Strengthen Your Core: Service
We’re in the midst of our sermon series on strengthening our core, strengthening our spiritual practices that will help us grow in faith, grow as disciples, deepening our faith practices so that we have strong core to rely on as we navigate life. And this week, we’re thinking about how we can strengthen our core practice of service. In our baptismal liturgy we say, “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our service.” How are you, how will you cultivate your faith and follow Jesus by serving others? What, specifically, will you do to serve God and neighbor? To help us answer these questions, we turn to our gospel lesson.
There are very few events, particularly outside of the death and resurrection of Jesus, that appear in all four gospels. As similar as Matthew, Mark, and Luke are to each other, still they each have many of their own stories, and each of them exclude some of the stories for one reason or another. So when an event occurs in all four gospels, we should stop and take notice. Clearly, the event must have some particularly strong meaning and message to be so included. One such event is what we call “The Feeding of the 5000.” Of the miracles of Jesus, it is the only one recorded in all four gospels, and in fact, two gospels, Matthew and Mark, include two feeding miracles. There is, of course, some variation in detail, in specifics, but all four gospels carry the same essence. Today, we’re looking in particular at Matthew’s account.
When the text opens, Jesus has just received some bad news. It’s part of your homework to read the first part of Matthew 14 to see what has happened. But Jesus is reeling. He’s in pain, he’s grieving, and Matthew tells us that Jesus takes a boat by himself to try to just get away. He needs some time alone. But it isn’t to be. The crowds hear that Jesus has taken off by boat, and they decide to find him, going by foot around the lake, so that by the time Jesus comes ashore from the boat, a crowd is already to greet him. I’m not sure how you’d feel in Jesus’ place, but I can imagine how I would feel, being overwhelmed and just wanting some time to myself, only to find a crowd waiting. I’d want to turn around and get back on that boat. I might feel a little cranky, or resentful. I might burst into tears at the thought of having to deal with a whole crowd. But Jesus, Matthew tells us, looks at the crowd and is filled with compassion for them, and begins curing the sick they have brought to see him. Remember, some time ago I shared with you that the Greek word for compassion, splangchnizomai, is my favorite Greek word. It means literally that we’re so moved with concern that our insides are kind of churning with the deepness of our care. And it is in this way, with gut-churning compassion, that Jesus most often looks at the crowds in the Bible, and the way he looks when he comes ashore and sees them waiting for him.
As the day draws to a close, the disciples come to Jesus and tell him, “Look, this is a deserted place, and it’s late. Send everyone away so that they can go get themselves some food.” I don’t know what you hear in their words, but I hear some disciples who felt like I thought I might upon seeing the unexpected crowd. They’re done. Jesus has done what he can, and now, they think, he should just send them away, so that they can get on with their own plans. He’s done what he can. Let them take care of themselves now.
Jesus isn’t having that. “They don’t need to go away,” he says bluntly. “You give them something to eat.” The disciples are flummoxed. “We only have five loaves and two fish!” they insist. Again, I hear their unspoken sentiments. We have fives loaves and two fish – and they’re for us. We have five loaves and two fish – what could they possibly do for a crowd of thousands? We have five loaves and two fish, and we just want to enjoy our dinner. Send everyone away. You’ve done enough. Let them take care of themselves.
But Jesus just says to them, “Five loaves and two fish? Give it all to me.” He takes everything they have, gets everyone to sit down. He takes the food, blesses it, breaks the bread, and gets the disciples to start handing things out. “And all ate and were filled,” we read, and the disciples gather up the leftovers, “twelve baskets full.” Biblical scholars disagree about the nature of the miracle we witness. Some see Jesus multiplying the bread and fish with his supernatural ability. Others see it as a miracle of sharing – once some shared what they had, others were more willing to share what they had too, and suddenly, it was clear that there was really enough after all. I think though, that these disagreements miss the point. There is plenty that is miraculous about the text – many miracles for us to see here.
