SCRIPTURE – Luke 9:10-17
When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing. Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.” He replied, “You give them something to eat.” They answered, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.” (About five thousand men were there.) But he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” The disciples did so, and everybody sat down. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.
God’s Multiplication Table
September 19, 2010
Growing up, every Christmas morning after we opened presents, my mom and I would join the rest of the family at my grandfather’s house for breakfast. Now PawPaw had a very small shotgun kitchen, barely enough room for more than two people at a time. When we got to his house, I would run to the kitchen to see how things were going. On the counter I would see a small bowl of batter, a half-dozen eggs, maybe a potato or two, and then PawPaw would shoo me out of the kitchen while he worked.
About a half hour later, he would call us all into the dining room, where he had turned that bowl of batter and those few potatoes into biscuits and sausage gravy, scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, hash browns and fried potatoes, buttered toast, pancakes and syrup. The more we ate, the more food appeared from that little kitchen. When we were all finished, there were enough leftovers to feed Santa and all his reindeer. We would sit back, pat our satisfied bellies, and marvel at how delicious breakfast was.
Now, as an adult, I know this wasn’t a miracle. It doesn’t diminish the meaning of the memory, but I know there was more food stored in the refrigerator and the pantry. I know how PawPaw did it. But I don’t know how Jesus did it. I’ve tried to make sense of this story several ways, but it just doesn’t fit into any of the math I learned in school. I’ve applied my algebra, my trigonometry, even my calculus and nothing fits. I remember the old equations I would do for homework. If 2 times X equals 4, what was X? The answer, if I remember correctly, was 2. But that doesn’t work here. Two fish and five loaves times Jesus equals everyone being satisfied and 12 baskets left over.
Did you know that only one of Jesus’ miracles is told in all four gospels? It’s not the calming of the sea or raising Lazarus from the dead or changing water in to wine. It’s the feeding of the 5,000. Even though each gospel writer tells the story a little differently, to me, this fact lends credence to the authenticity of the miracle. If one eyewitness tells me they saw an elephant loose in Lexington, I’d smile and quickly get as far away from them as possible. But if four people tell me they saw an elephant loose in Lexington, I’d be more inclined to believe it and then watch where I step the rest of the day.
But the fact that this story is repeated four times doesn’t make it any easier to explain, does it? As humans, we like problems we can solve and occurrences we can decipher, and this story from Luke defies description. Some people have tried to rationalize it by saying that Jesus only gave each person a pinch of bread, feeding them spiritually rather than physically. Others say that when the disciples began sharing their own food, the crowd, who had been hiding the food they brought, got it out and began sharing, as well, creating an abundance of food for everyone. But both of those theories diminish the power of what happens here. Five loaves and two fish are turned into feast.
I imagine if I were one of the disciples on that day, I would have had the same concerns they did. After all, Jesus wasn’t considering the reality of the situation. In the passage just before this one, we learn of the execution of John the Baptist by King Herod. When Jesus hears about the death of his close friend and cousin, Matthew says, “He withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” As you would expect, he wanted to be alone. But the crowds had no respect for Jesus’ mourning. So they followed him, and Jesus, seeing the crowd, has compassion on them and restarts his work of healing.
As the day goes on, it’s obvious that Jesus isn’t paying attention to the details, because the time is getting late and Jesus hasn’t even considered how all these people are going to get their supper. The disciples, being the rational, realistic bunch they are, bring this point up to Jesus, and he says, “You give them something to eat.” Talk about something not computing! Jesus obviously hadn’t learned his multiplication tables yet. Doesn’t he know we only have five loaves and two fish?
You know, I take issue with the disciples here. Usually I’m right there with them in my lack of understanding or fair-weather faith, but not this time. I understand they are frustrated at Jesus, I know they are tired and hungry, too, but there’s no need to cuss and use profanity like that. Did you hear it? That word, “only.” That’s a four-letter word when it comes to faith. I wonder how often we use that word. “I only have a few minutes.” “I’ve only opened my Bible a few times.” “I only know a little about what I believe.” The disciples use that bad word as an excuse, as if to say, “Well, if that’s all we have then the equation is settled.”
