People plus God – Matthew 14:13-21
I am starting the sermon this morning, following John’s lead last week, with a quick poll on the question – how many times do the gospels speak of Jesus feeding the multitudes? (While that poll question is appearing on your screens – for those on Zoom – and you are clicking on your answer, I will use the traditional method here in the church of holding up our hands. Once? Twice? Three times? Four? Five? Six? More than six?) Now, I will accept more than one right answer. Those of you who answered ‘four’ because this is a story which appears in all four gospels, well done. Those of you who answered six because I said ‘feeding the multitudes’ not ‘feeding the 5,000’, and you wanted to include the other accounts in Matthew and Mark where Jesus feeds 4,000 people (or 4,000 men plus the not counted, but not entirely forgotten women and children in Matthew), very well done. Or if you said, more than six, because Jesus seems to make a habit of throwing impromptu meals together in remote, deserted places, on mountains, in cities, beside the seaside, in upper rooms… I’ll also allow that!
The main point is that we are not to miss just how incredibly important it was that Jesus fed people.
Firstly, for the simple reason that they were hungry. Very hungry. Always hungry. The first-century Roman Empire was marked by huge disparities and inequalities around food access. There was a small ruling elite who enjoyed a great variety of good quality food, but most of the population lived just around or below subsistence levels. Which is why we read of so many sick people in the gospels. “Diseases of deprivation (inadequate nutrition) and diseases of contagion (inadequate immunity) were rife.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2075)
Secondly, because he was connecting with all the traditions about the coming reign of God which depict it as an age of abundance – not just for the few, but for all. As our psalm says, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.” And possibly my favourite passage of Scripture, Isaiah 25, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” This is why gathering around the table, for shared meals, Shabbat, Passover, Hannukah, is so significant in Jewish faith, the faith of Jesus, and so significant in Christian faith, as we gather, as we do today, to do as Jesus did (here in Matthew and among his disciples at the Last Supper); to ‘take bread’, ‘bless it’, ‘break it’ and give it to others. We are all, by sharing in this meal, sharing in an enacting – a living out and a living into that kingdom and its vision of abundance, of enough for all.
But I am going to go out on a limb here this morning and say that I do not think this story of feeding the 5,000 is entirely, by definition, a miracle.
(Look at celling!) No, the ceiling has not fallen in. Neither – I think – has a lightening bolt taken out the Zoom connection. But then, this is Canberra Baptist Church where we embrace a range of ways of reading and interpreting Scripture – which is one of the many things I love about this community of faith.
For one thing, the mechanics of the bread and fish multiplication and distribution are just so perplexing! Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor writes in a sermon on this passage, “Did Jesus multiply the loaves all at once, so that the disciples had to recruit people to help them carry all that bread? Or did it happen as the loaves were being passed through the crowd? When someone tore off a chunk of bread, did the loaf suddenly grow? …Or did new loaves appear while no one was looking? Maybe you set yours down for a moment as you shifted your child from one arm to the other, and when you reached down to pick it up again, there were two loaves instead of one. How did it happen exactly?”
I confess, however, that I find the explanation that Jesus (and the disciples’) generous action of sharing the little they had, five loaves and two fish, inspired others in the crowd to start fishing in their pockets for the meagre loaf or scrap of bread or the bit of dried fish they were hanging onto for a (hopefully not too distant!) rainy day, also not very satisfying. To me, that explanation does not match with the real poverty of these people or the impact this feeding event – or events – had on the early church; their resonance with the visions of God’s coming kingdom; so powerful that every gospel includes them – sometimes twice!
Because the work of God, the action of Jesus, is transformative – is generative – not just here with bread, but with the whole of our lives, taking what we bring, who we are; our shame, our failures, our deep-seated bitterness and inability to forgive, our fears, our selfishness, and blessing our lives so we can bless others as part of God’s new community. That, if you like, is a miracle. It is miraculous!
A miracle – according to the dictionary – is ‘an extraordinary and welcome event, not explained by natural or scientific laws and therefore attributed to a divine agency’, so yes, this feeding story is miraculous, it demonstrates extraordinary and welcome events, events attributed to the transformative power of God…
But it is also brought about by the simple – simple, but let us not underestimate how hard this is sometimes to do – action of the disciples; their stumping up the resources they had – five loaves and two fish. The resulting feeding event is the combined work of divine and human agency, people and God prepared to work together.
People and God prepared to work together what it takes to feed 5,000 men, plus women and plus children. People plus God leads to a lot of pluses.
There’s another way that mutuality, people plus God, appears in this text, in the events that lead to this feeding event. Verse 13, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Jesus had just heard the news of the death, the grisly death, of John the Baptist. (You could see this feeding event as a response to that event – Jesus saying, “While you macabrely serving the head of a poor man as a dish, I will – in accordance to God’s will – dish up good food for the poor.”) But this verse reveals Jesus’ deep distress at this news, his need to get away and process it, but what the crowds do is to follow him. They, too, are distressed, but I also think that they also just want to be with him – the way we all want to gather to comfort others in distress and grief . And Jesus, in turn, arrives and sees the crowd and their distress and has compassion on them and heals their sick. Rather than a godless cycle of destruction, what is put in motion by people plus God is are ongoing cycles of compassion; caring, healing, feeding.
I am reminded of a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You can find a version of it in the Together in Song hymnbook, but I want to read two verses of it, and I’ll use inclusive language.
Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.
Men go to God when he sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.
God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (ed. Eberhard Bethge; trans. Reginald H. Fuller; London: SCM Press, 1954), 167–8.
Are we prepared to stand with God, to work together with God to put in motion cycles of caring and healing and feeding and transforming our world?
There is a campaign at the moment, which I think, feeds directly on this feeding story and these traditions of what life in God’ coming kingdom, life under God’s reign in our lives, should look like, and that is a campaign by Micah Australia, End Covid for All. I want to just show you a short video – 30 seconds – that introduces it.
(Thanks Andrew…) Micah is asking us to sign the pledge or write letters, there’s a sermon there from Tim Costello, and ideas for social media posts – #EndCOVIDForAll or “End COVID for All”. This seems to me to be a perfect example of how we can use our resources, our loaves and fish, and let God do God’s transforming and life-giving work.
Because that is how the kingdom of God comes into our world. This is how crowds are fed, and people are cured – of greed and disease – and how compassion transforms the way we live together. This is how deserted places in our passage, desert places, are turned into green grass, green pastures where people can sit and be satisfied. This is how it happens. When we simply stump up who we are – what we have – our resources, our gifts, our hearts, our time, our skills and let God transform them. This is a miracle, but it’s a miracle plus. It’s people plus God prepared to work together.
I’ll close with another section from Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon, “No one knows how it [this feeding] really happened. Your guess is as good as mine., but what Jesus has been saying to his followers forever he goes on saying to us today, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” If it is a saying that strikes fear in our hearts, that makes the loaves we have seem like nothing at all, we have only to remember what he says next; “Bring them here to me.”