Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
September 11, 2022, Rally Sunday
Scripture: Matthew 14:13–21
In the church of my youth, every Sunday after worship, the mothers of the church provided a meal. I’m not talking about a soup and sandwich lunch, which I know would have been appreciated. I’m talking about a complete dinner with all the fixings for anybody who wanted it. One need not have wondered where their next meal was coming from on that Sunday after worship. It was such a staple of my early church experience that I thought every church everywhere did the same thing. Imagine my surprise when I went off to college in Washington, DC. At the first service I attended, I embarrassingly asked an usher where the church kitchen was so I could eat. I learned how rare it was that churches consistently offered that kind of meal. Years later, I would understand that the church mothers who provided that meal were considered poor and the church’s resources were often stretched make the meal available. But they did it, and some characterize it as a miracle. I think it was a demonstration of a generous heart.
I do not believe the story of the feeding of the five thousand is a miracle story. Yes, Jesus using five loaves of bread and two fish to feed more than five thousand people is miraculous. However, I don’t think it was the primary intent of the writer of the Gospel of Matthew to call our attention to one of Jesus’ miracles, nor does it look like Jesus intended to perform a miracle to demonstrate God’s power. Yet, something is so important about this story that it is found in all four of the Gospels. But I hope that it does not escape our notice that God feeding people in deserts and wildernesses is a common theme in the Bible, whether manna from heaven in the wilderness or the food that never ran out for Elijah and Elisha. Why does the Bible consistently tell stories about food and abundance manifesting in places of drought, famine, desert, and wilderness? Why is the concept of being filled and satisfied such a consistent and persistent way of demonstrating God’s amazing grace? Perhaps we are being invited to look beyond the sign or miracle to look at the meaning or message to which it points: that perhaps God wants to be known by God’s compassion and generosity.
When we read this story, it makes sense to wonder how it is possible to feed and fill more than five thousand people with five loaves and two fish and have some left over. The feeding of the five thousand has often been one of those stories that Christian apologists and literal readers of the Bible tie themselves up in knots trying to explain, and skeptics and atheists point to in their challenge to the veracity and authority of the Bible. Engaging in an extended debate about how the laws of nature explain the miracle or explain away the miracle will only distract us from what Jesus teaches the disciples (and us) about compassion, sufficiency, and abundance in a gathered beloved community.
In our reading today, Jesus had heard the news that his dear friend and forebear, John the Baptizer, had been murdered at the hands of King Herod. So Jesus went to a deserted place to be alone for a while, probably to pray and contemplate but also likely to hide away from Herod. But he couldn’t get away entirely because the crowds followed him into that deserted place. Jesus could have gone inward in grief and fear, choosing to withhold his gifts and ministry because of his own issues. Instead, Jesus embraces the community and serves them with compassion and purpose. He gives, serves, and ministers amid his grief and fear in a deserted place.
Contrast the disciples’ approach. They, too, saw the need of the crowds, and they also had compassion. But their imaginations failed them. Their first thought was to send them away, back to the urban areas, to take their chances for finding sustenance in the marketplaces. I wish I could have seen their faces when Jesus replied, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Notice that the disciples do not answer that they have nothing. They had five loaves and two fish. They had no confidence that they possessed anything that would feed hungry people. They saw their loaves and fish as insufficient to meet the need. If we are honest, it was easier to send the people away and not to be responsible for providing for them. It certainly would have been more convenient for them.
Oh, but the disciples forgot that God does God’s best work in the wilderness. What little they had, whatever they had, was enough. What little they had, whatever they had, Jesus takes it, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to all present. At that moment, God’s prerogative to give the people that day their daily bread would not be forestalled by scarcity, logistics, or lack of compassion. In the presence of God, when people bring what they have in a show of service and compassion, there is not only enough to fill and satisfy but there is also abundance. Perhaps this is less about a miracle than how blessings multiply when we bring and share all we have in the gathered community. One commentator has maintained that the miracle of this story is the generous heart, which refuses to accept the myth of scarcity or to forget that God frequently does God’s best show of abundance in the wilderness.
The people who were filled and satisfied with enough food to eat did not report experiencing a miracle; they saw a demonstration of compassion and community. They experienced a demonstration of service and neighborliness that did not send them away when their need was acknowledged. Instead, it was the show of compassion and the kind of service and neighborliness that invited them in that led Jesus and the disciples to use what many thought insufficient to serve everyone until they were filled and satisfied. More than anything, they saw that a barren and deserted landscape does not always mean the absence of abundance.
So I don’t feel the need to explain a miracle. I bear witness to the power of God’s compassion and abundance. I see the potential for abundance for all when we bring what we have to be used to serve. I don’t know what happened to those five loaves and two fish when Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave them back. I can’t explain the physics or logistics of how Jesus used that food and how it was transformed to do what it did. I know that Jesus took what little there was, and it was enough. I know that in the deserted place of nothingness and barrenness, Jesus trusted God to take what little they had and make something out of it. What I know is that in the presence of the living God, what looked like scarcity became a display of God’s generosity and abundance. I know people were satisfied when every human expectation was that they wouldn’t be. What I know is that when it was all over, it was enough; it was effective; it made a difference in the lives of needy, hungry people.
The truth is that all churches worldwide gather together in desert and wilderness conditions. Clergy, members, and church boards all face the challenge of trying to meet the spiritual and material needs of their members, communities, cities, and nations. The extent of the need easily overwhelms the resources we have to address it. One theologian sharpened the focus with this question: “What do you do when the challenges you face are greater than your resources for meeting them, when what you hold in your hands is so meager and the need is so great?” That is question we face today.
We are returning to our church to serve and worship in a time of wilderness, especially given the realities of a global pandemic, uncertainty about the future of church, and feelings of loss and disorientation that affect the world. And since the last time we gathered for an annual Rally Day before the onset of the pandemic, the need within, among, and beyond has only grown—the need for food, clothing, shelter, health care, a living wage, spiritual revival, and connection and community has only grown. And we can be forgiven for despairing that all of that need outpaces our spiritual and material capacity to respond. And yet, Jesus’ command to the disciples echoes to us in our gathered community, in every word of worship and every act of service: You give them something to eat.
And so, fully embracing discipleship means we do not send anybody away. We do not allow the “fear of insufficiency” to cause us to forfeit compassionate service. Of course, there will be days when we feel like the disciples: that this mess of a world is too big for us to handle so let them go elsewhere. We need not withhold our gifts and resources because they cannot meet every need. We bring what we have and let God use it. That’s what the mothers of the church of my youth did in feeding people. That’s what Jesus did when he fed more than five thousand people. I pray that we will continue to bring what we have to this gathered community, showing compassion for those in need and trusting that God can bless and multiply whatever it may be. I pray that we allow God to take, bless, break, and give all that we bring so that all will have enough. I pray that we never forget that when the resources we do have seem so meager and insufficient, when the myth of scarcity frightens us to the point of inaction, that in what little we have and whatever we have, there is abundance all around us. Amen.
R. Alan Culpepper, Feasting on the Gospels—Matthew, Volume 2 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).