Abundance! Aug 6, 2017
Matthew 14:13-21 What miracles have you experienced in your life? Some of the most dramatic in mine have related to finances. Through my twenties I worked on a contract basis so my pay sometimes varied widely and finances were always tight. It was a constant source of stress. One of the ways I managed that stress was to tithe. As soon as possible when I got paid, I would write a cheque to give some of it back. I had to do it immediately because I knew that if I waited to see what was “left over,” I would never give anything. There would never be anything left over as too often the month lasted longer than the money. I know it sounds crazy and it is terrible financial planning, but for me it was an important way of concretely expressing my faith – just to myself – that I would be okay. There would be enough. I can remember the odd time having unexpected bills, like car trouble or some such, and wondering how I would make it through… and then some kind of financial miracle would happen. I figured that I could probably go back and do the math and figure out exactly how it worked out… it’s not like money magically appeared in my bank account. But I didn’t because I was content… and grateful… to simply accept it as a financial miracle and move on.
Today we hear a story of one of Jesus’ most well-known miracles… feeding the multitudes with the very limited resources of 5 loaves of bread, and 2 fish. This is one of the few stories that appear in all 4 gospels and so we know this was an important story for early Christians. Indeed in 2 gospels it appears twice, so we actually have 6 different versions of the miracle of feeding the multitudes. The story has, as commentators describe, multiple levels of meaning and symbolism, addressing both physical and spiritual concerns. It has been described as the whole of the gospel… everything we need to know about God and God’s kingdom… in the few verses of one concise story.
Since the end of Jesus’ parables speech here in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been rejected in his hometown of Nazareth and John the Baptist has been killed by Herod. As our story today begins, news of John’s death is the “this” Jesus has just heard about, and it causes him to withdraw “to a deserted place by himself.” The wilderness setting evokes all kinds of connections with Israelite history. Most notably, of course, is the exodus and 40 years of wilderness wandering where the people of God experienced hunger and the miraculous provision of an abundance of manna; thirst and water miraculously springing from a rock. The journey from slavery to freedom, from sickness to health, from death to life has always meant going through times of emptying… of struggle, deprivation, and barrenness on the way to the Promised Land.
Perhaps Jesus goes to the desert because he wants to grieve John’s death in quiet and solitude. The crowds, however, have a different plan. People find Jesus on foot. In their need, they follow him away from their towns, out into the wilderness where Jesus sees them. Where Jesus has compassion for them. And where Jesus continues his work of healing. When evening begins to fall, the disciples reappear in the story, also concerned about the people but with an additional concern about the scarcity of provisions: “This is a deserted place,” they say, “and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” It is a compassionate concern and a sensible plan… The people need to eat, as do we, so send them away so they can get some food. But Jesus has another way, commanding the disciples instead: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They continue to respond in a sensible and level-headed way: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” They don’t seem to be sarcastic or particularly grumpy… they’re just worried, reasonably so, about their inadequate resources for the task.
And so Jesus responds: “Bring them here to me.” He commands the crowds to sit down and then takes what the disciples have brought – the 5 loaves and 2 fish – looks up to heaven “And blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.” All ate and were satisfied and in the end, twelve baskets of broken bits remained. How does it all work? What exactly happened? If we sat down to do the math, could we figure out exactly how it worked out? Maybe. Maybe, as some have suggested, the miracle was that when everyone sat down and shared their lunch, there was enough for all. But de-mythologizing the story to take away any sense of the miraculous, trying to explain away what doesn’t make sense, drains the story of its power and purpose. As I said earlier, there are both physical, earthly considerations and spiritual ones. Let’s start in the realm of the spiritual.
Did you hear the strong connections, the allusion, to the coming Last Supper? Jesus TOOK the bread and fish. Prayerfully, Jesus BLESSED and BROKE the loaves. And finally, Jesus GAVE them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. Take. Bless. Break. Give. These are the eucharistic actions. Take. Bless. Break. Give. This is how Jesus later commands us to remember his death and proclaim his resurrection. The central act of our worship is a ritual act of feeding and drinking that is overtly intended as symbolic and more than symbolic, as sacramental… an outward expression of inward grace. The hunger and thirst that the eucharist satisfies is spiritual hunger and thirst. This is about our spiritual need to remember and connect to the central story of our faith… a story of suffering, death, resurrection and ascension. The eucharist is about being filled with the deep knowledge of God’s great love for us. It is about ingesting God’s mercy and grace, week by week, to help us remember who we are as God’s beloved. In the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes, God’s grace is abundant and overflowing. The kingdom of God is fulfilled. Here. Now. All are part of God’s family and welcome at Christ’s table. Everyone eats and is filled.
It would be easy for us to leave it at that, but if we did, we’d lose a complementary part of the story’s power and purpose. The power and purpose of the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes is spiritual, to be sure, but it is also physical and earthly. The people are fed… not by word alone, but by bread and fish. The unfortunate reality is that there is widespread need… widespread hunger and thirst throughout our world and right here in our own city and community. With a quick google search I can tell you that in 2016 the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank distributed food for almost 9,800 meals per day. 262 emergency hampers are given out every day and they receive almost 200 calls per day requesting help. If we get lost with our heads in the clouds of spiritual comfort and fulfilment, we would be in danger of missing the real, concrete need all around us. In the kingdom of God, there is life abundant. There is not just enough for everyone, but an overabundance… 12 baskets… of food for the taking… even if the pieces are broken. We can’t live, abundantly or otherwise, without food and water, and neither can those with great need in the crowds around us.
We can say the problem is too big. We are just a few people. We can pray and celebrate eucharist and leave the miracle to Jesus. But did you hear how Jesus responded to the expression of need? Did you hear Jesus command to the disciples when they recognized the problem? “They need not go away;” he said, “you give them something to eat.” As one commentator summarized: “However the story is interpreted, Jesus’ charge to his disciples stands: ‘You give them something to eat.’ The source of the feeding is God, but the resources are human. The work of the disciples, the ‘bread’ of human effort, is honoured, used, and magnified by Jesus.” (NIB, 326) Miracles start with our effort and end in God’s commitment to abundance of life for all… full bellies and full souls. We don’t… we can’t… understand how but every now and again we have the privilege of witnessing, or even living, such a miracle ourselves.
The trick is in trusting the story. Trusting that God can and will work miracles spiritual and physical. The question is how we cultivate in ourselves, our own lives, and in our parish community, such deep trust. Tithing is a great place to start. The irony I’ve noticed as my finances have become much more stable and reliable is that giving generously, out of abundance, is actually harder than when I had little. We can also cultivate abundance by catching ourselves and one another when we express scarcity: “It’s too much work.” “We don’t have enough… people, time, money…” It’s not about being reckless but rather about giving what we have… even all of what we have and who we are… our 5 loaves and 2 fish… so that God can take it and work a miracle for many.
The last way we are connecting the physical and spiritual aspects of the miracle of feeding the multitudes today is that I made a simple bread for communion. I want you to taste and touch the real thing as you are fed spiritually in our acts of worship. There is enough… more than enough… for us all, so eat today and be filled and know that whatever broken bits are left-over are enough to feed all in need.