Mysterium Tremendum

Coming to the Table in the Wilderness, Feeding the Multitudes

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Coming to the Table in the Wilderness, Feeding the multitudes

by Lietta Ruger

Gospel reading:  Matthew 14: 13-21

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to you, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

  Jesus performs another miracle.  Why did I have to get this sermon assignment anyway?  I am the least likely person to speak on the miracles because I have such a hard time personally with believing the supposed miracles of Jesus as factual or relevant to the Message of Jesus.  Which is not to say that I don't believe in miracles, because I do.  I think that miracles happen all the time on a more subtle plain, usually just below the radar of most people's conscious detection.

  So for two weeks I have struggled now with how I am going to address today's gospel reading as my sermon for today's service.  And I can tell you no miracle has happened to help me see it in a more clear light.  So I won't speak on miracles lest I offend those who do believe in the miracles Jesus performed as having actually happened.  And I invite any of you who do to enlighten me and teach me what you know.

  I ask myself the question:  Why did Jesus perform miracles in that time for that generation for that time in history and we see no such things in all the times that follow?   Why is the account of miracles a necessary part of the scriptural story and what are we supposed to learn from these accounts of large-scale miracles?  It forces me to either appreciate the miracles metaphorically/symbolically or it forces me to remind myself that the compilation of the New Testament books is speculative and not absolute.  The New Testament is a series of missives written by unknown authors transferring an oral tradition to a written tradition and trying to give an account of Jesus and the disciples of Jesus.

  The books are written a good 30 to 60 years after the death of Jesus in a time when Jesus movements prevailed in numerous forms, all in fledgling states of growth and evolution. The authors, I am convinced, took certain literay license in their accounts of what they knew and heard of Jesus and the disciples.  I am also convinced that the writers would share the "norms" of their time and in so doing give us a peek at some of the prevailing belief systems of their time.  Jesus might take on characteristics that reflected those times but might not necessarily reflect Jesus. 

  So miracle workers, it would seem, were a normalcy for those times and the proving ground for who was a genuine messiah or a prophet of genuine divinity and who was not.  From my readings, it seems Jesus was not the only miracle-worker walking around in those days..there seemed to be a movement of miracle-workers.   This would assign to Jesus a most difficult task of being the Supreme of the Supreme miracle workers if he was going to stand out from amongst the run-of-the-mill average miracle worker.

  I'm not saying Jesus did or did not perform miracles as much as I'm wading through this aspect of today's gospel reading to get on with what other message we can glean from this account.  Now to put this into another context, let me move to my secular life which has the primary role of feeding the masses.  As most of you know, Arthur and I work for Department of Social and Health Services in the welfare business.  This is how our society has chosen to deal with the business of compassion to the needy, hungry, poverty-stricken populations found in every town and city across this country.

  We distribute this wealth by means of a few hundred laws written for the express purpose of how to deliver food, cash and medical assistance to the less fortunate, so to speak.   It is a humiliating process most of the time for those of us administering the distribution and those who are in need enough to ask (or apply for benefits).  It still carries stigmas of the lazy and less deserving, the floatsam and jetsam of our society.  But it soothes the conscious of all the rest of our fine, upstanding citizens to know that "welfare" is out there taking care of those less fortunate.  If I sound a bit cynical here, it is likely because I am, having done this work for 15 plus years and studied it carefully along the way.

  Believe me, if the miracle of Jesus in feeding 5000 could be accomplished in today's time in the manner in which our gospel portrays it, I would jump at it as a much more dignified way to distribute resources.  The people, the crowd did not ask to be fed, grumble about having not thought to bring meals with them since they knew they were following Jesus to an unknown place.  The disciples noticed the day drawing to an end and expressed concern to Jesus on behalf of this vast crowd, anticipating their real and physical need for food, a meal and perhaps there is some message in this action.

  The disciples thought to send the crowds to the villages so they might obtain their own food needs. Commerce at work, if you will.  Perhaps this was thoughtfulness and caring, perhaps this was a wish not to be troubled further by what would be an alarming need with so large a crowd.  What was the custom of that time in such a situation?  Was the crowd considered "guests"?  Was there a hospitality obligation to feed guests?  After all, they were not invited to follow Jesus to the remote place he was going, rather they chose to follow him. 

  Jesus had heard the news of the grotesque feast of Herod, who having a birthday celebration with guests and banquets and festivities allowed John the Baptist to be executed by beheading with the head presented to Herod.  Jesus left the area, by sea,  to a remote place, presumably to be alone.  Surely for Jesus, there must have been grief and not some manner of shock and horror at the news.

   Maybe the crowds followed after him in some kind of concern for his well-being; maybe in fear of losing so great a One having only just found him; maybe some combination of both.  So when the crowd arrives where they were not asked or invited, could they be considered as careless in not having brought along their own stores of food...at least their credit cards?  Maybe they had money and could afford to go to town to buy from the merchants there.  Based on what we know of the accounts of the crowds that followed and listened to Jesus, do you think it is likely these were monied people?

