Proper 13A. 3 August 2014.
Alexander D. MacPhail
Matthew's story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, plus women and children, is one of those chestnuts in the miracle stories. It may not seem loaded with symbolism, but it is; and I would like to go through the story and talk about those various items.
Matthew describes Jesus withdrawing in a boat to a deserted place by himself, so we can rather assume that he is trying to take a break from his public ministry and have a little down time. I think we can all appreciate that even our Lord needed times of rest.
I have come to believe that Jesus' devotional life—while not given much space in the Gospels—is the foundation who he is. He models for us something that other spiritual writers have noted—that to be part of a community sometimes means that one must withdraw from it. (I am sensitive to that as I am leaving on vacation myself after today.) But even if one isn't in a leadership role, there is a deep value to creating healthy space between one's self and one's family and community. Not a great space, but times of refreshment in the presence of God so that we can center ourselves. So that the Lord can meet some of our needs so that we can be better with our families and community.
We have a tendency—especially in the west—to think of those times as selfish or unproductive, which is not the case. I recently read an article about a woman who was known for great productivity in her work and personal life, and she attributed her ability to accomplish so much to her ten to fifteen minute breaks for meditation. Just pulling aside to let the static of life die down, and focus on the present moment allowed her to think better.
It is for this space that Jesus is heading off. But the crowds hear of it, and follow him. And Jesus, seeing their need for love, for healing, for him, has compassion on them.
Let's just pause for a moment and consider the cultural significance of that. That these people are willing to be transparent with Jesus about their emptiness, or their hurt, or whatever is behind their desire for him. And Jesus has compassion. He doesn't fault them for their need. Nor does he exploit their affection—like an actor teasing the audience about whether or not they would like an encore. The Lord has compassion.
And when evening comes the disciples realize that there is likely going to be a problem here. They have all come to a deserted place and they are going to be hungry. And in the minds of those who know the stories of God, this scenario is all too familiar. The people of Israel during the Exodus came out of Egypt and in the desert they were hungry.
It's a human condition that doesn't get more basic. It's one of the three basic needs: food, clothing, and shelter. They don't have food.
Both in the story of Jesus, and in the story of the Exodus, following God seems to mean coming to a place of scarcity. Have you noticed that?
When the disciples are called by Jesus to follow him, they leave their homes and families and livelihoods. The Gospel writers don't describe any scarcity, but that's somewhat implied in the fact that left everything to follow.
And when I say scarcity, I don't just mean money or food, or other material items, although that is often the case. Sometimes scarcity is coming away from old friends, or old patterns by which we used to live, old habits of thought or behavior.
When you come away to be with God, changes have to be made. I remember going to seminary and meeting many seminarians who had given up a lot more than I had to pursue their sense of God's call. Some people who left very lucrative jobs, and positions of great influence. They had a deeper sense of sacrifice for their call than I did. They were having to leave not only the money, but the friends they had made who didn't understand how they could possibly want to be obedient to God more.
I remember vividly talking to one of my classmates who had trained as a lawyer, and he said that when he finally "came out" to his family that he felt called by God to be a priest, his family did everything they could to get him to change his mind. So to come to seminary meant leaving his family, who could not accept or understand. And a sense of scarcity is there.
But there can also be a spiritual scarcity as well. I think that was my story. I found the experience of seminary and formation to be a time of spiritual poverty. I had come away to follow as closely as I could, but I don't remember much in the way of intimacy with God. It was like being thirsty in a swimming pool. And I thought, Why am I thirsty? I'm surrounded by water.
Jesus understood this, you know. Remember the story of his baptism? He comes up from the water, and the voice of the Father says, "This is my beloved son, on whom my favor rests." And immediately he is driven into the wilderness. Immediately he goes to a place of scarcity. (Pause.)
And it isn't just a little weekend retreat. It's forty days and nights of fasting and self denial. One would think he would go from the water and the announcement of his sonship, and go right to preaching and healing and everything…but no. Wilderness and scarcity. Just like the Exodus, just like you and me…
Coming away—whether it's the Exodus, or the people who followed Jesus in this story, or we ourselves who are seeking God—coming away really is coming from one environment of scarcity another.
You see, here is the mystery: the place that seems rich and full—where we feed ourselves—is a place of great poverty. And the wilderness, the deserted place, is where God feeds us. Coming away is coming to a place where the props that have held us in place are stripped away, and God becomes our only true support.
The disciples want Jesus to dismiss the crowds, because they, too, see nothing but scarcity. They, too, are just learning that the wilderness is about trusting God to be the one who provides.
Jesus says, "You give them something to eat." And they respond from their poverty, "We have nothing, but five loaves and two fish." They have five loaves and two fish, but what did they first say? "We have nothing." Scarcity is what they see.
Do you know, you hear this in churches?
"We have nothing, but about thirty or forty people on Sunday." (I know churches smaller than ours where thirty people would be Easter Sunday for them.)
Children? "We have nothing, but about five children."
Money? "We have nothing, but people are very faithful, and we always seem to make out okay at the end of the year."
What does your church do? "Nothing. We don't do much, but once a month we offer a meal to people in the community, and we give our space to organizations, and our members volunteer in various places, and we give to support our local charities." Is that really nothing?
We always think we have nothing, don't we? And Jesus takes the little bit in his hands and blesses it.
That's the real miracle to me. That Jesus gives thanks and blesses what seems like an insignificant amount next to the great, gaping need around him.
And then he breaks the bread. Because if the bread isn't broken, it can't be shared. If Jesus isn't broken, Jesus can't be shared. If you and I are not broken, we cannot be shared. That's another sermon for another day.
What I want you to see is what happens next. Who feeds the crowds? (Pause.) Not Jesus. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples. But it's the disciples who feed the crowds.
And herein lies a metaphor for the missionary life of the church: that God provides in the wilderness, but it is through our obedience that the nourishment is conveyed to the world. We are first recipients, and therefore givers of what we have received.
Perhaps you have looked around your life or your church and felt a sense of scarcity. Not enough…whatever it may be. And often those feelings have a root in our own spiritual poverty—a feeling that we are not enough, or that we don't deserve the fullness of life.
I think every sensitive, devout Christian has known that ache. All of the spiritual writers and saints have spoken of it. Years ago we learned that Mother Teresa spent most of her life in a kind of spiritual anguish. She wrote in her journals that she was unable to feel the love of God. She wrote that she didn't even feel a sense of consolation in the Holy Communion. And she kept going despite that inner darkness. She didn't give up her ministry or her prayers.
I read recently that at one point someone came to her in deep anguish and she said, "Spend an hour a day adoring the Father and you will be fine." Knowing what we know of her own inner life, how do we receive those words?
Coming away to be with the Lord can seem to be an experience of scarcity and poverty—of many kinds. But the promise of God, and the compassion of Christ, is that when we truly rely on him, there is not just enough, but more than enough.
In Mother Teresa's life there was nothing. Nothing, but a few hundred thousand people who felt compassion through her hands. Nothing, but a religious order that continues to provide spiritual and physical healing for the world. I don't fault her for her inner darkness—I have known it myself—but part of the darkness is not valuing enough the provision that God has given us.
God has given us so much. We forget that. We forget the beauty of this place in Virginia—a place many people in northern Virginia fantasize about visiting, and we live here. We wish for more of this or that, and cannot see the beautiful, wonderful now that God places before us.
We can be like children on Christmas morning after opening our presents, looking around and saying, "Is this all?"
Well, maybe this is all of it on this side of heaven, but if we have eyes to see it, and hearts to appreciate it, God might show us that it is more than enough.
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