Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost
How do you explain the Feeding of the 5000? This story is so familiar, maybe your ears just tuned it out. But what really happened? How did Jesus turn five loaves of bread and two fish into lunch for thousands of hungry people?
Only two choices?
We might think we have two choices here. Either we accept that this is a factual account of a miraculous multiplication of food. These are the folks with the bumper stickers that say: “The Bible said it; I believe it; that settles it.”
Or we look for a rational explanation. Many have tried over the centuries to give rational explanations for miracles.
Here’s one version from the World War II era:
A teenager was riding in a crowded compartment with five strangers. His mother had given him a sandwich wrapped in a handkerchief for his lunch because rationing made food for travelers hard to come by. Noon came and he was hungry, but he didn’t want to eat his lunch in front of the others. He decided to wait until they got out their lunches, but no one moved. An hour passed and then another. Finally, he decided he had no choice. He needed to eat, and so did the others. He reached in his pocket and took out the handkerchief. He spread it on his lap and carefully broke his sandwich into six pieces while the other passengers watched. He said a brief blessing and gave each one a part of his sandwich. Then everyone else reached into their pockets and bags and took out the food they had brought – and not wanted to eat in front of others who might not have anything. The food was broken and shared around the compartment with a sense of feasting. Stories and laughter were shared along with the food.
And then there’s Woodstock.
I remember hearing a similar version in a sermon back in the 70s. The people out in the desert with Jesus simply shared what they had with one another. And at the time, that made sense to me. Woodstock had just happened. Food vendors had quickly been overwhelmed by the thousands who had descended on Max Yasgur’s farm. But a group from CA, led by Wavy Gravy (yes, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor was named for him) stepped into the breach. On Sunday morning, Wavy Gravy stood on the stage and famously announced, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.” One common thread in stories told about that time is that everyone remembers two things: the food ran out fast and everyone shared what they had.
These are both lovely stories, which could have happened. The problem, though, with this explanation is that there’s nothing in the Bible story to suggest that is what Jesus or Matthew had in mind.
Remember that in this series of teachings from Jesus, we’re always looking for how he’s continually trying to convey what it means to live in the realm of God – or the realm of heaven, as Matthew calls it. We’ve been reading parables over several weeks – stories told by Jesus to get us to think differently about everything.
Is this a parable ABOUT Jesus?
You might have noticed that there are different kinds of parables. For example, there are riddle parables. These were used to confound outsiders or opponents, so they couldn’t understand what was being said. Only insiders, like the disciples, were able to get the message, usually with some further instruction from Jesus.
Then there are example parables. These are moral or ethical stories that deliberately point beyond themselves to wider implications. Think of the Parable of the Poor Man’s Lamb, which Nathan told to King David to get him to realize that the rich man who took the one lamb (Bathsheba) from the poor man (Uriah) was David himself.
Others are challenge parables, like The Good Samaritan, are meant to make us think and discuss, and decide how they apply to present times. This was a common teaching style in Jesus’ time. Many of his stories are challenge parables.
So we’ve been reading different kinds of parables by Jesus. But there’s another type that we don’t hear about so often – that is parables about Jesus. This feeding of the multitude is a good way to illustrate this. All four gospel writers tell a version of the story. Mark has two versions with different details. John is the only one that has a boy with bread and fish. By looking at these accounts side-by-side, we realize – not that they were confused about what had really happened – but that they each had a point that they wanted to convey about what Jesus was doing.
So, debating whether this was a miracle or an example of human sharing is not the point. The story assumes that there is a sign for us here in the feeding of the people. As a parable, then, the question is: what is Jesus teaching us about the realm of God?
And because parables can shift meanings depending on times and circumstances, the question gets even more specific:
what is Jesus teaching us about the realm of God – today?
We can’t forget that in Matthew, this story occurs just after Jesus learns of the death of his cousin John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. His sign is accomplished in the midst of political turmoil, grief, and fear, not to mention the ever-present reality of poverty and illness among his people. We can’t see the crowd as a bunch of party-goers out for a good time. They were looking for a sign – that somehow, in the midst of all this bad news, there might be a word of hope.
And Jesus gives it: in the realm of God, something can come out of nothing. Even we, who enjoy a standard of living that might cause us to think this doesn’t apply to us, surely know those times when we feel we’ve got nothing: nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to give. We’re like the disciples who, when Jesus says “Feed these people,” throw up our hands and say, “Sorry Jesus, we’ve got nothing. Oh yeah, a couple loaves of bread and a little bit of fish. But really, what good can that do? The need is too great.”
When you’re running on empty
Think about those times when you feel like your tank is on empty, there’s nothing left. But life doesn’t stop: phone calls, texts, emails keep flooding in, work, school, and family demands intersect and collide. The news of the world is draining. And, oh, yeah, we’re in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Who wouldn’t feel depleted?
And then you come to church and hear the pastor asking for even more! Sheesh! The potential for burn-out is a real concern. But here’s the good news of our life in the kingdom of God: the success of your discipleship, as a follower of Jesus doesn’t depend on how much you have or what you can give, but rather on how much God gives by multiplying what you have – no matter how small or tired or frayed it might be.
