The feeding of the 5000 story in Matthew’s Gospel today is the only miracle, aside from the Resurrection, which occurs in all four Gospels. Think about that for just a second. We have talked at some length over the different purposes, the different lessons to be conveyed, of each of the writers. We have, at times, discussed the synoptic problem, and we have also considered how John’s account differs from the other three. Except for the Resurrection of our Lord Christ, only the feeding of the 5000 men, besides women and children, makes it into each of the Gospels. Why do you think that is?
It is important to remember where the story occurs in Matthew’s account. Jesus has been rejected by His hometown. Then, Herod has beheaded John the Baptizer. John’s disciples have buried his body and come and told Jesus. Jesus’ mourning, as a cousin of John, is certainly understandable. From a human perspective, we can understand His desire to to mourn in private. But think a bit about His feelings as God. The king has killed His prophet. Worse, the king has killed the Herald of the Messiah. We know from other passages that our Lord mourns over Jerusalem’s unfaithfulness. How He has longed to gather Jerusalem under His wings like a mother hen! For centuries, God’s people have had to deal with His silence. Now, He has sent a prophet and the king, the king, the very person who was tasked by God with leading His people in a right relationship with Him has silenced the corrective or interpretative voice! Worse, this voice was the herald of the Anointed One. Can you imagine the divine frustration? Can you imagine the hurt? The betrayal (yet again)? It is no wonder that He goes off to be by Himself for a bit.
Of course, Jesus cannot avoid the crowds for too long. His fame has spread. He comes ashore to a great crowd. Rather than resenting the crowd for interrupting His solitude and mourning, Jesus has compassion on them and heals the sick. Towards the end of the day, though, His disciples come to Him and encourage Him to send the crowds away. Their advice is, again, understandable. It is late in the day. There are a lot of people, 5000 men besides women and children. And they lack the food to feed everyone. Jesus needs to send the people away, else they will be obliged to care for their needs.
Jesus tells them to feed the crowd, but the disciples declare it is impossible. There are only five loaves and two fish among them. That won’t even feed Jesus and His disciples well. Undeterred, Jesus tells them to bring Him the fish and the loaves.
What follows is a precursor to the Eucharist that we are about to share, which is, in turn, a mere appetizer to the Wedding Feast to which we are all called. Jesus takes the food, looks to heaven, and blesses them. He then breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples to pass out to the crowd. Everyone, we are told, gets their fill. Everyone eats and is satisfied. In fact, everyone is so satisfied that there are twelve baskets of food taken up at the end. The miracle, as we have discussed, is messianic in nature. Although we might miss its significance in our Christian understanding, the Jews present would have immediately understood its significance. Jesus takes Moses’ manna miracle and does one better. It is a miracle that proclaims Jesus will provide for His people Himself. Moses intervened with God, and the manna was left behind each morning with the dew. No one thought the manna was Moses’ doing. Everyone knew it was Yahweh keeping His promise. Jesus, though, has blessed, broken, and distributed the meal before their eyes. It will be one of those miracles which cause the people to wonder whether He is the Messiah. And it is a claim made by Jesus regarding His identity. That is not to say everyone will realize the significance of the miracle. Jesus will chastise His disciples for forgetting this very miracle in just a couple chapters when He speaks about yeast. More specifically, He will chastise His disciples for forgetting the lessons of this miracle.
What are the lessons of this miracle? Assuredly, it is one of those miracles which testify to His messianic purpose. It is also one of those stories which teach us a bit about the heart of Jesus. So often people tend to think of God, if they think of Him at all, as some sort of bearded judge over space and time. The stories of a Zeus-like figure ready to zap us with lightning bolts probably describes how many people view God, if they even think of Him at all. Yet here is Jesus, showing compassion in the midst of His mourning, and healing people. It is a tender scene, a scene which out to help convince us of our Lord’s love of us.
I think for us at St. Alban’s, though, the most important lesson is one of perspective or vision. The disciples rightfully look out among the crowd and see tremendous need. Something as simple as feeding the crowd overtaxes their meager resources. We can relate to meager human resources. I wonder whether our budget has moved very much in the 50+ years the parish has been around. Very few members over the years have come from means, and none have been wealthy enough not to worry about money. That is part of the reason why Richard made prayer such an important part of this parish. In many ways, as a group, we deserve a pat on the back for some jobs well done in the face of overwhelming need. Community Meal comes to mind, of course. For nearly 47 years the parish has provided sit down meals for the hungry and homeless and hobos in our community. That, my friends, is a LOT of food. That is a lot of buying, a lot of cooking, and a lot of serving. I was telling another group this week how Thelma had insisted that the food be things that we serve at our own tables at home. I told them that Jesus would get the same food at the Meal Site that He would at our own tables were He to drop in unexpectedly. How many churches do that? It is challenging work.
