[This sermon was given for Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester NY, on August 2, 2020. It can be found in video form on their YouTube channel.]
This is a tough season for parties. I have a grandson that graduated from college two months ago. No graduation party. I have a grandson that graduated from high school one month ago. No graduation party. It’s a tough season for parties.
There are two parties in Matthew 14, the one we just read about, with thousands being fed, and the one that preceded it. One was delightful and one was despicable. The first party was thrown by Herod. The beginning of today’s gospel passage alludes to it. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. What kind of party was that? It was a degenerate party which climaxed with the beheading of John the Baptist. That explains Jesus’ withdrawal. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. Who could blame him for wanting some time away from the crowds to grieve for his cousin? To be away with some intimate time with his heavenly father to draw comfort?
But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. Faced with this needy crowd, Jesus doesn’t hide from them. He sees their need and responds. He had compassion for them…. The word passion is used too much and too frivolously today. People today talk about being passionate about anything and everything. “I am passionate about rocky road ice cream.” “I am passionate about the musical ‘Hamilton’.” I like good ice cream and I like “Hamilton,” but not to the point of being willing to suffer for them. This word passion is a word of depth. Compassion means to suffer with. It is not used frequently in scripture. The word compassion is only used about eight times in the New Testament. It has the sense of being moved in the depths of one’s being and acting accordingly. True compassion emerges from deep within us and leads to action. Compassion must lead to action.
Having poured out himself in curing the sick, Jesus might have thought, “now I can get some rest.” The ever alert disciples recognize another challenge. It is evening and the crowd is hungry and they are in a deserted place with no caterers nearby. 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.
Send the crowds away? No. God loves these folks. We can’t send them away. They need not go away; you give them something to eat. Do I see a hint of a smile on Jesus’ face? You give them something to eat. I see Peter taking charge. “Andrew, you go to the 7-11. James, you go to Dunkin’s. John, you go to Tim Horton’s. Thomas, you go to Costco. Matthew, go to Wegmans. Tell them we are in a desperate situation. We need food or this crowd will become a mob. Tell them to donate their leftovers, their day old stuff, their out of date stuff. Tell them they can make it a tax write-off.”
Jesus said, you give them something to eat. They replied, ‘We have nothing here but….’ Do we hear their desperation? “We have nothing here but…” In their frantic lack of faith and vision, they overlooked the power of what they did have. We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish. Five loaves and two fish do not equal nothing. Not in God’s economy. God specializes in multiplying what we bring. In the fourth chapter of the book of the prophet Zechariah, Jerusalem is in ruins. Zerubbabel has just started the enormous work of rebuilding the temple. It looks hopeless, like putting out a raging forest fire with a squirt gun. The God tells the prophet to say this: Does anyone dare despise this day of small beginnings? They’ll change their tune when they see Zerubbabel setting the last stone in place! God likes small beginnings.
The disciples aren’t being unreasonable, for they know that five loaves and two fish wouldn’t feed thousands. They just don’t reckon what God can do with what little things we bring.
Annie Flint wrote a poem, which has also been set to hymn form, about God’s giving. I love the second stanza:
When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.
When they bring Jesus those five loaves and two fish, the Lord goes to work with it. We see a pattern here that occurs throughout the New Testament when bread is broken.
- Bring them here to me.
- Blessing what has been brought.
- Breaking the bread that was brought. He looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves….
- Giving it away. the disciples gave them to the crowds.
I see this as the essential pattern for the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Holy Communion. We bring our meager and modest gifts to Jesus. He blesses and breaks them. And then he lets us share the gifts with other.
I read recently of a nurse serving in a major urban hospital, which is being challenged by the COVID-19 cases. “Dressed in blue scrubs, she was taking a break in a supply closet to participate in a Communion service at her Lutheran Church. She was communing with a dinner roll and cranberry juice in a medicine cup.” We find out that she has been married five years and has one child. When the service is over, she leaves the supply closet and goes back to work. She wrote, “I cannot stay home. I’m a nurse. We fight when others can’t anymore.” (I read this in The Presbyterian Outlook, June 1, 2020, in an article by Barbara Wheeler.)
Today we commune with the Lord in his supper. We bring our meager and modest gifts, and he blesses and breaks them. Then he sends us out to share the feast with others.
There are tired and exhausted nurses and medical personnel in this season. Let’s bring them refreshments. Brownies, cookies, cold water. There are protesters and marchers in Rochester most every weekend, working for justice. Let’s bring them refreshments. Wouldn’t it be amazing if churches were bringing them refreshments?
Of all the miracles Jesus did, this one holds a special honor. It is the only one recorded in all four gospels. It seems it is saying something we need to hear again and again. In God’s hands, five loaves and two fish can start a feast. In God’s hands, our compassion in response to the needs of others, leads to action in meeting those needs.
A few days ago, John Lewis was buried. I have long held him as a hero, an American patriot. As I have been reading since he died, and I heard it said in so many ways in his memorial service a few days ago, that John Lewis was a giver. He brought his life, his five loaves and two fish to Jesus. And then he obeyed Jesus in sharing the feast with all. His faith compelled him to act. Compassion leads to action.
Jesus just wanted a little time away, some needed rest and renewal. But the crowd found him. And after all were fed, this is what happened: And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. I have one question. What do you think they did with twelve baskets full of blessed and broken bread?