I drew on my 2011 sermon on this Lectionary reading for the beginning parts of this sermon.
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. 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. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “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.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Jesus had just heard horrible news – the kind of news that hits like a slap to the face; gut-wrenching, mind-numbing, incapacitating news. His cousin: a man he’d grown up with and loved, a man whose willingness to baptize changed Jesus’ whole life – was dead. Killed at the hands of the despicable King Herod.
Most, if not all of us, have been in this place. Reeling from shock, confused, unable to think… of course his first thought was that he needed to be alone, to get away from the noise of the crowd, their neediness, the challenges of the scribes and the Pharisees, the pressure of proclaiming the Kingdom, if only for a little while.
So he got in a boat and set off across the lake. I can’t say if the disciples were in the boat with him; I suspect they watched him float away, looked at each other, shrugged and decided to walk around the lake to meet him.
As they trudged off for the long journey to the other side, word was spreading about what had happened. As the disciples passed through the villages, people laid aside what they were doing, tied on their sandals, and joined the trek. First, a dozen, then a few hundred, then, several thousand men, women and children, joining as one in a somber pilgrimage to meet Jesus.
Have you ever wondered why? Why would so many, already desperately poor, already teetering on the edge of starvation, drop everything, leave the paltry security they had, and with no thought of where they were going or what they would do to survive when they got there, just fall in line behind these disciples?
I mean, yeah, there's the standard response of “Well, they wanted to see Jesus, wanted to get healed, yada yada,” but I believe there is something more at work here.
John the Baptist had been many things: prophet, preacher, and perhaps above all, a reminder to these people in bondage that God was not done with them yet. And when Herod had forced his brother Phillip to divorce his wife, Herodias, so Herod could marry her, it was John who said what everybody was thinking: it was a shameful, disgusting thing, improper for a Jew (even one as nominally Jewish as Herod).
The word was that Herod had been pushed in to arresting John by Herodias, but no matter who made who do what, John was arrested, and with that it seemed some of the light had been stolen from the sky. Once again, the powerful exercised their will on the weak, and no one could do anything about it.
For a while there was hope. John's disciples made sure he had food, and brought back news that he was still alive, that Herod didn't want to kill him because he feared an uprising, even that Herod snuck down to the filthy dungeon at night to have conversations with the prophet.
Now, village after Galilean village learned the terrible news. John was dead, murdered as entertainment for a drunken banquet, his head displayed on a serving platter. So they walked. They walked to share their grief, they walked to try and figure out what to do next, maybe they walked because the one thing people need more than food or shelter in order to keep on living another day is hope, and they were fresh out and needed more – anything, something – to keep them going.
And I don't know this but maybe some, maybe all of them, knew who John had been to Jesus. Maybe they wanted to tell Jesus how sorry they were that his cousin was dead, to offer some kind of comfort in his grief.
I imagine Jesus there, alone, in the boat, probably paying very little attention to things like setting the sail properly, or rowing, or whatever it is one needed to do to get that particular watercraft from one side of the lake to another. It was a time to grieve and a time to cry. Yes, I’m sure there was prayer; probably along the lines of asking “why?” as his thoughts turned inward, ever inward…
Jesus was, of course, God-made-flesh. But how easily we forget that God-made-flesh was, well, a human being. Jesus was on a life journey, a journey where he learned and experienced and dealt with everything every other human being has ever had to do – potty training and learning to use a fork and learning to walk and read and talk, and, yes, to feel the crushing grief of losing someone we love to Death.
Who knows how long that boat took to cross the lake? Who knows how deep Jesus fell into that well of loss, of sorrow, of grief? Perhaps, at last, the rocking of the boat coaxed him into a fitful sleep…
…a sleep interrupted by the sound of voices. Lots of them. Thousands! A low murmer, bereft of shouts or laughter, just there. Jesus wiped the sleep from his eyes and peered over the railing toward the slowly approaching shore…
…and something happened to Jesus. Our New Revised Standard Version translation puts it mildly enough, it says that Jesus saw a great crowd and had compassion for them. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But I want to suggest this morning that something far deeper, more seminal happened right then. You see, the Greek word for what happened in that moment, splagchnizomai, is derived from a word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which described the removal of an animal’s innards during ritual sacrifice. It’s a much more decisive, visceral, even violent word, than what we understand “compassion” to be. Eugene Peterson’s “Message” translation of this Scripture says that Jesus’ heart went out to them, and that’s closer, but it’s much more like Jesus’ love for that crowd – his desire to help them, to heal them – that compassion was so great that it was as if his very heart was ripped from his chest.
And the miracles began. Jesus did what Jesus does – he loved them, he healed their sicknesses. And healed, and healed some more. For hours and hours.
