Scripture: Matthew 14:13-211
With thanksgiving for God’s affirming presence, we pause for a moment in prayer:
Gracious and loving God,
in mysterious and wondrous ways
you are active and present in our lives
picking us up when we stumble
leading us forward with faith and hope
into a world in need of your generous love.
In this gathered community,
your love is known, your hope is active,
your peace is shown in word and deed.
With all that we are,
and all that you call us to become,
we offer our heartfelt prayers and service
this day and always.
The story of the “Feeding of the Multitude”, that we heard from Matthew’s Gospel this morning (Matthew 14:13-21), is the only miracle story that is recorded in all four gospel accounts. The inclusion of this story in each of the gospels reflects how central and important it was to the early Christian communities in the first century. This story is so important as a central message of discipleship and faith in action that Matthew repeats the story (Matthew 15:32-38) in the next chapter of his gospel. The number of people fed varies in the two stories but in both accounts it is a multitude of thousands whose physical and spiritual needs are satisfied.
The context for this story is that Jesus has just learned about the brutal murder of John the Baptist. Stricken with grief, Jesus withdraws from the crowds to a deserted place to be alone. We don’t know if the crowds of people that wanted to see Jesus knew of John’s death but we do know they followed and soon caught up with him. Jesus, seeing their genuine need felt compassion for them – he connected with them in their suffering – and reached out, cared for and healed them. Then evening came. The disciples, concerned about the welfare of the people, asked Jesus to send the crowds away so they could travel to nearby villages to buy food for themselves. The disciples, in the midst of the huge gathering of people, saw that the need was great and that much food would be needed to feed everyone. The only food the disciples had were five loaves of bread and two fish. They assumed there was nothing they could possibly do to address the needs of the crowd because they believed they had only enough to provide for themselves. However, Jesus knew they were in the midst of abundance – not scarcity – and there would be more than enough food, when shared, to feed everyone. And so Jesus asked everyone to sit down and he took the food he was given, paused to give thanks to God, and then he blessed and broke the loaves and gave the disciples the food to distribute to the gathered community. In the abundance of sharing, everyone was satisfied and there was even food left over.
There is a tendency, when dealing with a gospel story that is as familiar as this one, to glaze over the surface and take it at face value and not notice the deeper meaning that connects with us today. Certainly this is a story about abundance, blessing, healing, and community. It is also a story that calls followers of Jesus to action motivated by compassion and Jesus’ example of ministry.
This week, as I was comparing the versions of this story in the four gospel accounts, I noticed something that I hadn’t really paid attention to before. In three of the gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – when the disciples suggested the crowds needed to be sent away, Jesus responded with exactly the same words, “you give them something to eat”. The disciples assume they have nothing to offer but Jesus knows they have much to offer. Repeatedly, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus encourages his followers not just to listen to what he says but to follow his example. Over and over again he prepares them not to be passive followers but to be active participants in the ministry they share together. Jesus knows he will not always physically be with them. He teaches by word and deed about giving thanks to God, feeling love and compassion for others, and translating gratitude and compassion into faith-filled actions that make a difference in the world. Jesus does not expect any of them to do everything on their own but he does expect each of them to do something. He knew that when everyone does a little bit – offers what they can – then miracles can and do happen. God’s commonwealth is revealed bit by bit, one small action at a time.
Theologian and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, puts it this way:
“God tells us, ‘Not me but you; not my bread but yours; not sometime or somewhere else but right here and now…Stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one.’ ”
This week, as I’ve been reflecting on the miracle of the Feeding of the Multitude, I’ve been thinking about the small but important miracles that happen everyday in our lives as individuals and as a community of faith. Whenever we share a smile, a kind word, hospitality of any kind, transportation for someone without a vehicle, a simple meal, accompaniment for someone in need physically or spiritually, we share in the miracle of God’s commonwealth. Christ is present with us: when we break bread together, host friendship teas and United 4 Kids programs, when pastoral care and hospitality is offered for grieving families, in study groups, in our Prayer Shawl Ministry, and in the numerous ways we volunteer and support community initiatives such as the Food and Loan Cupboards. In these, and in many other ways, we embody our faith-filled caring for the world God so loves.
Jesus said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” Jesus called his disciples then, as he calls his disciples now, to respond with compassion to the needs of the world and to offer bread for the body and for the soul. He calls us to be his hands and feet in the world. We have all that is necessary to make a difference and in our compassionate response we, in turn, are fed.
I’ll close with an excerpt from a poem by John Harvey of the Iona Community that reflects Jesus’ call and accompaniment:
We, who dare to say we are following you,
know how faltering are our footsteps,
how delicate our discipleships,
how feeble our faith.
Yet still you call us by name
and invite us into your company and onto your road.
So give us courage
and the commitment we need:
help us to look out for one another on the road;
show us how we may share the duty
and the joy of discipleship,
knowing that, in the end,
it is you who have blazed the trail,
you who accompany us all the way,
and you who call us
to be your hands and feet in the world.
When we reach out to others with love, and when others reach out to us, may we see the face of Christ and know that we are blessed.