This sermon was preached on Sunday, August 2nd at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 14:13-21.
Jesus withdrew 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. (Matt. 14:13-21)
Five loaves. Two fish.
Not the most promsing basket of ingredients to feed thousands of hungry people in the wilderness. It’s like one of those cooking compeititon shows on TV, where the contestants stare in dismay at a pile of random food items that must be fashioned into something impressive. “You have 30 minutes to create a banquet out of: Day old bread. Dried tilapia. Assorted leaves and twigs. And, go!”
But, for better or worse, that’s all the disciples seem to have on hand, and somehow, according to their always-mystifying leader, it is a sufficient place to start.
As I was reading the gospel passage this week, however, what struck me was not the mystery of how Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes, but the gratuitousness of the miracle itself.
If we read the passage closely, looking past the “how,” we encounter an equally puzzling “why.” It is, on purely practical terms, not necessary for Jesus to do what he does. Yes, he is surrounded by a crowd of followers who likely need something to eat, but note that the disciples have already offered a pragmatic solution to this dilemma:
“Send the crowds away,” they say, “so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
We need not assume that the disciples are being callous or dismissive here; they are quite sincere in offering this suggestion to Jesus, expressing their concern that the hour is late; they want these vulnerable people to reach safety and find nourishment before the long, hungry night engulfs them all. Their plan to return to the nearby villages is eminently reasonable and thoughtful.
And we might think Jesus would have readily agreed to the crowd’s departure after a long day of performing miraculous healings. Remember, it’s not like he lured them, like the Pied Piper, out into the desert against their will. He was, in fact, seeking a bit of peace and quiet, and they chased him down, sort of like those old videos from the 60’s of hysterical teenagers chasing the Beatles through the streets of London. So presumably these mega-fans of Jesus are at least somewhat prepared to survive the journey they’ve chosen to undertake, with their own food or a plan to scrounge some up on the way home.
And yet, Jesus will not hear of sending them away. “They need not go…you give them something to eat,” he replies, and we can almost hear the gentle challenge to the disciples in his voice.
Yes, the crowds got themselves into this situation. And yes, they might have found food elsewhere.
But Are YOU not willing, he seems to ask, are YOU not willing to take responsibility in this moment? Are YOU not willing to be the one who does this necessary thing? Would you so easily relinquish this opportunity to care for, to serve, to give?
Give me your five loaves, and your two fish, he says, give me your hesitancy, give me your fear of never having enough to offer, and I will show you what God can do with even the smallest of gifts.
We should not forget that Jesus has spent the day performing healing miracles, and now he has one more healing left to offer with this feast that nobody asked for, this shocking abundance yielded out of almost nothing—the healing of the disciples’ interior vision.
This miracle is the antitdote to their crippling fear of failure; it is about opening their minds, teaching them to work with what they have, teaching them that in the economy of God, what they have been given and who they are will always be enough. It is a miracle, first and foremost, intended to satiate the hunger of a soul that doubts the world’s own sufficiency, to fill the gnawing emptiness of a heart convinced that scarcity, rather than plenteous goodness, is the law of creation.
Jesus’ prodigious feast is a miracle we need more than ever, because we live, today, in a world that continues to be haunted by scarcity.
Whereas once, limited by geography and tecnology, people had to subsist on what they could cultivate from their immediate surroundings, this is no longer our inescapable inhertiance as the human race. We have the capacity, as a global community, to feed, to heal, to educate, and to protect the vulnerable in ways that were unimaginable even just a century or two ago. We are so very interconnected now, and, as this pandemic continues to illustrate, we will either thrive or die as one.
And yet we tend not see it that way, at least not with any consistently. Despite our global capacity, there remain regions of the world where people still subsist on less than the bare minimum; and there remain people in our own communities who go to bed hungry at night, who struggle to keep the lights on, who fear what tomorrow will bring, not because there is a universal famine, but because they have fallen through the cracks of a system that permits, even relies upon, the continued existence of uneven prosperity.
And we, ourselves, even in this abundant land, are conditioned in ways both subtle and overt to believe that we never quite have enough, and more fundamentally, that we ourselves will never quite be enough. Insufficiency becomes the lens through which we see our lives and the rest of the world, as if everything is a commodity that is running out—our money, our time, our youth, our love. Our five small loaves. Our two dried fish.
Scarcity tells us that these things are pathetic, insignificant, unworthy, but also that we should hold onto them, for fear that it’s all we’ll ever have.
But today we see how all of that is a lie. We are reminded in this gospel passage that God, again and again, takes the insignificant and makes it magnificent. Jesus shows us that scarcity, both in our hearts and in our common life, only persists when we believe that what we have been given is not enough, and that what we have to share with the world will never make a difference. It is. It will.
This is why he insists that the disciples offer up their meager provisions for the feast, and then multiplies them—to demonstrate that God can do anything, everything, with whatever small thing we are brave enough, hopeful enough, to give away for the good of others.
And so, as the disciples of this moment, Jesus’ perplexing instructions remain the same. The hour is late, and the people are hungry—for bread, for hope. You and I must give them something. What do we have to offer?
Perhaps more so than anytime in recent memory, we cannot send our problems along to the next village, hoping they’ll get resolved by someone else before darkness falls. So whatever we have on hand now, what we have within ourselves now—it’s going to have to suffice.
And today’s Good News is that it will suffice. As imperfect as it might be. As limited as each of us is. Look down at your hands, see what they are holding onto. Look into your heart, see what precious gifts you’ve stored away for fear that they are laughable or unworthy. It is time to bring them out. It is time to give them away.
It is OUR five loaves, OUR two fish that God needs. And when we stop believing that they aren’t enough, that we aren’t enough, then suddenly, miraculously, we will be.