In our Youth Ministry Visioning Retreat yesterday our facilitator Stephanie helped us come up with a list of 50 BHAGs – Big, Hairy Audacious Goals for our youth program. We had some real humdingers in there. People were doing some serious dreaming. The problem for the disciples here is that they were thinking way too small. Instead of dreaming about how Jesus could help them feed all those people, instead of coming up with their own BHAG, they only saw the challenges and shrugged in defeat.
Do they not know about the Great Mathematician standing in front of them? Do we not realize that we worship a God who has rewritten the multiplication tables? Our God turns “only” into abundance. Our God takes what we have, no matter how small, and turns it into something we can share with others. Our God says, “You give what you have and let me worry about the distribution issues.”
We can try to explain it a hundred different ways, but the point of a miracle is that it defies explanation, just like the challenge to remain faithful sometimes defies explanation. Our lives get rudely interrupted by some crisis or detour, and we know we should have faith, but we can’t quite figure out the equation. When we look ahead and all we see are the challenges, it’s easy to shrug in defeat and forget the BHAG Jesus stated at the end of Matthew when he promised to be with us always.
I believe we all forget that at different times in our lives. We all come to this place today with concerns. Each of us has something in our lives that is weighing us down. Maybe it’s a health issue or a financial issue. Maybe we’re worried about an aging parent or a straying child. And we get so distraught, so caught up in the challenges that we almost forget Jesus’ promise. In fact, we may be 99% sure that we’re all alone on this journey.
That 1% of hope is all God needs. “You give what you have and let me take care of the rest.” But God, it’s only a sliver of hope. Whoops! There’s that word again, “only.” If we believe in a God without limits who can turn a small snack into a banquet feast, why would we limit our understanding of what God can do in our lives? We often choose to live with a mentality of scarcity instead of a mentality of abundance.
Here’s the thing. In order for God’s math to work in our lives, we have to be willing to give some things over. Jesus couldn’t have multiplied the bread and fish had they not been given into his hands to bless, break, and share. The disciples could have hoarded what they had, which would have ensured two things: (1) they would have had something to eat, and (2) no one else would have. I can’t guarantee that God will always fix things the way we want them. But I can guarantee that God can’t work with what we’re not willing to give.
God doesn’t multiply things in our lives so we can hoard them; they are to be shared, including the hope we have. By giving away what little they had, the disciples were given back 12 times as much. You know that thing you are worried about? Someone else is worried about it, too, probably someone you care about. When God multiplies our hope it is contagious, and those around us feed off our faith in the midst of dark times.
God can not only multiply our hope in order to reach others; God can multiply our gifts, as well. Let’s say for argument’s sake that this wasn’t a real miracle, and instead one of the more rational explanations of this story is accurate. Let’s say that when the people saw the disciples’ willingness to take all their food and share it, the people took out their own food they had been secretly saving for themselves and added it to the collective bread basket for distribution. Let’s say this spirit of hoarding was transformed into a spirit of sharing by the disciples’ generosity.
Really, is that any less of a miracle? The fact that people were willing to give up their only sustenance for the sake of others strikes me as pretty miraculous. And look what God did with that. God not only fed those who gave, but everyone else, as well.
God asks us to give, no matter how small the gift. If we turn our hopes, our talents, our resources over to God, we are giving God the ability to multiply them for use as a blessing, not just for us, but for many, many others. If we live our lives with a spirit of generosity, God can feed a lot of people with what we’re willing to share.
How much can God accomplish with what you give? What new ministries can be accomplished, how many lives can be changed? How big a difference can you make? What’s your BHAG for Crestwood? Now, do the math. Let’s see: two fish and five loaves times God equals over 5,000 full bellies and 12 baskets left over. Your gift times God equals…