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A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, August 3, 2014.

8th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Gen. 32:22-31; Ps. 17:1-7, 16; Rom. 9:1-5; Matt. 14:13-21

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,

be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

         Today we move, from the past several weeks where Jesus taught about the Kingdom of heaven through parables, into the realm of seeing marvelous works of

God performed through Jesus for the needs of the people.

Five loaves, two fish, over five thousand fed.

How many of you here actually believe in miracles? (Show of hands?) I do. I hope that, if you’ve been here at Immanuel, you’ve heard me share stories of miracles in my life: my sister’s healings, my mother’s battle against alcohol, or my longtime friend surviving a catastrophic accident. I stand here to claim unabashedly that I do believe in miracles.

But what are ‘miracles?’ Hearing the word, what comes to mind? (Anyone?)

Turning to Dictionary.com for a current interpretation of ‘miracle,’ it says:

  1. An effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.

  2. Such an effect or event manifesting or considered as a work of God.

  3. A wonder; a marvel.

We can imagine different ‘miracles’ which, when you relate them to Matthew’s gospel, they’re not really miracles at all. Of course, you may have guessed I’m talking about sporting ‘miracles.’ They caught us off-guard, surprised us, gave us great joy …or sometimes, much sorrow.

There’s the “Miracle on Ice” when the USA ice hockey team beat the Soviets at the 1980 Olympics to later gain the gold medal. Maybe it’s a game-winning shot at the buzzer, a bases-loaded walk-off homer to come from behind, a Hail Mary pass, or even Darrell Green’s punt return against the Chicago Bears in the playoffs … you get the point. I’ll be glad hear your thoughts on sporting ‘miracles’ at the door. But, much as we think we really need a win, sports miracles are not what we really need in life.

Human needs are those things without which we cannot live. They are basic things like food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep and health. We consider these physical needs; needs pertaining to bodily life and existence. And there are other needs: emotional and mental. We need to feel both great joy and real grief, and we all need to be intellectually challenged. But we also need life in community, to know another human’s acceptance. In our relationship with God and our life in Christ Jesus, we also need to know forgiveness for our human frailties, and salvation from everlasting separation from God. These things are the deepest, least understood of human needs: our spiritual needs.

At times, there is much confusion in the church concerning human needs. Some believe the church should be most concerned with meeting peoples’ physical needs, claiming that Christians spend too much time preaching, teaching and confessing Christ. Their rallying cry is ‘More Deeds, Less Creeds!’ On the other hand, others say the church should focus solely on spiritual needs, arguing that real Christians with proper knowledge will know how to serve those needs through resources other than the church. Neither of these camps is bad. Neither is really wrong. But it’s not an all or nothing idea. It’s hard to separate physical and spiritual needs.

I think we know, in truth, that the church today and Christ’s disciples now must be concerned with people’s needs. We only have to look at today’s Gospel to see Jesus is concerned about all our needs, physical and spiritual. Jesus came to redeem our corrupted creation, to restore everything to God’s intended goodness, to make all things new again, you and me—in mind, body and spirit. Jesus knows we don’t pay attention very well or have the strength to carry through if we are hungry or weak or sick.

And as Jesus is concerned with needs, both physical and spiritual, we too, as followers of Christ, should be concerned as well. Jesus mirrors the compassion of the Father. Our call to active ministry is to also offer loving care to address human needs, physical and spiritual. You’ve heard the saying, “Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.”

Five loaves, two fish, over five thousand fed.

Today’s account from Matthew illustrates the compassion of the Father in his son Jesus toward human need, physical as well as spiritual. Taken together within the context of Matthew’s whole Gospel from beginning to end, we hear a full bodied message of salvation; we hear of God with us in the flesh, taking on our human condition, and fulfilling our needs in gracious abundance.

Let me catch you up on Matthew’s chronology. Since last week’s gospel full of parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like, Jesus returned to his hometown to teach in the synagogue. But there his own people rejected him, questioning both the source of Jesus’ wisdom and how he can heal infirmities and drive away evil spirits. Jesus said, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.”

And now, Jesus has heard news that John the Baptist, his cousin, the prophet sent to prepare the Way, was executed by King Herod. Remember, Jesus has human needs also: now, he needs time to reflect, grieve, pray, and seek comfort in his Father, so he withdraws to a deserted place. But the needs of the crowds also were great, and word of Jesus’ power to meet those needs had spread, so they follow Jesus by land hoping he would help them. And Jesus does not disappoint; putting aside his own needs, he serves the needs of the crowd, healing their many infirmities.

