August 3, 2008
Scripture: Matthew 14:13-21
Sermon Title: "What I Believe..."
Every pastor, every theologian has a core group of Scriptures that shapes their faith. This Scripture is one of those for me.
It should be no surprise to anyone that this story of Jesus breaking bread and showing radical hospitality, of Jesus being outside with people has become foundational to what I hold dear.
If you recall last week message, I truly believe that God is able to take little and make much. My belief in this is so great that it makes it difficult to attend meetings where everything is boiled down to the number of people we have in attendance and the funds in our account.
To the rest of the world those numbers may seem small. For a Fortune 500 company it would be time to close up shop and sell our property to the highest bidder.
But we are not the rest of the world. We are not corporate America or a social club. We are the Church. The Body of Christ. The living presence of God in the community.
And the God we worship, the God we believe in, is the very one who was present that early evening, when Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish and fed 20,000 people.
This story, in my mind, is not only very true, but it is very real.
Why do I believe this? First of all, it is the only miracle to appear in all 4 Gospels, the writers making sure we hear what is being said.
Why do I believe this? Because I have witnessed it in my life: at seminary when a meal designed for 8 students fed almost twenty and ended with more food then it began with. At camp when 25 people were fed with 21 boxed lunches with left over milk, meat, cheese, and fruit to spare.
Why do I believe this way? Because I’ve seen this miracle happen again and again at our church. In 2006 when a $1,000 VBS program cost only $300. How our Block Party began with a $0 budget and ended up donating a van full of left-over food to Mel Trotter’s Ministry.
I believe in this scripture to the very core of my being, and yet I am always amazed whenever I see it become true again and again. It teaches us of how God is able to take little and make much...
...And yet there are other morsels of truth to this story that we miss if we are not careful.
For you see, this story does not take place in a vacuum or in the spirit of celebration. Instead, this miraculous feeding takes place in the midst of loss, sadness and the cruelty of death.
To fully understand this story, we have to look at what happens before hand. In Matthew 14:1-12 we are told that John the Baptist has been killed by Herod; his head presented on a plate.
Herod next sets his sights on Jesus, assuming he is John raised from the dead. Meanwhile, Johns followers bury his body and tell Jesus the news.
It is here that today’s Scripture begins. Jesus is told of John’s death. He’s aware that Herod feels threatened by him. And Jesus’ response is all too human, showing us his frail side: he withdraws to a place where he could be alone.
This is, in fact a common response for Jesus anytime he feels threatened. When John was arrested, Jesus wandererd off to be by himself. When the Pharisees conspire to destroy Jesus, he again sought refuge in a solitary location.
This demonstrated to us the very real, vulnerable side of Jesus. This need to run away, get away and sequester himself from it all.
We can only guess why Jesus wants to be alone this time.
Perhaps he wants to privately mourn his co-worker.
Perhaps the news of John’s untimely death has brought to his mind the reality of his own: Jesus’ reaction like that of a cancer patient who’s told their roommate just died from the same cancer they share.
Perhaps he is also feeling fearful and anxious about what will happen to him. After all both he and John were speaking about the same truth.
John’s murder was an unkind reminder that you can’t speak about the Kingdom of God without the earthly king punishing you for it. Does this mean Jesus will die for his beliefs as well?
In this all-too-real sense of loss, death and fear, Jesus removes himself to be alone. But the crowd does not allow him his space: hey follow him.
When Jesus sets his eyes on the sick and needy, he is so moved with compassion that he sets aside his own needs and goes about curing their woes.
Eventually night comes and the people are hungry. The disciples offer to send them away, but Jesus says "No: you give them something to eat." And with only 5 loaves of bread and two fish, he does not blink, he does not fret, he doesn’t declare defeat.
But instead, he tells all those lost, all those sick, all those lonely people to sit on the green grass; he takes what little he has, he looks up to the heaven...
...And he gives thanks to God by blessing it.
The disciples take the blessed and broken bread and fish, and pass out it out until not only has everyone eaten their fill but there are leftovers.
