Feeding the Five ThousandMatthew 14:13-21 (NRSV)
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Have you ever had a day when you just do not feel like it? You are not motivated. You have no energy, no desire to do much of anything, let alone reach out and help someone else. It is much easier to reach out and help others when you are having a good day, isn’t it? When you have a little extra to give and when you are feeling good about yourself and the world around you? But as many of us have experienced over the last few months, life does not always go the way we want or expect it too. Sometimes we struggle with financial issues, or relationships, or conflicts at work or at home, and sometimes we even find ourselves amid a pandemic. When that happens, we need to take care of ourselves for a little while–to work through the pain and the grief and the anxiety and the frustration that we feel to get back on our feet. Folks, it is okay to take a break, to take some time to collect your thoughts and work through your feelings.
But it is often when we really need a break that we find ourselves surrounded by others in need, as well. We are surrounded by people who are constantly complaining or begging us to fix their problems. Well, in our scripture reading today, Jesus finds himself in that same situation. He has just learned of the death of his cousin, John the Baptist, and understandably, he is grieving. As scripture says, “He withdrew from there in a boat, to a deserted place by himself.” See, even Jesus needed to take a break because he knew that he could not help others unless he helped himself first.
But scripture goes on the tell us, “When the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. And when he went ashore, he saw a great crowd.” Now wouldn’t it have been nice if the crowd had come to console Jesus, or to make sure that he was okay, or to see if he needed anything? But that was not what Jesus found. Instead, Jesus found that they had brought their sick so that he might help and heal them. And he did. Scripture says, “He had compassion for them and cured their sick.”
Friends, when Jesus saw the crowds, even amid his own grief and despair, he reached out and helped them. But he did not stop there. When the disciples came to him a little while later and said, “Master, this is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus turned to them and said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
Now one thing that we do not always think about in this story of the feeding of the five thousand is that the crowd that had gathered was a combined group of Jews and Gentiles. The disciples did not know them. They did not owe them anything, and they hadn’t even invited them in the first place. But Jesus fed them anyway. Does that sound familiar? Because that is what Jesus does.
Friends, there are a lot of heated arguments between theologians, new Testament professors, and scholars over what exactly happened that day. Did Jesus perform a miracle and multiply the loaves and the fish? Or did Jesus use the situation as a teaching moment, bringing about a grassroots movement of generosity by encouraging everyone to share what they had with others?
Friends, to be honest, deep in my heart, that is what I think happened that day. I imagine it was a result of Jesus setting a good example and it was a true miracle of sharing and of neighbor helping neighbor. Because that tells me that there is hope. If the feeding of five thousand hungry people was possible through the kindness and compassion of strangers more than two thousand years ago, that only gives me hope that we can do the same kinds of miraculous things today.
It took everyone sharing what they had with the people they knew and the people they did not know. They shared with Jews and Gentiles, with the clean and the unclean, with young and old, with neighbors and strangers. And because they simply followed Jesus and did it anyway, their generosity was enough.
But what if, in today’s story, Jesus was just too tired? What if, in his grief, he sent everyone away? What if he did not just do it anyway? Well, then we would not be talking about the feeding of the five thousand more than two thousand years later. We would not be inspired and encouraged to reach out and to do our best, shining a light on our little corner of the world.
Friends, repeatedly in scripture, Jesus teaches us, by his own example, to just do it anyway. Are you tired? Do it anyway. Are you sad? Do it anyway. Are you unsure about what is going to happen next? Do it anyway!
Folks, when we celebrate communion, we celebrate that same sense of compassion, unconditional love, and grace that Jesus shared at the feeding of the five thousand. And just like Jesus fed the Jews and the Gentiles, the clean and the unclean, the young and old, the neighbors and strangers, Jesus welcomes and feeds all at His Table as well.
Friends, many people think of communion as a formal ceremony where only the righteous and worthy are welcome, but really, that is the farthest from the truth. When Jesus gathered in the upper room with his friends the disciples, he knew that the disciples had no idea what He was talking about. But just like on that mountainside when he fed five thousand strangers, Jesus fed the disciples anyway. He knew that the disciples did not understand what was going on, but Jesus continued to teach them and to lead them and to feed them just as he does us today.
We also know that as Jesus looked around the table that night, his heart was heavy because he saw one of his own who had betrayed him. He knew another would deny him, and he knew the rest of them would eventually abandon him. But even with a heavy heart, Jesus fed them anyway. Because the table is not about who is worthy. It is not about perfection and excellence. It is about healing the broken, feeding the hungry, and giving the gift of grace which we can never deserve, we can only receive.
Friends at that table of ragtag disciples that night, Jesus taught us all about the importance of true communion, of sharing a simple meal and remembering Jesus as we do. And that night, not only did Jesus offer an abundant gift of grace, but Jesus also made the ordinary extraordinary. He did not set the table with fancy dishes or fine silver. There were no pressed tablecloths or elaborately folded napkins. There were no golden chalices and fancy catered foods.
Jesus simply took what was right in front of him–a piece of bread–something simple, every day, and ordinary. But friends, to tell you the truth, it could have been a cracker, or a cookie, or some other bit of food that was on the table in front of him. Because what it was was not as important as what it stood for. Scripture tells us that he blessed it and broke it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body, broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise, after supper, he took a cup, a cup that was on the table in front of him. Again, something simple, something every day, and something ordinary. He gave thanks and then shared it with them saying “This is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink of it, in remembrance of me.”
Now, the scripture says it was wine, but friends, to tell you the truth, it could have been a cup of coffee, or a glass of water or juice, because again what is was was not as important as what it stood for.
(Celebration of Communion)
Friends, there is always a balance between self-care and service. As we all know, an empty pitcher has no refreshment to give. But sometimes, even when we are tired and when we just do not feel like it, we need to follow Jesus’ example and do it anyway. Especially during this time of pandemic, we are all stuck in a holding pattern. We are anxious and worried, and we do not know what the next few days or weeks or months will bring. But friends, we can hide out in our homes feeling sad and frustrated and angry and overwhelmed, or we can decide, like Jesus, to do something anyway. Call a friend or a family member or someone that you think might be feeling lonely. Make something for the church fair, whether it ends up being this fall, or next spring, or a year from now. Start a journal or write a story. Help a neighbor or a friend. Sure, we all need to stay safe. We need to socially distance, and wear our masks and stay away from crowds, but we can still reach out in amazing ways.
I have heard a lot of people say that they are just not motivated because of the unknown. But my friends, our time of sitting and waiting is over! Our time for feeling sorry for ourselves is done. Its time to be like Jesus and to do it anyway!
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into the week ahead, get some exercise. I know you are tired, but do it anyway. Read a book. I know you do not feel like it, but do it anyway. Call someone that you know is struggling. I know it might be uncomfortable, but do it anyway. If you are afraid to start something because you do not know what tomorrow might bring, do it anyway. If a friend asks for forgiveness, but you are still holding a grudge, do it anyway. If you have a little extra and you are not sure if you should share, please do it anyway.
Friends, if you are not sure what to do, but you know in your heart what Jesus would have done, follow in his footsteps and do it anyway, knowing that just like you learned from Jesus, you are teaching others by your amazing example.
My friends may it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen