Who counts? Who gets counted?
In our Monday evening Bible study group, we read the scripture passage aloud, and then we talk about what grabs us in that text. What do we notice? What jumps out?
What caught my eye in a new way with this Matthew text was that very last line, “And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” And what caught my attention in the Isaiah text was how many times we heard imperatives such as “listen,” “come,” and “see.” So I want to explore these two texts around the question of who counts. Who counts, who matters—to fellow humans, and to God.
The text from Matthew starts at a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist, who has been a mentor to Jesus, has just been beheaded in the previous scene. You may recall how this played out. It is King Herod’s birthday, and he’s having a party. He has invited guests, probably all men. There is no doubt fancy food, nothing but the best, more than they could possibly eat. They are gathered at a seat of political power, surrounded by material wealth and abundance. Many people—most people—are left out of this setting. No hoi polloi here—only the most powerful, the most connected, the most educated, the most privileged, Jewish men.
There are just two women present, as far as we know. The first is Herodias, King Herod’s niece and the wife of his half-brother, Philip. Herodias has become Herod’s mistress. Yes, it is just as incestuous and illegal and messed-up as it sounds. The second woman is the daughter of Herodias, a young woman who dances for Herod and all his male guests. A young woman dancing for a roomful of men—yes, that is just as sexual as it sounds. And apparently this young woman does an excellent job, because Herod offers her whatever she wants as a reward.
Whatever she wants. He has just put that out there publicly, in front of all these important people. Does she want land? Marriage to a powerful man? Gold?
Normally this young woman has no power, but for one nanosecond, she does. And she uses it. At her mother’s urging, she asks for the head of John the Baptist, who is sitting in a dungeon at that moment. Herod has not done away with him because John’s followers are so many and so ardent.
Herod is in a bit of a spot. He can’t take back his offer, made in this public way. And so the young woman gets John’s head on a platter. John’s followers quietly take the rest of the body away and bury it.
That’s where our reading today begins—after this horrific moment, this circumvention of justice and due process (as if that was a thing in those days). Because John had spoken out about Herod’s relationship with Herodias, Herod’s niece/sister-in-law/mistress. John had dared to hold up a mirror to Herod, to speak an unwelcome truth. We talk today about police who kneel on the necks of Black people until they die—no due process, no justice. This is power at its worst, at its absolute ugliest. Herod killed John because he could, because he had that power of political might over John, because that power enabled Herod to take life on a whim.
Jesus hears the news and gets in a boat to go off and mourn by himself. Of course, his followers hear that he’s out there and can’t leave him in peace, so when he comes ashore, they’re waiting for him. They are the sick, the poor, the ignored, the left out. They were certainly not invited to Herod’s party. And somehow, they all get fed loaves and fishes until everyone has had enough.
Look at the contrasts between these two scenes:
Guests invite themselves
Simple fare of bread and dried fish—food that you could travel with
Location: center of political power
Location: a deserted place out in the country
Political despot king with power over his subject, including the power to take life
Jesus has power with his followers, including what is life-giving. Jesus’ role is to heal, to teach, and to feed.
Herod’s party includes only the privileged, the elite
Jesus’ gathering includes everyone, even the women and children
We call this scene the feeding of the 5,000, but at the end we learn that this number counts 5,000 men, “besides women and children.” Oh, yeah, them. They don’t count. And yet Jesus fed them, too. So the feeding of the 5,000 is actually the feeding of the, what, 10,000? 15,000? 20,000? If you actually count everybody. But some people are considered less than, invisible, not worth counting.
Who are the people today who tend to be uncounted and unseen?
They are Black people, Indigenous people, all People of Color.
They are the disabled.
They are those experiencing homelessness, challenges to mental health, hunger.
They are those in prison.
They are people fleeing gangs and persecution in their home countries who come here, desperate and without the proper papers.
They are the sick, especially those with no health insurance.
They are the very young and the very old.
They are the women.
They are the LGBTQ.
In her book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo points out how hard women had to fight to get the vote, and when they finally got it, not all of them got it. White women got it. And people said, good enough. Those other women don’t count. People said that women got the vote, but Black women didn’t get the vote until 1964. That’s within our lifetime, for most of us. But we didn’t see them, didn’t count them. Jesus does.
Coronavirus helps us to see everybody, because it doesn’t discriminate in who it infects or who could infect us. We may try not to see the homeless person on the street, but the coronavirus sees that person who has no place to “stay home, stay healthy,” and that person gets sick, maybe spreads the virus to a whole lot of other people, too. We have to see everybody, not only feed everybody, but also provide health care for everybody, too. Because when everyone around us is healthy—including the people experiencing homelessness—then we are less likely to get sick as well. We have to take care of the whole body of God. And as we know, Jesus healed sick people who weren’t finding healing anywhere else. Health care for all.
Many years ago, I was in downtown Seattle with a little time on my hands. I came upon a Black man on the street asking people for money. He looked a little wild-eyed, as if perhaps there were some mental health issues. I took him to McDonald’s for breakfast. The cashier taking people’s orders looked past him and asked me what I would like to order. I said, “Whatever he’s having, and I’ll pay for it.” But I had to redirect the cashier’s attention to the man standing right in front of him. Yeah, this guy, who you probably had to pass by when you came into work this morning.
