Season after Epiphany 2017
LET US WALK IN THE LIGHT OF THE LORD
YOU Give Them Something to Eat Click here for audio
Pastor Marty Raths
The story of the feeding of the multitude loomed large in the minds of the first followers of Jesus. It is one of the few stories found in all four gospels. And in Israel, beside the Sea of Galilee, in the ruins of one of the oldest known churches, there was discovered a mosaic floor depicting all sorts of different plants and animals. And in the place of highest honor on the floor, right in front of the central altar, they discovered a beautiful mosaic depiction of the loaves and fishes.
This mosaic served as a constant reminder to those early followers of Jesus, a holy reminder, of the one who could satisfy their hungry hearts, the one who had once taken some loaves and fishes, and by the grace of God, and with the help of his disciples, had somehow fed a hungry crowd of people. “All ate and were filled,” Matthew tells us./
The crowd had been an intrusion into Jesus’ plans. Hearing word that John the Baptist had been put to death by Herod Antipas, Jesus withdrew to a deserted place by himself, but the crowd followed him there. But Jesus did not withdraw farther from the crowd, or send the people away. When he saw them, he had compassion on them, which was a foreshadowing of what he would expect from his disciples later when the time came.
When evening came, the disciples faced a dilemma. They had this crowd of people on their hands, and the people were hungry. It was one of those intersection moments between faith and life. The need was right there in front of them. How would they respond? We face these kind of intersection moments too, all the time, when a need confronts us, forcing us to choose whether we are going to respond, and if so, how.
What the disciples chose to bring to Jesus was rationalization. We are good at that. We decide something beforehand. We do not want to have to do this. We do not want to have to feed them. Then we justify this decision somehow. This is a deserted place, Jesus, and it is late in the day. Send them away. The disciples were not even able to own their own decision. If they really believed that it was best to send the people away, then why not do it themselves.
Our lives are full of rationalizations, so much so that they can become a way of life for us. A woman went on retreat once, and when she arrived at the guest house, the retreat master approached her and said, “Why not?”
That is all that he said to her, “Why not?” But the woman knew what he was asking her. She had come to the retreat center because things were out of sorts for her, in her own personal life, in her family life, at work. And so the retreat master had asked her, “Why not?”
And when she got to her room, she started to think about that question “Why not?” What was going on with her? Why was she feeling so restless, so troubled, so confused? “Because I have too much to do . . .” she thought to herself. “Because my husband is not very supportive . . Because I do not like my work . . . Because things never seem to go my way . . . Because . . . Because . . . Because . . . ”
Later when she met with the retreat master again, he took a scissors from off his desk and said, “Here, with this, you can cut through any rationalization that you may have. Then you can face the real issues in your life.” And she took the scissors and went back to her room.
And for much of the night she sat up alone, looking at the scissors, turning it over and over in her hands. And as she thought about it, she realized that it was true. She could rid her life of her rationalizations. But early the next morning she returned the scissors to the retreat master and she said to him, “I cannot do it. I just cannot do it. How can I possibly live without all my rationalizations?”/
Jesus asks of us the opposite question. How can we live with them? Or hope to live a faithful life with them? A lot of Jesus’ ministry had as its purpose the exposing of our rationalizations. His parables, his table fellowship with sinners, his healings, his teachings on discipleship, his death and resurrection, are all like those scissors. They are meant to expose that most troubling part of ourselves, that small part, that part that is frightened, or hurt, or insecure, that part which usually has way too much say in the choices that we make in life, that part that wraps our lives in layers of rationalizations for not doing what we know we should do, or what we know Jesus is calling us to do.
But Jesus exposes the disciples’ rationalization. “YOU give them something to eat,” he says to them. There is nothing preventing you from helping, except your rationalizations. But the disciples respond with even more rationalization. They cannot help themselves. As I said, it can become a way of life for us. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish,” they say.
In the courtroom of faith this is the “nothing but” defense. Who am I? What can I do? And what difference would it make anyway? But for Jesus this is not a persuasive argument, and he responds to us in the same way that he responded to the disciples. When we say, “What can we do? We have nothing but . . . “ Jesus says, “I need you to do what you can do. Do what you can with what you have, and leave the rest to the grace of God.”
