Sermon for August 11, 2019
Texts: Isaiah 55:1-5/Matthew 14:13-21
Title: “You Give Them Something!”
Our lesson this morning began ambiguously, alluding to prior events about which the reader is uninformed. Recall, our lesson began, “Now when Jesus heard this.” As I read those words the a question undoubtedly arose in your minds, “What did Jesus hear?”
Fact is, Jesus heard some very disturbing news. Word had just reached the Lord that king Herod had beheaded John the Baptist. Matthew doesn’t describe Jesus’ mental state upon hearing the news, instead we read, [the Lord] “withdrew from [where he was] in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
That deserted place may well have matched the Lord’s mood. Solitude is sometimes the only company we want when we are burdened by a heavy heart. We want a change of scene. We want to get in the car and drive. Distance is what we crave. We want distance, not to outrun the emotional consequences of an event, but distance that will give us time to come to grips with what we are experiencing, and mobilize our inner resources to fend off despair.
If Jesus had, in fact, sought the solitude of a deserted place to sort things out, his solitude was short lived. People in the countryside got wind that Jesus was in the neighborhood and converged on the place where he was.
Life’s obligations sometimes take precedent over personal preferences, even when one is emotional unavailable to face those obligations. A partner in solitude with memories of John, Jesus may not have been at a place where he could offer his best to the crowds who sought him out, but moved with compassion by the needs of those who came to him, he offered what he had. Matthew gives us little information concerning what transpired as the crowds gathered around Jesus, stating simply that he “cured their sick.”
A reputation for curing the sick, teaching and preaching preceded Jesus as he made his rounds in Galilee. The gospels frequently use the word “authority” to describe his appeal. He taught with an authority the religious leaders of the day did not possess.
It was a particular kind of authority Jesus summoned in our morning’s lesson. It was an authority that allowed Jesus, and his disciples [we will get to them in a minute], to feed “five thousand men, besides [Matthew tells us] women and children” on just five loaves and two fish.
Having repeatedly witnessed Jesus’ authority on display, the capacity of the Lord to do just about anything would hardly have surprised the disciples. But on this occasion with a crowd of “five thousand men, besides women and children,” gathered around them, the issue of authority would be presented to the disciples in a different way.
The scene is recreated in our lesson. It appears that Jesus was so caught up in healing the sick that time had slipped away on him. The disciples, somewhat more attentive to the clock, saw a problem arising. You see they realized that some of the people who had gathered around Jesus had come great distances, and with night approaching their access to food was very limited. Jesus needed to be informed.
“This is a deserted place [they declared], and the hour is now late, send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” It was a practical enough solution to a potential problem, except they hadn’t reckoned with the issue of Jesus’ authority. Jesus was prepared to act as circumstances dictated, but how he would act had yet to be disclosed to his disciples. What the disciples could not have predicted was that Jesus would turn to them for help. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
Surely Jesus must have realized that the cupboard was bare. The disciples could only lay their hands on five loaves and two fish. Yet it was quite clear that the message wasn’t getting through to Jesus. Five loaves and two fish was all they had.
“You give them something.” Was he joking, or was he challenging them to assemble foraging parties to go out and find provisions? “You give them something.” Perhaps Jesus was too wearied from a difficult day to think straight. The disciples’ imaginations lacked sufficient breadth to see beyond the objects at hand, those five loaves and two fish. Five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand, “plus women and children”; Impossible.
Jesus was a man the likes of whom people had never seen before, and his disciples were privileged to watch as his reputation expanded. Each of his deeds bore the stamp of authority. What the disciples were slow to appreciate, and would only fully grasp after the Lord was resurrected and they were on their own, was that extent to which Jesus’ authority had been extended to them. What the disciples were slow to grasp was that their vocation to follow Jesus entailed more than merely witnessing the master at work, but was in fact an apprenticeship that would see them continue and even expand, the work the master had begun.
Again, the disciples would only come to appreciate the full significance of what their vocation under Jesus entailed after they had faced the challenges, threats and persecution that would be their lot as they took Jesus’ gospel into the world. It was only through seeing their faith and courage repeatedly tested that the disciples would arrive at a place where they could at last claim the authority that had been the Lord’s legacy to them.
All that, however, would come later. Now was now. “You give them something.” Fact of the matter, in that particular stage of their apprenticeship the disciples weren’t really prepared to give the crowd of five thousand plus much of anything. Left to their own devices the disciples would have sent the crowd back to their villages and homes unfed. But they weren’t left to their own devices, Jesus was with them to demonstrate how his authority, an authority he was preparing to grant them, could be applied.
And so as the crowds spread out in all directions nearly as far as the eye could see, Jesus invited his disciples to partner with him in what he would do next. Matthew reports, “[He took] the five loaves and the two fish,…looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, AND THE DISCIPLES GAVE THEM TO THE CROWDS.”
“You give them something.” As it turned out the disciples had something to give. Now what they had to give may well not have originated with them, but you better believe that as participants in the feeding of that crowd of over five thousand plus the disciples obtained a new grasp on the power, and, yes, the authority, that the Lord chose to display through them [through them].
