You Feed Them by Gary Jewell

Matthew 14: 13-21 

Some of us were raised with a whole host of very clear and explicit rules in our families; and for some of us the rules were a little less explicit.  I suspect most of the rules in our families were more “caught than taught”.  But one explicit rule in taught by my mother relates to the gospel story for this morning.  She taught me that, if you were eating something in the presence of others, it was extremely rude to not share.  Whatever you had (usually a snack), it was forbidden to not share what you had with those around you.  I don’t think she was thinking of the story of the loaves and the fishes, but essentially it was the same principle.

In some ways this concept of sharing, in particular sharing of elements essential for life, i.e. food, is the basis of human civil society.  All human social structures, from the earliest tribal societies to the most modern and urban ones, depend upon this principle of sharing for the very sake of long-term survival.  Over a few short millennia, humans have moved from tribal groups to city-states to nation states.  Now we stumble toward a new and unknown era of global and ecological interdependence.  Eight billion people on the planet….  And not unlike the original disciples asking Jesus about how to deal with 5000 plus hungry people, we too ask, “Who will feed them?”   And granted, none of us know where these new challenges are taking us, but one thing is certain, without the basic practice of “sharing” and “enough” all of life fails to thrive…. and the gospel calls the world toward thriving! IT ALWAYS CALLS THE WORLD TOWARD THRIVING!

And while the principle of sharing isn’t original concept with Jesus, in this story it is an essential one.  Jesus, in the best fashion of rabbinic instruction, is not just telling his disciple about sharing, he commands them, by faith, to demonstrate it.  He says, “You feed them.”

The basic problem of hunger was presented to him, “Rabbi, send them away so that they can go into the villages and get something to eat.”  And I suppose Jesus could have sighed, and said, “O.K. Look.  Sending folks out to the nearby villages to find food is not realistic.  Where you going to find enough, even in the villages, to feed this many people?  I’ll tell you what.  I’ll take care of it.  Give me what you have, and I WILL DO IT.  I will perform the miracle!”  But Jesus doesn’t say this, does he?  He says, “You give them something to eat!”  What an astounding reply.  It’s like he is saying, “Don’t pass this on to me.  Through the power of faith and the “limited” resources you have, you have the power to feed the hungry!”  This is essentially what Jesus is saying, isn’t it?

Now this little lesson about the power of sharing and our personal responsibility to work the magic of sharing, isn’t an original interpretation of this story.  Many preachers and writers of  commentaries have noticed this lesson on personal responsibility and sharing.  In fact, on the outside of the Bread for the World building (an ecumenical Christian organization dedicated to feeding a hungry world) is this quote from Jesus to his disciples, “You feed them!”

In some ways this story challenges us to redefine what is an actual miracle. Yes, walking on water is a miracle.  Raising from the dead is a miracle.  Giving sight to the blind is a miracle.

But this “miracle story” of the loaves and fishes is a bit different in nature.  While this event takes place through the instruction of Rabbi Jesus, it actually is performed by the human action of the disciples themselves, and their willingness to take what seemingly little they have and, by the simple act of giving thanks and sharing, they satisfy the basic problem of physical human hunger.  A miracle indeed.  Magic happens through the act of sharing — even if it appears that we don’t have enough..

Food and sharing of food are basic principles we see time and again in the biblical narratives.  When it seems there are limited resources and not enough to go around, through the act of giving thanks and sharing what is available, abundance happens.  The fruit of satisfaction is enjoyed by all.

Remember the story of Elijah and the starving widow and her son told in 1 Kings 17.  A famine is in the land. Elijah meets a widow and her son preparing to eat the very last of their food and then simply to give up and die.  But in the act of her sharing what she had with the great prophet, the miracle of provision got them through.

Other stories – Moses and manna in the wilderness.  Jesus changing water into wine.  The story of Great Banquet.  All these biblical stories point us toward this one magical truth about faith and abundance …. when we share what we have with those around, life thrives.

Now we live in a capitalist society. And most of the world currently does. Even China, a supposed communist society, works out of the principles of capitalism. And while many wonderful benefits happen from this economic system,  as followers of Jesus, we have to wrestle with the fact that our corporate-based, capitalistic system rests on the economic mindset of scarcity and competition.  Supply and demand.  Acquisition and, quite frankly, greed.  Socially, without deep concerns for justice and equality, it degenerates into “survival of the fittest.” Not merely in terms of business survival, but more essentially in terms of people survival.  (Precious brothers and sisters created in God’s image).  Whatever the economic structure is (capitalist, socialist, or some kind of blend), from a Christian perspective, the message of the “loaves and fishes” story has to be accounted for …. those powerful final words to the story….“they all eat and were satisfied.”

