Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 136:1-9 (23-26)
Romans 9:1-5 (6-13)
Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good; for his loving kindness endures forever.
It can be overwhelming. It seems like every day someone is asking for a donation for this fundraiser or that one. I want to give to every single opportunity, but it becomes impossible. I made two donations the other day but had to ignore a third. I just can’t do it all. We’ve had a similar thing happen at our church. We have had multiple collections over the past month or two and another opportunity came up last week. We decided to say “No” because our members are tapped out. There’s only so much you can do.
I can’t possibly meet every need on my own. Even as a crowd we find it difficult. But “The Starfish Story” by Loren Eisley encourages us to try. “One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, ‘What are you doing?’ The youth replied, ‘Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.’ ‘Son,’ the man said, ‘don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!’ After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said ‘I made a difference for that one.’”
We can’t do it all, but we can give our resources to God and trust that He will make miracles happen. If each of us just made a difference for one, we will see many helped.
The disciples didn’t have enough for themselves. As a matter of fact, they may have been wondering how they were going to eat that night. They had five loaves and two fish, not enough to feed a dozen people let alone thousands. They couldn’t pop into the grocery store for food to share. Even if they had these options, how could they possibly have served a satisfying meal to five thousand or more on a hillside in the wilderness? They couldn’t. Their own grumbling tummies made it easy to say, “This place is deserted, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves food.” Jesus answered, “You give them something to eat.”
In John’s version of today’s Gospel lesson, Philip argues with Jesus. “Even if we spent every penny we have, there is no way we could buy enough food to feed them all.” Andrew, however, says, “Here, we have five loaves and two fishes.” Matthew does not share so many details, but you can sense the hopelessness when they point out how little food they have.
I’m sure there was a lot going through their minds at the time. The first verse of today’s passage says, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat, to a deserted place apart. When the multitudes heard it, they followed him on foot from the cities.” Jesus had just heard that Herod had beheaded John the Baptist. Several of His disciples had been disciples of John. I’m sure they were all wondering where following Jesus would lead them. Would Jesus also end up dying? Jesus was John’s relative. He, perhaps, needed time to grieve. So, He left the place where He had been preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven to be apart from the crowds.
The crowd would not leave Jesus and the disciples alone. While they went to another place by boat, the crowds followed Him on foot. I’m sure at least a few of them were also shocked and scared when they heard what happened to John the Baptist. Jesus was their next great hope. Despite His own needs and the needs of the disciples, Jesus had compassion on them.
The disciples, along with the crowds, had heard the parables we have been studying over the past few weeks. We heard in the parable of the sower about God’s radical generosity to scatter the seed even though some will fall on the path, rocks and thorns. Enough will land on good soil to bring a great harvest. They heard the parable of the weeds which warned that the devil will plant weeds in the fields, but that it is God’s job to meet out justice at the right time. If we try to remove the weeds, we will destroy the good plants. They heard the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, and learned that even the tiniest of things can grow into something huge. The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price show us that the Kingdom of heaven is worth our lives. God is worthy of our absolute trust. The parable of the net reminds us God will make all things right in the end.
Did the disciples understand? They thought they did, but then at the first moment when their faith was tested, they didn’t trust God. Instead of believing in God’s radical generosity or the truth that a little can be become great, they were ready to push away the opportunity to see God’s grace in action by sending the people away.
Jesus took the five loaves and two fishes, blessed them and then gave them to the disciples to give to the crowd. When it was over, not only had everyone eaten enough to be satisfied, they collected twelve baskets of leftover bread.
Jesus’ radical generosity almost seems wasteful. He miraculously fed thousands of people with a hearty meal of fish and bread with baskets full of leftovers. What did they do with that extra bread? Was it used to feed the poor or did it go to waste? The story does not answer that question. What we do see, however, is that God is radically generous. He doesn’t give out of some misplaced motivation, He meets people’s most basic needs, but He also does so with incredible extravagance. When it comes to all His gifts, we see in this story how there are always leftovers: something to share. He blesses us with gifts, some spiritual some very mundane, but all are meant to be shared with the world. Our joy, our resources, our spiritual gifts are given in far greater quantity than we will ever need. In Christ we can be radically generous, too, sharing the love of God with the world.
If we work together, we can certainly change lives. If we all put our little bits together, our resources will be magnified. If we follow Jesus’ command, “You feed them” trusting in God’s promises, we’ll find we can do amazing things. But we’ve given up. We’ve accepted the lie that it would be a waste of time to even try. We are like the old man, thinking that we can’t possibly make a difference, so we don’t. We are no different than the disciples. We want to send the people away. But Jesus says, “You feed them.”
