SCRIPTURE – Matthew 14:13-21 – Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Learning God’s Math
August 3, 2014
When I was little, every Christmas morning after we opened presents, my mom and I would join the rest of the family at my grandparents’ house for breakfast. Now my grandfather, 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 and my grandma Bonnie worked.
About a half hour later, PawPaw 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 PawPaw and Bonnie worked their miracle.
Now, as I look back on this event as an adult, I know this wasn’t a miracle. It doesn’t diminish the meaning of the memory for me, 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 told me they saw a gorilla loose in Lexington, I’d smile politely at them and quickly walk the other way. But if four eyewitnesses told me they saw a gorilla loose in Lexington, I’d be much more inclined to believe that it’s true. Plus, I’d hide my bananas.
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, yet this story from Matthew 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 miraculous power of what happens here. Five loaves and two fish are turned into feast.
That happy ending is a far cry from how the story begins. 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 knew Jesus was someone special, so they followed him. Jesus, seeing the crowd, has compassion on them and spends the day with them.
As the day goes on, it’s obvious that Jesus isn’t paying attention to the details, because it’s getting close to dinner time and Jesus hasn’t even considered how all these people are going to be fed. 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 for them to 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.”
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, who has graced us with a new math? 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 math.”
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 promise Jesus gave us at the end of Matthew when he promised to be with us always. It’s so easy to lapse into a language of scarcity, using words like “only” to describe what God can do.
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.
I promise this will be the first and the last time I quote the movie “Dumb and Dumber” in a sermon, but there is a scene were Jim Carrey’s character Lloyd is trying to find out if a girl he likes will go out with him. She tells him the chances aren’t good. He says, “Not good, like one out of a hundred?” She responds, “More like one in a million.” He pauses, looks pensive, then says, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance! Yeah!”
We may believe that the chances of God helping us are one in a million. We may be 99% sure that God can’t bring about something good from our situation. That 1% of hope is all God needs. “You give what you have and let me worry about the math.” If we believe in a God who loves 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 worship a God of abundance, and we have no problems being the recipients of that abundance, yet so often we choose to live with a mentality of scarcity.
Here’s the thing. In order for God’s math to work in our lives, in order for us to move from a spirit of scarcity to a spirit of abundance, 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. 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.
“You give them something to eat.” The amazing thing about this story is that God chooses to use us to do God’s work in this world. Just the fact that we are called to be God’s co-laborers is a miracle in itself. For example, 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 their five loaves and two fish 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. When we are willing to share what we have, we participate in God’s ongoing miracle of abundance. 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 – literally and spiritually – with what we’re willing to share.
We have a roof over our heads. We have transportation. And we have enough food to feed ourselves. We are rich. God has blessed us abundantly. Those blessings are not to be hoarded, but shared. How much can God accomplish with what you give? How many lives can be changed? How big a difference can you make? As we starting talking about our vision and mission in the coming months, we’ll be seeking to answer those questions. And I bet whatever answers we come up with, God has something bigger planned. And the cool thing? God wants to work with us and through us to make it happen. Us! We have been given all the tools we need to make a difference in this world, a world where people are starving for food and starving for God. Now, you give them something to eat.