August 3, 2014 Matthew 14: 13-21
Rev. Catherine Purves
This year our Vacation Bible School kids brought in $98.50 in offerings in five days. Considering that we only had 22 kids on our best day, that’s pretty amazing. They were motivated because for every 25 cents that they donated a hungry person somewhere in the world would be given a healthy meal. So, in effect, they donated 394 meals and they were ecstatic about it. Of course, they never actually saw the 25 cent meals. If they had they might not have been quite so excited. These meals are a highly nutritious grain mixture with a vitamin supplement to which hot water is added to make it edible. Our kids probably had visions of Happy Meals being sent over to Africa, but the food they were providing would have looked more like grainy oatmeal. Still, a meal is a meal, especially if you are starving. And what the kids accomplished is pretty amazing.
How often do you open your six foot tall refrigerator and announce that there is nothing to eat, or go to your pantry and complain, “We have nothing here”? In this country of abundance we have so much food that a large percentage of it spoils and just gets thrown away, and yet we still think that we have so little when we look in our fridges. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, just grateful for what we do have. And, in addition, I hope we can learn from our Vacation Bible School 25 cent meal mission that God can do a whole lot even with very little.
Our Gospel story for this morning is a very familiar one. That may be because it is the only miracle story that is recorded in all four Gospels. If you include the related story of the feeding of the 4,000, then you have six accounts in the New Testament of miraculous feeding miracles. Obviously this story was very important to the early church. Why? We might be interested in the mechanics of the miracle itself – Could this have happened? How did it happen? These are modern questions, but I doubt that they would have occurred to the actual Gospel writers who were more concerned to show who Jesus was, and how he related to his earliest followers, and how we can expect him to relate to us. Let’s try to answer those questions.
As a portrait of Jesus, this story reveals first that Jesus was compassionate. Before the question of food is even raised, we are told that Jesus had traveled by boat to a deserted spot where he could be alone. This was right after he learned of the tragic death of his cousin, John the Baptist. He was trying to escape from the crowds for a time, but they figured out what he was doing and were waiting for him when he came ashore. We might not be quite so charitable had we suffered such a loss, but Jesus looked at the crowds and saw their needs rather than his own. Instead of sending them away, he began to heal those who were sick.
In his commentary on this passage, N.T. Wright makes an interesting observation about the impact this had on Jesus’ followers. The disciples, witnessing the compassion of Jesus, also become aware of the needs of the crowds, and that’s why, he thinks, they made their suggestion that the people should be sent off to the villages to buy food. But rather than agreeing, Jesus turns their good intentions around and says, “You give them something to eat.” They didn’t see that coming! Their plan was simple and practical, and it would have cost them nothing. Jesus’ plan would involve the disciples in the superabundance of God and the unending compassion of God. But what did the disciples do? They looked in the ‘fridge,’ checked the pantry, and said, “We have nothing here.” At this point, I imagine Jesus raising his eyebrows in question, and, after a pause, they hastily added, “nothing but five loaves and two fish.” That, of course, is not nothing.
How often do we act as though we have nothing? Nothing to contribute, nothing to say, nothing to share, no bright ideas, no extra energy, no spare time, nothing. We have nothing. But is that true? Or is it just a convenient excuse? Okay, maybe there isn’t much in your fridge or your pantry. Maybe you are burning the candle at both ends. Maybe you do feel emotionally and physically exhausted and just want to send the crowds away. I feel that way myself sometimes.
But look at what Jesus did next. He drew his disciples into his miraculous ministry of feeding the people and meeting their needs. He used what the disciples had (not nothing, but just five loaves and two fish). He directed them to interact with the people, getting them seated on the grass. Then Jesus blessed and broke the loaves and gave the food to the disciples to give to the people. And afterwards, it was the disciples who gathered up what was left over. The disciples who said, “We have nothing,” at Jesus’ command and through his compassionate power, fed five thousand men, plus women and children! But we don’t even have to focus on the numbers. The point is that Jesus worked through the disciples in an unexpected and amazing way to minister to the people. He took all they had, which they thought was nothing, turned it into something, and sent them back with it to participate in his sacrificial and compassionate ministry. That, in itself, is a miracle.
So, N.T. Wright concludes that this is a story about vocation. It’s not so much a story about feeding 5,000 or 4,000 or 20,000 people (that’s including the women and children). It’s a story about how Jesus involves us in his ministry. It’s a story about our vocation at Christians. It’s a story about discovering that your fridge and pantry aren’t quite as empty as you thought. It’s a story about how much God can do with what little we have if we give it all to him. It’s a story about the kinds of miracles that can happen every day when we join Jesus in his ministry.
And here is one more miracle. We are just about to share another meal with Jesus. What have we got to contribute to this meal? Nothing really, just some pieces of bread and a cup of juice. But, again, he is the host at this supper, and he takes what we have, turns it around, and makes it an offering of himself. He feeds us in ways we can barely imagine, using such small portions to unite us with himself and to bind us together in the church. He feeds us and then sends us out to be part of his ongoing ministry in the world. He calls us to share what we have with others. And when we give of ourselves, he multiplies our small gifts and abilities, our energy and time so that others are fed and healed and blessed.
The next time you look in your fridge or your pantry and are tempted to say, “We have nothing here,” remember the 394 meals our children provided for those in need. Remember the five loaves and two fish. Remember what Jesus can do with whatever we give him. And remember that miracles still happen when we respond to Christ’s call and become part of his ministry today.