Sunday, August 03, 2014

What's a miracle, anyway?…A sermon on Matthew 14:13-21

A.Hanson, Santa Cruz, CA 2014
A sermon preached at First Lutheran Church of St Peter, MN. Matthew 14:13-21
Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen

As a child in Sunday School, my favorite Sunday of the year was the day we learned about the feeding of the 5,000.  I was very impressed with this story.  But it wasn’t because Jesus fed over 5,000 people.  It wasn’t because the disciples only had five loaves and two fish, yet the crowd managed to eat until they were full. This was my favorite Sunday because the Sunday School curriculum had scratch and sniff stickers for the loaves of bread.  THIS was somehow the miracle for me in this whole story. A piece of paper could be made to smell JUST like a loaf of bread.  All joking aside, sometimes in the course of miracle stories, it really is the little things that matter, maybe not necessarily the big, impressive, miracle. So let’s open up this story a bit more.
The feeding of the 5,000 was an extremely important story for the Gospel writers, because it is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels.  Let’s put this story into context.  In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear that Jesus has withdrawn to a deserted place.  He gets into a boat and floats out into the water.  But this wasn’t just because he wanted a little peace and quiet.  Jesus had been rejected by his hometown and had just learned that his friend and fellow preacher, John the Baptist, had been brutally murdered by King Herod. The disciples had the unpleasant task of burying John’s body and then telling Jesus what had happened.   Nobody was in a particularly good mood, and to hear that massive crowds were gathered on the shore, awaiting a promise of hope and healing from an exhausted and grieving Jesus would have been overwhelming.
But instead of retreating, we hear that Jesus leaves his boat, goes into the crowd and has compassion for them.  This isn’t the sort of benevolent well-wishing and baby kissing that comes from politicians and celebrities.  We hear that Jesus cures their sick.  These were people who were the poorest of the poor, Jesus would have been their last hope.  Because people who had power and money and status were not going to be following a barefoot preacher into the middle of the desert. Jesus is getting his hands dirty doing the work of compassion.
The disciples tolerate this pretty well for awhile. But after a time, they seem to have had enough.  Evening is coming and they are ready for some peace and quiet.  They say to Jesus, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they can buy food for themselves.” But Jesus responds in the most unexpected way, saying, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”  The Greek text sets this scene in the wilderness.  It would have been far from any grocery store, fast food joint or seven-eleven. The disciples look at Jesus dumbfounded and say, “We have nothing here, but five loaves and two fish.”  When the disciples suggest to Jesus that the crowds be sent away, because they cannot feed them, they are confessing their powerlessness in the face of overwhelming human need.  How often do we also do this?  We feel ashamed of our own inability to make a difference in a world of need.  We want to send that need away so we don’t have to see it anymore.  But Jesus does the opposite.  He draws closer to those who are desperately in need. 
Jesus commands the disciples to bring the loaves and fish, blesses them, and hands them off. Just the few loaves and fishes were transformed to feed over 5,000 people, Jesus transforms our humble offerings into more abundance than we ever could have dreamed.  
  This miracle story shows that God is love.  This is not compassion and mercy in the abstract.  It is a compassion that cares deeply about actual physical human needs. The story is not too concerned with the logistics of the miracle, just stating that after the disciples gave the food to the crowds, all ate and were filled, and there were even leftovers.
This was a time of marked food insecurity. Those people who were gathered around Jesus would have never known what it was like to be full.  This is why so many of the parables and references to the coming kingdom of God refer to banquets and great feasts where all are welcome.  This miracle of feeding those who are hungry is SO IMPORTANT that Matthew repeats it again in the next chapter with the feeding of the 4,000.
Most of us, myself included, struggle with the miracle stories.  Many of us doubt miracles because we get bogged down in the particulars.  How could this have happened?  Did the bread just multiply?  Were the disciples secretly hiding lots of bread in their robes?  Did someone catch extra fish in the lake and just call it a miracle?
But what if the point is not about HOW the miracle occurred, but WHO is doing it? 
I would like to bring out one little thing from this parable that we often miss.  It is really easy to skim over this very tiny detail in our reading of this text. We know this story and we want to get to the miraculous part, but in doing so, we miss the detail that Jesus blesses the bread, and then physically hands it to the disciples who do the very hard work of distributing it to a massive crowd. Jesus feeds the twelve, but the twelve feed the 5,000. The disciples share in the birth of this miracle. It is not just Jesus caring for the hungry crowds.

What if we are commanded to do the same?  What if the miracle itself is not the point at all, but rather, the feeding of God’s people and showing compassion to those in need?  This miracle story is about trusting that God provides in abundance, even in the midst of impossible situations, and uses all of us, even disciples who can’t believe that five loaves and two fish could ever be enough, and you and me who think we might never be good enough or qualified enough to do the work of the kingdom. How is Jesus transforming your humble offerings in the world into miracles for your neighbors?  How are you participating in miracles of compassion?

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