Other ministries, though, address the enormous needs in our community. Grant, Sarah and others have taken on the UnderWear because We care campaign with a determination that no one in our communities should ever lack for something as basic as underwear. I won’t steal Grant’s thunder yet, but the amount of underwear they are aiming to collect this year is hysterically large. Anti-Human Trafficking efforts have gotten us incredible attention from the wider church and the wider community. I still chuckle at the audacity of a $100,000 revenue church fighting a $35 Billion industry. But look at the difference we have already made, and nobody can claim it really was us. All we did was respond faithfully to oppression. Think AFM and now Smart Choice. True, we are stretching budgets rather than giving away, but people like Michelle, Vern, Robin, Polly, Connie, and Sue have donated a lot of time helping people order; and it would be easier to name people who did not help distribute food than did in the courses of this ministry. Collectively, we are helping fight obesity in our community through TOPS. You want a real lost cause? Try and convince Americans that we need to lose weight! Addiction? Yeah, it’s a huge problem in our community and we are fighting that. Slumlords? Yep. We are there fighting that from time to time. The working poor? Well, if I had a dollar for every time I helped with gasoline, with rent, with a meal, with a utility, I’d have more dollars to help more people! None of us expect to solve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis ourselves, but how many of us our praying to God each day that the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael experience the joy and laughter the two of them shared prior to Sarah’s decision? And, we do not live on a border state, nor do we have the political clout to force the Congress and President to get their collective heads out of their Balaam’s asses, but I do expect that some of us will answer the call of Nora, if the mayor’s plan is implemented and some refugees are brought to the QCA (assuming she needs the help of some Protestants! lol).
We do a good job, maybe even a great job, as a congregation when it comes to one of the important lessons of this Gospel. We see the overwhelming need around us, but we recognize that we serve a God who has far more available than there is need. In fact, we serve a God who can meet needs abundantly, and at times we do that very well. Some of our meals have brought the hungry to tears. They tell me often how this or that reminds them of their grandma or mom’s cooking. And I have lost count of the number of conversations that I have there that begin with “why do you all feed me/us like this?” or “why do you all feed them like that?” And it is appropriate that we think of that meal in light of this reading. How many of us have noticed a loaves and fishes miracle while serving there? In 47 years, has anybody ever gone away without getting their fill, whether 35 or 109 or anywhere in between show up? Yes, as a group, we do a good job.
But, how many of us are like the Apostles in this story? How many of us see these ministries unfold before our eyes and forget to apply the lessons to our own lives? Have you ever noticed that each of the Apostles had a basket of leftovers? In the face of overwhelming need and lack of human provision, each Apostle has a basket of leftovers of his own. God has acted wondrously before their eyes, and they miss the significance of the event for their personal lives. How often do we make the same mistake?
How many of us worry about our food, even after watch God work loaves and fishes miracles before our own eyes repeatedly? How many of us worry about our bills, even after watching God stretch resources amazingly to help those in need? How many of us worry about diseases and injuries, even though we have witnessed, we have seen with our own eyes, miraculous healings? How many of us have wondered whether God truly cared, only to have a reading come up at just the right time or someone give just the right encouraging word? How many of us have panicked at the thought of our death or the death of a loved one in Christ, even though we have experienced and witnessed the Risen Christ and know we and they will rise again with Him in glory? How many of us, when faced with perceived emergencies in our lives, look to anyone but God for a solution?
The lessons of the fish and loaves is not academic, brothers and sisters. The need is every bit as real as we believe it is. In fact, the need may be even greater because so many have no real idea of their own need. God’s provision, though, is vaster by orders of magnitude than any need. God can meet needs, meet them abundantly, have leftovers to teach His people lessons, and still He has more! There is no end to His power, His grace, or His love. And He has called each of us to live in the certainty of that reality, that the size of human need is immeasurable, but that the size of human need pales by comparison to the abundance of God. Better still, He wants to bless us with that abundance as firstborn heirs!
Sitting here today, you may well have been nodding along with me. Those of you active in ministries can testify to God’s provision and faithfulness in those ministries. But, if you found yourself nodding in agreement that you do not trust God in your personal affairs, why? What is it about your faith, your relationship with the Lord who feeds thousands from five loaves and two fishes, who casts out demons, who commands the very elements of earth, who raises the dead to new life that prevents you from trusting Him in your affairs? Do you think there is a limit to His blessing? Do you think there is a limit to His patience? Do you think there is a limit to His attentiveness? Do you think there is a limit to His willingness to forgive you? Our story today reminds us that the Lord meets the needs of His people willingly. For those who hungered, He fed; yet in the same motion, He provided evidence of His abundance so that His Apostles and disciples would never think He was not up to the task. Better still, He reminds us that when we fail, we are in good company. We stand with all the Apostles and disciples who stood with Him at every miracle. All He demands is that we repent and try again to let our faith in Him be our guide. The rest is up to Him.
Perhaps, sitting here today, you may have heard for the first time of God’s compassion, God’s grace, and God’s power. Perhaps, sitting here today, you long to belong. You long to be loved by God and to love God. Perhaps, you recognize you have ineffective faith and desire a faith more worthy of the One who feeds in this story. That, too, is ok. You see, like those in the crowd, our Lord has compassion on all those who need, all those who long, all those who desire to be a part of His kingdom. All of us begin like Peter. We all see and long for our Lord to call us out onto the stormy waters. We all long to accomplish great things in His honor and to His glory. Scarier still, though, most of us sink from time to time. It is only through that constant walk in faith, over time, where Jesus demonstrates His incredible faithfulness to us, that we are transformed into heralds of His kingdom, ambassadors of His grace and power, and firstborn inheritors of His blessings.