Chris and I have been blessed to do some traveling overseas in our time of marriage. Before we were even engaged, we took a trip with our alma mater to Europe. We were going to experience 6 countries in 18 days: Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. We traveled during the time when mad cow disease was a very real concern. And for some reason, people overseas must think that Americans favorite thing to eat is fried chicken (like chicken fingers), french fries, and ice cream with fruit cocktail on top. We were pretty far into the trip. We were all tired and ready to have something other than chicken and we wanted comfortable beds. We had been traveling the hilly, winding roads of Switzerland when we passed a cute little hotel that looked like something out of the movie “Heidi.” Our friend Megan wondered aloud “why can’t we stay at a place like that??” And our bus came to a halt. This was going to be our hotel!
Once we got settled into the Hotel Alphenhof in Melchtal Switzerland, we ventured downstairs to the dining room, expecting the normal meal of sad chicken, soggy fries, and more saccharine covered ice cream. I sat down thinking “well, at least my room is nice and comfy.” Then, out came platters of food. Amazing pork schnitzel, mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, amazing butterscotch pudding. And then, just when we thought we were full and someone said “I wish we had more, like seconds or something” out came more platters. To this day, Chris and I agree that it was one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten. And was it really that good? Who knows. But, we were hungry, we got fed, and we ate until we were satisfied and filled.
We hear Matthew’s Gospel telling of the feeding of the five thousand today. This is a story so powerful, it is the only one to grace all four of our gospels. And it is a miraculous story, really. It is powerful to think about 5000 people (and then some) being fed with what started as five loaves of bread and two fish. But we don’t get a lot of details about how it happened. Did baskets appear out of nowhere? Did it start literally raining loaves and fish? Did it appear slowly or all at once? But, we don’t need the mechanics of the miracle. Sure, we may want it or even be curious about it, but that’s not what makes this story so amazing. The miracle of this story is we get to witness God’s love through Jesus Christ to all of us.
Jesus’ MO was compassion. His modus operandi, or his method for his ministry was compassion. The story that comes right before our gospel today is the death of John the Baptist. John the Baptist whose head was cut off and served on a platter to Herodias’ daughter for her birthday. John the Baptist who had baptized Jesus in the Jordan is now dead. Jesus wanted to get away, be by himself, maybe mourn for a moment or two. But, the crowd followed him. They knew what Jesus was capable of and now longed to be in his presence. And Jesus, instead of turning them away, instead of begging for a moment alone, he looked at the crowd with compassion and started healing the sick.
What is always interesting to me about this story is that it is the disciples who speak up and alert Jesus to the time (“the hour is now late”) and the crowd’s hunger (“send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”) Not one person (that we know of) stepped up and said “gee, Jesus, this following you stuff is great, but you don’t happen to have a sandwich or anything, do you?” And, like so many other times, it is also the disciples who miss the point. It is late and the disciples want the crowd to return to the villages to buy food. Let’s look at the facts: first of all, it’s late. To travel this time of the evening would have been dangerous. Theives and bandidts were known to travel the desert just waiting to prey on the innocent. Second, (or maybe additionally) it’s late! By the time they get back to the villages is there actually going to be anything open? It’s not like there were 24 hour McDonald’s with a drive thru during Jesus’ time. The other thing is that this crowd had been following Jesus for a while. If they were doing that then they probably weren’t working. How were they supposed to buy food? It’s as if the disciples took the attitude that a lot of us take all too often “not my problem.”
And Jesus takes that attitude and gives it right back to the disciples, “you give them something to eat” he says. It is actually the disciples that pass out all of the food. Yes, it is Jesus who prayed, and it is God who multiplied the goods, but the disciples fed the multitudes. I wonder what the crowd does when all is said and done? They have just been given something they didn’t expect. They have been fed. Not only have they been fed, they are fed until they are filled. The only thing we know is what the Bible tells us. We are told (in next week’s gospel) that Jesus sends them away. But, I hope the disciples did what any of the rest of us would do once they received something they weren’t expecting and they received it in abundance: they shared.
What do we do when we get something in abundance? We hoard! We keep it all to ourselves. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring…so we keep it all. And if we do have the slightest inclination to share, we have a list of excuses: I don’t have the time, I don’t have the money, I don’t have resources, I don’t know how to get started, etc…. We serve a God of abundance, a God who will always give us more than we expect or need, and so many times our response is to keep God’s goodness all to ourselves. We forget that everything we have and everything we are comes from God. Yet, we treat our abundance as if WE earned it, as if WE just magically had the ability to work for it, as if WE actually deserve it, when in reality, we don’t.
So, what I want to do today is a little challenge. Before I ask for volunteers, here are some rules set in place for what I am about to do: you have to have this assignment done in a week and you have to be able to be in church next week. Now, not knowing what the assignment is exactly, can I have 5 people who would be willing to help? Now, in each of these envelopes is $40 cash. This is God’s money. I got it from my bank account. I say this so you don’t think I’m pilfering the church or anything. Your assignment for this week is to spend this money in a way that makes the world a better place. Here is the caveat: you cannot spend it on this congregation. So, you cannot buy food for the food pantry or school supplies for our Lutheran World Relief school kits. I don’t care how you spend it, but I would like documentation. Maybe that means receipts, maybe that means pictures, whatever. And then, come back next Sunday and we will hear about how God worked through you to make the world a better place. Spend the $40 on one person or help 40 people, I don’t care, but you now have an abundance and the world is waiting.
When the people on the hillside were hungry, Jesus said to the disciples “you feed them.” If we are to take our call to discipleship seriously, we take the abundance given to us and we share. God always provides and God always provides more than enough. I have taken away all of your excuses this week, so how will you share this abundance that is not yours with people you may not know? Won’t it be fun to watch God move?