8th Sunday after Pentecost—Year A—Aug 3, 2014
Preached at the Lutheran Church of Framingham
Let the words of mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
Picture the scene…a large extravagant birthday banquet, only the top tier of guests, eating every good food you can imagine: lamb kabobs, chicken, figs, pomegranates, dates of every variety, piles of pita, and hummus to go with, olives as big as your thumb, the finest of oils and wines…a never ending stream being paraded around the crowd, no thought to what will happen to the leftovers and what will go to waste, as they watch Salome dance. And then comes the final dish…not one to eat, but simply one to cheer for…John the Baptist’s head, silenced once and for all, regardless of what the crowds say, on a platter!
That is the news that Jesus hears and is moved by to seek to a deserted place for himself at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. His forerunner, his ally, his baptizer is dead…and he could easily be next. It is time to pray and contemplate, collect himself for the long journey ahead.
But then the crowds show up as he comes ashore. He of course has compassion for them; Jesus heals the sick as they come to him in a never-ending stream. The sun starts to go down, the disciples’ tummies start to rumble, and they (not knowing what they are really saying) suggest that Jesus sends the people away to get something to eat. Not only are they in the middle of no where, with no towns close by, but you can guess by looking at these people…most of them probably do not have anything to buy food with, even if they could find it.
Restricting food and supplies was a way to maintain control in the empire. Poor and hungry, the people were dependant on Rome and the emperor…or at his officials in country, and that was the way the power-that-be liked it. The poor got poorer and hungrier while the rich got richer and more and more wasteful. People are hungry!
But if you think about it, circumstances are not much different today. Instead of Jesus & disciples standing in the wilderness, think of a principles & teachers in low-income schools drained by their students hunger, which causes lack of attention, low performance, and behavior problems. They look forward to the break of summer vacation, but then realize, that at home, all summer, the kids will have nothing to eat, once they aren’t getting the free breakfast and lunch provided at school. Even if their parents and guardians did have money after rent and basic utilities to buy food, there are no grocery stores they have access to—no Stop & Shop, no Price Chopper, definitely no Trader Joes or Whole Foods, not even a Market Basket on strike…at least then there would be of some hope of having access to food. They live in food deserts; there is no easy way to access nutritional food without a car—which would cost all the food money they do have to buy, maintain, and fuel—or hours long bus ride—which is nearly impossible while working multiple jobs. So they end up buying the little dinner they can at the corner convenience store—soda, chips, and candy—it is what the store stocks and what they can afford. No fresh/local/healthy food here—it is too expensive. People are hungry!
The disciples’ response to this hunger is to send them away to help themselves, but Jesus knows there is a better way. Jesus reminds the disciples that they are capable of feeding the hungry—even a crowd this large—YOU give them something to eat. Jesus empowers the disciples to enact the kingdom of God—provide and distribute daily bread—so that all can eat and are filled!
Most people focus on the suspending of physical laws—the multiplication of the food—as the miracle. Others say that the miracle is simply that Jesus inspires everyone to share what they had, and all together it adds up to enough with a basket of leftovers for each disciple. But I think to focus exclusively on either of these takes away from the magnitude of the event. I think the key words are actually “ALL” and “FULL.” All ate and were filled. Full would not have been a normal feeling for most of these people gathered. They ate what they could, when they could, but God’s abundance provides not only enough for them to eat, but enough for them to feel full!
In the gospel of Matthew, miracles aren’t really identified that way; instead they are called “signs.” There would have been others around doing miraculous things, so this multiplication was less meant to say something about who Jesus was, but more about what he was about—the kingdom of God. It can serve as a reminder for us that there is enough food in the world so that no human need to skip a meal or go to bed hungry. The current problem is all about distribution and access. As much as Jesus said to the disciples: “you give them something to eat,” he says the same to us. That is our role in the kingdom of God—to make sure that the daily bread God provides gets where it needs to go.
There are so many ways to can (and already are) do(ing) this!
- We can volunteer, donate, and support programs like the one that was the “Making a Difference” segment on the NBC Nightly News on Friday. Famous actor, Jeff Bridges, realized that situation I described earlier—the fact that many kids have nothing to eat when they are not going to school—so he works with a program to bring healthy lunches to kids WHERE THEY ARE—at libraries and Boys & Girls clubs. Through the program, he doesn’t send them away, but gives them something to eat!
- There are lot of different ways to support local food producers in order to widen people’s access
- Volunteer: Miracle Kitchen, A Place to Turn, Pearl Street, Victory over Hunger garden
- Advocate: Bread for the World, writing your elected officials
- Donate: Plant a row, LCF food drive (2nd Sunday of each month)
Just like at this table, God calls us together, sending no one away, to eat with one another, and ensure that all are fed.
One of my favorite sites in Israel/Palestine is a site in the town of Tabgha called “The Church of the Multiplication of Fishes and Loaves”. I’m sure you can probably guess what Gospel story is commemorated at this site…and really we don’t have much evidence that this is really where the sign was performed, but there is a beautiful mosaic that I think teaches as much as the story itself does. Under the altar, there are two fish flanking a basket of bread. But if you count, there are only 4 loaves, which leads you to wonder…where is the fifth? There are 3 popular answers: (1) it is in the basket, but just hidden. This seems logical, but I like the other two better. (2) The fifth is the bread on the table ready to be served as communion. This explanation strengthens the connection between the story of the multiplication and our current practice. But I like (3) even better, the fifth loaf is Jesus himself. He is the bread of life, that sustains us with new life. Just like he says he is the living water to the woman at the well, he is the living bread for the world, continuing to strive to make sure that all, including you and me, eat and are full! Amen.
 Matthew 14:16, NRSV.