I wasn't there, obviously, and I have no way of knowing this, but I imagine that this gathering was different from the one before, where the crowd had been so huge and pressing in so uncontrollably to see Jesus that he had to jump in a boat to keep from being crushed. I think the sorrow and the grief pressed down on the people so much that they just stood there. And Jesus walked among them, whispering, touching, maybe weeping with them, who knows? Who knows what was said, who was touched, what sicknesses were healed?
And you know what? I think that, as Jesus walked around from group to group, friends and families clustered together in little knots of grief, not only was he giving the people what they needed, he was getting what he needed as well.
After all, Zig Ziglar said, “you can't sprinkle the perfume of happiness without getting a few drops on yourself,” and that is so cheesy it sets my teeth on edge but it is true. In moving through that crowd, comforting, healing, loving, Jesus was receiving the comfort and healing and love that he himself needed in his grief.
I don't think I am straying off the theological reservation when I suggest that all of us – even Jesus – need hope, especially in times of loss and grief. That's what he went looking for when he got in the boat, and though it didn't look like what Jesus was expecting, it's what he got.
So he touched more, he healed more, he comforted more, hour after hour.
As the shadows grew long, his disciples finally came up to Jesus. Maybe it was Peter who whispered, “Master, it’s getting late, and these folks need to go find a village and get some dinner.”
Jesus never missed a beat, didn't even look up, going from person to person, touching, blessing, healing. “Nah, they don’t need to go anywhere. You give them some supper.”
“Um, Jesus, not to argue with you or anything, but we’re not exactly McDonald’s here. Five loaves, a couple of fish, that’s our inventory.”
And I know that the Gospels don’t record it this way, but I can see Jesus looking up, smiling, and saying, “Perfect! Give ‘em here. That’s plenty. Watch…”
I suppose the disciples could have held back: “What are you, crazy? This is my lunch! I give this up, then I have nothing! Go get your own loaves and fishes, man!” – but they gave them over to Jesus, and the miracles began anew.
Thousands upon thousands of people sat on the cool grass as Jesus blessed and broke the bread and the fish, and passed them over to the disciples to begin handing out.
The disciples must have thought their Rabbi had lost his ever-loving mind. But they dutifully did as they were told, and walked out among the people with these meager fragments, passing out food. And passing out food. And passing out food.
There wasn’t “too little” after all. In fact, there wasn’t “just enough.” There was an abundance! Way more than they needed!
I have heard and read many, many explanations from theologians of all stripes of how and why the miracle of the loaves and fishes happened. Many point to Elijah and the miracle of the widow's oil, or of Elisha feeding a hundred people with a few barley loaves. Others suggest that what happened was a “miracle of sharing,” where people responded to the disciples' faithfulness by pulling out their own food and sharing it.
Look, it was a miracle, and I don't really care how it happened. Sorry. I think it's a waste of time to try and explain it, I think it misses the point.
And I really think it misses the point to make this a Prosperity Gospel reading, focusing on the fact that, because they were faithful in giving up the little that they had, they gathered up far more than they themselves needed. This isn't about giving money to a TV preacher so God will give you a Cadillac.
I mean, yes, this is an example of what Paul meant when he wrote in Phillippians, “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” And we know this – we give glory to God for our successes, and lean on God when we are in need.
At the same time, in this nation where there is an abundance of food and clothing, where houses stand empty, something like fifteen point nine children – twenty percent of the child population of the United States – live in homes where they aren't sure where their next meal is coming from. Talk all you like about school lunch programs, I have spoken to many educators who tell me that, for far too many kids, that free lunch is the only food they can depend on.
In a nation of iPhones and Androids and fifty-two inch plasma TV screens, with a Wal-Mart and a Whataburger on ever corner, we worry that children surrendering at our Southern border to escape certain death might tax our resources as a nation.
Jesus isn't looking to us for a political solution. If we have learned anything over the past few decades in American politics, it is that Christians cannot depend on legislators to do the right thing, to act in ways that are moral without regard to the political cost. Without removing our responsibility as people of faith to always speak truth to power, Jesus looks to us.
After all, Jesus moves and acts in this nation and in this world through you and I, we are Christ's hands and feet. Jesus looks to us and says, “you give them something to eat.”
“You give them something to eat.”
What does that look like? Does it mean we pack up everything and start going around the country, feeding hungry people? Maybe.
And maybe it means we start right here, doing what we can with what we have. Is there a person in need? “You give them something to eat.” Someone needs comfort, reassurance, hope? “You give them something to eat.”
Anne Frank wrote, “No one has ever become poor by giving.”
Do we dare? Do we dare test that theory, giving ourselves over to the gut-wrenching compassion that compels us to do whatever we can to feed that hungry child, that grieving adult, that homeless family?
“You give them something to eat.”