Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
Filling in for Pastor Dan these few Sundays has been an interesting experience—for all of us, probably! It is sort of odd to come in and out of this place, not being here every Sunday but being here several Sundays, sometimes two in a row. I imagine you all may feel like it has been sort of odd, having Pastor Dave much of the time, and me sometimes, and sometimes both of us together, and then the occasional guest preacher or presider, and your lay preachers being featured, as well! This has been an eventful summer.
When I prepare to be with you on a Sunday morning, it can sort of feel like I’m coming into something in the middle. Luckily for us, there’s the continuity of the lectionary, keeping us in a somewhat orderly fashion. But I wonder sometimes if I’m going to say something that completely contradicts what last week’s preacher said!
Sure, we’re all looking at the same Bible, but we sure aren’t looking at it through the same lenses. That has hopefully been the greatest blessing of your summer—hearing the Word from so many different mouths. I imagine, though, that you’re looking forward to having Dan back, so you can feel a little less whiplash from week to week.
Similarly, we enter this week’s gospel text somewhere in the middle. The first sentence refers to something we haven’t heard: “Now when Jesus heard this…” it begins. Heard what? Sometimes, the previous passage is last week’s text, and so we can take a minute to recall that and catch up.
But this is not one of those times.
Last week, the gospel was a series of sayings from Jesus about what the kingdom of heaven is like. A mustard seed, and treasure, and a pearl, and a net. The thing that Jesus heard, though, is none of those things. There’s another half chapter between there and here, and it’s nothing to skip over—it’s the death of John the Baptist.
Upon hearing that his friend and co-conspirator had been heinously executed, Jesus “withdrew...to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns” (Matthew 14:13). The death of John the Baptist rattles the community that followed him, and the community that followed Jesus. People gathered together, hoping to hear a word from Jesus about what had happened, and what was going to happen next. Jesus spent a very short time alone, coming ashore once he saw the crowd of people begin to gather.
Verse 14 is so lovely–”he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them, and cured their sick.” He is grieving the death of John the Baptist, wondering what this will mean for the movement, but at the sight of the people he has come to love, he remembers what his work is all about. He has compassion for them and he heals them. He sees that they are grieving, but on top of all of the suffering they had been doing before.
They are still poor, they are still oppressed, they are still tired, they are still hungry, they are still sick, they are still afraid. They still need to be cared for by Jesus.
The disciples realize how late it’s gotten, and tell Jesus it’s time to go, time to let everyone head back to their villages for dinner. They may have come out to see Jesus without packing anything to eat, since it was fairly sudden. It’s been a full day for everyone. Rather than send everyone away, Jesus suggests that the food the disciples have on hand—five loaves of bread and two fish—will suffice. [I wonder sometimes if the disciples ever got used to Jesus suggesting unlikely things, or if they always stammered, “wait, what?”]
Jesus blessed the bread and fish and began to share. The story ends, “and all ate and were filled.” This is one of the stories that has been told about Jesus often throughout the centuries, to explain the power he possessed and the amazement that followed him around.
It’s traditionally interpreted that Jesus multiplied the five loaves and two fish into enough food for thousands of people—not unlike the time he turned the water into wine, or calmed a storm and walked on water, or raised Lazarus from the dead, all of which sounds impossible.
You may be a miracle skeptic. You may look at stories like this and scratch your head. You are not alone. In fact, there is a great lineage of skeptics and wonderers in the family of God, which is part of the reason we need prophets.
The prophet Isaiah this week calls out to people who believe that to hunger or thirst is their only choice, and the prospect of being fed is far from likely. “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). Could it be so? Could there be such richness? Food for those who have no money? Wine? And milk? Nothing less for the people of God. In just those few short sentences, “Isaiah anticipates their objections and skepticism by explaining that God’s mercy is beyond human comprehension.”
Speaking of “beyond human comprehension,” we're back at those five loaves and two fish and thousands of people. This story from Matthew’s gospel does not say, “and then Jesus turned five loaves into thousands of loaves and two fish into thousands of fish, so there was enough for everyone to eat.” But that’s what we have said this story says. What the story says is that Jesus and the disciples shared of what they had, and that all ate and were filled.
I wonder, though, if Jesus and the disciples were not the only ones who shared what they had. I wonder if the folks who trekked out from their homes to this seashore thought they might be there a while, and perhaps a few loaves and a fish or two might not be a bad idea.
It is possible that, at first, they were reluctant to share with one another—sound like anybody you know? Some of those who brought food may have been worried that others had not, and so their food might be taken from them by force. Some who hardly had food for their families might have been embarrassed by their meager morsels, and not wanted to be seen having so little. Some may have been waiting until they got away from the crowds, so they would not have to share with anyone who hungered.
I hope that the show of generosity from the disciples—just five loaves of bread and two fish—inspired the crowds to open their hearts and their picnic baskets.
This pattern of inspiring community and communion is a hallmark of the ministry of Jesus. Responding in kind is a hallmark of the Christian life. In communities across the centuries, Christians have been gathering together in the face of fear and scarcity to proclaim hope and abundance. “Early Christians frequently took their meager resources, brought them together, and did miraculous things with them….this story challenges the church not to be overwhelmed by fear, but to trust in the power of God to provide.”  We can trust God to provide by miraculously multiplying loaves and fishes into more loaves and fishes—and our understanding of just how that multiplication happens can vary.
We are not sitting on a hillside with Jesus, sharing a meal with thousands of strangers. But as the church in the 21st century, we still have the opportunity to come together in the face of fear and scarcity to proclaim hope and abundance.
As Americans in a globalized world, we can see that there are places where God’s children are hungry, and places where God’s children are fed; we can see that there are places where God’s children are enslaved, and places where God’s children are free; we can see that there are places where God’s children are uneducated or undereducated, and places where God’s children are educated or overeducated; we can see that there are places where God’s children are oppressed, and places where God’s children are the oppressor.
As we walk the aisles of our overflowing grocery stores, and revel in the beautiful abundance of the Davis Farmers’ Market, we know that there are people here in our own community and across the world who are going without even the most basic nutrition. We know that it does not have to be this way.
An Argentinian theologian named J. Severino Croatto wrote about this week’s portion of Isaiah, and how it speaks to the economically devastated people in his society. “The only positive way out of our dilemma is creativity and solidarity,” he says. 
There is a way for the whole world to be fed. There is a way for all of us to have what we need—and even what we want—without our siblings in Christ going without. I am not about to solve world hunger from the pulpit this morning, dear friends. But I am going to remind you that this story about Jesus feeding thousands of people is only a story if we leave it here in this pulpit, here in this room, there in that book. The miracle of the Christian community is that creativity and solidarity, facing problems small and large with solutions small and large.
This morning, you who are hungry will have the opportunity to come to the table and be fed, bread and wine without price. We will sing together, in just a minute, about this table, and how we are all invited to “taste and see that God is good.” So, come. Eat and be filled. Leave this place full of gratitude, hope, and abundance. Open your heart and your picnic basket—there is bread to share. Amen.
 Nyasha Junior, “Third Sunday in Lent” in Preaching God’s Transformative Justice, 140.
 Michael Joseph Brown, “Matthew” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, 105.
 J. Severino Croatto, “Isaiah 40-55” in Global Bible Commentary, 195.