a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost [proper 12B]
Three summers ago my family was making the long trek back across the country from visiting friends in Wisconsin. We stopped for a night in Chicago and ended up staying in a hotel on the far northern edge of the city. After spending a long, hot, and sunny day walking to different sites in downtown, we got back in our car and drove the thirty minutes north to the hotel. We were tired and hungry, and we didn’t want to spend more money and energy in a restaurant, so at about 7pm we stopped in Heinen’s grocery store, bought a rotisserie chicken, some small tubs of salads from the prepared foods counter, some fruit, and some Chips-Ahoy for dessert. We went back to our hotel room, spread out the food on the coffee table, which was small and unusually low to the floor, so we had to squish together on the sofa and hunch over to eat. And we sat there and ate our lukewarm and cold food while we watched the U.S. Women’s soccer team win the World Cup final.
My family still talks about that meal. In many ways, that supper still feeds me and Melinda. We remember it with such fondness, and not because the food was exceptional. It was an event where we had a clear need and discovered that somehow the Lord provided more than we were expecting. It was a surprise moment of unusual togetherness for us during a long trip home, a time of growth and opportunity—one daughter willing to try blackberries for the first time, all of us swept into the action of the game. It was a humble meal, kind of haphazardly put together. We didn’t have any plates, so we just ate right out of the food containers themselves, everyone with their own fork from the grocery store salad bar. Everything tasted so good, and while I don’t remember my belly feeling particularly full after we finished, I was satisfied.
Have you ever had an experience like that?—a time when food was shared and it created a life-giving moment but the food itself wasn’t really the centerpiece? Have you found yourself in a moment like that—a time of random ambush of God’s abundance, when there was what seemed like nothing…and then suddenly there was more than enough?
There was an event in Jesus’ ministry like that. It was such a big deal— and people talked about it so much and, in a way, fed from it for a long time in their memories—that it ended up in every version about Jesus’ life that we have. In fact, no other event in Jesus’ life, outside of the crucifixion and resurrection, is recorded by all four gospel writers. We’ve come to call it the feeding of the 5000, and it is probably one of the most well-known stories from the Bible. The fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all get so many details the same suggests that this meal there beside the sea had a huge impact on how people understood Jesus’ presence in their life.
He has compassion for people in need.
He empowers disciples to do ministry of caretaking, just like he enlists Philip and Andrew in the problem-solving.
When we hand over to him what we have, he can make it more than enough.
A seemingly small gesture done in Christ’s service can have effects with infinite proportions.
That miraculous event by the Sea of Galilee that day was so impressive, so out of the ordinary, that it became one of the key ways to understanding what Jesus was all about.
For the last few centuries it has become custom to try to explain the miracle scientifically. Some have said that it is a miracle of sharing—that once the one boy had the courage to offer forth his food, suddenly everyone broke out his or her lunch and before you know it, they had a feast on their hands. While it might be hard to get my head around Jesus bending the laws of nature, feeding that many people with such a small amount of food, I find it even more difficult to believe that everyone shares and they all just happen to have brought the exact two same things that day: bread and fish! No stuffed grape leaves? No hummus? Come on!
Others have tried to interpret this miracle as a relic of an ancient mindset that we don’t have anymore. They say that people were used to seeing ordinary things happen and then embellishing them as if something remarkable had happened, that they would tell these kinds of stories about people they admired all the time. However, as researchers and historians look more closely at that time period, we have found that there really aren’t many other examples of major figures performing feedings like this, not to mention stories about the same person doing other miraculous things along the way, too. Of course, as miraculous as this event is, it is just one of several that Jesus manages to pull off during his ministry, something mentioned in the passage’s opening sentence.
No matter what Jesus wants you or me or those people to believe about how he pulls off the feeding of the 5000, the point he is trying to make with it is more important. As with so many things in life, we see something and become so fascinated with how it’s happening that we miss what is happening. And in this case, what is happening is that Jesus is showing us something about God. God’s grace towards us is not ever going to be bound by the laws of physics or the laws of attraction or the laws of the United States of America. God’s desire to care for us and look after us is sometimes—more often than not—just not going to make sense. It’s just too great.
And yet this feeding of the 5000 is still not just an event to tell those hungry people and these hungry people how gracious and giving our God is in general. If that were the case, then all of the attention afterwards would likely be focused on that little boy who offers up his lunch. He would become the hero, the example of how God opens his hand, as the psalm this morning says, and provides for the need of every living thing. And if this were just a lesson about how God is always going to provide ample resources, then it does kind of make sense to make Jesus king, and Jesus would probably accept that gesture. He might say something like , “Just trust in God and there will be enough. As long as you have faith, everything will work out in your favor. God helps those who help themselves.”
But Jesus doesn’t say that and Jesus doesn’t want that, because that’s not what this miracle is about. And that’s not really grace, anyway. When Jesus multiplies the loaves and the fish that day beside the sea he is offering a sign not about how generous God is in general. It is about how generous God is with Jesus. At this meal, the food is not the centerpiece; the host is.
This is a story about how abundantly God provides for us through the life and suffering of his Son, even when we don’t deserve it (reality check: we never deserve it). It is a sign that the true needs we have as God’s children are being answered in the grace and mercy and astounding forgiveness of Jesus Christ. God has our true needs in mind, and there is enough love of Jesus to provide nurture for the entire planet. When he is at the table, when he is present in the conversations we have, when the ministry team gathers in his name, when the mission work crew labors for his kingdom, then we do not need to worry about ever going without. There will be enough to do, enough to be joyful about, enough to share with others.
And we know this foremost because there is another event in Jesus’ life much like this feeding. It is the crowning moment, the moment of total glory, even though it, at first, also looked like everyone was going to come up empty-handed. Around the cross a crowd shows up, hungry, disappointed, and eventually goes away because no one steps up with even a loaf or a fish. It is just loss and emptiness there. And yet God is at work, dying to our ways of hoarding and wasting, dying to our ways of worrying there isn’t enough. Christ is at work, and, lo and behold, he is being made king. In our rejection of him, he’s being made king of a kingdom that doesn’t operate by the selfish, competitive standards of this world.
Congregations do well to remember this, and pastors too, because every congregation I’ve ever been a part of at some point worries that it is deficient in some way. Either there are fears that there is not enough money or not enough Sunday School teachers or people for the choir, or there are concerns the congregation isn’t diverse enough or that we don’t sing enough of that kind of music.
The fact of the matter is that when Jesus is present in the crowd, when the cross is the centerpiece, ministry will always be satisfying and there will enough to go around. The presence of Jesus, you see, is the only thing that ever makes a congregation worthwhile or sacred. He suffices. And over and over he has us sit down, then he takes himself, gives thanks, and breaks himself and distributes himself to each person in the crowd. And we are fed. In fact, that meal is still feeding us. That is grace.
There is a table blessing they sing up in the dining hall at camp Lutheridge that helps drive this home. Maybe I can teach it to you now as a way to remind us of our king and the limitless capacity of his love for us and his call for us to share it with the world. Maybe it can be a way we prepare to receive his grace at his table again today.
Come and dine, the master calls us, come and dine.
There is plenty at God’s table all the time.
He who fed the multitudes and turned the water into wine
Come and dine, the master calls us, come and dine.
May we come to keep eating it. And to keep talking about it.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 Jesus: A Pilgrimage. James Martin, S.J. HarperOne 2014. pp 257ff