“YOU Give Them Something To Eat”
Matthew 14: 13-21 ~ Rev. Dr. Dorothy Jeffery ~ Northwood United ~ August 2, 2020
I first began reflecting on this passage from Matthew, commonly remembered as the miracle story of “The Five Loaves and Two fish”, on Monday May 25. For you who love camping in British Columbia’s beautiful provincial parks, you may remember that was the day reservations re-opened for camping. So, camping and the great outdoors was on my mind. What first stood out to me in the Matthew passage was that Jesus ordered the crowds (do you remember crowds?) to sit on the grass. After long days and weeks of staying home, to be ordered to sit on a grassy hillside felt like the most glorious way to spend time. We usually would pack a picnic lunch for that kind of day, but apparently the crowds did not, so as the day neared its end the disciples asked Jesus to send the crowds away to the surround villages to get food. The disciples were reluctant to act. They thought what they had was not enough. However, what they had, though meagre, was NOT nothing. Jesus is not one to send people away. So, he said to the disciples “You give them something to eat”. The disciples did not know where to start. What could they do? The task is too huge.
Jesus is not one to leave anyone without resources. He commands the disciples to actively do something. He shows confidence in their ability. Jesus is spreading the work around. “You give them something to eat” … something to feed them. Interestingly there is no mention of the crowd grumbling about physical hunger. Is it another hunger they have? Actually, Jesus only feeds the disciples, then they feed the others. Jesus, a great spiritual teacher and leader, knows that feeding goes beyond physical food. Feeding is compassionately bringing hope, comfort, a place of shelter for the homeless, clothing for the body, justice for all. Compassion motivates Jesus ministry. //
When we look at biblical stories, context is hugely important. When we make our own interpretation, context is hugely important. We can take from this that context, our own context, though different, has bearing on the impact of the story. In first-century Palestine, stories of Jesus tended to float freely. The story of the feeding of the five thousand is the only “miracle” story that was finally written down in all four gospels, so we know it was a well-known and oft told story. In oral tradition what is remembered is what is useful. This story was useful. In Matthew, this miracle story comes at a time when Jesus is grieving the death of John the Baptist (his friend and mentor) at the hands of the cruel Herod. Jesus seeks a quiet place to grieve and to pray. In Matthew we hear repeatedly that Jesus moved aside to pray. We are probably in a period of grieving for what was, and what might have been. We certainly have memories and probably dreams. You may have been presented with many options for your time of being away from the crowds. Did you see them? Did you take some of them up? //
We can see a call to active ministry that meets human needs. As disciples we are entrusted with the awesome responsibility to express our faith in concrete acts of love, justice for all and compassion to others. But there is a tension that unmet needs may overwhelm our sense of agency. “Go make a difference” just does not seem possible. It feels like we are faced with situations, that we are not sure we can manage. Jesus is calling us to dream bigger, and to change our ideas about our own power to act. God gives us power to work for good, especially when we join in unity and faithfulness. God will be there. This we are promised. We are not promised the absence of struggle and pain. We are promised the presence of God.
I know in your community of Northwood UC you have been engaged in this feeding, literally and figuratively. You host a thrift shop, offer community meals, a spiritual SPA, a warm and welcoming worship time. In this time of re-opening in BC (if it lasts and does not need to be reversed) some of these physical ways of feeding may be able to be re-started, but probably not by the time you hear this message. So, what metaphorical “feeding” can you do now? Working together as a broader community, new possibilities open. Often, they are opened up by wider communication than this Northwood community. Communication is made possible by listening and accessing United Church resources available on-line. With less opportunity to do physical helping and healing, time may be opened to listen to our wider church. //
The Pacific Mountain Region has been offering practical and spiritual support for the churches of the region. In the realm of spiritual support their Zoom townhalls have brought messages from several of our spiritual leaders. One was offered by The Very Reverend Gary Paterson, a former moderator of the UCC. First, he recognized the need to learn to live with uncertainty, especially at this time. To me it seemed he was giving us “something to eat”, thoughts for reflection. Gary suggested this is a time to keep wrestling with re-articulation of our theology. The UCC has a unique voice to offer to other churches, many of whom are preaching that God is an all- powerful, controlling and punishing God. Some say this pandemic is God’s punishment for a sinful world. That theology is not ours, but it is out there. We do see that suffering in the world falls disproportionately on those who have already suffered – the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable.