Whenever we are seeking to gain insight into scripture, especially when reading the Gospels, it is important to read the stories that surround it.  In other words, context is always important.  Proceeding this story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is the story of the beheading of John the Baptist.  The powerful, disconnected, and urbane Herod is having a birthday party and is so delighted by his step-daughter’s dance performance that he pledges to give her whatever she asks.  At the bidding of her mother, she asks for the head of John the Baptist, who up to this point has been in prison for speaking truth to power.  Herod reluctantly complies.

Interesting contrast!  The violent, fearful, corrupt, and socially disconnected Herod living isolated in this palace in Jerusalem on one hand.  And Jesus in the countryside, speaking with the common folks who are desperately hungry for hope, inspiration, wisdom, leadership, and ….. food.

One of the ways that the Bible speaks and teaches is by showing us the contrasts of false paths and true paths.  Paths of destruction juxtaposed with paths of truth and hope.  This is one of those places in scripture.  It is not coincidence. Herod lives in the world of scarcity and fear.  Jesus lives in the world of abundance and faith.  Herod lives in a world where the strong prey upon the weak.  Jesus lives in the world where meek share what they have and kingdom belongs to peacemakers.  Herod lives in isolation and loneliness.  Jesus gathers a community of sharing and abundance.

The truth of the Gospel is this…. we have enough!  The truth is God gives us a world in which it should be easy to imagine everyone doing well.   It is easy to imagine because it is totally possible…. we just refuse engage in the first part – the imagining.  You ask most people, and they would say that creating, or even working toward, a world where all are satisfied is delusional at best.  Naïve. Ridiculous.  Liberal idealism.

But I say this…. I don’t think I exaggerate to say that we as an American society have gravitated more toward Herod’s world of fear and scarcity, and away from Jesus’ world reality of plenty and enough.

Many in the “evangelical” world go along with Herod’s view.  “Turn away the immigrants (legal or otherwise) and close down the borders….we don’t have enough!”  “Cut programs that help lift people out of poverty… we don’t have enough!”  “Cut Meals on Wheels… we don’t have enough!”  Ignore the growing injustices of wealth disparity and then treat homelessness as a problem rather than a symptom of a much deeper problem of a broken economic system.

If I could faithfully preach the gospel, and not make reference to political and economic systems, I would.  But I can’t.  Preaching requires that we relate the gospel to our current lives.  And I’m talking not of ridiculous partisan rancor, I’m talking about what any self-respecting, God fearing preacher needs to be talking about, and that is human dignity and well-being.

Jesus cared not one ounce for partisan parties or religious loyalty… he only cared about the well-being of God’s precious creation….and especially for the lost and vulnerable human beings.

We need to question any systems that teaches us that scarcity, not “enough,” is the way the God has set up the world.  We need to question the mentality that suggests that we don’t have enough.

“Not enough” is the devil’s lie! The truth of the Gospel is WE DO HAVE ENOUGH!  The challenge of the Gospel is we don’t have to hoard or deny or withdraw.  The hope of the Gospel is that when we come together and share what we have, God will meet our needs.   Faith challenges us to move beyond the mentality of scarcity and toward the mentality of abundance.

I’m sure that you share in abundance.  You share of your time.  Of your money.  Of your attention.  You share in your prayers and your words of nurture. When it seems you don’t have enough, you give it anyway and God is glorified. I don’t say this to flatter you or win favor, but I know for a fact that this is a very generous congregation.   In many ways I am preaching to the choir.  So this is a sermon meant to say; 1) keep up the good work.  2) keep that good work going and go further with it if you can because God does provide!

The story of the “loaves and fishes” should recall to us that: a) the Gospel is about abundance, not scarcity. b) We can’t expect Jesus to do the work alone, but we need to let Jesus do the work through us;  And finally, c) life is fleeting and brief, and we take nothing with us, but what we leave behind  (our generosity, our kindness, our sharing, our wisdom).

In these times when many social and political systems around the globe seem to be governed by fear, cruelty, cynicism, lies, and malevolence,  I want to end with the prophetic and hopeful words from Isaiah 55.

“Come all you who are thirsty.  Come to the waters.  And you who have no money, come, buy and eat.  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.  Why spend your money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?  Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good.   As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that comes out from mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

I declare to you this morning with utmost confidence…. “This is the Word of the Lord!

 

This message was given to  Spokane Friends during Meeting for Worship on Sunday, May 11, 2019

 

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