“You give them something.” Giving is a recurring gospel theme. Jesus gave truth, hope, and healing. Moreover, giving was the theme to which he constantly returned when describing the central attributes of a life in the Spirit.
Some of Jesus’ most revered parables focus on giving. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him…” A Samaritan, the most unlikely benefactor, moved by pity, bandaged him, and delivered the beaten man to an inn where he could be cared for. The Samaritan established his enduring reputation in Scripture as a giver.
A father gave his younger son the inheritance he requested. He went out and promptly blew it on a spree of wild living. When the young man hit rock bottom he returned home. His father greeted him a new suit of clothes, a ring, and a banquet that would be talked about for years. Much more importantly, he gave his son the gift of forgiveness, reinstating his son to his place in the household.
A young man of upstanding reputation approached Jesus asking what he must do to enjoy eternal life. You might remember Jesus’ response. He was to give away all he owned and follow the Lord. In the act of giving away his goods he would receive salvation.
Giving is a recurring theme of the gospel. When Jesus was at the table for what would be his last supper with his disciples, he took bread, and after having broken it, he gave it to his disciples, “this is my body broken for you, do this in remembrance of me,” and then the cup, “this is the new covenant in my blood,” drink this in remembrance of me.” Communion commemorates the ultimate act of giving. “This is my body broken, this is my blood shed, for you.”
“You give them something.” The disciples were to model their lives, their giving, on Jesus. And what about us? Do you really think that in our case Jesus’ expectations are less demanding?
Giving is at the heart of the gospel. Giving is the very essence of discipleship. A life in Christ is centered on giving. Yet like Jesus’ disciples you and I often lack sufficient imagination, faith, or will, to use our gifts to the full.
One of the great tragedies of life is that many of the gifts God has conferred on us go unrecognized and thus unclaimed. Jesus wasn’t going to let that happen to his disciples, and have been equally committed that that not happen.
How blessed we are that God placed among us givers, parents, teachers, coaches, and counselors who spotted potential in us and were willing to nurture it. I’m thinking of Gustavo Dudumel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. While working his way up to the top echelons of his profession, Dudamel founded a youth orchestra in his native Venezuela. Furnishing instruments and providing lessons, Dudamel has given young musicians, children of very limited means in most cases, the opportunity to discover gifts that would likely have remained undiscovered and unnurtured.
“You give them something.” Dudamel has a passion for giving that in turn released in his youth musicians a passion for giving. The concerts his youth orchestras have given have inspired millions around the world to celebrate the amazing things that can happen when our native gifts are nurtured.
The cruel reality is that many of our God given gifts will remain undiscovered or uncultivated. Many of us have never been challenged to uncover our potential. But insofar as his disciples were concerned Jesus wasn’t going to allow that to happen, even as twelve remained skeptical about the potential they possessed.
Peering out to the crowd numbering well over five thousand, Jesus said to his disciples, “you give them something to eat.” Their response? “Five loaves and two fish” won’t do it. Jesus’ response, “watch me.”
Jesus never instructed his disciples to do something for which they lacked the tools. Nor does he expect us to do something for which we lack the tools. Oh yes, we HAVE the tools. But will we use the tools?
There is a gift each one of you holds in trust from God. Take time to do a personal inventory. There is a gift each one of us has to help feed this world’s hunger for decency, friendship, peace and reconciliation.
No, don’t for a minute think that you are empty handed. The saying applies to each of us as did to Jesus’ disciples: from those who have given much, much is expected.
“You give them something.” To hoard your gift diminishes you, and deprives your neighbor and the world of the blessing God appointed you to share. What you have is too precious to be squandered. AMEN.
Eternal Father, giver of abundant life, we gather in your presence seeking to learn what it means to live such a life. Grant us a new openness to the lessons you would teach. Even as preoccupations undermine and distract us we pray for that peace which passes all understanding, the peace you offer in Christ Jesus.
We regret that we have been slow to live the life you have chosen for us, O Lord, instead we have chosen to chart our own course. Open us, O Lord, to our true potential, for we are prone to diminish and undervalue our gifts. We often lack both the imagination and courage to fully use what we have been given. We decline opportunities fearing the burden of responsibilities we might be asked to accept. We fear the inconvenience we might incur by making a commitment. We rely upon others to assume responsibility, cultivating excuses to justify our own inaction.
Lord, abide with those who face stark choices, food or medicine, the doctor or the rent, school tuition or further indebtedness. Brace those who are consumed by anxiety and stress, who feeling overwhelmed see no options available to them, no place to turn. We pray for those who live with depression, who in their despair can find no relief.
We lift into your presence those who serve in harm’s way today, the women and men who serve on the nation’s police forces, fire departments, and in other public services where danger lurks. We pray for teachers, counselors, and coaches who serve as guides and mentors to our youth, praying that they may perform their work with sensitivity, integrity and a generous spirit.
Lord, abide with those who are incarcerated, those confined in our nation’s prisons and correctional centers. May the experience of imprisonment not serve to further isolate and estrange them from the rest of society, but equip them with the means to become contributing members of society.
O Lord Jesus who came to seek and save the lost and the marginalized, and preach the good news of redemption and reconciliation, full our hearts with joy and peace. These things we are bold to ask in your blessed name. Our Father…