So when someone on the street asks us for money, even if we’re not going to give them anything, we can still look them in the eye, see them as a human, as a fellow creature of God.
What Jesus serves is actually communion. He takes the loaves and fishes and does the same with them as he does at the last supper: blesses them, breaks them, gives them. And he says to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” Maybe that “you” refers to the whole crowd, too. You feed each other. You see everybody in your midst and make sure they all get to eat.
What happens next is described rather like those tiny cars at the circus where the door opens and 30 clowns pile out. How’d they do that? The loaves and fishes are like that: where did all that food come from? Who knows? It’s not something we can answer. But we can understand that what Jesus was doing was feeding everybody who came—not just the men, not just the people of means, not just the well-educated, not just the ones with political connections.
Kathryn Matthews writes,
Barbara Brown Taylor has a problem with miracles that "mesmerize" us and lead us to leave everything up to God. "Miracles," she writes, "let us off the hook. They appeal to the part of us that is all too happy to let God feed the crowd, save the world, do it all" (The Seeds of Heaven)….
And so, it's not going to happen unless we participate, Taylor says: God tells us, "Stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead" (The Seeds of Heaven). (Quoted in Kathryn Matthews, Sermon Seeds, https://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_august_2_2020.)
Who counts? Who gets counted?
The census is supposed to count everyone. Documented or undocumented immigrants—doesn’t matter. Educated or no—doesn’t matter. Mentally ill, in prison, unemployed—doesn’t matter. Black, White, Indigenous, Asian—doesn’t matter. Everyone is supposed to count. Millions of dollars of funding for public support programs depend on everyone getting counted. The coronavirus is hampering attempts to conduct the census right now, and our current administration is attempting to shorten the counting time, which would have the effect of leaving out vast swaths of people—mostly the People of Color, the undocumented, the ones who don’t speak English. So if we have means to speak up about this, we who participate in the miracle of everyone being counted need to do so.
Perhaps you recall from your U.S. history classes that the US. Constitutional Convention of 1787 passed the Three-Fifths Compromise, which declared that slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person. This meant the total population of the South was under-represented in Congress, but also that slave owners got a tax break because they only had to pay taxes on 3/5 of their slave “property.”
Who counts? Who gets counted?
Men, also women, also children. Black lives. Immigrant lives, so often operating under the legal radar, but they are in large proportions the people doing the hard physical work of growing and harvesting our food, processing it in fruit and meat packing plants, or caring for people who are sick.
Isaiah says Ho! Pay attention! Hey there! Yoo hoo! Free food, free water for everybody!
Why do you waste your time on food that does not satisfy, on drink that does not slake your thirst? Listen—listen—to God, and eat what is good for body and soul. That’s what Jesus is delivering: food good for body and soul.
These days we celebrate communion in a way similar to Jesus and this crowd of thousands. We take whatever we have on hand—a few loaves of bread, a couple of fish. We bless it, break it, give it. We are fed in body and soul. We gather not in buildings of power but in our own homes. We invite everyone who wants to come, because we follow Jesus and that’s what he teaches us to do.
If we can’t meet in person, I am loving that we get to meet on Zoom like this. We are present with each other in real time, not pre-recorded. When mistakes happen, as they sometimes do, we are reminded that this is all live. And we get to love each other and love being together in those moments. When we want photographs to fill the corners of our slides with images that feed the soul, people send them in. When we want music, usually we make it ourselves, and Kia and Jerry have figured out how to make that work. You make it happen. You choir members record yourselves over some accompaniment track and send it in; Jerry then gets to work blending the voices to create a virtual choir. We create this community with each other. We create it with and for God. We celebrate God’s presence in our midst.
When the church building had to close down, we wondered how to gather as a congregation, how to follow Jesus, how God would be in our midst when there was no “midst.” We had to scatter to our homes and find new ways to meet. And God is with us, always.
So Jesus says to the disciples, you feed them. And somehow everyone had enough. There was, in fact, an abundance, holy food enough for everybody and to spare. Even enough for the ones not counted, the ones less seen. Jesus fed them, too.
And Jesus is still feeding us, today. So let us move directly into that communion time. Where the food comes from doesn’t matter: it is holy. Whether the food is bread and fish, or bread and wine, or something else, doesn’t matter: God is in all of it. It is a holy potluck.
And whether you are one of the privileged and powerful or poor and forgotten, you are invited to this community, this communing, this communion meal.
When we celebrate communion, we typically remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples before the crucifixion. But really he was celebrating—communing—with people as an essential part of his ministry all along. And we are invited to do the same. Come to the water and drink. Come eat bread that feeds the soul.
If you are taking communion with another person in your household, I invite you to serve each other. You could say words along these lines:
Bread for the journey.
Fish in abundance.
And the cup that runneth over: the cup of blessing.
Everyone counts. Everyone eats. May our communion always include everyone who wants to be fed at Christ’s table. Amen.