August 3, 2014, Pentecost 8 – Enough Is Enough
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Here is one of the more terrifying experiences you can have, if you are a fairly quiet and insecure person. Imagine that you are at a meeting, and you come up with an idea that seems like a really good one, something that one of those talented and energetic people around you ought to do. You have to work up the courage to raise your hand. You start to sweat a little and you can feel your heart racing. Finally you put your hand halfway in the air, and – horror of horrors – someone actually notices you. So you tell everyone your idea in a wee small voice and they all turn to you and say, “Great idea! You can do that!”
I think that must have been a little bit the way the disciples felt when Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.” It had seemed such a good idea when it occurred to them that someone really ought to make sure all those people were able to find themselves some food and a place to stay, someplace else, mind you, because they were worn out with ministering to so many people for so long. When Mark tells this story – and he had it from Peter who was there – he says they went out into the wilderness for that very reason, to find a safe and quiet place to rest, because so many people had been coming and going that they had no rest. And Matthew tells us that Jesus had just heard about John’s murder at the hands of King Herod, and that Herod’s attention was now turning on him and on his ministry.
Weary and sad and anxious, Jesus and the disciples needed a break, badly, and instead they had this immense crowd of people around them, needy and hungry, restless and helpless – Mark says that when Jesus looked at the crowds he felt compassion for them because they were like lost sheep, wandering around without any shepherd to guide them. There were 5,000 men there, we are told, but that was just the men. Besides that there were women and children, too, so that there were probably upwards of 15,000 people out there in the wilderness – something like the entire population of Massena and Canton added together. No wonder the disciples were more than a little taken aback when Jesus turned to them and said “You give them something to eat.”
This is an important story in the gospels. It is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that all four gospel writers chose to include. But the very familiarity of the story sometimes makes us forget how great a miracle it was, the greatest community supper in all of history, five coarse loaves of barley bread and two fishes that satisfied the hunger of about 15,000 people – with leftovers. It is such a great miracle that it has inspired people to great efforts at explaining it away, as some modern theologians have tried to do. What really happened, they say, is that Jesus and his disciples trotted out their lunch and offered to share it, and the people were so overwhelmed by this that they all reached into their own lunch pails, which they had of course brought along when they followed Jesus out into the wilderness, and they shared what they had, and there was so much sharing that the disciples found themselves with twelve baskets of food leftover after the feast.
That would make a wonderful story on Sesame Street to teach children the value of sharing, but it is complete nonsense as an interpretation of the gospel story. The multitudes that came out into the wilderness by the thousands to find Jesus were poor and desperate people, sick people and hopeless people, not picnickers having a nice day out in the fresh air. When the crowds saw that bread and fish miraculously multiplied to feed a whole city’s worth of people, they rose up in a sort of mad excitement, ready to make Jesus king by force, imagining that here at last was the one to bring an end to the hunger and poverty and sickness that was all they had ever known.
And so any kind of a faithful and reasonable reading of this story has to conclude that this is most definitely the story of a dinner of miraculous proportions. In the hands of the Creator, the natural order of growth and fruitfulness that we expect in this world was suddenly expanded and focused into one enormous outpouring of abundance so that every one of those hungry men and women and children had all they wanted to eat – and who knows how many of them had ever been able to eat all they could hold? We are so used to coming away from our meals feeling content or full or even stuffed, but for the truly poor, back then and today alike, that feeling of gnawing hunger is never quite gone. But on that day, dinner was really “all you can eat”. There was such an abundance of food that even the leftovers were abundant.
This miraculous dinner was a sign to the people that with this man, Jesus, the kingdom of heaven was breaking in to this world, bringing, at long last, healing and compassion and comfort. It was a sign that proclaimed Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, and the multitudes who were there on that day, and who shared that dinner, recognized it, at least in part. But the story of the miraculous dinner, as Matthew and the other evangelists wrote it down for us, has even more to teach us. Because the thing is that this is not only a story about Jesus and the amazing things that he can do – no matter how true that is. This is also a story about disciples – about us – and about what we are called to do, and how we are called to do it. And that’s where this story gets even more exciting: exciting, and maybe a little scary.
