world, but in a new way, in a new world, in a kingdom that is as yet still coming.