This is what I believe to be the power of the story: that in the midst of John’s supremely cruel death, in the midst of political unrest, in the midst of Jesus’s great fear about the future, he still found the ability to look towards heaven and to give God thanks.
Jesus did not give in to his fear. He didn’t look at what little they had and proclaimed defeat.
But Jesus looked at who he was, at what they did have. He looked at the people, he looked at the lonely place they were at, and he managed to find a way to give thanks.
Is that not a testimony to hold onto?
A miracle in the dessert; plenty in the midst of death and loss.
But even more then that: for me, this is the turning point of Jesus’ ministry. Through what has happened to John, Jesus gets a glimpse of what will happen to him.
Jesus could have taken what Herod did to John as as a threat to his life, as a reason to leave, and decide there and then that his ministry was done.
He could have said "That’s it, no more. The party’s over."
Jesus could have wandered away into the wilderness and when the people followed him, he could have been moved by hatred and fear and said "Enough of you all: go away, leave me alone."
In the shadow of the death of his friend and the foretelling of what was to come, Jesus could have turned his back on the people, he could he turned his back on the disciples, he could have turned his back on God, and left them all behind.
He did not have to heal them that day or any other. He didn’t have to teach them about the Kingdom of Heaven. He could have left them all to starve by themselves in that wilderness.
Jesus could have walked away from it all, wandered into the next town, settled down anonymously, spent the rest of his life as a carpenter, find himself a nice Jewish wife, raise a household of children.
He could have lived out his days, attending the weddings of his sons and daughter, welcomed grandchildren onto his knee, grown old and grey and died of old age, in his bed, surrounded by generations of his seed.
Jesus could have permanently walked away. But he didn’t.
For somehow in the midst of loss, and death, fear and loneliness, Jesus found a way to look towards heaven and give thanks.
Somehow Jesus found the audacity to think "So, they punished John for telling people about the Kingdom of Heaven. Well let me show them what the Kingdom of Heaven is like."
And in that wilderness, surrounded by thousands of folk, Jesus took the bread, he looked up towards heaven, he blessed it, and fed them.
Jesus gave thanks, and it wasn’t just a simple action but a bold declaration that said "I am still here and God is still working."
And that act of radical thankfulness not only spoke to the people back then, but to all of the gospel writers and to all of us today. For just as Jesus was all too human and vulnerable at that moment, so are we at various times in our lives.
We have all faced threats of various kinds. Threats that come from the outside. Threats from people who don’t like who we are, don’t like what we have to say, don’t like how we think.
We’re all faced with threats of scarcity. How to make our groceries stretch. How to pay our bills. How to fix the car. How to care for our children.
We are all faced with threats we seemingly have no control over. Threats of our health. Threats to our sanity. Threats from leaders and governments that are foolishly run or wish to do us harm.
And sometimes those threats, those fears make us want to run away. To hide out. To forget everything we have learned and all that we have known.
To turn our back on everyone, and to turn our back on God.
Sometimes temporarily running away can be the healthy thing to do. Sometimes, like Jesus, we just need to get away from whatever is bothering us and to spend some time alone, with God.
But there also comes the time when we have to reenter life, and we have to make a choice: Do we run away permantely?
Or do we stop, look around, and find the courage to look up to the heavens and give thanks and blessing to God for what we have?
Because the truth of the matter is that running away will never be the final answer.
But finding the courage to look at what we have, finding the courage to look towards heaven and seek out God, well that is that start of new hopes and new beginnings.
That is that start in becoming your own hero and a way of declaring "in the midst of it all, and through the help of God, I’m still here."
I believe that Jesus had the chance and good reason to leave it all behind. But somehow, in someway he the courage to continue being who God called him to be.
And he demonstrated to himself and to everyone else around that through God what may seem like a little can indeed become much.
But first he had to look up towards the heavens.
And then he gave thanks.
May you find the courage this week to give thanks as well.
All glory and honor be to the father that meets us in our lonely place, to the Son who feeds us when we are hungry and to the Spirit that multiplies what little we have.