The Miracle of Enough

Matthew 14:13-21

One day in mid-March 2020, my husband came home with a 50-pound bag of oats. Connecticut was about to go into lockdown, and even though grocery stores were going to stay open it wasn’t exactly clear what the supply chain was going to look like. My husband figured, “at least we can eat oatmeal.”

Most people have similar stories of pandemic purchases. Was yours reams of toilet paper?  50 pounds of flour for sour dough baking? A case of canned goods? Perhaps it was hoarding, but we were just trying to be prepared to provide for our families in a situation beyond our control.

The crowds on hillside could not provide for themselves in our Gospel lesson today. Perhaps they hadn’t expected that Jesus would wander so far into the wilderness; maybe they had planned to leave earlier, but lost track of time. Whatever the reason, 5,000 men plus their families were out in the countryside, late in the day, with no rations and nowhere to buy them.

The disciples were not prepared for this eventuality either. They were the ones who noticed the lengthening shadows, the restlessness of the children, the growling in their own stomachs. They said, “Send the people into the villages to buy food.”

Imagine their dismay when Jesus said to them, “You give them something to eat.” Was catering part of the job description for being a disciple of Jesus? And where were they supposed to get enough food to feed this crowd?

If you read between the lines, Matthew gives an indication that even Jesus may not have been prepared for this scenario. Matthew begins the story, “Now when Jesus heard about the beheading of John the Baptist, He withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

The flow of the narrative is that Jesus had been busy teaching the crowds in various Jewish town when he was stopped in his tracks by the news of the murder of his cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus often retreated to a deserted place when he wanted to pray, and that is exactly what he chose to do now. It makes sense he would want some time to himself in the wake of the shock and sadness of that news. The last thing he was prepared for was a big crowd clamoring for his attention.

When you aren’t prepared, when resources are scarce, it’s easy to focus on fending for yourself. Our global population hit 8 billion last year. There is competition for the world’s resources, wars that impoverish, and climate change that is making a lot of the world’s people desperate. It could be tempting to focus on our own needs, like our pandemic purchases, and leave others to fend for themselves.

After all, what can one person do? 

But as I look to Jesus in this story, I get a different message. Like us, he was in a situation where it could be argued the best solution would be what the disciples proposed: send the people away so they can provide for themselves. That would prioritize limited resources for the needs of Jesus and the disciples. Frankly, that is a responsible thing to do—what good would Jesus and his disciples be if they were weakened from hunger? Like the announcement on the airplane, this is the common wisdom—you need to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.

But Jesus does almost the opposite: Matthew says that when Jesus “saw the crowd, he had compassion for them.” He healed their sick and spent the whole day with them. And then, when it was late and everyone needed to eat, Jesus took the food they had, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to the disciples to distribute. Instead of guarding his resources and rationing them to provide for himself and those closest to him, Jesus tapped into his reserves and shared them with everyone. The miracle is that in caring for others they were not spread too thin—there was enough for everyone.

This story of the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle of Jesus that appears in all four gospels. It is a miracle of spiritual feeding, of trusting in God to provide for our needs. But I am struck upon this reading that this miracle illustrates that God cares about bodies as well as souls. This story connects the spiritual discipline of trust to the spiritual practice of caring for others’ physical needs. Like the apostle James would later write, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?… If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Likewise, in this story of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus unites prayer and action, faith and works, powerfully illustrating that the Christian life is not complete without both.

Which reminds me of Sylvia, a big-hearted former parishioner. Every week at communion time, Sylvia would come forward with a small plastic bag of groceries for the local pantry. Everyone else put their pantry items in the basket up front before church began, but Sylvia always made her offering an act of worship. Sylvia understood that all people are connected at that Table, and that God’s care for us in communion compels us to care for each other. She cared for others not just on Sunday when she brought in her pantry items, but in volunteering at the soup kitchen and raising her granddaughter. For Sylvia, the prayer of worship was lived out each day in her life.

We who taste the bread of communion are called like Sylvia to care for God’s family, to unite our prayer with action. Just as Jesus accomplished the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 through the disciples’ hands as they passed out the bread and fish, God chooses to do the work of caring for the world God loves through our hands: through the providing for food and clothing for folks in our area through Epiphany’s pantry’ through our support of Francesca’s college education: through our partnership with the Haitian Timoun Foundation; through our regular blood drives which ensure a lifesaving supply of blood products; through cultivating our awareness of our neighbors who live next door and those who live around the world.

This is a deep responsibility. In fact, it is our calling: to unite prayer and action; to use the best of our intellect to figure out how to share the abundance of the earth with all its inhabitants; to understand our needs as intimately connected to the needs of others; and to open our eyes to the miracle that there is indeed enough.

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