It is one of the most recurring themes in the scriptures. God does not necessarily work with the most pious, the most reputable, the most prominent, the most powerful, the most whatever. God works with those who bother to show up, who respond to the call, who say with the prophet Isaiah, “Here I am, Lord. Send me. I will do what I can with what I have.”
It is one of the most underappreciated virtues really, the virtue of availability, making available to God our time, our attention, our concerns, our natural talents, our financial gifts, doing what we can with what we have in response to the call of Jesus in our lives.
Availability is always crucial when we find ourselves at these intersection moments, when we are faced with some need. If we do not even bother to respond, to avail ourselves, then not even God can do something with that, with our unavailability.
It is a question that the scriptures do not answer. So it is debatable. But I believe that it is far from certain that Jesus would have fed the crowd himself that day had the disciples not made themselves available, finally, after all their rationalizations, giving to Jesus what they had, the five loaves and two fishes, and then doing what they could, helping to distribute the loaves and fishes among the people.
Again and again Jesus taught us that kingdom work is collaborative work. God does not simply do for us. God expects us, and needs us, to do for ourselves and others, to be, in the words of a prayer by Teresa of Avila, the eyes, and hands, and feet of God in the world./
Last week Donna introduced us to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and in that sermon Jesus gave his disciples some instruction in how to pray, and a prayer that we pray together most every Sunday, the Lord’s Prayer. And this prayer reflects the collaborative spirit of the kingdom. It is not a personal prayer. It is a corporate one. Our father, we pray, not just my father. Give us this day our daily bread. So this petition has not been answered when I have been given my daily bread. It has been answered when all have been fed. And in this we have a part to play, just like the disciples that day.
A wise person of faith once said, “Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one.” And in this spiritual question there is a call from Jesus. As long as people want for food in our world, Jesus says, “YOU give them something to eat.”/
Now there is a lot of rationalization for why so many are hungry in our world, in our country, and even right here in Stillwater. But these are no more persuasive to Jesus than the disciples’ rationalizations. And Jesus’ response to us is the same as he gave to them. It is the five loaves and two fishes response. In other words, do what we can with what we have.
And there is much that even we can do. We can support our children as they raise money to purchase an ark through Heifer Project International, whose mission is to “empower families to turn hunger and poverty into hope and prosperity.” We can support our Wednesday evening dinner, which is a ministry of food and fellowship not only to our members but to neighbors in our community. We can support our local Valley Outreach food shelf during Minnesota FoodShare next month and throughout the year as a volunteer . . . We can look at our own lifestyles in relation to food.
Some years ago, when we were serving the Northfield UMC, we did an adult study series entitled Our Daily Bread, looking at issues related to food production, processing, and consumption. I was especially struck, convicted actually, by one of the presenters. Doug shared that our world wastes about 30% of the food produced. In developing countries this has more to do with issues of storage and distribution. But here in the United States we waste nearly 40% of our food. 40%! And a lot of this waste happens within our own homes.
Since then, Donna and I have been working hard to reduce food waste in our own home. A drop in a sea of food waste? Perhaps. But then many drops do add up. And as a follower of Jesus, I choose to see it as a five loaves and two fishes response, doing what we can with what we have. And it also made me see the end of the story of the feeding of the multitude a little differently. Matthew tells us that, after feeding the people, the disciples took up what was left over, twelve baskets full. I have always understood this to be a sign of the abundance of the grace of God, that if we handle our food in the spirit of the kingdom, generously offering it, and then blessing and breaking and sharing it in keeping with what God wills for our world, then there will be enough for everyone. And I still believe that this is a part of the message of the story, and why it was of such central importance to those first followers of Jesus.
But in light of our wastefulness in relation to food, I could not help but see another message in the disciples’ taking up of the leftovers. Not only does God desire that all be fed, God also desires that nothing be wasted. John makes this explicit in his gospel, as Jesus says to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing may be lost.”
And no one either, not for lack of daily bread. And though we cannot be an answer to everyone’s prayer for daily bread, we can be an answer to someone’s prayer. Jesus said as much to his disciples, and to us too. “YOU give them something to eat,” Jesus says. You see, as my followers, this is all I ask of you, share your loaves and fishes, do what you can with what you have, and leave the rest to the grace of God. Amen.