Here are some of the miracles I see: First, Jesus’s compassion is a miracle. To be able to turn our pain into care for others is a gift. Two of my favorite books are the Eight Cousins/Rose in Bloom set by Louisa May Alcott. They never gained the popularity of her Little Women series, but they are worth a read if you’re a fan of her writing. In the books Rose is a young woman trying to find her place in the world, trying to live as a thoughtful, ethical young woman, although she has a large fortune at her disposal, and although she is often tempted to spend her days attending parties and spend her money on the latest fashions. At one point in the story, she is feeling distraught and upset. The adults in her life have made some decisions that leave her feeling heartbroken. And in the midst of her anger and sadness, Rose remembers that her great aunt has always told her that when you’re feeling like this, the best way to move beyond your pain is to start serving others. So Rose decides to turn her pain into helping others. Through serving others, Rose is able to gain some perspective, and transform her own feelings into making a positive impact on her community. The pain and sorrow we experience in life is real, and hard. And we can’t always just “snap out of it.” Healing is important. But I believe serving others, loving others, showing compassion to others can be part of that healing. A miracle: we heal better when we love others than when we are thinking only of our own needs.
Another miracle: God works with what seems like very little to make something that reaches a crowd of thousands. The disciples didn’t think that they had much to offer, and what they did have, they didn’t seem too keen on sharing. Their strategy was: everyone should just take care of themselves. But in God’s economy, in God’s world, we’re meant to take care of each other. And God can take even what you consider to be hardly worth sharing and make it into abundance. How often have you looked at your gifts, your talents, your assets, your life and thought that you couldn’t make a difference in the world? How often have you thought that hunger was too big a problem for you to confront, that poverty was too overwhelming to change, that the “isms” of the world were too hard to tackle? Jesus wants to feed the crowds, and he says to us, “You give them something to eat.” He believes that we have the capacity, the resources, the ability, when we offer what we have to God for blessing and sharing, to change everything. What are you holding back from God, afraid that you won’t have for yourself if you share, or afraid that it simply isn’t “enough” to be of much good?
David Lose says that one of the miracles of the story is that Jesus is able to use a bunch of people who would really prefer to just take care of themselves, to care for the need of thousands of people. “And that miracle continues,” he writes. “When a college-grad eschews a high-paying job in order to teach disadvantaged kids, God’s miracles continue. When a parent puts dreams of an academic career to the side to care for a special-needs child, God is working that same kind of miracle. When a church makes the wrenchingly difficult decision to celebrate its century of faithful service and close its doors after significant decline in order that another ministry might flourish, miracles abound. When one student stands up against bullies in defense of another student, the God of compassion is again miraculously revealed. When a fledgling community of faith makes a promise that no one that comes to its doors will be turned away hungry, God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant, and everything in between, miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading.”
What would we add to Lose’s list of miracles? I would add, when a congregation in a small town decides that they can feed the community, for free, feed anyone really who wants to come and eat, or anyone who wants a meal delivered to them, and that they can continue doing this year after year, and when they decide they can serve hundreds of meals every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, then, God’s miracles continue. I’m not sure that all the folks who have been and who are involved in Friday Lunch imagined how the ministry might grow and unfold through the years. How could they have? But what they didn’t doubt was the they had something to give, something to offer, something to share, and that God could use what they would offer, bless what they offered, grow what they offered. A miracle indeed. What other miracles might unfold, right here in Gouverneur, when we trust God, when we look with compassion like Jesus does, and when we offer up all we have to be used in service? What do you have that God can use, even if you can’t quite imagine how it could amount to much, because you remember that God is a giving God, and has given you so much? What are you willing to share, even if it feels like all you have, even if it means you have to give a little more of what you have than you think you can spare, because you remember God is a God of abundance? How can you look on God’s people with eyes of compassion, not wondering why folks don’t just help themselves, take care of themselves, but instead seeing an opportunity to demonstrate your love and God’s love through serving? How can you work in the world to build your relationship through service, remembering that we can only truly love and serve God when we love and serve one another?
Today, we give thanks for one of many of God’s miracles. We celebrate and give thanks for our Friday Lunch ministry, and think of all who have been reached in God’s name over twenty years, and all who will be reached with God’s love and ours in the years to come. That’s one miracle, a precious one. What miracles does God have in store in your life? What do you have that God can put to use in ways you will hardly believe? I can’t wait to see what God will do among us! Amen.
 Lose, David, “Pentecost 8A: The Real Miracles,” In the Meantime,