13 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. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 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." 16 Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." 17 They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." 18 And he said, "Bring them here to me." 19 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. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
This is the gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.
The town of Stamps, Arkansas was filled with excitement. If that name sounds familiar then maybe you’ve read Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in which she writes about growing up there in the 1930s and 40s.
Graduation was a big deal in Stamps, especially high school graduation but even graduating from eight grade (as Maya was that year) was significant, seeing as at that time many teachers in the black schools in Arkansas held only that same eighth grade diploma.
A boy named Henry Reed was valedictorian, a boy who (like Maya) lived with his grandmother. He’d been working on his graduation speech for weeks as the town kept up preparations - new clothes for those who could afford them, shopping for celebratory meals…
“Oh it was important, all right.” Angelou wrote. “White folks would attend the ceremony, and two or three would speak of God and home, and the Southern way of life…”
What the people of Stamps were creating on this occasion wasn’t just a party, it was sacred space in which this ritual could lift their community into an alternative reality of not only joy but hope. In regular life their burdens were many, but on this day, in this space, they could gather together and dream about who their young people might become.
Everything began as planned with pomp and circumstance, flags presented and anthems sung. But it was obvious to everyone that something was not right when the principal interrupted the scheduled program with an announcement that the guest speaker, Mr. Donleavy, was only there momentarily to “speak and run” in order to catch a train to make it over to the white school, Central High School, in time to speak for their graduation.
Mr. Donleavy began his speech by sharing of the recent improvements to the white school. A real artist would be teaching them art this fall. The white students would receive new microscopes and chemistry equipment. Then he went on to praise the black children of Stamps, Arkansas, saying they should be proud that one of the best football players at Arkansas A&M had graduated from their very school and one of the best basketball players at Fisk had once played right there in Stamps.
Angelou writes that although athletes like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis “were great heroes in our world… what school official… had the right to decide that those two men must be our only heroes?… We were maids and farmers, handymen and washer-women, and anything higher that we aspired to was… presumptuous.”
The excitement and pride in that room began to deflate with each word that left Mr. Donleavy’s mouth.
I imagine that on that day, their graduation day, the community of Stamps felt much like Jesus and his disciples at the moment in which we encounter them in today’s Scripture text. Up until just a chapter ago, Jesus’ community had been all abuzz - beginning with the proclamation of John the Baptist, getting the crowd pumped up - then the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit of God descending, and the beginning of a ministry in which Jesus rallied with and for those who life had left disheartened. The ones struggling for money, for food, for fair labor practices and just treatment.
Jesus could still storms. He could drive out demons. But just before this story today he learns that his cousin, John the Baptist has been murdered by Herod’s men. And we are told that, defeated and deflated, he “withdrew to a solitary place.” Even Jesus knew what it felt like to experience grief and the cruelty and indifference of those in power. And he didn’t want to stay in that space.
Neither did the crowds, so they followed him out of one space, the town and into this alternative space. We have to wonder if any of them knew what was about to happen.
Just like in real estate, location is everything in this story. Just like the segregated south of Maya Angelou’s childhood drew lines in the sand separating black from white, in Jesus’ day the line around the cities in which most everyone dwelt designated a space in which rich dominated poor and patron controlled client. The rich were few and far between but they held the power and could decide who among them would receive basic necessities that could mean the difference between life and death.
In these spaces, peasants farmed the lands of the wealthy while their own families went hungry. In times of drought and famine they had to turn to the land owners and and pay outrageous prices for food to keep their children alive. In these spaces, the ones in power kept the best for themselves and denied the poor ones not just food, but dignity, and hope.
Jesus’ work and ministry was an interruption in these spaces
because he preached that each and all of God’s children should receive their daily bread. And Jesus’ disregard for Herod frightened the king, which is why John the Baptist was killed: as a warning. At first it worked, driving Jesus and his followers out into this other space. The deserted place. Away from the rules and regulations, the discrimination and domination of wealthy over poor.
But soon reality set in. For as much as the tender presence of Jesus was a comfort to them all, their physical needs could only be set aside for so long.
“There’s no food out here.” they whispered to Jesus. Yes, out here in this space they were free from the scrutiny and mistreatment of the city. But there were no grocery stores or restaurants to be found, and thousands of people waited before them, stomachs rumbling as the evening wore on. I imagine they thought - well, this was nice while it lasted, thinking we could exist away from Herod and his rules. But reality is reality. And hunger is real. And the ones with the food and the power are back in that other space - the one where compassion was hard to come by. So they supposed it was time to return.
Back to Stamps, Arkansas. That moment, in which Mr. Donleavy has hurled insults and mocking words into the sacred graduation space.
He wrapped up his speech and shared that he was running for election and said to the parents present that if they voted for him, he would be sure to get some new equipment for the home ec. program and the workshop. He finished his speech and, Angelou writes, “left with the attitude that now they were off to something really important.” (The graduation over at the white school.) And he left.
But graduation wasn’t over.
Henry Reed still had to make his valedictorian’s speech.
He began as planned, but in the middle of that speech, something else unexpected happened when Henry turned his back to the audience to face the graduating class of 1940. He began to sing:
Lift ev’ry voice and sing
till earth and heaven rung
ring with the harmonies of liberty…
The James Weldon Johnson poem, at the time known as the Negro national anthem. Every black child in Stamps, Arkansas learned this song in the same way they’d learned their “ABCs”. So pretty soon they were all singing, and as Angelou remembers, “despite the thousands of times I had sung them (the words of the song). Never thought they had anything to do with me… And now I heard, really for the first time:
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”
And she says, “We were on top again. As always, again. We survived.”
In that moment, Henry Reed, valedictorian, took what might have looked like a meager offering to someone from outside that space, and somehow turned it to blessing. And promise, and abundance. Hope for all those who communed in that moment and were reminded of those who had gone before them.
When Jesus, in that deserted place, in his own grief, to a crowd of thousands desperate for mercy and assurance, took those loaves and fish and blessed them, he did the same. What they were given was so much more than food. What they were offered in that moment was a space in which their needs were met through grace, not pursuit of profit. They were fed because they were hungry and he loved them, no other reason. And that gave them the strength to go on.
Even when we feel like we are living in spaces that have the power to defeat us - spaces of disease, spaces of discrimination, oppression, uncertainty, fear - there come these moments where God’s Spirit through Jesus takes the broken fragments of what is left before us, the things that do not seem extraordinary or even redeemable, and turns them into blessing.
It’s here that even in the midst of the desert we find Jesus welcoming us, tending to us, offering us compassion and sustenance, and hope.
Today it happens at Christ’s table, which may be your living room coffee table, or patio table, wherever you may be. The Spirit seeks us out, meets us in moments of struggle and blesses what is before us to make it not only enough but more than we need to keep going.
Maya and Henry and the community of Stamps that day did not let the world discourage them on that day, their day. Instead they communed in the Spirit and memory of the ones who persevered before them and sought a better life. And today no matter what the struggle is that you, your loved ones, this community, nation, or world is facing, God is here with us in this strange space, taking whatever is before us, the good, the bad, the plenty, the meager - blessing it, and making it more than enough for us to move forward in hope.
Thanks be to our God. Amen.