Nothing? Really? You sure about that?

A Sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian in Boise, Idaho

July 31, 2011

Matt 14:13-21

This is the only story about Jesus that is told in all 4 of the gospel accounts. There is more agreement about this story than there is about his birth or his death and resurrection. In Mark and Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has his disciples feed large crowds 2 different times.

But it is a story we want to ignore. Because we don’t get it. Why didn’t the crowd pack their own lunch? What kind of people head off into the wilderness, into a deserted place, without food or water? And how does the miracle work, anyway? What does this even mean? Everyone knows you can’t feed 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.

Or can you?

Because apparently Jesus did it.

More specifically, Jesus told his disciples to do it.

I think that’s why I wanted to pass over this text in favor of something light and fluffy, like Leviticus maybe.

Because this miracle starts out in the disciples hands.

Jesus has just found out that John the Baptizer, his cousin, is dead. Beheaded at the hands of Roman authorities. So Jesus decides he’s going to take a break. Get away from the crowds. And he gets in a boat and goes to a deserted place. By himself. He is worn out. We can suspect he’s a little sad and needing some time to mourn.

But the crowd follows him on foot around the Sea of Galilee. He pulls ashore and finds them waiting for him, more of them perhaps than he had just left on the other side.

But he doesn’t get back in his boat and look for an even more deserted place. He has compassion on the crowds. He puts on a smile and greets his fans, healing the sick, having his picture taken with babies, and doing whatever else it is the people need for him to do.

The disciples come to him, possibly out of their own exhaustion, or perhaps with compassion of their own for the hungry crowd or maybe even compassion for Jesus, who must be exhausted. “It is evening now, Jesus. You’ve healed a lot of people today. You need a break. Send the people away because there are no Applebees out here. They need to go home so they can eat because they can’t eat out here.”

We applaud that plan, I think. We hear that and think, “finally the disciples are showing some sense.” Because we know we don’t have enough. We don’t have enough food, enough money, enough Sunday school teachers, enough of whatever it is we think we need.

But Jesus tells them, “you feed them.”

What would it be like if the disciples had said, “okay. You’re right, Jesus. We’ve got this. Go lie down. You look exhausted”?

What if they would have rolled up their sleeves and said to each other, “alright, what’s the best way to go about this? Jesus told us to do it, which means we can. What’s the best idea you’ve got?

Because this story was on pace to be the first miracle done by the disciples.

How cool would that have been?

They would have realized they had the same 5 loaves and 2 fish. They would have figured out that “not enough” in human terms was nothing to God and they would have remembered the extravagant abundance with which God provides for us. They would have remembered that all of the gifts we have came from God in the first place. And then they would have blessed the food, passed it out, and then signed autographs all night for their awesomeness.

But that’s not what they did. They said to Jesus, “we’ve got nothing.”

They didn’t think their gifts were even worth mentioning.

They didn’t even consider their God given talents to be worth mentioning.

We’ve got nothing….other than these 5 loaves and 2 fish. Nothing to mention really.”

But here’s the thing. 5 loaves and 2 fish is something. It was enough that night on the hillside.

But the disciples didn’t count it when they were thinking about how best to reply to Jesus.

How often do we do that? 
“I’d love to help people in Somalia. But it is so far away.

I’d love to help people rebuild in Joplin after the tornado, but the need is so great. I don’t know where to begin.”

I’d love to help feed 5,000 hungry people here in Boise, but I barely have enough to get by myself.”

The fact that we can’t solve all of the world’s problems, I fear, leads us to believe we can’t do anything at all.
I can’t help but think about the debt ceiling crisis as I read this text. And I am not a master of economic policy, but I do think this crisis is serious enough that we shouldn’t sit back and think, “it is ‘their’ job. They’ll fix it.

It is our job to make sure that as our federal spending patterns are set for the future that the budget is not balanced on the backs of the poor, the voiceless, the elderly, and the vulnerable.

We need to contact our elected officials and let them know that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, expect them to find a compromise that moves toward the common good.

But in today’s story, when Jesus is sad, exhausted, and plum tuckered on that hillside, the disciples don’t help him out. They trust that someone else will solve the problems around them.

And Jesus, who set aside his grief and exhaustion to heal the crowds, sets it aside again to show the disciples, one more time, how to do what he has called them to do. He takes the loaves and fishes, he prays a blessing, and then they pass it out.

That’s what we have to do. We don’t have to magically multiply anything. We don’t need to wait until we think we have more than enough. We, right now, are called to take what we have, say thanks to God, and pass it around and share. It is enough. It is more than enough. There will be baskets left over.

What would that look like for you?

If Jesus asked you to have compassion on the crowd that was hungry and had nothing to eat, how would you take your loaves and fishes and do as he asked?

I think this story is, on one level, very literal. When we see people who are hungry, who have nothing to eat, we are supposed to actually feed them.

And there are clearly metaphorical ways to consider sharing your loaves and fishes too. There are lots of ways we are being called to realize that what we have is enough.

