Identity Crisis: Nothing But – Sermon on Matthew 14:13-21

August 2, 2020
Pentecost A+9
Watch on Vimeo.

Many people operate out of a scarcity mindset – we are all too aware of what we don’t have. During the early weeks of the COVID shutdown, it was difficult to find toilet paper in the stores. Some of that difficulty was simply because most of the toilet paper being manufactured is for institutional use – office buildings, schools, hotels, for example. Suddenly, office buildings, schools, and hotels were empty. Everyone was at home, and the demand for Quilted Northern and Charmin Strong outstripped the availability of those products.

But there was something else going on, too. People were ‘stocking up’ on basic essentials like toilet paper because they were afraid. They were operating out of a mindset of scarcity, hoarding resources instead of sharing them.

The crowds following Jesus around Galilee were used to living a life of scarcity. They were hungry, not only for daily bread, but for some sign of hope. Roman oppression had ground them down, and the promise of a messiah who would rescue them from Rome seemed less and less like it would be fulfilled in their lifetimes.

Then Jesus comes into the picture, healing and teaching about the kingdom of heaven. Yet even Jesus felt the sting of loss. When he learned that his cousin John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod, he grieved John’s death. He went away to be alone with his grief, but the crowds found him. Today’s reading tells us what happens next:

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21)

We’ve become accustomed to hearing Jesus teach the crowds, but Jesus didn’t do any teaching on this particular day. Matthew tells us that, even in the midst of his own grief, Jesus had compassion on the crowds, and spent the whole day healing the sick. As the day grows long, the disciples come to Jesus with a suggestion that seems perfectly reasonable: It’s time to close up shop for the day so people can go buy their dinner before the food vendors shut down for the night.

And Jesus doesn’t blink an eye. “There’s no need to send them away. You take care of them. You give them their dinner.”

“But how, Lord? We have nothing but…” and the disciples look around them at the little bit of food they have, which wouldn’t even feed half of the disciples, let alone this huge crowd of people. All they see is their scarcity. All they see is what they don’t have. The disciples only see the huge gap between the vast need at hand and the limitations of their own resources. “We have nothing but a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.”

We can identify with the disciples and their mindset of scarcity, can’t we? During this season of uncertainty, we are even more aware of what we don’t have. We can’t go wherever we want, and where we can go, we must be careful to wear a mask, stay at least six feet away from others, and wash our hands constantly. We can’t be with whomever we want, whenever we want. We can’t shake hands or hug each other.

For some of us, COVID-19 has meant reduced income, and reduced availability of basic necessities. We are acutely aware of how vulnerable we are. We live in a mindset of scarcity.

As I’ve met many of you and listened to your stories, I hear about the things you’ve lost as a church, too: the programs and mission efforts that are no longer possible. And I grieve with you as you feel those losses. There’s a sense that we want to hold on to what little we still have, before it all slips away and is forgotten. We are acutely aware of how limited our own resources are.

And Jesus says, “Bring them to me.” He doesn’t argue with the disciples, and he doesn’t argue with us. He simply invites them – and us – to bring everything to him and surrender it all into his hands.

You see, It’s not about the multiplication of food.

Jesus says – “You give them something to eat,” and if the story ended there, we could take this as our mission.

Phil Strom was my very first district superintendent in the United Methodist Church. I had never served a Methodist congregation before, so I asked him “what do I need to know about Methodists?” He said, “You need to know that United Methodists are very happy to fill grocery bags for hungry people; they’ve just forgotten why they do it.”

In other words, these are people who have heard Jesus say, “You give them something to eat” and got busy doing just that, without going deeper in faith, without considering the reason why we feed people in the first place. It’s because of Jesus.

Jesus knew there was no way the disciples could possibly provide enough food for so many people. But notice that he didn’t tell the disciples to produce the food – he told them to give the people something to eat. He knew where they would get the bread, even if the disciples hadn’t figured it out yet.

It’s not about the number of people fed.

5,000 men plus women and children might mean at least 15,000 people. If they had been Methodists counting Average Worship Attendance, the number might have been rounded up to 20,000!

And some of these people gathered on that hillside above Lake Galilee might not have even been aware of the miracle Jesus was performing. They simply accepted the gift of some bread and fish with gratitude. They were glad to have their hunger satisfied. The miracle wasn’t for them – it was for the disciples.

The disciples had focused on their scarcity – ‘We have nothing but a little bread and some fish. It’s not enough to feed this crowd. We have nothing but our own limitations, our own small view of what God can do. We have nothing but ourselves. And that ain’t much, Jesus.”

And what does Jesus say? “Bring it to me.”

Give me what you have, and let me do something with it. Give me what you have, and let me multiply it and give it back to you – not only so you will have enough, but so there will be plenty to share.

It’s about surrendering whatever we have to Christ, letting him take it, bless it, break it, and give it back to us to share with others.

Did you notice how the actions of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving are a lot like what Jesus did in the upper room on the last night he was with his disciples? Those actions are the ones we repeat every time we come to Christ’s table.

But I wonder if you recognize how the bread at this feast represents your life, as much as it does Christ’s sacrifice for us? Christ says, “Bring all of yourself to me. Bring all of your limitations to me. Bring all of your scarcity to me.” And then he takes all of what we bring, as we surrender completely to him, and he breaks us, he blesses us, and he gives us back to be shared with the world.

John Wesley insisted that the sacrament we are about to celebrate should never be refused to anyone. He saw Holy Communion as a means of grace, whereby someone receiving the bread and cup might come to know Christ. So as United Methodists, we celebrate an Open Table. All who desire to receive this meal are welcome here.

But I want you to pay particular attention to the words of consecration today. When we say, “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and cup. Make them be for us the Body and Blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the Body of Christ, redeemed by his blood,” it is more than the consecration of some bread and some juice.

It is the consecration of you, the believers – or soon to be believers – in Jesus Christ, whom Christ is breaking and blessing and offering to the world around you as his gift, out of his deep compassion.

Bring yourself to Jesus. Bring all of yourself to Jesus, whatever little you think you have. Let him take you, and break you, and bless you, and give you away. And watch as everyone has enough. Everyone is satisfied. Everyone is fed out of Christ’s abundance, and there is plenty.



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