It’s a pretty cool trick to have a bunch of food appear to feed thousands of people when there was only a very little bit to begin with. Besides the Resurrection, the Feeding of the Five Thousand is the only miracle that appears in all four gospels; it’s a super important story for the early church and clearly meant to give us a glimpse of who God is and what it means to be disciples. And as bible stories go, it’s pretty tame and unassuming, so we love to tell it to children. It’s not scandalous or disturbing, and it has a happy ending too!
What’s not to like?
Once, in the middle of what was the darkest and most wretched period of my life (so far), I had a conversation with my sister about an experience of unexpected and inexplicable blessing from God. She was in the middle of a prayer meeting and some people suddenly got gold teeth. A miracle of the Holy Spirit, I guess, just to say God loves us. She told me that, and how it had impacted her, and then I hung up in the phone and got in the car and a few minutes later drove past the worst car accident scene I had ever witnessed, complete with a bloody sheet-covered gurney. And I wondered, deeply raging, wailing wonder, what kind of God this is that we have? And what God could possibly be up to on this earth, or not?
Our text begins, “Now when Jesus heard this...” Heard what? When Jesus heard that his cousin, John the Baptist, who had been in prison, had just been beheaded, and his head delivered to Herod on a platter in the middle of a extravagant and vulgar dinner party – when he had heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place.
And who wouldn’t?
What else in the world is there to do?
The utter horror and shock; the terrible helplessness and loss. This can’t be undone.
John is gone, his cousin, his friend, the one who knew who Jesus was from before he was born – leaping in recognition in his mother Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of pregnant Mary’s voice, the one who declared the news in the wilderness that the Messiah is coming, and plunged God incarnate under the waters of baptism, the one whose whole life was about proclaiming God’s kingdom come and announcing that Jesus had arrived, this John has just died a pointless, disgusting, inexplicable death, as a pawn in a gluttonous game of revenge and power.
How could this happen?
How did God allow it? How could it not be stopped? What could it mean?
Who is this God? And what could God possibly be up to on this earth, or not?
So Jesus withdraws to a deserted place.
After all his teaching about the Kingdom of God, always surrounded by people, so many words, so much touching, all that talking and healing, everyone wanting a piece of him and he having much to give - when he hears that John is dead, he goes off to be alone. And who could blame him?
But the crowds catch wind of his little escape attempt, so on foot they go ahead, like clingy toddlers they flood his alone place and his apart time with their need and their clamoring, their sheer mass, the overwhelming sound, smell, the hungry obligation of them.
He has every right, here and now, to absolutely lose it. To tell them all to go away. To tell the disciples to make them leave him alone. To turn the boat around and float alone in the waves for hours until he regains his composure, until he has some peace and quiet.
But when Jesus sees the crowd, it says, he has compassion on them, and cures their sick. He brings the boat ashore and goes to them and stays there with them, each one. What’s your name? What do you need? How can I help? I see you. God sees you. Be healed. Go and be well. You are set free. Find new life, my friend. How long have you struggled with this? It ends today. Peace to you.
As the day stretches toward night the disciples start getting worried – I imagine as much about Jesus as about the hungry crowds without a port-o-potty or vendor stand for miles around, so they tell Jesus to send the crowds away so they can find food for themselves in the villages. A very sound piece of advice, if you ask me. But Jesus answers, They need not go away-you feed them.
There are two meals in this chapter of Matthew. At the first meal a corrupt and cruel leader who wields the power of the empire for personal gain, thinks little of using death for entertainment or personal reward, and a good and faithful person dies. That feels really big and really powerful.
And then comes the second meal, where, out on the edge of nowhere, Jesus unexpectedly feeds 5000 plus people with a few pieces of bread and fish.
And I have to admit, seeing these back to back, at first a part of me wonders, is this meal some kind of l gold teeth to the world’s traffic accidents? Some kind of feel-good, flash in the pan miracle in the face of life-ending tragedy?
Who is this God? And what could God possibly be up to on this earth, or not?
