July 31, 2011
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Psalm 145:8-9, 15-22
The feeding of the five thousand – perhaps the best known of Jesus' miracles, next to the water to wine thing, of course. I'm sure you know the story well. But for those of you who have been in my bible study this summer, you know I'm all about looking at these familiar stories fresh and new to see “what else” we can get from them. And, I'm always amazed that when I do look at a familiar story, trying to put aside what I think I know about it, God almost always gives me something new in it. This story was no exception.
This is the only miracle that is presented in all four of the gospels. I think that makes it pretty significant. And, although the telling of the story in each gospel is slightly different, there are certain facts that are unchanged – there are 5000 men plus women and children, there are five loaves and two fishes, and there are 12 baskets full left over. I think we can confidently say this miracle really did happen.
But what really did happen? And I don't mean, how did Jesus do it, how did he make so much food appear? That isn't the important question to ask. It's not what we are to get from the story. I think it's good for us to acknowledge there is mystery in miracles. It helps us remember that God is God and we are not. Let's revisit afresh what the story tells us. First of all, Matthew sets the context of this story immediately following Jesus finding out that John the Baptist has been gruesomely killed, at the whim of King Herod's wife who didn't like his teachings. Jesus wanted to get away to spend time in his grief, to go to a 'deserted place by himself'. The reference to a deserted place would not have been lost on the first readers of Matthew's gospel – it's a place of human wandering and uncertainty, of doubt and insecurity and yet mysteriously, miraculously it is a place where God works deep within. The Israelites wandered in the desert as God prepared them to receive the abundance of the Promised Land; John the Baptist preached in the desert to prepare his listeners for the abundance of the Kingdom that was coming in Jesus; Jesus himself spent time in the desert to prepare for his ministry that would bring the abundance of new life to all. The desert is a place of isolation and suffering but it is also the place God uses to prepare us for the abundance to come.
The crowds, however, had a different plan for Jesus. They hungered to hear his word and receive his healing touch, so much so, they didn't think about their basic physical needs. They followed him, without hesitation, without preparation, without packing a lunch. And when Jesus saw them, he wasn't annoyed, he didn't try to avoid them, he didn't scold them … even in the midst of his own grief Matthew tells us he had compassion for them and healed their sick. The account in Mark says Jesus has compassion because they are like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus was moved to compassion and instinctively he takes care of their physical needs – he heals them. Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it”. Without the desire to do something, it's just pity or feeling sorry. Compassion moves us to want to do something even if we don't know what that something is.
A lot of people when they read what the disciples say next accuse them of not having the same compassion that Jesus does and I've thought that, too. But this time through I saw it differently. I think they did have compassion. They knew the people must be hungry, the disciples themselves were probably quite hungry, so they ask Jesus to remind the crowd that they need to eat. They're pretty sure they don't have the resources to feed them so they come up with the best plan they can – send them away to get food. Can you see it that way? Can you relate to their wanting to care for the world's needs but feeling unable to do anything? They are thinking with earthly things and their own power and ability.
Jesus knows differently. He knows that the disciples can do more; he knows that with God's help they are capable of partnering with God in the care of His creation and he's going to show them how. He tells them “you feed them”. When they voice their inability to do anything, it's not because they don't want to, but because they don't know what they can do. Jesus walks them through the solution. He first tells them to gather what they have. In their time of doubt, he begins to prepare them for the abundance to come.
When they bring him the five loaves and two fishes, he takes what they have and looking to heaven, prays over it – actions we mimic every week when we partake in the Eucharist. We bring forward what we have – the bread and the wine and give it to God at His table, we give thanks and ask Him to bless it. What follows is always abundance. He miraculously transforms it so that it not only feeds us physically but spiritually. In loving abundance God gives us what He knows we need.
Jesus didn't give the food directly to the crowds, he gave it back to the disciples and asked them to distribute it. The disciples partnered with God as co-creators. And like the disciples we are called to partner with God in sharing His loving abundance with others. In coming together to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, we receive that which nourishes us so that we can go out into the world to love and serve – to be moved to compassion by the needs of the world. We are called to be the hands and feet through which God does His work is done in this world.
It's easy to become overwhelmed with the great needs of the world and to say “What can I do?” When the disciples thought there was barely enough to feed the 12 of them, Jesus gave them the means to do more, much more, and each of them had a basketful left over. We are not meant to do it alone. The disciples worked together with each other, no one disciple is singled out by name, they are a unified group, looking to Jesus who points them to heaven for direction and the power to reveal God's love to the world through concrete acts of compassion.
Together, as followers of Jesus' Way, we can, with God's help, miraculously and mysteriously, make His abundant love a concrete reality to the world around us if we don't limit ourselves to our own power and means. Jesus shows us how we can be God's hands and feet, moved to compassion, by looking to heaven and giving thanks for the power and ability only God can provide.