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Monday, August 8, 2011

Sermon from July 31, 2011 + Ordinary Time, Sunday 18 (A)

“Bread, Fish, and Beyond”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Matthew 14:13-21; Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

I’ll tell you what the hard part of this amazing story is for me: “You give them something to eat.” The disciples turn to Jesus upon seeing a great need. Thousands are in a lonely place, a wilderness place, because they’ve followed Jesus there. And the sun is going down, and for some reason no one thought to bring a lunch. It’s almost as if these crowds needed to be with Jesus so much that they kept walking far beyond what they expected – like they got up in the morning intending to see Jesus, but be back by suppertime. And in their search for him, they’ve overextended their reach. Now they’re beyond metro areas, with only scattered villages nearby. No fast food, no grocery stores. And no one thought to bring a meal.

So the disciples ask Jesus for help. And he turns to them and says, “You give them something to eat.”

That’s the hard part. Because I love singing the psalm we sang today, that the eyes of all look to God to give them their food in due season. I love thinking of God’s gracious ability to transform a few loaves into a feast for thousands. But I don’t know what it would mean for me, for us, to be a part of this. I don’t know what Jesus wants of us: “you give them something to eat.”

There are lots of hungry people in this world. Thousands die of hunger and hunger related illness every day – tens of thousands. The horn of Africa once more is afflicted by terrible drought and the subsequent famine, worse than in 20 years, and thousands, thousands are dying. Refugees are wandering in the wilderness, not looking for Jesus, just looking for help. And they didn’t bring a lunch because they didn’t have one to bring. And that says nothing about the hungry neighbors we have – people in need all over our country, who are voiceless in our nation’s current self-centered budget debates which seemingly care nothing for those Jesus would call the “least of these.”

And even when I want to pray that frustration to God, to pray “how can our leaders be so careless, so lacking in compassion,” even when I want to blame them, and self-righteously make politicians the scapegoats, I hear Jesus say, “you do something about it.” And I find myself saying, “I’ve got nothing. Nothing I can do that would change this.”

Well, like it or not, we have to understand what this means for us as disciples. We have to grasp that central to this miracle, the only one told by all four Evangelists, is an understanding of Jesus, the very Son of God, that we, his disciples, have something to do. This shouldn’t be a surprise – it’s pretty much Jesus’ way of doing things. Invite people into grace and then send them out to be that grace. It’s just that I can really understand the disciples here, facing likely more than 12,000 hungry people (that’s adding in women and children to the count) with a couple fish and a few loaves. Looking at the problem of hunger in this world today, it seems like the same exercise in overwhelming futility.

The blessing in all this is that Jesus’ charge to the disciples isn’t the only thing he does. It’s important – but seeing the whole picture helps us respond to his call.

It is God’s compassion which dominates today’s Scripture.

In that glorious psalm of praise, we sang “Lord, you are good to all, and your compassion is over all your works.” It is that compassion of God which causes the eyes of all to trust that they can wait upon God, who gives food in due season, who opens his hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing.

And it is the compassion of Jesus which compels him to leave the quiet place he has gone to once more heal, teach, and now feed. There’s a pathos in this story – Jesus is overwhelmed by hearing of John’s death, and needs to get away to a quiet place. We can only imagine the pain he must feel, however close he might or might not have been to his cousin. Jesus certainly is starting to sense resistance at this point, and John’s death only foreshadows for Jesus what eventually he will openly say – that his own ministry will end in death.

And yet the crowds won’t leave him alone – they track him down, even though he took a boat to the quiet place. But beyond his own need, Jesus acts on his compassion. His love for these people leads him to help these helpless crowds. He teaches them. He heals their sicknesses. He sets aside his need for rest and time apart.

But when the disciples come to Jesus as evening falls, hoping that he’d agree that now it was time to move on, Jesus says to the disciples: “You give them something to eat.”

This is a powerful part of his message, and that’s the piece we always need to remember. Ultimately, Jesus didn’t come to feed people with literal food himself – his mission was far bigger than that. Think of how many sick people there were in Palestine at that time whom Jesus never healed. Think of the hungry folks in Galilee who didn’t make this party.

His compassion filled him with a need to help people. But his compassion was a sign of the greater love of God he came to offer the whole world.

And so again and again Jesus reminds the disciples that he is preparing them to continue his work. If there are people needing to be fed, the only way that will happen is if all over the world there are people doing this. If there is healing which needs doing, grace which needs sharing, love which needs to transform the world, it will happen through Jesus’ disciples.

The challenge for any disciples of Jesus is to understand how this will happen. The disciples hoped Jesus would send the crowds away rather than they find a solution. His compassion didn’t permit that. His sense of his mission caused him to give the job of feeding to his disciples.

The disciples responded to Jesus’ call by saying, “We have nothing.” As it turns out, that wasn’t really true. And therein lies the power of Jesus’ grace for the world.

Jesus takes their “nothing” and transforms it into food for thousands.

It’s funny but worth considering: They come to Jesus, knowing they’ve got five loaves and two fish. To them, it’s not enough. And they’re right. But when Jesus says, “you feed them,” they say it out loud. How? We have nothing – well, except for these loaves and fish. They completely discount what they have, what assets are already in their hands.

And that’s critical for us to note. Looking at the shape of the world, the extent of the world’s hunger, to name only one of many problems afflicting God’s people, we can think we’ve got nothing to offer this. So we pray to God, hoping God will do something about it. Hoping, perhaps, that if God handles it we won’t have to.

The disciples actually wanted to avoid the problem altogether – but Jesus’ compassion wouldn’t let them. But he also knew that they had resources he could use to make a difference.

I don’t know if it’s significant, but Jesus never feeds the thousands in this encounter. He gives the food to the disciples. The disciples feed the crowd. He takes their “nothing” and transforms it into something. But he leaves it in their hands to get the work done.

Rather than looking for God’s miraculous intervention, then, our call is to consider what we have, offer it to God for blessing as Jesus did with the bread and the fish, and then share it.

It will cost us something – sacrifice, time, inconvenience. Just as it cost Jesus to leave his much-needed rest. Sacrificial love isn’t always just losing your life – sometimes it’s simpler than that, even though that can be hard to want, too. It will take some organizing, some doing, some planning. Just as the disciples had to get the crowds seated into groups.

But it will be an amazing blessing, to the whole world.

I’m still not sure what exactly Jesus means us to do.

We can start by looking at what we have – even if we think it’s nothing. God has given us assets, gifts, abilities. We may not think they’re enough to deal with the problems of this world. But God does.

And then we can lift them up to God for blessing. God will bless them – but then give them right back to us to share with the world.

So that’s the situation. There are millions, not thousands, who need to eat. But we’ve got compassion. We’ve got assets. And we’ve got God, who is good to all, whose compassion is over all his works, whose hands are open wide, ready to satisfy the needs of every living thing.

What more do we need?

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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