Yesterday afternoon, I attended a memorial service for a man named Al, the father of a friend. As usually happens when we gather in grief to give thanks for a person’s life, the people who knew and loved him told us stories of the ways he touched their lives. As usually happens, I was struck by the way the stories painted a full-color picture of this man I had only met once. One story in particular attracted my attention. Al’s grandson grew up in Coeur d’Alene and attended college in St. Joe, Missouri. At the beginning and end of terms, the grandson and his father made the long drive together. They had one goal for the trip—to get to the other end as fast as they could. They enjoyed being together, but they hated the long drive through the barren countryside and they never looked to the right or the left—just straight down the road, clipping off the miles to their destination. From time to time, the grandfather also made the drive to St. Joe to see his grandson. Invariably, when he arrived, he would be eager to share the pictures of tiny wildflowers he had photographed during his journey through the wasteland.
What we see depends on where we look—whether we’re driving through the desert or reading our way through scripture.
Today’s gospel is a good case in point. The feeding of the multitudes is perhaps one of the most widely known of the gospel stories. It is the only event described in all four gospels, and even people who have never set foot in a church or listened to a Bible story have some acquaintance with the story. Our attention focuses on the miraculous event, but most of us have heard this story so many times that it’s ceased to hold much in the way of amazement for us. Being people of analytical inclination and perhaps a bit of skepticism, we’ve considered how this story might have happened, wondered whether the fishes really were multiplied or whether the people were moved to share the food they had brought with them—wondered exactly how many people really were there that day. Maybe 50...maybe 500...but surely not 5,000! Surely not as many as that!
We ponder the questions this account brings to us. I tend to wonder where they got those 12 baskets to gather up the leftovers. We may imagine ourselves in the disciples’ shoes. Most of us have had the experience of being team members of some sort or other and holding a sense of responsibility for keeping things moving along. We know how the world works, even when extraordinary things are happening, and so do the disciples. They know that people need to eat at certain times. They know that five loaves and two fish can’t begin to feed a large crowd. They know that food is scarce and leftovers need to be gathered carefully lest anything be wasted. They know that this is a day like any other day—that Jesus will move on to the next little town—that he will continue to heal—continue to teach. They know that the faces will change, that more people will gather to see this man whose reputation is growing daily. People will gather to touch and be touched by the healer. People will gather to hear the words that bring hope to the heart. They know these things, and we—also disciples who are mindful of hospitality for people who seek the one we follow—we can understand the disciples’ concern for the situation.
As we hear this story, our attention is drawn to the disciples and to the need of the people. But what about Jesus? Where is he in this story? Because we tend to read scripture in the little chunks that make up the lectionary, we sometimes have difficulty seeing the thread of the bigger story.
As today’s story opens, Jesus has just learned of the murder of John the Baptist, and he’s come to this place to be alone—perhaps to mourn, perhaps to search for a measure of safety for himself and his followers. He’s been rejected by the people in the synagogue of his own country, and he’s tired. He knows that John has been killed because of his opposition to the occupation and the puppet rulers, so Jesus is probably aware that a similar fate awaits him if he continues his work. As his boat moved across the water, he’s been able to see the people moving along the shore, following the tiny image of his boat. When he comes ashore and sees their faces, he feels compassion for their need. He moves out of his fatigue and grief and disappointment and fear. He moves out of concern for self and begins once again to heal the sick.
Jesus knows that the world is changing. He knows that these people are hungry for something more than food in their bellies. The people who have swarmed from the villages and farms to see Jesus aren’t asking to be fed the grain of the earth and the fish of the sea. Jesus knows their true hunger, and he’s unwilling to separate himself from the people—any more than they seem to be willing to separate themselves from his presence. So he tells the disciples, you’re the ones who are worried about food! This is your problem—you deal with it.
When the disciples see how little they have to offer, they turn to Jesus again. And he says: “Bring it here to me.” They give the food to him. And something happens. Something happens. He takes the food and blesses and breaks it and gives it back to the disciples so that they can give it to the people. And all the people are fed. No one is hungry. No one has just enough. They all are completely satisfied—and there’s plenty left over. There is more than is needed, and the reign of God is present in all God’s abundance.
Like the disciples, like the father and son driving through the desert with a single purpose in mind, what we see depends on where we look. The demands of our lives as Christians so often come when we’re least able to cope with them, least able to give what’s required. We look at our resources—our abilities and talents, our energy and our time—and they seem so small, so inadequate to the need we see around us. If we focus on our own sense of scarcity, that’s all we see. But Matthew’s story tells us that that there is something more—that there’s no limit to Christ’s compassion for us. Nothing separated those 5,000 people from the miracle of the abundance of God’s love. They found the healing they sought. And they were fed with more than they could have imagined.
We come to this place—to this table—and we too are healed. We too are fed.
Just as Jesus said to the disciples, the risen Christ continues to say to us: “Bring it here to me.”
Bring all that you have to give. Bring those things that seem too small to meet the need.
Bring whatever you find when you rummage around in your soul.
And when we look to the one who loves us, when we bring all that we have, all that we are, Christ meets us here at this table. Christ meets us and transforms what we see as scarcity into the abundance of God’s love.
And another miracle happens.
Thanks be to God.
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