Jesus said, “Feed them.” They respond, “We have nothing—only five loaves and two fish.”
Jesus says, “Bring your nothing to me.” He blesses the fish and bread and proceeds to distribute the food and the bellies of each one of them was filled.
And there were leftovers!
This story reminds us that in times when we feel depleted, all Jesus is asking us to do is to give our nothing – and then to stand back and watch Jesus teach us how God’s economic system is not like our own. In the realm of God, an economy is grown by God’s abundance.
As I write this, I am aware of how naïve this sounds, especially to anyone experiencing unemployment, the very real possibility of eviction from their home, and any number of troubles so many are facing today. But this message from Jesus begins with the command to feed the people. This isn’t a promise of a free ride because God’s going to come and fix everything.
No, we don’t get a free pass. We, as I’ve learned from my Jewish friends, are to be practitioners of ‘tikkun olam,’ Hebrew for ‘world repair,’ signifying social action and the pursuit of social justice. We have to be concerned about unemployment, home evictions, and all the social ills of our day.
But when we look around and see the immensity of what needs repairing, it’s tempting to back away and say, “there’s nothing I can do” or for a church to think, “there’s nothing we can do.”
Especially now. A global pandemic ratchets up our garden-variety fears and anxieties so high that we don’t know what to address first. Our health and safety, the health and safety of others, our shaky economy, the sustainability of our education system, the future of our democracy, our family and friend connections frayed by either physical distancing or by too much togetherness in quarantine – to name just a few. It is a scary time.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
And then there’s the church. Every time I come to the church and see the sign that says the building is closed, I kind of feel like I’m going into a building that’s been condemned. That is not what it says, but it’s a scary time for the church, too.
Rev. Erin Wathen writes in If We Weren’t Afraid: What Is The Post-Pandemic Church Going To Be?:
“Once, there was a little church in a big desert. And it was dying. Money was tight; fewer and fewer people were coming to worship; there was no youth group, and nothing for children past the nursery. Their mortgage kept them from being a generous mission church. They knew things had to change. But like most churches that find themselves in such a spiral, they were uncertain about what to change.
“The reason I tell this story is because it has such a miraculous twist – because that church learned to live again. They tripled in size. They paid off the mortgage. They grew and found resources for outreach. They changed their ministry model and evolved from maintenance to mission. And it was something to behold. In this age of mainline decline, such transformation rarely occurs. Past a certain point of financial struggle, conflict, and general lethargy, there is often nothing a church can do to change its story. But this little church in the desert found its breath, its heart, its spirit again. And I was there to witness it. Because I was their pastor.
“And here’s why else I tell it again– because I can pinpoint the precise moment when everything changed. And it wasn’t a big influx of cash, or an innovative new program, or a viral YouTube video that flipped the switch. It was a single question, posed at precisely the right moment. Knowing things needed to change, a group of leaders from the church started a discernment process with other congregations in our area facing the same challenges. At the first gathering of the group, the facilitator asked us to discuss the following question: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?
“We looked at each other– and all the lights came on. This was new. We’d spent many a late night church meeting talking about how to reach out to the neighbors; how to generate more income; how to tweak our worship service and make it more engaging or modern… and on and on. We’d asked endless questions amongst ourselves about what we were doing, and how we were doing it, and whether we could change. But nobody had ever asked us– what would you do if you weren’t afraid? For the next several years, that question drove everything. And it changed everything.”
I share her story because I think it’s a fine example of a congregation going into the discernment process with nothing. And God took their nothing and multiplied it – just like God does, according to Jesus. Whatever growth they experienced wasn’t because they were smarter or worked harder or had more faith – it was because they trusted that in in their vulnerability, in their hunger, in their need – God would feed them. And they, in turn, could then even better than before, participate in ‘tikkun olam.’
Really, it all comes down to deciding whether to live in a state of abundance or of scarcity. If we believe that an economy in the realm of God is grown by God’s abundance, then an attitude of scarcity doesn’t track. Although it’s understandable. There’s a myriad of messages telling us that we don’t have enough, that we’re not enough. But that’s not the message of the gospel, so we have to choose which one to believe.
There’s plenty to be afraid about as well. But there’s no harm in asking: what would we do if we weren’t afraid? (caveat: not about not wearing a mask or believing And then standing back to see where God’s Spirit might lead us. If Jesus is right, we’ll have enough to fulfill our needs – and we’ll have leftovers!
That’s the miracle.
When Jesus heard about the beheading (of John the Baptist), he left Nazareth by boat and went to a deserted place to be alone. The crowds heard of this and followed him from their towns on foot. As Jesus disembarked and saw the vast throng, his heart was moved with pity, and he healed their sick.
As evening drew on, the disciples approached Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late. Dismiss the crowds so they can go to the villages and buy some food for themselves.”
Jesus said to them: “There is no need for them to disperse. Give them something to eat yourselves.”
They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves and a couple of fish.”
Jesus said, “Bring them here.”
Then he ordered the crowds to sit on the grass. Taking the five loaves and two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed the food, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, who in turn gave it to the people. All those present ate their fill. The fragments remaining, when gathered up, filled twelve baskets. About five thousand families were fed.