Chances are, you know about the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000.  Chances are, you know how many loaves there were (five), and how many fish (two).  Chances are, you even know how many baskets of leftovers there were – don’t you?  (Twelve.)  Chances are, you don’t need me to explain to you the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000.

But chances are, you have missed, most of your life, the other miracle described in this story.  Do you see a second miracle in the feeding of the 5,000?  Did anyone ever tell you there was a second miracle, and that the second one may be more important than the first – more important than sending 5,000 happy campers home with bread and fish in their bellies.

Let me tell you the other miracle.

For some time before today’s episode, Jesus has been leading his disciples around teaching them.  He gave them instructions for carrying out missionary work, but Matthew does not report that Jesus ever sends them out to do anything.  He has been telling them parables about the kingdom of God, and they have been listening.  He has given seminars on faith, and they have been listening – or trying to anyway.  He has been healing people, casting out demons, and they have been watching, maybe taking notes.

Jesus has been doing a lot.  And the disciples have been watching, listening, staying close at hand, and doing very little.  It’s alright – he hasn’t asked them to do much but be a good audience, shout A-men at the appropriate time, etc.  He has been their shepherd, and they have been excellent sheep: falling in line, and following where he calls them.

In the 14th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the disciples continue to follow along.  They get into a boat with him to go to a quiet place.  But a crowd has got wind of his arrival and there is no quiet to be had.  Matthew tells us that Jesus did his thing – he healed the sick.  What did the disciples do?  Watch, maybe.  Crowd control, perhaps.  Grumble among themselves that just when they thought they were going to get some face time with him, he does what he always did: goes to the crowd, and wows them.

So it is no surprise that as evening falls the disciples try to wrestle him back for themselves.   “The day is over,” they say.  “Everyone is hungry and tired.  Tell the crowd to get out of here and go get food for themselves.”  They are his posse, his entourage, they’d like to enjoy it a little.  The disciples are jealous for Jesus’ time.  They want to wallow in his attention, lavished just on them.  They want to enjoy the end-of-the-day beer with him, gathered in a huddle of the inner circle.  They want to bask in the glow of proximity to his power, his popularity.  They want to sit and listen to him some more.  They are definitely not asking Jesus for something to do. After all, he has never given them much to do before.

“Send the crowd away, into the villages to buy something to eat for themselves, and bring this rally to an end,” they say.

But Jesus looks at them and surprises them:  “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

The disciples do not seem to know that a miracle is at hand – let alone two miracles.  They may be starting to wonder if they have hitched themselves to the wrong wagon.  “Jesus,” they say, “we have only five loaves and two fish.”  Give us a break!  And the look he must have given them just repeated with his eyes what he had already said with his lips: You give them something to eat.

You know what happens next.  They bring him the bread and the fish.  He takes it, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples, who seem now to know what to do.  They head out into the crowd and start distributing bread and fish – I’m thinking fish sandwiches, maybe fish tacos.

Did you see the second miracle?  It happened after Jesus has taken the bread, blessed and broken it, and given it to the disciples.  Just then, where normally there would have been nothing for them to do but sit down and watch him work his magic with the crowds, it is Jesus who takes his seat, and the disciples who carry out the miracle he has just set in motion.  They are no long spectators of his ministry: they become partners in it.  They have been transformed from a grumbling posse of hangers-on who have nothing much to do but listen and watch, into active ministers of Christ’s love for the world.  Jesus takes a seat; and they are the ones who feed the people.  

You give them something to eat.  This sounded ridiculous to them.  There was no food, and they wouldn’t have known what to do, or wanted to do it even if there had been.  But now they are feeding people –fish sandwiches! – who moments ago they just wanted to get rid of.

These people – these disciples – are not the same sheep they were when they got out of the boat with Jesus.  Can you imagine how they felt as they walked among the crowd handing out food, reaching into their baskets - not daring to look to see if there is another sandwich there, another taco – and finding that their hands are full?  Can you imagine how they felt as they cleaned up – he even makes them clean up! – and they collect twelve baskets of left-overs.  Cleaning up never felt so good!