When asked what we believe, we too often tell people what we do not believe. In this time when on-line worship seems to be attracting new people, we need to be able to describe the God do we believe in. Omnipresent is a word to hold up today: God is with us in our suffering, God does feel the feelings of people and creatures, and God does comfort, strengthen and support. This omnipresent God is inviting each of us and creation itself to collaborate with the Holy to change the world for justice to grow. We are called to be Co-creators in mending the world. This is the work we are being called to. We are being called, but this God is persuasive not coercive. We must decide to accept this call with the energy that we have. // The second thing we can do in this period of isolation is to strengthen our spiritual practices. Deep prayer. Meditation. Western Christianity has a rich tradition in spiritual practices. This is the time to delve into the traditions – retreats, lecto Divina, daily spiritual walks. Opening yourself to something beyond yourself. Learning the art of self care, but beyond self-care, recognizing that in these stressful times adding one more thing to our “to-do” list is not healing. We are all in this together. Not all the pastoral care can be taken on by our spiritual leaders. A model described as cascading self-care means that each member of the congregation can support another, not according to some sort of roster, but by recognizing and being available to support another in need, knowing that someone else will do the same for you.
I know you have some of these practices at Northwood, but now is a time to go deeper with them, with even more of you engaged. This caring is not limited to your own church. Now we may have time to slow down and prepare for new ways of feeding the soul. With these practices your hand can be there to match the hand that is offered by those coming new to ask about God. Again, not a coercive action, but an offering and being ready. // One of Gary Paterson’s gifts to the church is his love and command of poetry. So naturally he offered a couple of poems in support of his message. I include links to the full poems in the print version of this message.
Mary Oliver, “Invitation,” A Thousand Mornings (New York: Penguin Books, 2013). https://www.radicalsupport.org/blog/2019/1/14/invitation-by-mary-oliver
"Perhaps..." by Shu Ting, from Carrying Over: Poems from the Chinese, Urdu, Macedonian, Yiddish and French African, edited by Carolyn Kizer. Translated from the Chinese by Carolyn Kizer. © Copper Canyon Press, 1988. http://www.ayearofbeinghere.com/2013/12/shu-ting-perhaps.html
For now I will condense the poems. Poem Mary Oliver “The Invitation” Oh do you have time to linger for just a little while out of your busy and very important day …? … strive … not for your sake and not for mine and not for the sake of winning but for sheer delight and gratitude … it is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world. I beg of you, do not walk by without pausing to attend …It could mean something. It could mean everything. It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote: You must change your life. // Third thing – Gary offered his conviction that the church has an incredible gift to offer to the world.
To extend the saying from the 1966 hymn “They’ll know we are Christians (by our love)” to include “they will know we are Christians by our of love the world”. Actions of care, compassion, and gentleness emphasize the gift of vision. Can we lift-up a vision that we need each other? Lift-up those who suffer most – meat packers, seniors in care homes, seasonal temporary immigrant workers, marginalized people. Church must ensure that all voices are heard. Can we discover a new way to live as one body and one earth with all my relations? Can we make a choice for compassion? Dream big of a new world. We have treasure in earthen vessels – the church is called to share outward in new and exciting ways.
Another poem “Perhaps” by Shu Ting from China, abbreviated and adapted at one place. Perhaps these thoughts of ours will never find an audience. Perhaps the lamps we light one at a time will be blown out, one at a time. Perhaps the candles of our lives will gutter out without lighting a fire to warm us. Perhaps when all the tears have been shed the earth will be more fertile. Perhaps these heavy burdens will strengthen our faith. Perhaps when we weep for those in misery we must be silent about miseries of our own. Perhaps Because of our irresistible mission. We have no choice. // Miracle stories cause us to have to choose. So, this Matthew story is not a passive message. It is a call to action, where contemplation, and reflection are very real actions. We are called to be partners with God in making fullness of life a reality today for the world God loves. Know that God is reconciling the world, and the ministry of Jesus is always actively a part of the grand story. There are a whole lots of action verbs in this passage: Jesus saw, had compassion, ordered, took, looked, blessed, broke, gave. This is prototypical communion text “he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave”. The actions of communion. The miracle anticipates the last supper.
As we worship remotely today perhaps the looking “to heaven” part is of most importance since we are not with each other physically. We communicate today “through heaven” through a non -physical spiritual interaction when we move into communion.
AMEN (may it be so).