Because Jesus doesn’t think a hillside of hungry people requires a divine miracle. He tells his disciples to feed people. He tells us to feed people. We should pay attention to this. He thinks we’re qualified to feed the crowds. This isn’t a situation where we should sit around and hope for divine intervention.

We can do this.

Jesus was convinced the disciples could feed the crowd.
I think too often we are like the disciples. We doubt our own giftedness, just like the disciples did. We doubt that we have the skills and talents we need to do what Jesus has asked us to do.

We want to send the crowds away so we can just be with Jesus. We want Jesus to do it all. To heal the sick, to feed the crowd, to solve our problems.

But Jesus tries to show his disciples that isn’t the way it is going to work.

Jesus expects his disciples to trust him when he tells them to feed the crowd. He wouldn’t ask them to do something that was beyond their abilities. He did, I think, ask them to do something that was beyond their acknowledged abilities.

Much like a parent teaches a child to ride a bike. At first you run along side them, keeping them steady. But then you let go, and they realize they are riding a bike.

Part of our call as disciples is to believe in ourselves as God believes in us.

This fall, we will be starting up a new way of being church and doing mission, house churches. This new way, actually, goes back to a very old way of being church, when people would gather in homes to worship. In 2 weeks, we will have an info meeting after worship about what this is all about. I hope you’ll join us. Because I think it is a great way to learn to feed the crowd that has gathered around Jesus with nothing to eat.

In addition to our regular worship, education, and other church programs, the house churches will be smaller groups of people who will gather regularly outside of Sunday morning worship, around a particular mission emphasis. House churches will worship, study, serve, and have fellowship together. They will invite the rest of the congregation to come along side them in support of their mission project.

The Session, at the request of the Mission Committee, believes that this will give us new ways to be in relationship with each other and with our community. We hope that you will stay for the conversation on Aug 14 so you can find out more about it and can pray about whether you are being called to be a part of a house church. This isn’t, of course, the only way to serve, but we think it is a good way.

So, friends, there is a crowd of people in our world. Jesus has told us to feed them.

We can do this. We have to do this. Amen.

2 thoughts on “Nothing? Really? You sure about that?

  1. Thank you for sharing the sermon. Wow – that is very cool that you all are moving toward house churches and specifically the part of each having a missional focus. That is awesome!

    Years ago, I got to help start a small group Bible study, which became basically a house church. Then, I was blessed with helping a congregation switch from having a Sunday evening service to house church gatherings. I truly hope that things go well for the congregation there – that they will experience a great blessing!

    There are a couple technical aspects of the sermon which drew my attention – perhaps because Mark 6 is one of my favorite passages of the NT. There we find that the disciples had previously participated in miracles, as they had been sent out two-by-two. “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mk. 6:13).

    They have returned and start telling Jesus of all that they had done and he invites them, “come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (6:30). This they do (6:32). There is something in the background here which is interesting. What takes place in the wilderness, the deserted places? This is traditionally the place of tempting and testing – especially at night. This is why the desert monasteries have their people praying 5-6 times a day, particularly at night.

    The portion that is particularly of interest though, is the context. We don’t really know if this is when Jesus and the disciples find out that John the baptizer has died. This could have been told much earlier – particularly after announcing that John was placed in prison and Jesus began his ministry, telling people to repent, as the kingdom of heaven has come near.

    I believe these two stories, these two feasts, are intentionally placed side-by-side in Mark and Matthew. Take a look at who was invited to each feast – one is exclusive and the other is inclusive. One is for those with wealth and power, and the other is open to all who are seeking the things of the Spirit.

    There is much that can be compared and contrasted between these two feasts, but take a close look at what is served. What did Herod Antipas (a tetrarch, not really a king) have served on a platter? This is the feast of death. It is about seeking the things of the flesh. Offering up to half of his kingdom to his niece because of her (suggestive?) dance? Isn’t this an indecent marriage proposal? Sex, power, wealth – that is what the birthday party is about – this feast of death.

    These two stories function as a parable, as one is “thrown down beside” the other for comparison (literal meaning of parable).

    Now, we consider the feast of life… of which each person will see different parts of application in their own life.

    I do agree with where you go with the sermon – we have been given all that is necessary. We don’t need wealth and power and sex in order to move forward, to partake of the spiritual feast and to take this feast to others. As you said, “we’re qualified to feed the crowds. This isn’t a situation where we should sit around and hope for divine intervention.”

    Of the two leaders who presided over the feasts, which one was anxious and expressed fear? (And what were the fears?)

    The two feasts represent two choices. Where will we put our priorities? Which feast will we attend?

    I’m currently on sabbatical, so I didn’t get to preach this (and I had time to read the sermons of others). Thank you for sharing the sermon and the exciting fact of starting house churches. Sorry to post such a long comment – these feasts are very important to me, in the choice they present.


    • Thanks for your comments!
      I am also intrigued by the role of wilderness/deserted places in Scripture. In Rev 12, the woman giving birth in space is taken to the wilderness (“where she has a place prepared by God”) for rest, protection, and recovery. I hope your sabbatical is that wilderness time of restoration!


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