August 6, 2017
Ho, 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.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
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.
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Sometimes it’s the littlest things that capture my attention when I read scripture. Often it’s something I’ve never noticed before. In this case it’s the way the passage begins. It starts out, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew to a deserted place by himself.”
“When Jesus heard what?” I wondered. What happened that was so terrible that he wanted to withdraw from the world?
What happened was that Jesus’ cousin and friend John the Baptist had been murdered by King Herod. Herod had arrested John but was scared to put him to death because John had such a large following. But at a dinner party to celebrate his birthday, Herod made a rash promise. When his girlfriend’s daughter danced as part of the entertainment, it pleased him so much that he offered her anything she wanted. When she asked her mother what she would asked for, she told the girl to ask for John’s head on a platter. What was Herod supposed to do then? He ordered that John be beheaded, and his servants brought the girl his head on a platter. When John’s disciples heard this, they buried his body and then went to tell Jesus. It was horrible, just horrific.
That’s what Jesus had heard just before he went off to a deserted place. This wasn’t a quiet spiritual retreat, or a chance to rest from his labor. This was more like spiritual warfare, more like the time right after John had baptized him, when Jesus was driven to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This was intense.
But there really was no getting away. The crowds found out where he went, and followed him. And even in his pain and exhaustion and despair, he made room for them. “He had compassion,” scripture says. He had pity on them. Even when his own heart was broken, his heart went out to them. And he healed them.
That’s the kind of Savior we have. He gives us everything he has.
As the day wore on and the night was descending, the disciples started to get nervous. They were out in the middle of nowhere, and the crowd was getting hungry. Emotions were no doubt running high – this was a crowd of desperate people who followed Jesus because their needs were so great. The shadow of John’s death was probably hanging over them, too; that kind of news spreads quickly. These were people who lived in the shadow of such cruelty, and they were looking for miracles from Jesus.
The disciples saw all of this, and understood that something needed to be done. They wanted him to send them away, to break up for the night so the people could go out and find something to eat. They weren’t being mean; they were being sensible. When he told them to feed them, the disciples were incredulous: “But we have nothing to give them!” they told him.
But he saw it differently. They saw what they lacked. He saw what they had.
So he told the crowds to sit down on the grass. And he took those meager loaves and blessed them and broke them, and gave them to the disciples, and they gave them to the crowds, who ate their fill. Then they gathered up the scraps, all the broken, leftover pieces. Because it was more than enough. More than enough.
As I was working through this passage this week I was preparing for the Pelotonia fundraising ride. And I found myself wondering about how we see others’ needs… what happens when we know there’s a need, and we think that there’s nothing we can do? And what happens when we see what we have, and believe it’s enough?
Now Pelotonia and this miracle are opposites in a thousand ways. For one thing, Pelotonia has this down to a science. The miracle of the loaves and the fish was a spontaneous, unexpected event; Pelotonia is organized down to the last detail… They’re ready for crowds! The Friday night kick-off event is a sight to behold –sign-in-volunteers with swag bags ready to go, and pre-printed personalized wristbands and tags for 8000 people, and tables and tables and tables of excellent food. The day of the ride is amazing: every turn marked on the way; trays of peanut butter sandwiches and bananas and grapes at every rest stop; vats and vats of water and Gatorade; and enough port-a-potties for a small army. There are police officers manning every intersection; and bike mechanics and sag wagons and medics a phone call away. It’s amazing.
But the miracle to me isn’t the organizing, though that’s so impressive. It’s that so many people see a need, and give what they have to contribute – never questioning whether or not it’s enough. There’s just one goal: to end cancer. You just ride. You just volunteer. You just donate. You just cheer people on. One person at a time, bringing what they have to offer, large or small. And trust it’s enough.
When I rode last year for the first time I kept saying, “I’m just going 25 miles.” And one guy in the group kept saying to me, “Stop saying that! There’s no ‘just.’” I saw him on the ride yesterday and he reminded me of that. He told of another friend who went for 100. His friend usually does the 180 ride, and was saying, “I’m just going 100.” And I laughed. I get it now. I think I get it.
I love what Clifton Kirkpatrick wrote about this passage from Matthew:
This Gospel story reminds us that when we need it most, God will give us the power to work for good in the world, a reality many of us have discovered when faced with situations we were not sure we could manage. When Jesus told the disciples to feed the five thousand, [they] thought it was impossible. the needs were so great, and the resources were so few. [Haven’t] we felt the same? [But] when the disciples worked together and followed Jesus, they had more than enough.[i]
When we get stuck in believing we don’t have enough to make anything change, nothing will. If we get frozen by what seems impossible, miracles never will happen.
You know, the magic of Pelotonia isn’t that someone stepped up and said, “I have the cure for cancer!” The miracle is all the people seeing the need, and having compassion, and bringing what they have, however small it might seem to them. I can’t cure cancer. But I can ride. One mile at a time. And with you, thank God, it is enough.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church
[i] Clifton Kirkpatrick, “Pastoral Perspective” on Matthew 14:13-21, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 310.