a sermon on Matthew 14:13-21
preached on August 3, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Our beloved former member and ruling elder Jackie Acampora had a miserable dread of dealing with the church budget. She was one of the most gifted and talented ruling elders I have ever known, but church finances were not among those gifts. I think Jackie would have preferred swimming in a pool of hungry sharks to being a part of most of our budget conversations, and more than once we playfully threatened to elect her treasurer, knowing that if we did she would have immediately resigned!
Jackie’s church financial philosophy can best be described, as she herself put it, as “loaves and fishes”—as in put in what we have, see that it surely can’t be enough to meet our needs, and trust that God will work out the details. It’s a wonderful philosophy in theory, but it rarely satisfies the accountants among us, let alone those like me who depend on the church to help pay our bills, but for better or worse, we had to admit that Jackie’s philosophy was often about as good as a more structured approach, because at the end of the year the numbers usually came out better than we ever imagined they could.
Our reading from Matthew this morning directly references that miracle that Jackie regularly referred to when it came to church finances. This strange and wonderful miracle of Jesus feeding a crowd of thousands with just a few loaves and fish is one of the few stories told in all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. It all began with a tired Jesus and a hangry crowd. One of my pastor friends who is also a mother recently introduced me to this new word “hungry,” a mix of hungry and angry that makes things particularly miserable but is such an accurate description of what happens to us—and what I think was happening in that crowd that day.
The disciples sensed what was going on in the crowd, and they asked Jesus to call it a day and send everyone away to get something to eat in one of the nearby villages. Jesus would have nothing of this, though. “You give them something to eat,” he told them. Now this seemed preposterous and crazy. While many of Jesus’ followers in our time have developed incredible skills in preparing meals for churchgoers on short notice, the first disciples were not quite as gifted, and there were no professional caterers in the Yellow Pages of Palestine! Even more, the disciples seemed ready to get away from the crowd, too. They had not expected Jesus to welcome this hangry crowd of thousands to their private retreat by the lake, and so they had no confidence that even the amazing healer Jesus could pull off such a massive meal on such short notice!
So the disciples took inventory of the food they had available—five loaves and two fish—and reported their supplies to Jesus. But instead of giving up on what seemed to be an impossible challenge, Jesus took what they had, “looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.” Along the way, somehow, someway, something happened. The five loaves and two fish multiplied to be enough to feed the crowd of five thousand men—the only ones who seemed to count in those days!—plus the accompanying women and children, with twelve baskets full of leftovers, too.
Did the crowd manage to order delivery to their picnic blankets via their iPhones and so eliminate the need for the disciples’ small stash to feed everyone? Did God miraculously multiply those small provisions into enough to feed such a large crowd? Or did something change the hearts and minds of the crowd and convince them to share the food that they had brought along with those who were not quite so prepared? Whatever happened, it was another triumphant moment for Jesus. The hangry crowd was calmed, empty stomachs were filled, and another miracle added to the books.
This feeding of the crowd of five thousand plus is absolutely amazing, but like so many of Jesus’ miracles, it isn’t always so clear what this means for us today. What do these loaves and fishes matter for us today anyway? Is there anything more to this story for us than yet more proof of Jesus’ abilities to make things work despite the bungling of the disciples? Does this miraculous meal suggest that our approach to church picnics might need to be changed a bit, with the menu made a bit more limited and supplies trusted to go further? Can we carry anything more from this than that sometimes we should back down from stressing out over the details and trust that God will provide?
I for one surely hope that there is more to this story for us than any or all of that. All too often I look around and see our world filled with the mindset of scarcity brought by the disciples, with concerns that we simply don’t have enough to go around and so we shouldn’t even try to share, with fear that we must preserve what we have and use it only for ourselves rather than offer it generously for the good of all. Far too often, our default response is that there is not enough to go around—not enough bread and fish to feed the crowd, not enough wealth to support those who are in need, not enough security to treat others with the full dignity of humans created in God’s image, not enough food to share with those who are not just hangry but truly hungry, not enough resources for us to welcome a few more children who face danger and death in their homelands. Some days I think it would take a miracle in our own time to set aside our risk management and fear-mongering so that we can live like people who have enough to share.
But Jesus is always ready, even now, to step in and tell us that we already have enough to go around—enough bread and fish to feed the crowd, enough wealth to share, enough security to step back from our fear, enough food to share generously with the hungry, enough resources to let us be confident that we will have enough to care for ourselves and others. Jesus is ready to show us this miracle that we need in our world, the miracle of a new spark of generosity, the miracle of new care for those truly in need, the miracle of sharing amidst our fear and trembling, the miracle of an abundant feast that is enough to remake and reshape us and all creation.
And ultimately that miracle begins at this table. This table stands as yet another place where just like that grassy spot by the lakeshore Jesus can work a miracle. This is the place where bread and juice become something more than just the ordinary things that grace our table, the place where a little becomes a lot because we share it with one another, the place where we are mysteriously united with the women and men who have gathered here before us and beside us and will come behind us, the place where somehow we miraculously meet Jesus. God’s promise is made clear at this table: Jesus always brings us enough—enough to sustain us at this table, enough to carry us on the journey, enough to allow us to set aside our fears, enough for us to share with others who are in need, enough for everyone to gather and be fed.
So maybe Jackie was right. Maybe we don’t need to worry so much about how things work and how the bills get paid. Maybe we can trust that loaves and fishes will be enough. Maybe God’s abundance can be miraculous for us too. So may the strange miracle of the loaves and fishes be a miracle for us, too, so that we can share God’s miraculous abundance far and wide each and every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.