Sermon – August 6, 2017 – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 14:13-21


The crowds grew larger and larger and were gathering around, hoping to hear or maybe just to see Jesus.  The disciples recognized that there was no place for these people to go and eat, as they were in a deserted place, and so they ask Jesus to send the crowds away so that they may go and buy food for themselves.  Perhaps the disciples didn’t know that this group that had gathered didn’t necessarily have the ability to purchase food—after all, the story tells us that Jesus was there to cure their sickness, when sickness at this time was often due to malnourishment stemming from poverty.  This was a crowd that knew hunger all too well.  And so Jesus instructs the disciples: “You feed them.  You do it.  They need not go away.”  The disciples protest: “but we don’t have enough Jesus”—never mind that by this time they’ve witnessed Jesus do some pretty miraculous stuff.  Despite this, the disciples put a limitation on what they are capable of and ultimately what God is capable of—they decide that it is not possible to feed the crowd that gathered and they give up.

I wonder just how much we do the same.  Do we too put limits on what we can accomplish?  How does our own self-limiting prevent us from partaking in divine extraordinary?  Honestly, I understand the disciples’ reaction.  There are times when our broken world seems just too much for me to bear.  All of the hurt weighs heavy on my heart and I think that there is no way that I could possibly make a difference.  And it’s a lot easier to flip past an article or turn off the TV than it is to acknowledge that we all have a divine responsibility to engage the hurt of our world with the gospel, to be agents of peace and justice and healing in our world today.

But here’s where I believe a distinction needs to be made: I think that often when we hear Jesus’ call to be divine peace-markers, stirrers of justice, or feeders of the hungry, we hear that we have to be Jesus.  And we’re not.  When we make ourselves believe that we have to be a divine figure in order to enact change in our world we set ourselves up for failure and allow ourselves the permission to do nothing.  And so first, hear these words of liberation: We don’t come to this earth to be the messiah; we already have a messiah.  We are not perfect.  But remember, Jesus’ first disciples weren’t perfect either, and yet, Jesus leaves them with the task of making this world into the kind of place that God intends it to be, while promising to be with them until the very end.  This call is also ours, but the promise is ours is well.

This gospel text for today isn’t just about feeding people; it’s multifaceted.  There is the actual feeding of people who didn’t have enough to eat or a way to get something to eat (food insecurity and inequality was a big problem at this time) but also present among the layers is what this text is saying about God.  There are a lot of stories about food—in both the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament—all having to do something with people being fed.  This story is another: when people are hungry Jesus, God incarnate, feeds them.  It’s God’s will that people be fed.  But even deeper than this, all of these stories about food point to what life could be like when we experience the dominion of God in it’s fullest: People will not be hungry.  And so, this simple act of feeding becomes much more than giving food to someone who is hungry—It becomes action rooted in hope for a time when no one is left hungry.  It is an act of living the gospel.

When the author of Matthew was writing these particular stories, he was doing so with the mindset of writing instructions for the earliest Christian church.  He was asking questions like, “What was the purpose of these gatherings of early Christians?  How was this church going to be recognized in society?  How will this church spread the gospel?”  It appears at times that Matthew’s answer was quite simple.  This church is to be a church that feeds people.  It will be a church that houses people.  It will be a church that makes the gospel known by bearing living witness to new life, healing, and reconciliation.  It will be a church that dreams about a time when no one will be left hungry and a church that does its part to make that dream a reality.

Today, in our world, there are a lot of organizations that feed people—organizations that are doing wonderful, great work—but we have a call that is unique.  We have a call to share the divine hope for a time when no one will be hungry. We have a call to preach the gospel that says that God’s will is for people to be fed.  We have a call to proclaim boldly that there is a place at God’s table (the Eucharist table) for anyone in need of healing, anyone who looks at the world and believes that it can be different, and anyone who feels like they are less than the beautiful child of God that they are.  We have a call to proclaim that Christ is the host of this meal and that there are no barriers to God’s love for the world.  No one is going to do this job for us, its OUR CALL.

There is a lot of talk among people who work in the world of student ministry about whether or not trips like our service-learning trip actually make a difference or are worth doing. The argument usually goes something like this: There are plenty of organizations that feed people, that house people, that are doing good work in our world. Sending students for one week out of a year doesn’t help make a difference to these organizations or the issues they address in the long run. Now, I definitely believe that there are ways to go about student service trips that are very unhealthy and not helpful at all. And, if service trips were just about completing a task, checking a box, or getting something done then yes, one week out of a year is not going to make a difference. But true service is never just about completing a task. It’s about building partnerships, understanding systems, and seeing God in the work of others. While we in South Dakota this past week, while we were painting a house, or playing with kids, were weren’t just completing the task. We were getting a glimpse of God’s intended world. We saw God’s purpose for us and for others. To care for each other, to meet each others needs, and to see the hope for a time when the world too is encompassed with these goals.  This experience lasts far longer than a week— it changes who we are.

When I was doing my pastoral internship in California, the congregation I was working with decided to pursue opening a temporary shelter for women who were homeless.  In the process of opening the shelter, we received a fair amount of push back from people in our community who were upset.  Over and over again, we heard people say that homelessness is not our problem to solve and that we should leave the job of housing people to someone else—preferably in a different neighborhood or city.  I remember one evening I was feeling particularly dismayed.  We had to postpone the opening of the shelter, things weren’t working out with the city permits, and a few of our neighbors seemed as angry as ever.  I thought we were going to have to give up.  It was at this time someone in my congregation reminded me of our own gospel call.  “We have to do this”, she said.  “Sure, people are upset but it’s not their call.  We have the ability to house 15 women and we’re going to do it.  We are called to do this.”

Church, you have gifts that this world needs.  You have a unique voice to offer that our world so desperately needs to see and hear.  You not only have the ability to provide shelter or to feed the hungry, you are called to do so.  Do what you are called to do.  Be unapologetic holders of gospel light.  Be people of divine mercy and justice. Believe that this world can be different and believe that you have the ability to make a significant difference.  Be a church that walks it’s talk.  And have high expectations—have high expectations for the holy spirit and for this community to work in ways that seem as impossible as feeding over 5,000 people with two loaves of bread and five fish.  Have high expectations for the gospel and the sure hope that one day no one will be left hungry—I promise the gospel can handle it.