A sermon based on Isaiah 25:6-9 and Matthew 14:13-21 – 8/2/15
There’s a comic strip that I miss reading in the papers these days: Calvin and Hobbes. If you couldn’t tell by the poster-sized drawings hanging in my office, I’m a big fan. The creator of the comic, Bill Waterson, named the boy Calvin after theologian and father of the Presbyterian tradition John Calvin, and his pet tiger Hobbes after political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. In one comic strip Calvin is sitting down at the kitchen table working on his math homework, and he says to Hobbes,
You know, I don’t think math is a science. I think it’s a religion.
All the equations are like miracles. You take 2 numbers and when you add them up, they magically become one new number! No one can say how it happens. You either believe it or you don’t.
Calvin continues ranting.
This entire math textbook is full of things that have to be accepted on faith! It’s a religion!
And in public schools no less. Call a lawyer.
Then Calvin declares,
As a math atheist, I should be excused from this.
I wasn’t so great at math either, so I have to agree with the little guy.
The numbers in the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 don’t add up. 5,000 men plus women and children, so it could be that we’re really talking about 15,000 people hanging out in the wilderness—this deserted place. And we have 5 loaves, 2 fish, 12 disciples, and Jesus, the One who led them all way out here.
I think we can get caught up in the numbers game here. We could ask ourselves how in the world 5 loaves and 2 fish become a meal for 15,000 folks. We could say the real miracle here wasn’t that Jesus somehow made that work out, but that people saw others sharing their bread and fish and pulled out their secret stash and shared it with their neighbors. Sharing is a miracle, I do agree, but the people who were following Jesus were most likely poor peasants. They suffered from lack of food in general, so odds are they didn’t follow Jesus out into the wilderness with extra stashes of bread and fish hidden away in their pockets. There was some sort of miraculous multiplication of food here.
Not sure if you know this. It’s not recorded in the gospels anyway, but growing up, Jesus was also terrible at math. He failed pre-algebra and he barely slid by in geometry, and if it weren’t for his carpenter father who said to him that he needed to know geometry in order to learn the trade, Jesus would have failed that, too. Jesus grew up being the kind of guy who would say something like what Calvin says in that comic strip:
Who says that 2 + 2 = 4? What if it could equal much more than that?
Addition and algebra were not Jesus’ strong suits, but multiplication was. But the kind of multiplication Jesus was good at had nothing to do with numbers. It had to do with bread and fish. It’s from Jesus that we get our funny math: 1 Messiah and miracle worker, times 12 disciples, feeds more than 5,000.
It was the disciples who said to Jesus,
Send this crowd away. Send them back into the city where they can buy food for themselves, Jesus.
Jesus cuts them off, almost, and he replies,
No, YOU feed them. There’s no reason to send them away. YOU give them something to eat!
I can imagine the disciples staring out at 15,000 hungry people and then staring down at their meager daily ration of 5 loaves and 2 fish—a meal only big enough for the 13 of them, and wondering how in the world that was possible.
Don’t we have that feeling, too—us 21st Century disciples? We stare out at all the need we see in the world—or really only in our community, in our little corner of the world—and we say, How?
What we have to give seems so small and the need is so large. And once we notice that discrepancy in numbers, what do we typically do? We do what the disciples did. We become powerless in the face of great need. We say to ourselves,
There’s just no way. It’s just little old me throwing a few boxes of cereal each month at a hunger problem that will never be solved with boxes of cereal!
When the need is so great and the resources are so few, our tendency is to feel powerless in the face of need. But Jesus tells us,
No. Don’t leave them to fend for themselves. Don’t tell them to go elsewhere for what they need. You give them something to eat.
See, we think we have nothing to give, whether it’s food or love or a word of prayer offered to someone who’s hurting, God knows we have a tendency to throw up our hands and throw out an excuse and say what the disciples said to Jesus:
We have nothing except five loaves and two fish!
5 loaves and 2 fish, though, isn’t nothing. It’s something. And when Jesus is present, he can turn our “nothing” into everything. He can take our pervasive sense of not-enough, and turn it into a-whole-lot-more-than-enough. Where we find fear, Jesus sees opportunity. Where we find scarcity, Jesus sees a feast. 5 loaves and 2 fish in the hands of Jesus can feed a multitude.
Notice a few things though. Who has the loaves and fish in the first place? The disciples do. This isn’t Jesus’ food, it’s theirs! And who does the feeding? The disciples do. Jesus multiplies the bread and fish, but then he gives them back to the disciples and they feed the crowd.
“You do it!” Jesus says.
And this is where math comes back in. If the disciples didn’t bring any food at all, there would have been no food for Jesus to multiply, and the crowd would have gone hungry. Even Jesus can’t do miracles with nothing. Jesus can only use what we bring. Jesus can only bless what we bring. And Jesus can only multiply what we bring. But we’ve got to bring it first! 0 times anything is still 0.
The Feeding of the 5,000 is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that’s in all 4 gospel accounts. That means that it’s important. That means that what Jesus did with those loaves of bread and those 2 fish, and for that crowd that day, is central to the message of the Gospel. This story speaks to the heart of who Jesus was and why He came in the first place. Jesus came to be bread for us. Jesus came to be food for us. It is in him that multitudes can come to find nourishment—even right there in the middle of the wilderness. In this story, God’s mercy takes the form of bread.
1 Messiah, multiplied by 12 disciples, is greater than the need of 5,000 hungry people. That’s the funny math of the Kingdom of God. In lean times, we should pay attention to this Good News. Abundance happens when we give what we have, however small those gifts are, and hand them to Jesus. In His hands, our small gifts can be used in big ways.
So often we live with the fear of scarcity—that voice in the back of our heads that anxiously questions,
Is there enough?
We wonder if we have enough in our retirement accounts, if we’re putting away enough out of each paycheck, is there enough for college? How am I ever going to pay back these student loans?! Is there enough money in the church’s various accounts to keep us going, and for how long?
The folks on the Stewardship and Mission Committee are right to ask that out loud every time they sit down to write our budget. They break out their calculators and do the hard math. All that needs to be done. When we look down at our numbers, though, we sound like the disciples when they tell Jesus,
We have nothing here but 5 loaves and 2 fish!
That’s when Jesus says to us,
Bring what you have to me. I’ll make it enough!
And that’s when funny things start happening. That’s when we start to realize that whenever Jesus gets involved, our fears of scarcity turn into feasts of plenty. But, God only can use what we bring. What we have never seems like enough until we start giving it away. That’s the funny math of the Kingdom of God!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!