  Maybe the disciples were discharing an unwanted responsibility in providing the suggestion that the crowd should go feed themselves.  Maybe the disciples genuinely cared..who can say..either way at the end of the day a crowd of more than 5000 women, children and men are needing to think about feeding themselves.

  Side bar, an aside here, did you notice in the gospel reading (this account also appears in the gospels of Mark, Luke and John)...did you notice how the text identifies 5000 men, and aside from the 5000 men are also women and children?  Isn't that an interesting way to count the numbers in the crowd...5000 men and also women and children.  I wonder how many women and children, another thousand, maybe just a few hundred.  Why do you suppose the count isn't say 7500 men, women and children were among the crowd with Jesus that day?  What is telling about an absolute count of the men in the crowd and an oh, yes, by the way, there were some women and children too?  Those are questions I leave to speculate on when one considers what the norms of those times might have been.  And also to allude to the demarginalizing of women and children in relevance to men in society. Something Jesus did not do, rather quite the opposite, in teaching the value of all people.

   Back to the story though, Jesus words in the gospel indicate he saw it as up to the disciples to feed this large crowd.  Why, of course, they are overwhelmed with being charged this responsibility!  A quick inventory of their resources shows up 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread.  I bet there was sweat on their foreheads as they tried to figure out how to distribute 2 fish and 5 loaves among more than 5000 people.  Maybe it occurred to them that Jesus was a little off his mark and grief-stricken enough to have lost some of his senses.  Maybe they Hoped for a Miracle...maybe they even counted on a miracle having seen Jesus do a number of miracles by now.

  So the story goes, Jesus blessed the bread and fish and there was ample fish and bread to go around.  There is no fish left over, but there are 12 baskets of bread left over.  Count them, 12 baskets of bread left over.  I'll just bet you there is some symboligy here that I just haven't come across yet.  Exhaustion of the fish supply and left over bread supply.    Of course, we Do know a bit about the symbol of 12, don't we?  So there was enough bread left over to fill 12 baskets and feed yet more who had not yet shown up to the Table.

  Jesus had the disciples doing the distribution and the cleaning up or "regathering" of what resources were left at the end of this meal.  Is this something we can learn from the account of the feeding miracle?  Is it about servitude?  Is it about stewardship of resources?  Is it about scarcity to plentiful abundance?  Is it about blessings and the resulting increase?  Is it Jesus teaching compassion?  

  Well what about those selfish people who followed Jesus, unasked, unbidden, and uninvited?   After all Jesus had good reason for leaving the area and seeking solitute or privacy or maybe just getting out of the way for a time for his own reasons of safety.  How did the crowd deserve the time, attention and energy of Jesus under these circumstances?  Intruding as they did, how did they deserve not to be chastised or upbraided for their own selfish concerns?  And if they were going to clamor around, you'd think they would have the decency to provide for and take care of their own needs and bring along their own resources.

   At least the disciples had a firm grip on reality here and can see they will have to send this crowd off to town to fend for themselves and find their own meals.  And Jesus, naive fool, says Nope - We will feed them - You will feed them - let's see what we've got - just 2 fish and 5 loaves - well, that will have to do.     Maybe a wise and divine Jesus teaches us a wise and divine lesson in the illustration of this miracle.

  Whether there was a miracle or whether there was not; whether the authors of the gospels took license with their narratives or not, if indeed scripture attempts to Point the Way, then the Jesus shown in this account is of Loving Compassion and Self-less in giving.   Beyond the immediacey of our own community, our own region, our own State, our own country lies a global community and the resources are most un-evenly distributed.  We cannot change the whole world, but we can make a difference on our own sphere of influence.

   It doesn't seem to me that Jesus determined the worthiness of the crowd in deciding to feed them all as much as Jesus showed us a different way to share bread, feast and enjoy a way to celebrate living life....perhaps in direct contrast to the horrid feast of starvation and death administered by Herod at his famine celebrating birthday that culminated in the beheading of the prophet, John the Baptist. 

  Jesus seems to be saying God's table is one of abundance and plenty and freely given...not one among the crowd of more than 5000 was required to demonstrate their worthiness to be fed.  I doubt all were baptized first before they were fed, there was no sorting out by culture, creed, color, religion or gender.  I doubt all 5000 plus were each and every one of strong, moral fibre and character and I doubt every one was an upstanding pillar of the community. And the story goes...they were All fed until satiated and drowsy and ready to rest from such a fine repast.  Out there in the wilderness where they followed Jesus, not sure where He was going, not sure where they were going..

Amen...peace and love In the One

Lietta Ruger, August 4, 2002

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Please visit my sermons, links shown below and to the top left. 
 
 I am studying to become a preacher, eventually this can track into becoming ordained priest within Episcopal diocese.  This is accomodated in what is called a Circle of Ministry setting with others also studying to become preachers or towards ordination.  Part of my study requires that I write and present sermons at our church on periodic Sundays.  
 
 I have posted my sermons on this site to share and for the opportunity of critiques from others who are willing to read them.    If you have taken time to read any, some or all of my sermons, I thank you for spending that time.      
 
  Lietta

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