Israel and Palestine are locked in a bitter and terrible cycle of destruction, oppression and death, and innocent people are dying daily. Terrified kids are fleeing danger in their countries and traveling to our borders for safety, and finding themselves in a precarious place with no future clear. Ebola creeps through villages and neighborhoods in West Africa, and cancer ravages loved ones, or alcoholism, or mental illness. What can we do in the face of injustice and evil – on a global scale or right here in our own lives? Where is God in the middle of all of this?
It was incredibly vulnerable for Jesus to be with the crowds that day. He was grieving, his cousin was dead, evil had dealt a harsh blow. But in his vulnerability, he met them in theirs. In his humanity he reached out to theirs. In his own need and dependence on God, he saw them as God sees them – beloved and valued. The Son of God looks on the crushing crowd of humanity and, even in grief and the desire to be alone, Jesus is moved with compassion, and goes to be with them, touches their sick and their dying, bringing new life to them all. And then they are fed a banquet of unexpected abundance.
The power that brought the world into being, is here, among them, healing the sick, and providing their bread for today, until all, every single one of them, to the last man, woman, and child, is fed until full, and there are leftovers galore. Food enough for all. Like no meal in memory, a meal of promises past and hope futured. An impromptu feast that in every way threatens the powers that be, uncontrolled, unrestricted, unearned and unexpected. That night all receive and are fed.
And the people, out there in the deserted place, far from the center of commerce and empire, sit down on the grass like one enormous picnicking family, and dine on manna. Like the Israelites in exile, the crowd is fed at the hand of God and drawn into the promise of the story larger than themselves, encompassing history and future and a love that is stronger than death. A very different kind of dinner party than the one before it.
We here today will share a meal in a few minutes, a feast that seems almost silly, really, bread and grape juice in the face of starvation and sickness, a meal of symbolism and signs while the real violence rages and scared children get caught in the crosshairs, and our own lives threaten to brim over from time to time with pain and injustice and fear.
In this feast we are reminded that Jesus himself was broken for us, even alongside us, instead of saving us out of the world’s pain, God joins us inside of it, that all might be saved. In this feast we receive that gift of God’s love, and in even our own brokenness we are called to share that gift in the world.
But what can we do about the evil and the sadness, the injustice and the hopelessness? What can we do? What could Jesus do about his cousin’s death at the hands of a tyrant? Nothing. And also everything.
We could go away, bury our heads in the sand of a deserted place, and wish these things didn’t happen. Or we could watch Jesus join the people, moved with compassion, and we could join him, listening to the needs around us and within us, receiving the meal he offers and reaching out and sharing that gift with others in real and concrete ways.
We can let love direct us instead of fear, let God set the terms for how life is supposed to go instead of evil and brokenness and sin. Don’t send them away, he said, you feed them. And hey, disciples, you will feed them. I will give you the food and you will distribute it to all, as each one has need.
Gathered here today at our little absurd and subversive feast, we are like those gathered on that grass that night at their absurd and subversive feast, finding themselves plopped down next to a sister who has been healed and a neighbor who has found hope, and thousands of other strangers who are now roommates in this world God is creating anew. And I imagine that evening the picture must have looked pretty big, the lens pretty pulled back, as the God who promised way back when to your ancestors in the wilderness to provide and lead and love and save, leans down and looks you in the eye, and hands you a piece of fish and a crust of bread, and you take some and eat, and turn and pass it on down the line.
There is a power greater than death, a force greater than evil. And it comes not to the powerful but to the weak, and it comes not through force but through compassion. Instead of wielding death, it brings life. Instead of revenge it heals, instead of retribution it births hope.
And there is a feast more abundant than the most lavish and excessive meals of the empire, a different kind of meal. Instead of gluttony, it grows generosity, instead of greed, it draws all to freely give. And instead of playing people against each other it brings all people together and reminds us that we are one, that we belong to each other and that we belong to God.
There is so much more going on than what we can see. God’s rule is utterly different than human rule, and God’s realm is breaking in in unstoppable ways. Love endures to the end, and love will prevail.
That is who our God is, and that is what God is up to in this world.
May we receive and be filled. May we share and the world be healed.