When we gather at the Lord’s Table each week, we pause to remember the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples, and continues to share with us through the Spirit. Although this meal stands at the center of our faith tradition, the Gospels are filled with stories about Jesus sharing meals with others. One of these stories involves a meal with more than five thousand guests, who dined on five loaves of bread and two fish, and still everyone ate their fill.
The “Feeding of the 5000″ is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels. It’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of the miracle. Enquiring minds want to know how Jesus did it. Was it a magic trick? Was it a spontaneous potluck? Is it a myth? Despite our inquisitiveness, Matthew doesn’t give any details. Could that mean that the details are irrelevant? Miracle stories, like parables point beyond themselves to the kingdom of God. So, what Matthew wants us to hear is a message about the reign and realm of God. If this is true, then, what is this miracle story saying to us about the realm of God?
As I understand it, last Sunday, in her sermon, Naomi suggested that the parables found in Matthew 13 form an old-fashioned slide show. Maybe you’re like me and when you were a kid, you loved slide shows, especially when out-of-town guests stopped by. It was really just an excuse to see pictures of myself. In these seven parables, Jesus revealed his vision of God’s realm, which is treasure hidden in field or a fine pearl that’s so desirable that you’ll sell everything to possess it.
When we turn the page to Matthew 14, we encounter three miracle stories, the first of which is the feeding of the five thousand. Like the parable of the mustard seed, the feeding of the five thousand suggests that God can take something small and seemingly insignificant, and create something great from it. What these miracle stories do is invite us to embrace our spiritual imaginations and peer beyond the limits of our senses.
Brian McLaren suggests that miracle stories are “meant to shake up our normal assumptions, inspire our imagination about the present and the future, and make it possible for us to see something we couldn’t see before.” [McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 97]. This is difficult for modern people like us to do, since we live in the shadow of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment people think of the world as a mechanism. One of the most popular Enlightenment-era image for God is the watchmaker. If the world is like a watch, it needs a watchmaker. If God is the watchmaker, then the way to know God is to take apart the watch and see how it works. But what if the world isn’t like a watch, and God isn’t a watchmaker? Then how can we know God?
The story of the feeding of the 5000 doesn’t fit well with an Enlightenment world view, out of which our Disciples movement was born. From the very beginning we have put reason at the center of our faith, and its one of the reasons I was attracted to it. But sometimes, it’s spiritually helpful to set loose our spiritual imaginations. And, that’s not always easy! But, turning again to Brian McLaren, “Perhaps, by challenging us to consider impossible possibilities, these stories can stretch our imagination, and in so doing, can empower us to play a catalytic role in co-creating new possibilities for the world of tomorrow” [McLaren, p. 97].
What possibilities does the story of the feeding of the 5000 stir in your spiritual imagination? What is God revealing to you about tomorrow as you walk in the presence of God? Did you hear the word compassion in the reading of this passage? How might that word fit into our spiritual imaginations?
As we ponder that question, let’s turn again to the story. Jesus went into the wilderness, to get away from the crowds, after he learned that Herod had executed John the Baptist. You can understand why Jesus needed to get away. After all, if the forerunner is executed, what fate awaits the one who follows him? Jesus went into the desert, but he couldn’t get rid of the crowd. They came to him, seeking healing and wholeness for their lives. He could have sent them away, but he was filled with compassion for them, and so he healed as many as were in need.
The disciples also saw a need, but it was different one. What they saw was a big crowd that would soon need to be fed. They understood that deserts tended to lack restaurants and supermarkets. So, being reasonable people, they suggested Jesus might want to send the people into nearby towns to get some food. But Jesus had another plan in mind. He turned to his disciples, and he told them: “You give them something to eat.”
I can see the disciples in my minds eye, looking at each other, wondering if Jesus had lost his mind. I can hear them tell Jesus: “Uh, Jesus, we don’t have anything to give them, besides a few loaves of bread and two fish. What good is that? No, we think you need to send them away!”
Jesus, however, took these meager resources, looked into the heavens, broke the bread, blessed it, and had the disciples distribute the elements. Does that sound familiar? Does it sound like the Lord’s Supper?
When we have a meal function here at the church, the fellowship committee will want to know as soon as possible the head count. I understand why, but more often than not more people show up than is expected. You know what, there always seems to be left overs, even though everyone eats their fill. Something similar happened with our recent Iftar Dinner, which we shared with the Turkish American Society. I was supposed to give a headcount a few days ahead, which I did. On the night of the dinner, we were expecting maybe fifty people at the most. But, that night we had more seventy people in the house. Once again, everyone ate their fill, and we still had plenty of leftovers.
When you hear a story like the feeding of the 5000, does it confuse or enlighten? Do you get stuck, trying to figure out the details? Or, do you hear the word compassion, and let that word stretch your spiritual imagination, so you can reach out and touch the people? I like this word from theologian Grace Ji Sun Kim:
Jesus offers a vision of the abundant life, the kingdom of sharing God’s resources here and now. The passage urges us to bring any small gifts that we have—money, talent, and time—to dedicate them to Jesus, because he will multiply what we have as we give it to others. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 344].
This isn’t supposed to be a “stewardship sermon.” That’s the purpose of next week’s sermon. But, do you hear something in this passage about stewardship? Do you hear a message about rooting stewardship in compassion for others? A few weeks back, Cole Yoakum preached, and shared about the work of Micah 6 in Pontiac. Lives are being changed because Cole and others heard Jesus say: “You feed them.” We heard a similar word several years ago, when we helped found Gospel in Action Detroit with Rippling Hope. Earlier this week some of our people went down and feed Rippling Hope mission workers. In a few months we’ll be hosting SOS once again. These are all rooted in Jesus’ call to participate with him in the work of the kingdom of God, a work that is rooted in God’s compassion.
Matthew doesn’t tell us how Jesus fed the five thousand men, plus women and children. What he does say is that Jesus looked at the people with compassion, and told his disciples: “You give them something to eat.” So, Jesus took the bread and the fish, looked to heaven, blessed them, and broke the bread, and had the disciples distribute the elements to the crowd. And “everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers.” As Grace Kim puts it: “Bread shared is the most delicious bread of all. Bread shared with those in need or those who are ‘other’ than the people we usually eat with is the most satisfying meal of all.” [Kim, 344]. With that reminder, let us break bread and share it with others, even as Jesus shares bread with us!