We can make it happen. We can make a difference for one, two, or even five thousand. If each person ensured the well-being of our neighbors, or even our families, they would not have to turn to strangers for help. If we make it a habit to prepare for hard times, we’ll have enough to share when the need presents itself. An extra can of tuna fish or a ten dollar gift card might seem like much, but Jesus has promised to bless our work. A few loaves of bread can’t feed a thousand, but it can if we trust God.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah was speaking to the exiled Israelites with a promise from God. In the previous chapter, God’s promise was for the rebuilding of the Temple. The invitation in today’s lesson is for the feast that will come after: the dedication feast. Isn’t it a bit strange that this passage would instruct us to buy while also telling us it is without cost?
The fifth definition for the word ‘buy’ in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “to accept or believe” as in “I don’t buy that explanation.” Can you imagine the people to whom Isaiah is speaking these words and what they must have been thinking? They were still in exile and their future was uncertain. They might have found it hard enough to believe that they would ever be free, let alone to believe that they would celebrate the restoration of Israel, the Temple and Jerusalem. To these people, Isaiah said, “Come, you who are thirsty.” God promised that they will be satisfied, not because of anything they can give to God, but because of His faithfulness.
Part of Israel’s problem is that they looked to other gods for their spiritual guidance. They accepted and believed – bought - the faith of those other gods. Isaiah says, “Why do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which doesn’t satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in richness.” Things are no different in today’s world. We insist on having more than enough, working to ensure that we will never suffer. This is true of our physical, emotional and spiritual needs.
We often get confused about what we need and what we desire. We need to eat. We desire more than a bite of every good and wonderful thing on the buffet. We need, even more, the Bread of life. We need Jesus Christ who fills us with more than food. He fills our hearts with the desire for the truly good things in life. He was sent from heaven to live, die and rise again to new life so we can freely live in the love and glory of the Most High God. It costs us nothing to partake in the bread and wine which is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and in that meal we will be more than satisfied. The feeding of the five thousand shows us the miraculous and abundant grace of God, and serves as a foreshadowing of the greatest meal: the Eucharist. As the psalmist says, “Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good; for his loving kindness endures forever.”
Paul was a Jew and he loved his people. He knew the blessings of being one of God’s people: the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, and the promise. Yet, he also knew that they were missing something: Jesus. It was a hard quandary for Paul, to know the people he loved did not know the assurance of faith in Christ, but also knowing that they were beloved of God. How do we deal with this dichotomy?
We struggle with the reality that we can’t help everyone who needs us and our resources. Paul struggled with his love for Israel and his desire for all to know Jesus. He wanted to save the whole nation of Israel; he even wished that he could give up his salvation for the sake of those he loved. Paul could only live in hope, trusting that only God could provide the salvation for the His people. Hope is a solid foundation for our life of faith. In hope we will have the courage to go into a place and share the Good News of God’s mercy and forgiveness despite the dangers we face. Jesus had no time to mourn the loss of His cousin or to settle His own fears of what might happen. He took God’s grace to others.
As we look at the world we often wonder how God is going to manage to fulfill His promises. The chaos and confusion is overwhelming. Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. There are far too many people who need our meager resources. Yet, God is faithful and His promises are true. There is still work to be done, people for whom God’s mercy has yet to be revealed. He has called us to give Him our five loaves and two fishes and has promised to make it feed thousands. He has invited us to scatter the seed and promised to make it grow. He has called us to give everything for the sake of His Kingdom and has promised that it will be worth our sacrifice.
The psalmist says, “[God] gives food to every creature; for his loving kindness endures forever.” There is always enough. The overflowing baskets of bread show us that God’s grace goes on and on. He can make five loaves and two fish feed thousands and He can make the ministry of twelve men go on for millennia. It continues with us today. We still eat that bread and we still hear God’s Word. We are strengthened for the journey and given everything we need to share with others. There are many who do not yet know Christ. It is up to us to share Him with them. God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy. He will forgive those whom He will forgive. He will give life to those whom He will give life.
Like Paul, we can hope for those who do not yet know Him. They might be our own people, our own family and neighbors. They might be complete strangers who are served by the fundraisers that demand our money. They might be people in foreign lands who hunger for bread and well as for Christ.
For us, the promise begins at the font, but it continues regularly as we join in the feast that God lays before us at the Lord’s Table. There we will be renewed and restored to go out into the world to invite those family members, neighbors and strangers to dine with us. The meal may seem sparse, but it is more than satisfying. It is there we meet God in a very real and tangible way and proclaim the life, death and resurrection of the One who gives us true life, eternal life, life in the presence and the Kingdom of God. His loving kindness endures forever, so let us give thanks for God’s radical generosity!
A WORD FOR TODAY
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