Something Out of Nothing

Matthew 14:13-33      February 8, 2015

Part 1 of the sermon: 

Part 2 of the sermon 

In my former life I was a camp director. I worked at a camp in Illinois and was fortunate enough to work with inner city kids from Chicago. Plenty were in foster care and plenty were from good, solid homes. Plenty had seen and experienced more than I will in my lifetime in the way of hurt and neglect and abuse. There was one week in particular when a counselor approached me, talking about meal times and the kids hoarding food, bringing it back to their cabins, which would only encourage ants and mice and other curious and hungry animals to come calling. He talked about the kids taking as much as they could from the family style serving bowls and eating with plates guarded by their arms. As he laid out the scene for me I asked, “do you suppose they have 3 meals and a snack provided for them every day, without worry at home?” The counselor rightly guessed that these young boys were only doing what they could do to be sure they would have food for later. Eating a lot and tucking the rest away, guarding what they had. They were used to not counting on being fed. They were used to nothing. Or next to nothing. And so they guarded what they could get for fear there wouldn’t be enough. Our Gospel reading today has a similar fear at play…

Fear that causes to beller out in fear as he sank down in the chaotic waters, “Save me, Jesus!” Fear that causes the disciples to look at what they had and declare it nothing.

And we find ourselves in the wilderness with Jesus. He had sought it out – had pushed a boat out into the water after he heard the news of his friend and cousin, John. John had been beheaded on the whim of a birthday wish granted to Herod’s daughter.

So Jesus needed to get away, to retreat to the wilderness to be alone. To grieve. The crowds found him anyway. I don’t know if they’d heard about his friend’s untimely and unseemly death. I wonder if they followed the disciples out into the wilderness. And Jesus wasn’t mad that the crowds had found him, or at least not that we’re told. But instead, when his boat bumped up onto the shore and he saw the crowds, his gut churned with compassion. His stomach was moved with love for them. So what’s a savior to do but come ashore and heal them, right? Right there in the wilderness.

So obviously all of this healing and moving amongst the crowd took some time and the disciples approach Jesus as the day is coming to an end, suggesting perhaps everyone should get a move on and go home since they’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s nothing for all these people to eat.

Perhaps Jesus sensed the urgency of the disciples to get rid of the crowds so they could eat the stash they had tucked away in their robes. Relax a little. Unwind. You know, get off the clock so to speak. I hear a little edge in Jesus’ voice as he says, “Nobody needs to leave. YOU feed them.”

And their response? “We have nothing…but 5 loaves and 2 fish.” And of course, Jesus doesn’t see the bread and fish as nothing.

Now, this is one of those stories that is pretty familiar across religious and faith lines. The feeding of the 5000. It’s in all 4 of the Gospels, the books that tell specifically of Jesus’ ministry. It’s like feeding people is a big deal, enough so for it to be consistently told in all 4 gospels, and sometimes even more than once.

Food in 1st century Palestine was a big deal because most people didn’t have ready access to it. There was no guarantee that they would eat from day to day. Much like the boys at camp. To be hungry and on the move for food was the plight of the people who made up the crowds, and they were the majority. So for the disciples to simply want to dismiss the people with a “send them into the villages where they can buy food for themselves” attitude reveals a disconnect with reality. Or maybe they were just done – tired of all the sick bodies crushed together. Tired of the hunger. Worn down from the desperate need.

Can you sympathize with them? When you’re done with your day’s work, do you have the desire to shove out into a boat to be on your own for a little while? Maybe for some of you it’s locking the bathroom door, or taking a good long while to get the mail from down the block? Do you need to take a shower to rejuvenate your skin, your body, from a day of meeting needs, problem solving, hearing griefs and complaints? Do you too see nothing when you look at the crush of people you come into contact with? Are you overwhelmed and just need some distance, some time? And out of that desperate feeling of being overwhelmed and tired, do you think, “I’ve got nothing…”

A fellow seminary student at Luther, Katie, was in Haiti for Jterm when the earthquake happened in 2010. In the minutes and hours after the violent shaking of the earth, she remembered the people lifting up their voices and singing and chanting thanksgiving to God for still being alive, for all that God had given them. In the midst of what you and I could call nothing, they were singing praise for something – for life. Even as aftershocks hit, they sang. A surreal soundtrack in the midst of chaos and desolation and darkness.

This group of Luther students was taken, along with thousands of others to an open field where lighting was set up. All the while, these students knew help was coming for them. That they’d be airlifted out. So their hope was mixed with guilt at the miraculous saving they knew was coming. They just didn’t know when it would be. So they waited. Soon, fruit was being passed around and Katie took the banana she was given and squirreled it away. For later. She didn’t know when food would come again. It’s an instinct I imagine we share with her as well, preparing for something in the face of what we imagine or have experienced as nothing.

But here is the thing. As my friend Katie was protecting her food she watched a woman, sitting right across from here, take the banana and quickly break it into many pieces and hand it out to all those around her. It vanished in a moment, consumed by many, the woman saving a bite for herself.

I could spend time trying to convince you of loaves and fish that miraculously multiplied right in front of people’s eye by seeming magic. 1 fish morphing into 2 and 3 and 4. But the real miracle is people sharing. The real miracle is for people to trust that they will have enough for later and for this knowledge and promise to be enough to let their own hands fall open as they release and share what they have with others. The real miracle is when hungry people are fed. The miracle is that we care that others are fed.

Our days are filled with miracles. Isn’t the real miracle when you can take a deep breath and still offer help and love to a student or patient or co-worker who gets on your every last nerve? Isn’t the real miracle stopping to talk to someone when you could rush by, on to the next thing on your list? Isn’t the real miracle knowing that some how, some way, there will be enough and that you – yes YOU – are called by Jesus into making it happen?

Jesus knows we are going to struggle with this. But Jesus also knows this is where true life is found. In life in community. In loving other people as we love ourselves. Where meager rations we insist are nothing turn into a feast that feeds well over 5000 people. Which is why Jesus has the nerve to tell us, “well, YOU feed the people” and he tells Peter, “you come walk on the water.”

So let’s talk about water for a minute. This baptismal water is the most chaotic water you’ll ever see. That water Peter got out into today? Nothing compared to this water. But just like Peter’s experience, Jesus says to you and to me through this thing called baptism: come. Come into a life following me. Sometimes you’re gonna sink. But I’ll reach out and get ya. You’ll never be beyond my grasp. Yes, this water calls us to feed people, to love people. It calls us into a lifetime of following Jesus. And it calls us, this water names us Children of God. Once and for all. Now and forever.

Of all things, Jesus makes miracles happen with water, fish and bread. So if Jesus can use those simple, earthy things, he can certainly make a miracle happen with you. “Come, get out of your comfort zone. Get out of the boat. Walk with me. Feed people. Love people.”

It’s terrifying. It’s the best thing in the world. It is more than enough. It is more than we could have ever imagined.

Thanks be to God.