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You Give Them Something to Eat

loavesfishesMatthew  14: 13-21
Introduction to the reading
The story of Jesus’ feeding 5000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish is the only miracle story found in all four Gospels, a clue to its great significance for the very early church.  It is a story of community and of communion.
The passages just ahead of today’s reading recount two events:

  • Jesus has been rejected as a teacher and prophet in his own home synagogue in Nazareth.  The people took offense at him and therefore he did not perform many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.
  • John the Baptist - the one who had announced Jesus’ coming and declared him to be the one who would baptize people with the Holy Spirit – John is dead, beheaded by Herod. 

These events set the stage for a new beginning for Jesus. 

  • A new, wider community.  A people rooted and trusting in God’s past faithfulness on the one hand, and on the other, open to whatever new thing God is doing.  Israel of the first covenants, if they pay attention and the whole world of the new covenant.
  • The passing of the last of the “old-style” prophets in the death of John the Baptist, making clear way for Jesus.

The leaders of this new community will be the disciples, and Jesus, as we have been hearing over these summer Sundays, has been preparing them.  And he has been reminding us that we are entrusted with carrying out God’s mission in the world.

“…you give them something to eat.”
Jesus had had a really bad day.  His cousin and his beloved friend John (the Baptist) was dead – beheaded – and John’s disciples had courageously claimed the body, buried it and then came and told Jesus.

In shock and grief, one would suppose, Jesus tried to withdraw.  He took off in a boat across the lake (the Sea of Galilee) to find a deserted spot to be alone.  He needed some solitude for solace because of John.
But the crowds would not leave him be.  They had become enthralled by him, his teaching, his miracles of healing.  It was wonderful; they wanted more of the same.  So, they followed him, hiking around the lake to reach him so that by the time he landed the boat on the shore, they were waiting.
He could not ignore them.  And so, as we heard, he had compassion for them and cured their sick.  He continued the work that he had been sent by the Father into the world to do.
It was a long day.  When evening finally came, his 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.”
Can you imagine what a scene that would have been?  In the last verse of this passage we’re told that there were 5000 men, plus women and children, so maybe double that number altogether.  Some would probably have gone home to eat, others to the shops, others to communal eating spots, if there were any.  But, there were so many of them … and besides, they were still reluctant to leave.  They wanted to stay because of Jesus.
Jesus knew that this was the point of the whole exercise.  Jesus knew that the crowds of people were hungry for m0re than food for their physical bodies.  They were spiritually hungry, hungry for the presence of God with them.  If they had been sent away, the meaning of this day, and all the other days with Jesus, would have been lost.  All of them – the men and women and children and the disciples, too – all of them would have missed the point.

“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
The disciples tried to beg off.  Hey, we have only five loaves of bread and two measly fish.  There is no way we can feed all these people with this little bit.
Of course, we know the ending.  Jesus took the loaves and the fish, blessed and broke the bread and gave it to the disciples.  The disciples fed the whole crowd and even had twelve basketsful left over.  This is communion with Jesus in the community of the faithful; this is what they really came for.  A foretaste of the Passover meal that Jesus will share with the disciples just before the crucifixion, this is Holy Communion, shared among Christians down through the generations until this day.  

“… you give them something to eat,”  Jesus said to them.  

That is our call as his disciples now, our call as the church.

Pastor Tom Long, in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, points out a distressing reality, however:

… the church [of our time] is … in [a] desert, [a] place where it cannot rely upon its own resources, which are few.  The church is hungry itself and is surrounded by a world of deep cravings, people who are lonely, disoriented, and poor in many different ways.  Against the savage realities of human need, the church sees only small numbers on the membership rolls and even smaller ones in the mission budget.  It is no wonder, then, that the church joins the disciples in crying, “This is a desert.  Send the crowds away to fend for themselves.”  (Long 165)

For example, look at our own church, our own congregation, blessed with endowments to fund so much of what we do, yet lacking, I believe, in the will, the spiritual wherewithal, the faith to do it in the face of the world’s demands pressing in on us.  To wit:  the non-response to Vacation Bible Camp, which we had to cancel; the low turn-out for Bible studies; drop-off in attendance, and not just in the summer.  Financial giving is way down and so are donations to the easy collections for missions.  Volunteer jobs like ushering and hosting coffee hour are covered by the same few people.  This is not good.  Is it tantamount to giving up and sending the crowds away?
And yet, consider what we might do.  Consider the new stove and the new look in the church kitchen.  This is our five loaves and two fish.
Back in January, we failed to pass the annual fire inspection.  The two stoves we had were residential models; as an institution, we should have a commercial appliance.  We had a puny exhaust fan and no fire suppression system.  The fire inspector declared that we were not allowed to use the stoves or the ovens; they had to be replaced.
The Consistory rose to the occasion, dedicating funds from the building endowment to cover the cost.  Clint Johnson took on the challenge of getting the new stove and hood: permits, ordering, installation and inspection.  The fire inspector will be here on Tuesday for the final sign-off on all the work.
Now some might say (some probably do say) we shouldn’t have spent that money.  After all, if we spend it now we won’t have it later.  Just let the kitchen go.  But that is tantamount to sending the crowds away…

And what an opportunity for mission and fellowship!  What an opportunity for feeding the crowds who are hungry, not just for pancakes or soup or a good old-fashioned church supper, but for soul food, communion with the living God in the community of the faithful.

“They need not go away,” Jesus says to us, “You give them something to eat.”
We can do that.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Long, Thomas G. Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
August 6, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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