Pastor Rick Danielson
On Friday morning, an 18-wheel moving van arrived about ten days late at our new home here in Boulder. Leroy and I were ready. Standing up for meals and sitting on the floor to type out sermon notes was getting old. We’d gotten used to the stark emptiness of our new home, though, and weren’t quite prepared for the intrusion of boxes and bookcases and linens and lamps and clothes and tools and everything else that was far more than we remembered packing up a month ago in New York. As much as we welcomed our belongings, and as happy as we were for a table and chairs, we realized we not only had enough belongings for life in Colorado, but we had more than enough!
Today’s Gospel reading describes those who do not have enough, or at least that’s how it seems as the story unfolds.
Jesus was at the height of his popularity as crowds pursued him on his day off. The physical and spiritual needs of the people evoked compassion as they and Jesus arrived together at a deserted place. I’ve always pictured it as grassy, windswept hillside just like the open space above us.
It was late in the day, well beyond lunch and dinner, and people were hungry. The disciples had a brilliant plan to send the people away to get food – and maybe just go home, but Jesus invited the crowd to sit down right there in the grass. As he blessed the only food the disciples could find, five loaves of bread were broken and two fish were shared. And no one went home hungry. In fact, after blessing and breaking and passing that meager meal from person to person across the hillside, there were twelve baskets overflowing with leftovers. It turned out that there was more than enough!
This story rather infamously exposes patriarchal assumptions. There were five thousand men recorded, and the woman and children present are only mentioned as an afterthought. They weren’t counted, since apparently they didn’t count to those recording the event.
But there is one child who became something of a hero in the story for sharing his lunch. He doesn’t show up here in Matthew, though. The feeding of the multitude is one of very few events in Jesus’ ministry that is recorded in all four gospels in the Christian canon. Only in John, though, likely written later than the others and after numerous retellings, is the boy and his lunch mentioned.
I have a question: If mothers and fathers and children traveled to a remote area, why were they without food? Why would parents put their children at risk like that? One boy’s mother apparently packed a lunch for him before he headed out to explore the world that day. But those parents are not mentioned in the story. Was he there alone? And was he in fact an unaccompanied child?
We have been hearing much about children at our southern border. Mothers and fathers are sending children north to the United States with very little. They are taking huge risks with vulnerable girls and boys, because the understood risks of staying are even greater. These families don’t have enough. Not enough resources. Not enough safety. Not enough peace. Not enough justice. Anywhere.
The multiplication of bread and fish is what makes the feeding of the multitude so interesting. It’s one of the more fantastic stories in the gospels, and by the time it gets to John, it is actually presented as one of seven signs pointing to the divine nature of Jesus.
I’ve come to see this story as a prime example of why we who are progressive Christians take the Bible seriously but not necessarily literally. And it makes me think of what is truly miraculous.
Again, why are people unprepared for a long trek out into the countryside? The climate was not much different than the semi-arid countryside outside of Boulder. If you have no water and no food, then you’re in serious trouble. Assuming the children and women and men number 12,000 or more, what are the chances of that many being that unthinking or that irresponsible?
Was no one prepared except the small boy or whoever it was who provided those five loaves of bread and two fish?
It’s possible, but I don’t think it’s very likely.
One plausible possibility is that many did have food with them but that they carefully protected it. Why should their family share their food with others who had given less forethought to the day or perhaps didn’t have adequate personal resources?
What if as Jesus preached and people absorbed his message, they had a change of heart? Then, as one person shared the little they had, they considered their own bread and fish and began to pass it around. Those who had plenty made sure that those with less had enough to eat, and the result was that there was more than enough for everyone: twelve whole baskets brimming over with what was gathered after everyone had eaten.
Someone could hear that possibility as a logical explanation that just sucks the miraculous out of an otherwise inspiring story.
But which is the greatest miracle: changing bread or changing hearts? What is it that God is most interested in doing?
Last week, the president of a large, conservative Protestant denomination traveled to the border of Mexico to observe the plight of children fleeing atrocities in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. His denomination has gotten broad press coverage recently for its insistence on the submission for women within marriage and the church, for its rejection of LGBT rights and marriage equality, and for its opposition to reproductive choice. Recently, many within the church have called for the immediate deportation of unaccompanied children crossing our border.
The denomination president, and other church official issued a report of their visit that shocked and scandalized many church members:
"It made it real to me. It's no longer about something I hear on the news. Now I've seen real children who have real moms and dads, who have real grandparents, who have taken long treks across the country ... all looking for a better life, all looking for hope, all looking for safety. These children are not issues to be resolved but persons bearing dignity and needing care. The issues in this crisis are complex, but our first response should be one of compassion and justice, not fear."
That is a miracle! And what other miracles might happen in the future as others who need respect and justice and compassion are known as real human beings possessing dignity and worth?
Which is the greatest miracle: changing bread or changing hearts?
In a world where people suffer from lack of basic necessities, we are often the ones who can make a life-changing difference by holding our bread and our fish loosely. Multiplication of needed resources is something we can do every day. It’s miraculous whether it’s Jesus holding the bread and fish, or if it’s us. In a similar way, Buddhism presents generosity as one of the Ten Perfections, and it teaches that sharing with others is an antidote to greed, which can poison our soul. So we are enriched when we release from our hands what can serve the needs of another.
I am thrilled that you called me to be your pastor. I am ecstatic to be part of a faith community that takes the words and actions of Jesus seriously.
Much of what makes this a uniquely vital congregation is to the credit of those who served in this position in the past. I think about the story of the multiplication of bread and fish and I picture that unnamed boy on the shoulders of an adult, held up, watching and waiting for the moment to give what he had.
For my part, I recognize that I’m on the shoulders of others as I begin this work with you. Those others include Jane Anne Ferguson for the past year and Pete Terpenning for many years prior, and others who gave pastoral leadership in this church’s 50 year history, including Karyrene Pearson here today. I’m honored to be continuing their work as we do the work of God together here.
A year ago, I visited the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, Israel, by the Sea of Galilee. It was a more peaceful time in that part of the world. Many centuries ago, a cathedral was built to commemorate the feeding of the multitude, but it eventually fell into ruin and its location was forgotten for 1300 years. In the 20th century, the location was excavated. A beautiful fifth century mosaic was discovered which covered the entire floor of the ancient church. A new church was built in the 1980s over the original floor. When I visited, a man was on his knees in the aisle, painstakingly cleaning and repairing the tiny tiles of the mosaic. In front of the altar, the mosaic depicts two fish and a basket holding four loaves of bread. The fifth loaf is always on the table above, ready to be shared through the Eucharist.
I have been looking forward all week to sharing in the Lord’s Supper with you. We are one body, there is one loaf, and there is one world that we look to as we share the love of God freely with others. Thanks be to God that there is more than enough to share.