This is a miracle: this posse has become more than an entourage, they have become real disciples, partners in ministry, bearers of the gifts of Jesus.  This is not what they thought they were when they got there, you can be sure.

From this vantage point, up here in a pulpit, almost every congregation looks the same, in almost every church.  It’s not that you look like the crowd; there are too many others outside these doors who fill that role well.  Most congregations look a lot like that small group that traveled with Jesus.   You look like his posse, his entourage.  Lined up in your rows of pews, you are prepared, I believe, to listen; you are open to learning; you are happy to hear about the way Jesus heals and casts out demons.  Unflattering though it may be, you are willing to be sheep in the flock of this Good Shepherd, and you may even be determined to be a good sheep, always among the 99, never the one who strays.  And this is alright, especially if the church has not asked anything much more of you.  The church, in fact, has often been happy to keep you in your pens – I mean your pews.  This way we can keep you in line!

And I can take my place at the altar and play at being Jesus: taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it to you.  And we can all bask in the glow of the miracle that Jesus feeds us with his body and his blood.  Sometimes we like it this way: Jesus does a lot, and we can watch, listen, stay close at hand, but do very little

But not far from here, just beyond the doors to Locust Street, there is a crowded world that is hungry, and often knows it (though it has become good at staving off hunger).  There’s a hunger for justice, a huger for mercy, a hunger for tolerance and respect, a hunger for real food in some places, and for decent schools in others.  There’s a hunger for peace in a world that’s gotten good at war.  There’s a hunger for a healthy planet.  There’s a hunger for good religion that knows humility and lives by the Golden Rule.

We believe, do we not, that Jesus can feed this hungry world.  It is our faith that he gave his body and his blood to do so.  We are confident that by the power of God, the risen and glorified Christ can change the world, giving it the food it needs to feed these hunger pangs.

And do we come here week by week to watch and listen and learn?  Do we want to be told only of how Jesus has done it in times past, in other places?  Do we sit through ceremony and sermon and song just to get to that special moment when we go to the rail and stretch out our hands and have our one, brief, moment alone with Jesus?

There is a hungry world around us.  Would we send them away?  Close the doors behind us so we can have our special time with Jesus?

You give them something to eat, he says to us.  You give them something to eat.

There is a second miracle to be done right here when we hear Jesus say this, and we think to ourselves, “What is he talking about?”  What have we got to work with?  Does it amount to more than five loaves and two fish?  Probably not.  Have we ever been asked to do anything before other than sing the hymns and say “Amen.”  Maybe not.    But Jesus is working a miracle on us when he tells us, You give them something to eat.  He is making us partners with him in his ministry.  He is sitting down and sending us out and telling us we can do more than we ever imagined.

We are afraid that when we reach into the basket there will be nothing there – no more fish tacos.  But so far this church stands as a testimony that it has never happened that way.  In fact this church in its beauty is a testimony to the twelve baskets of left-overs.  At Saint Mark’s we have always had more than enough, thank God!

We have some challenges here.  There is soup to make every week and hungry mouths to be fed every Saturday morning.  There are a couple of hundred families each month who rely on our Food Cupboard for their well-being.  There are our neighbors at Saint Mary’s, and at the Church of the Crucifixion who we help and support.  There were the people of the village of Trindad in Honduras who our medical mission served.  Soon there will be our new mission at Saint James the Less which is as hungry a place as we have ever ministered.

Are we wondering if Jesus can feed all these?  Are we wishing he would just send some of them away?  Do we long to simply bask in the glow of Jesus’ proximity.  Would we be satisfied to be his entourage in the midst of this hungry world?

And is he looking at us now with that look in his eyes that just repeats what he once said already with his lips?

You give them something to eat.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
3 August 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 3, 2008 .