Sunday, August 6, 2017

All Ate and Were Filled

Matthew 14:13-21
August 6, 2017

            Have you ever heard the joke about the person who gains weight so easily that all she has to do is look at a picture of something fattening and she’ll gain five pounds? I used to tell that joke all the time. As a person who has always been “weight conscious,” that joke rings true. I gain weight quickly and with very little effort. Then I read an article in some magazine that said there was some truth behind that joke. It had something to do with hormone production and subliminal thoughts and overeating; I don’t really remember the supposed science behind it. I just know that once I read that article, I stopped making that joke. Why tempt fate?
            But I am ever more conscious that my weight consciousness is a first world problem. While I can become obsessive about having too much food at my disposal, the latest statistics state that right now six million people are at risk of starvation in Somalia. Another 14 million are at risk of starvation in Yemen, Nigeria and South Sudan.[1] “It is the gravest emergency since the Second World War, according to the United Nations.”[2]
            While I fight against the temptation of overeating, there are, literally, millions upon millions of people – men, women and children – starving to death.
            The scene that we turn to in our passage from the gospel this morning is not one of famine, although as we know from the Old Testament, the Near East was no stranger to its devastating effects. But though the people of Israel were not suffering starvation on the scale of what is happening in the Horn of Africa, it is highly likely that food insecurity was a daily reality. Jesus and the disciples were faced with a large crowd of hungry people.
This story is commonly known as the feeding of the 5,000. Although at the end of the story, we hear that number only includes the men present. Besides the men there were also women and children whose numbers we don’t know. So maybe we should know this story as Jesus Feeding the 5,000 Plus or Jesus Feeding the 5,000 and More.
            This is the only miracle story that is recorded in all four gospels; and Matthew includes another feeding story in the next chapter where 4,000 are fed. The fact that all four gospel writers chose to include this event, even though each telling is slightly different, indicates that this meal is essential in their understanding of Jesus: of what he did and who he was.
            The temptation with a story such as this one is to try and explain the miracle that happened. How did Jesus multiply those five loaves and two fish so that all those thousands of people would have enough? But is following that line of thinking just going down a rabbit hole, a distraction? Is the multiplication the real miracle of the story? Or is there something else at work in this story that is far more miraculous?
            The first sentence of the passage suggests that we are in the middle of something much larger.
“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
            “Now when Jesus heard this.” What did he hear? He heard about John the Baptist’s death by beheading. The irony of that is the decision to behead John was made at a banquet given to celebrate the ruler Herod’s birthday. It was a very different feast from the one that would soon be celebrated by Jesus, the disciples and the crowds of people. John was in the habit of speaking the truth to Herod about his relationship with Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. While Herod didn’t like hearing that truth, he was fascinated by John, and he was scared to put John to death because he feared the crowds who saw John as a prophet. Yet at this banquet, which I imagine to have been both a sumptuous feast and a decadent bacchanal, Herodias’ daughter danced for Herod. Her dancing pleased him so much he swore to her that he would give her whatever she asked for. Well she asked for John’s head on a platter. And that’s what she got. 
            This is the news that Jesus was given. That is what he heard. Because of that he withdrew. He took a boat and went alone to a deserted place. When Jesus withdrew in that way, he usually did so to pray, to be with God in quiet and peace. I think he wanted to grieve. 
            But his alone time was not to be, because the crowds followed him wherever he went. Jesus took a boat, and the crowds followed him on foot.  When Jesus went ashore, he saw the great crowd of people waiting for him, and whatever his own needs were, he had compassion for them. He healed their sick. He cured them of their illnesses. He had compassion for them.
            When evening fell, the crowds did not leave. The disciples saw that it was late, and they knew the people were hungry. They urged Jesus to send the folks away. I’m guessing that they knew the crowds would listen to Jesus’ instructions to do so without complaint.
“Look Jesus, it’s late. The people must be famished. This place is deserted. There’s nowhere to get food around here. Why don’t you send them off to the villages to find some food before it gets much later?”
However, Jesus didn’t bite on their suggestion – pun intended.     
“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 
Yet what can the disciples give them? They only have five puny loaves of bread and two measly fish. It’s meager fare for even just two people, much less thousands. 
            But the disciples gave Jesus what they had. And in an action that foreshadowed the Eucharist, Jesus took the bread and the fish, he raised his eyes up to heaven, he blessed and broke the loaves, gave the food to the disciples, who then distributed it to the waiting crowds. It was enough. All were fed. The leftovers of the broken bread numbered twelve baskets. Perhaps it was not a rich banquet such as the one Herod celebrated, but all were fed.
            This was miraculous, but it was not magic. Jesus did not lift up his eyes and hold up the food to the heavens, and in an act of prestidigitation make more food appear.  He thanked God, he pronounced a blessing, and gave the disciples what they’ve given to him.  And all are fed.
            Perhaps another change of title is due: The Disciples Feed 5,000 Plus! Jesus told them to do it. Jesus encouraged them, and showed them that they had the resources at their disposal. Jesus blessed the food, but it was the disciples who distributed the food. It was the disciples who did the feeding. Jesus took what the disciples thought was a meager offering of food on their part and turned it into a feast of plenty. What they saw as scarcity, Jesus saw as abundance.
            We’ve spent the last weeks reading about parables that compare the kingdom of heaven as something small that not only grows but is pervasive; that seems unlikely and meager, but in fact is abundant. Why would it surprise us or anyone that out of this small portion of food Jesus could feed thousands? As I said earlier, I’m not convinced that this is the true miracle of the story. What is most miraculous to me is not that Jesus made a feast out of nothing, but that Jesus made a feast. Who would have blamed him had he sent the people into villages to find food for themselves? In clergy circles, it would have been called setting boundaries. But it seems to me that what this story is about is not the miracle but what it reveals about God through Jesus. What we really know about God, we know through Jesus. Jesus, God’s incarnation, revealed the character and nature of God. Although Jesus went to find a quiet alone place, when he saw the crowds he had compassion for them. He healed them. He made sure that they were fed. In the face of overwhelming need, he empowered the disciples to take what they had and care for the people. The miracle is that instead of seeing scarcity – which is where I lead from most of the time – Jesus saw abundance.
            How different would my life be, how different would our ministry be, if we looked at our resources, at our abilities, at our time and talents and saw abundance instead of scarcity? How many miracles would happen? How many lives would be changed? How many hungry people could be fed? How many people would eat and have their fill?
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] “A Fierce Famine Stalks Africa,” Nadifa Mohamed, NY Times Opinion Pages, June 12, 2017.
[2] Ibid.

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