“Multiplication” Colchester Federated Church, August 6, 2017, (Matthew 14:13-21) Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

So far this summer we’ve been covering many parables Jesus taught in the Gospel of Matthew.  Today we’re moving along as our text is Jesus Feeding the Five Thousand.  Now when talking about this Gospel story, one often hears arguments about the nature of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish.  Namely, did Jesus miraculously take 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, look up to heaven, bless them and break the loaves, give them to the disciples to distribute among the crowds and all somehow ate and were filled?  Or did people sit down on the grass as Jesus commanded and feel so moved by his sharing from scarcity (sharing everything Jesus and his disciples had with them) that they all scrounged up whatever food they may have had to share with one another in order to feed everyone gathered?  So is the multiplication miracle about Jesus miraculously feeding all these folks or is it about ordinary people like us sharing with one another and the miracle that results from that sharing and caring?  Both interpretations are good and worthy of being contemplated, but that’s not exactly the direction this sermon is heading.

Because while it’s interesting to contemplate the nature of this miraculous multiplication, it’s also interesting to think about the order of events and where Jesus’ focus remains.  Before we get to the miracle in whatever form we think it might have been, Jesus was healing people.  He withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  The crowds hear that he’s on the move and so they follow him on foot from the surrounding towns.  Jesus goes back ashore and finds this great crowd waiting for him.  Now it would have been so easy for Jesus to be annoyed.  He wanted some peace and quiet, and seems to have gotten it temporarily only to find masses of people who are clamoring for his time and attention as soon as he returns.  Though here’s what’s amazing—before we get to the miracle, Jesus looks at these people gathered on that hillside and has compassion for them.  Jesus’ compassion compels him to act.  His emotions result in action.  Jesus is curing people before that miraculous feast in whatever form it took.

Jesus healed and fed people because he cares about them.  Jesus sees these folks in a way that others don’t seem to see.  This story reminds me of taking my former youth group on a mission trip to Washington D.C.  We stayed at a church that had a soup kitchen open to the whole neighborhood.  Our task one night during our stay was to help make the meal, serve it to our guests, and then sit and eat with them.  We had a formerly homeless speaker earlier in the week who said that the worst thing about being homeless for him was feeling invisible, that people would speed up when walking past him, and avert their eyes.  The feeling of invisibility led to feelings of worthlessness.  And that was as hard to take as the physical trauma of not having a safe place to call home.

The philosophy at this church’s soup kitchen was that we wouldn’t be separated behind a counter serving our guests.  We would serve them restaurant style.  It wasn’t a buffet.  They sat at tables and we asked our guests what they would like to eat and made up a plate for each person individually.  Then we sat down and ate with one another side by side.  Because we weren’t just trying to put food in their bellies, we were providing companionship.  This was a ministry of hospitality for the church.  We welcomed our guests when they came through the doors.  We had cards and board games set up at tables throughout the Fellowship Hall.  We had popcorn and lemonade for an appetizer.  We had air-conditioning in the stifling D.C. heat.  So our guests could sit back and relax, socializing with one another before the meal was served.

When our program leader was explaining their philosophy (that this was about feeding our guests’ spirits, not just their bodies) I looked around at my youth group.  A few seemed nervous.  One girl quietly asked if she could sit with me at a table.  And after we were done serving the meal individually to our guests, she sat down at a table with me to eat with a middle-aged African American man.  Our trainers had advised us to keep to more neutral topics as talking about employment, family, or background can be triggering.  So I asked him if he liked any sports and if so what were some of his favorite teams?  We spent the entire meal talking basketball.  Washington Wizards vs. Cleveland Cavaliers, and we laughed and laughed—including the young woman from my youth group.  When we were doing dishes after the meal I asked how she was feeling, and she said that she was almost embarrassed about how nervous she had been and realized that this man isn’t so different after all.  She went on to write college essays about that mission trip because it opened her eyes to the realities of hunger, homelessness, inequality, and so much more.

You see the philosophy of that soup kitchen in D.C. feeding peoples’ bodies and spirits matters.  It matters that Jesus looks at these hungry people, these sick people, these hurting people and he feels compassion for them in our Gospel story.  It matters that he heals and ensures that those who are sick are made well before he feeds them.  Whether Jesus’ compassion helped him do the miracle of multiplication with God’s help or his compassion resulted in the miracle of multiplication with participation by everyone, the compassion comes first.  Compassion compelled Jesus to action.

The issues present in this Gospel story are still prevalent today.  We continue to debate healthcare in our country.  Some say that healthcare is a right.  Others say it’s a privilege.  Some say that we should fundamentally shift our allocation of resources.  People question if needs are being met by our current healthcare system.  Do we repeal and replace, just repeal and work out the details later, what would a replacement look like?  Here’s the thing, regardless of our political affiliation we know as Christians that Jesus was a healer.  Jesus healed people and focused on healing people in body, mind, and spirit.  How we take that knowledge as Christians and apply it to our own political beliefs, well it’s going to vary.  Though Jesus cared about people who were unwell, and there’s no way we can read the Gospels and not encounter stories about sickness and healing.  Our faith can be in conversation with our politics.

I try very hard not to put a bunch of “shoulds” in sermons because that’s super annoying and makes it sound like scolding.  That was one of those lessons we learned in Preaching Class in Seminary, don’t say “should” constantly because people will tune you out after awhile and no wonder.  Allow me one rare should—our Christian faith and the ministry of Jesus Christ should inform our politics.

Because Jesus healed and cared about people who were hungry.  That’s in the Gospels, my friends.  We see both areas of Jesus’ concern today in this one story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand.  Hunger remains a pressing issue in our world.  The World Food Program estimates that 795 million people don’t have enough food to lead healthy lives.  That’s just about one in nine people on this earth.[1]  Those are staggering statistics and we can see it as a lived reality in many countries, including ours.  How can a child grow without enough food?  Let alone learn on an empty stomach?  As individuals we can do what we can to support initiatives that aim to end hunger.  That’s when one of these interpretations of the miracle can really inspire us.  Because we don’t have the power to take five loaves of bread and two fish, bless them, break the loaves, and feed thousands of people.  But together we can each share what we have, and in so doing our small gifts become multiplied and can help feed hungry people.  It’s like the parable of the mustard seed—if we have that little bit of faith it’s amazing what we can do with God’s help.

At the end of the day, even though this is a Gospel story about the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth way back in the First Century there are some parallels today.  Jesus’ compassion led him to action, and so can ours.  Sick people in need of healing and hungry people in need of food are still with us.  Our Christian faith can inform our politics, can inform how we respond to this lived reality for too many people.  The ministry of hospitality, feeding people not just in body but in spirit matters.  Because there’s something so wonderful about people actually feeling seen when we gather together.  There’s something so compelling about Jesus feeding hungry people, knowing that we can be part of that miracle too.  So thanks be to God for this miracle of multiplication.  For what we offer God here in love can become so much more.  May it be so with us.  Amen.

[1] Jennifer T. Kaalund, Commentary on Matthew 14: 13-21, Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3357

Photo by Rev. Lauren Lorincz.