Can you imagine what the disciples felt, what they were thinking, when Jesus turned to them and said, “They don’t need to be sent away. You give them something to eat.” After they realized he wasn’t putting them on, they sputtered, “Us? Feed all these people? Are you kidding? Six months’ wages wouldn’t buy enough to feed all these people – and we don’t have six months’ wages. We barely have enough to feed ourselves.” And Jesus said, “OK, how much do we have? Bring it to me.” And full of confusion and fear and hope and wonder – and doubt, I’m sure – they brought Jesus their pathetic little offering of fives loaves of bread and two fish. And Jesus took the food and blessed it, offering it up to the Father with thanks. The Jewish blessing would have been something like this, except in Aramaic:
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
Jesus broke the bread and fish into pieces to be eaten, and he gave the pieces to the disciples to distribute. And the disciples passed out bread and fish, and more bread and fish, and more bread and fish, and more bread and fish, until at long, long last those thousands of people, sitting in groups of fifties and hundreds on the grass, stopped reaching for more because no one was hungry any more. How did that feel, I wonder? At first I imagine the disciples must have felt terribly afraid of what would surely happen when the food ran out – as it surely would – and all those hungry people began to panic. They might reasonably fear that there would be a riot, desperate people fighting one another over the last crumbs of bread and scraps of fish. But then the minutes went by; they kept on handing people bread and fish, and incredibly, the baskets of food didn’t run out, and the faces of the people stopped looking fearful and hungry and began to look contented and then excited. And the disciples – how did they feel, do you think, as they held that bread and fish in their hands and passed it to one person after another – it must have felt like a holy thing, to take in their hands that wonderful food blessed by the hands of Jesus, and to put it into the hands of their Jewish brothers and sisters.
It is a holy and humbling thing to be a disciple, because discipleship means that Jesus turns to us, sometimes when we feel the very least capable and equipped, and he says, “You can do this. You give them something to eat. You visit that neighbor. You pray for that person who calls themselves your enemy. You invite that person into your home.” He turns to us, and we know every reason in the world why we can’t do what he is asking us to do. And he answers us, “Well, what do you have?” And it is when we place our pathetic offering in his hands, with all our fear and doubt and reluctance, that the miracle of his blessing can make our offering fruitful beyond anything we could possibly have hoped for.
It is a humbling thing to be a disciple, because certainly Jesus doesn’t need our help; he doesn’t need our little loaves and fishes in order to care for the world he made. We are his disciples and co-workers because Jesus chooses to work through us. He loves the creatures he made, so much so that he became one of us and took on himself the limitations and the mortality of human flesh. And he continues to work through human flesh by means of his disciples, poor and frail and foolish as we generally are. It is a humbling thing to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, and it is also our greatest joy, because in his hands the little that we are and have becomes enough, and more than enough, to do all that he is calling us to do.
It is a certainty that we need to hold onto as a small church. It’s very easy to think, back when there were more members, and younger members, St. Philip’s had all these ministries, a youth group, and a choir, and all these activities, but now, well, times have changed and we can’t expect to do all that we did back then. But the truth is that we disciples never have what is needed to serve one another and our community; we have never been and never will be enough – until we place ourselves, all that we have and all that we are, in his hands, for his blessing. Then and only then we can be sure that what Jesus is calling us to do now, we are able to do, and not in a half-hearted, cautious way, but whole-heartedly, confidently, hopefully.
“Well, what do you have?” Jesus asks us. We don’t have a lot: we have ourselves, just ourselves, our time and our talents; as St. Philip’s church we have me, and we have you. That’s it. We are pretty much a five loaves and two fish situation, really. What this story teaches us is that our job is not to figure out how to be more than we are or different than we are, not how to be like we used to be, not how to be like some other church; our job as disciples is to put all that we have and all that we are in his hands, and then to share ourselves with the world around us. Because in his hands we will be more than enough to do all that he is asking us to do.
And what is he asking us to do? All we have to do is look out at the people around us and see the hunger, just like the disciples did on the evening of the miraculous dinner. There are so many kinds of hunger out there – true physical hunger, yes, but also the hunger of lonely people who live by themselves, with no family nearby, with few or no friends to care for them or about them. There is the hunger of young people who grow up in broken homes, with little structure and no guidance and no clear hope for the future. There is the hunger of those who know little or nothing about who God is, who have never set foot in a church, or whose experience with church long ago taught them only criticism and condemnation. And there’s so much more – the multitudes are all around us. And Jesus looks at us, and says, “You give them something.”
What can we do? The disciples looked at one another and said the very same thing. We have our plans as a church, for our ice cream social, for youth group and Bible studies and healing services, and as individuals we do what we can day by day for the people around us. But the first step is the one we must not forget, without which our loaves and fishes will just be broken pieces, and never a grand feast. And that first step is, that we put ourselves, ourselves and all we have, in the hands of Jesus Christ. Because with his blessing we are enough; with his blessing we can feed a multitude.