13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
It may surprise you to learn that in this story, Jesus does not just feed 5,000 people. We call this story the feeding of the 5,000, but it is actually much more than that, because in the Bible’s typical patriarchal worldview, Matthew tells us that Jesus fed 5,000 men PLUS women and children, so I’d have to think that a number like 10,000 is more like it.
I have to tell you: I read this story, and miracle stories like it, and I struggle a little bit. I’m a pretty practical person. I have trouble with the miraculous, with those things that defy rational explanation. I am a person, I hope, of deep faith, but that doesn’t mean I accept everything that is thrown at me at face value. And, to be clear, I consider my particular way of being a good thing—we can’t accept everything that is thrown our way. There are enough suckers in the world as it is.
We need reason, we need to reasonably engage the stories Jesus tells, that we read in the Bible, and it’s not sinful to admit that. It is important, I think, to acknowledge that we are supposed to use our brains: that God would have made them removable if there were no expectation of our bringing them to church. It is one of the reasons that in the United Methodist Church, we talk about engaging truth through what we call the Wesleyan quadrilateral: through scripture, through tradition, through experience, and through reason. It is the case that scripture is primary, the main way we understand truth, but I hope you didn’t check your brain at the door. If you did, you might need to go pick it up before somebody runs off with it.
So that’s all to say, I struggle with the miracle stories, because I don’t regularly happen upon miracles in my everyday life. Oh, I’ve seen them. I have seen people healed who didn’t seem to have a chance, I’ve seen God at work in churches, I look around this place, to be honest, and feel the excitement and the passion for God and it’s nothing short of miraculous. It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles; I just have been around the block enough times to know that this kind of thinking can be dangerous, because it is all well and good when the healing happens, but when it doesn’t, well, where was God? And I’ve had times, in my own life, just like you have, when I desperately wanted a miracle, when I needed one, and yet .. . nothing. You understand why I struggle.
I don’t think I am alone in this struggle. I mean, just look at the feeding of the 5,000 that were actually 10,000. This story just seems so foreign. Jesus is out on a boat, alone, and he comes back to shore and greets a great crowd who have gathered to hear him teach, and they stay all day listening to him. And as the sun starts to set, the Disciples start to get hungry and they realize that everybody else has got to be hungry too, and so they go to Jesus and say, look, this has been a good day, but it’s over, so send everybody home so we, I mean, they, can eat.
And Jesus looks at them and says, all right, so they’re hungry. You go get them something to eat.
Let me pause right here and just acknowledge that this is certainly not what they wanted to hear, and who could blame them? The disciples had their own problems, their own issues, and besides, they’d been out all day in the hot sun helping Jesus with the business of finding those people who needed to be healed and bringing them forward, with making disciples and answering questions about Jesus. They were tired, and so when Jesus said You go get them something to eat, I can imagine more than one of them rolled their eyes.
And you know, I think I would have done the same thing. I think about the number of times in my life when I have prayed, Come, Lord Jesus, when I have said, you know God, please take care of this for me, please bless this poor person I see on TV or that I am passing on the side of the road, only to have God say to me, in one manner or another, You go get them something to eat. You do what you can to help that person. You get moving, and then we’ll talk.
I will be honest. I don’t like this kind of response one bit. When I go to God for help, I expect help. I don’t expect God to turn it around on me and say something like, “all right? You want to help this person? You go get them something to eat.” I’d much rather let God work a miracle and then stand back and ooh and ahh with the crowds, rather than actually having skin in the game, rather than actually doing something myself. I’d rather leave it up to God.
But this is not what Jesus does in what many consider to be the greatest miracle story in the Gospels, shy of the Resurrection itself. The disciples say, Jesus, these people are hungry, and Jesus says, fine, YOU find them something to eat.
In college, my roommate and I would wait to search the couch cushions until we had a serious craving for fast food, and then we’d ransack the place looking for enough money for a burger. And I kind of imagine this is what the Disciples did, went scrounging for anything they could find, and all they could come up with was five loaves of bread and two fish, not nearly enough. And to their credit, despite it being a joke, the idea of feeding all of those people with that small amount of food, the disciples took it to Jesus and said, here is what we have.
And I had been Jesus, I would probably start laughing or something, you know, this paltry five loaves of bread and two fish, because it’s not nearly enough to feed 10,000 people. Even if we’re talking party subs from Subway, that’s one loaf for every two thousand people. I think I did that math right. It’s just not enough.
Thankfully it wasn’t me—it was Jesus—and he very graciously says to them, bring me what you’ve come up with, your offering. And Jesus broke the bread, blessed it, gave it to his disciples and said take these to the crowds so that they may be full.
