“Hidden Figures!”

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost 6 August 2017
(Isaiah 55:1-5 Psalm 145 Romans 9:1-5 Matthew 14:13-21)
“Hidden Figures!”

[In the delivering of this sermon at St. James Lutheran Church, Gettysburg, PA, on August 6, there was an accompanying PowerPoint presentation, using the film “Hidden Figures.” Although those slides are not part of this blog, the integrity of the text and sermon remains intact.]

As I begin my sermon, I want to share with you some clips from the film, entitled “Hidden Figures.” This film describes the lives of three African American female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Let’s be clear: These are African-Americans. These are women. These African-American women are working in a man’s world, pretty much a white man’s world. And although all three women are woven into the story, it is Katherine Johnson’s story which is fully developed.

These women are working as “computers” (as they are called) in the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The Soviets have just launched a successful satellite, so there is pressure for the U.S. to do the same.
Realizing that Katherine knows more analytic geometry than anyone else, she is called in to assist the Space Task group.

Not a simple assignment.

She is the only African-American in the office, much less one of only a very few women. There are separate dining room and bathroom facilities. More than once Katherine is seen running across the parking lot to another building just to go to the bathroom. Then she is criticized for not being at her desk.

Her male colleagues are initially demeaning and dismissive, although she outshines all of her white male counterparts. When the Mercury 7 astronauts visit, it is astronaut John Glenn who wants to know who she is.

The story continues with demotions, criticisms, etc, until the final arrangements for John Glenn’s launch are made. Katherine develops an accurate equation for the space capsule reentry, but is still forced to remove her name from all final reports.

When errors are discovered in the IBM 7090 calculations for the Friendship 7’s landing coordinates, Astronaut Glenn asks specifically for Katherine to personally verify the IBM calculations. After she delivers the correct information the door is again slammed in her face, although she is called back to help deliver the corrected information to John Glenn, and she is invited into the control room to watch the take-off.

Hidden figures, these three women were. Hidden figures, so very prevalent then and now! Hidden figures, so close to each of us.

Let’s look at the Gospel text. Lots has been written about this story of the feeding a multitude in the wilderness. Six times the story is told in the New Testament. No other story is told that many times—not even the resurrection story! The number of people is either 4000 or 5000. The number of loaves is either five or seven. Details vary, but the theme is constant: Jesus and his disciples are faced with a great need. Jesus directs the disciples to address the need of hunger. The disciples tell Jesus what they have is not enough. When the disciples share with Jesus what they do have, he takes, blesses, breaks, and gives back and there is always enough with some left over.

There are many ways to read this story. One of the most common ways is to read it as an echo of the manna story from Exodus where God fed the Israelites who were hungry in the desert. That seems to work best with the way Mark tells this story.

Regardless of the Gospel writer, it is always about Jesus feeding the hungry crowds with very little, but always with lots left over. There is always an abundance of grace when it comes to Jesus! But there are other themes, and the one I want to focus on actually comes close to Psalm 145, the Psalm we sang a few moments ago.

This Psalm seems really intent on assuring us that God’s goodness is for all people. Did you count how many times the Psalmist uses the word “all” when referring to people. Nine times. And once the word “every” is used. In 10 verses we are reminded 10 times that God’s goodness is for all people, for everyone!

So let’s look more closely! We begin the text by hearing of the senseless death of John the Baptist. Why is it there? It doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story! But maybe it does. Immediately preceding today’s story of one kind of meal is the story of another meal, a big banquet, a birthday party for the popular and the wealthy. So maybe that first line of the Gospel text is there to remind us that John was put to death at a celebration of power, wealth and status, the very group of people who marked and created significant inequalities concerning food access in the Roman Empire at the time.

And then immediately following this one meal, the Gospel-writer Matthew follows this story of imperial power with the story of another meal, a different type of meal, of Jesus feeding the 5000, people we know nothing about, the “hidden figures” of Jesus’ time.

You must be able to hear it: we are on a collision course between the imperial ruler versus the prophet; the powerful versus the nameless; the power of the Empire versus the purpose and power of God.

So we hear this amazing story of Jesus hosting not a death-bringing meal contextualized by tyranny; but rather, a life-giving feast embodying the gracious abundance of God.

“All ate and were filled”— sounds so much like Psalm 145, and what was left over of the broken pieces were gathered [vs 20]. Brokenness is never to be left unattended! There is no place for “hidden figures” in the abundance of God’s love!

The power of Jesus is the power of compassion. The power of Jesus is to make the sufferings of all people our suffering so that we can respond with compassion. The power of Jesus is to recognize those “hidden figures” both far and near to us, that they may no longer remain hidden.

Finally, I pray that when we come to be fed at the table of Holy Communion, we may bring our hidden and broken parts with us in order that we can be fed with the abundant love and compassion by the same Jesus who fed those 5000 people that day so very long ago. Amen.

Sermon Epilogue
Film. In the epilogue of the film, it is revealed that Katherine calculated the trajectories for the Apollo 11 and several Space shuttle missions in 2015, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016 a new 40,000-square-foot Research facility at Langley was renamed the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in her honor.
I appreciate the name of this film, based on a book by the same name by Margot Lee Shettterly.

Scripture references for the six stories.
Mark 6:30-44…five loaves, two fish; 12 baskets; sat in groups (5000).
Mark 8:1-10…..seven loaves, a few fish (4000).
Matthew 14:13-21… “go and buy food”; five loaves, two fish; 12 baskets (5000)
Matthew 15:32-39…on mountain, seven loaves, a few fish (4000)
Luke 9:10-17….five loaves, two fish; groups of 50; 12 baskets (5000)
John 6:1-5, 25-59…..boy with five loaves and two fish; Phillip and Andrew; 12 baskets left; a sign (5000)


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