And just like the act of Communion, in which the Holy Spirit enters the bread and the wine, is a holy mystery beyond our understanding, we don’t know the logistics of how is happened that five loaves and two fish somehow multiplied so that 10,000 people were fed. We don’t know the precise moment, or what it looked like, but then, miracles defy that sort of explanation anyhow. By the time the people had eaten their fill, there were twelve baskets leftover. It doesn’t add up, and yet it’s there in the black and white, and so here we are two thousand years later trying to figure out what it all means.
I can’t explain it. I doubt you can explain it. And yet there it is in my Bible, in black and white, so it’s not like we can ignore it. We can’t say, oh, it’s too difficult, let’s skip past the miracle stuff and move on to the business of loving your neighbor, as if that is any easier.
It’s there, so we have to deal with it, and I will tell you, I may not have seen a miracle like this, but in the face of what seem like insurmountable circumstances—on a scale far larger than 10,000 people who haven’t eaten all day—I’ve seen some pretty incredible things.
I look at Emory University and take stock of the gaggle of news trucks surrounding the hospital, now that Emory has accepted two patients with Ebola, and I am reminded of the great lengths Christian people will go to in order to care for the sick. And as I have been following this story, I want you to know that I made a big mistake this week. It was a rookie mistake, and I should have known better, but I got on Facebook and read some of the comments. Now, it takes a lot to render me speechless, but I am absolutely amazed at the hatred, the fear. Here are just a few of the comments:
“I hope the guy gets well but I think the CDC and our government are both full of idiots for bringing that virus over here.” “I guess the government wants this to break out over here to lower the population a little.” “Just great, we are importing death. First kids from South America and now Ebola.”
And in the face of that kind of thing, Emory does what hospitals do: they care for the sick. Now, those of us in the church should know that in Matthew 25, when Jesus gives us the answers to what will be on the final exam, he says that when we get to Heaven, we’ll be asked if we gave water to the thirsty, food for the hungry, clothes for the naked, whether we cared for the sick. Jesus will not ask, “did you care for the sick, unless they had a communicable disease?” Jesus will ask, “did you care for the sick?” For when we care for the sick, the Bible tells us, it is as if we care caring for Jesus himself. There is no escape clause. There is no way out. This is who we are called to be as children of God.
And yes, fear is strong, but the message of the Bible is clear: do not fear! Do not be anxious! Fear is powerful, but it is the devil’s greatest tool. It keeps us from one another, from doing God’s work, from stepping out in faith, from being faithful to the call to love all people, no matter what. And besides, the Resurrection has already happened. Death has already been defeated. Fear has already been overcome. To give into the agents of fear is to say that the Resurrection is not strong enough, that we don’t trust in Christ. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that fear isn’t powerful, or that true Christians never feel the pull of doubt. But what I am saying is that if you give into fear, you are missing out on the great riches of the Christian life. This is who we are. You want a miracle? You go get them something to eat. And if it’s just five loaves and two fish, fine. God will do the rest.
In the midst of all of this craziness, did you see the story about these two patients and the experimental serum? One of the patients is a doctor, Kent Brantly, and the other is a missionary, Nancy Writebol. And before he was transported to Emory, Dr. Brantley was offered a promising, experimental ebola serum but he passed it up so that Ms. Writebol could have it. Can you imagine, fighting for your life, having this promising treatment coming to you and turning it down? As one of my clergy colleagues said of this story, it is true that perfect love casts out fear. And the Writebol family said this: “Dr. Brantly has demonstrated once again how Jesus sacrificed for us.”
I may not see a lot of miracles. I may not see bread magically multiplied in front of my face such that five loaves and two fish feed ten thousand people with 12 baskets full leftover, but I have seen what happens when people really look at Jesus and take him seriously when he says, “You go get them something to eat.” And what they come up with be woefully inadequate, but, as Mother Teresa, another facilitator of miracles has said, small things done with great love can change the world. You come up with what you can, and God can use it. God can use it.
I will end with this. We’re gearing up to do something pretty remarkable at North Decatur United Methodist Church. Jesus used the meager resources of the Disciples to feed 10,000 people. Here at North Decatur, we’re going to do the exact same thing. You heard me say during the children’s sermon that we’re aiming to feed 10,000 kids on September 14. These meals cost money, but the good news is that for only a quarter, you can feed a child for a day. Ten dollars feeds forty kids. A hundred feeds four hundred kids. We’re already a good ways down the line, but we need more, for if you want to be a miracle worker, Jesus tells us, you go get them something to eat. Give of yourself. Search the couch cushions. Do what you can. God will do the rest.
Here is the good news. God is already at work. Let us join him. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.