As evening falls, the disciples see the large crowd and the small quantity of food, and they urge Jesus to send the people away, for they don’t feel up to the task. But Jesus says to them: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Notice how again, Jesus focuses on human need and negates it: they need not go away! Jesus could’ve accepted the disciples’ self-limiting expectations, saying, “You’re right. Nothing can be done. You’re incapable of doing much anyway.” But in calling the disciples to action, with his help, Jesus affirms that more good can happen in the world than they could ever imagined—when God is at work through them. Being Jesus’ disciples now means we are entrusted with awesome responsibility to be the hands and feet of Christ in this day and age.

Five loaves, two fish, over five thousand fed.

You may know that the word companion literally means ‘one you break bread with.’ In breaking bread with the crowd, Jesus expresses the abundance of his companionship with the people. In a culture that’s become increasingly isolated and lonely for many, an offer of companionship can be the greatest gift. The church as the body of Christ in the world is a community that breaks bread with everyone, without limitations based on race, class, or past deeds.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, a letter to the editor under the heading “Solving the Israel-Gaza puzzle,” Lyndsay Taylor mentioned a Muslim-Christian Iftar dinner she attended during Ramadan at St. Alban’s Parish in D.C. She wrote, “I was amazed to learn that my Christian faith journey was not unlike that of the Muslim woman sitting next to me. As we broke bread, I was struck by our parallel questions. These interactions should not be so few and far between.” Chrissie and I have experienced this same kind of companionship with the Muslim community which meets here at Immanuel; we, too, learned we are not so far apart in our faith journeys.

The description of Jesus feeding the multitude says that “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” to distribute to the crowd. These words echo in the synoptic gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ meal the night when he was betrayed, and so are included in every Great Thanksgiving celebrated at this Altar. What Jesus did during his ministry—thanking God for bread and distributing it to those around him—continues through us in Holy Communion. We offer companionship to the world in the Eucharist.

The feeding of five thousand plus was one of the most spectacular miracles in the ministry of Christ, so much so it is the only story recorded in all four gospels. It was an occasion in which the disciples overemphasized the problem they faced and underemphasized the resources they had, for they underestimated the Lord!

The disciples were staggered to look into the faces of the multitude, and gaze upon this little lunch basket! But we bring to the Lord what we have, including ourselves, and God will bless all of it. For a little with God is more than much without God.

The people in Jesus’ time expected that the Messiah, like Moses, would feed them. This may have been the event associated with the messianic banquet spoke of by Isaiah (25:6), “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food … filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” This story supports the idea of Jesus as the Messiah and should be a deep source of hope and inspiration to us who seek to be faithful against great odds.

Five loaves, two fish, over five thousand fed.

Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave. The Lord works through us, his disciples, through the church, through God’s people. Here, we see the promise—the people didn’t have to go away to be fed; the commission—you give them something to eat; the power—bring them to me; and the provision—all ate and were filled. We witness the abundance which satisfies, for there were twelve baskets full of fragments left over. The word for “basket” here is kophinos, meaning a smaller wicker basket. I imagine that that which remained would be sufficient to feed Jesus and the disciples again. The idea here is there was more than enough.

This moment marked the climax of popularity for Jesus, and of the desire to make him King. But Jesus was no ‘bread-King.’ In John’s Gospel, Jesus follows this miracle with teaching about the need for spiritual sustenance. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35) In answer to their unbelief, Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:53-54). [ Pause] As food sustains the body, so living in Christ feeds our spiritual needs.

Five loaves, two fish, over five thousand fed.

God provides for physical needs through the agency of others; from our families, friends, and neighbors, just as God provides for all people. Through our work and service in God’s name for others, physical needs can be met. And yet people don’t always get what they need. While bodily needs may not always be fulfilled, we should seek also to address spiritual needs. If food, money, clothing are not available, please always consider offering prayer.

I’ve told you before how many people can literally flow through the doors of Immanuel, seeking assistance for their physical needs (food, clothing, rent, or medicine). Yet the demand is so great, there are times when there’s little or nothing to offer to address those needs, except maybe a grocery gift card. But we can always offer them empathy, prayer and blessings. Many years ago, friends of ours lived in a rectory next to the church. They raised their children to never send away anyone seeking aid without a simple sandwich or a piece of fruit. That was the prayer they offered.

Jesus has given us food, our Holy Communion, to feed all followers with his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. The forgiveness that Jesus offers is good, not only for our souls, but for our minds and bodies also, and foreshadows the great feast to come on the Last Day.

Today’s Gospel shows us Jesus feeding the hungry multitudes, revealing the abundance of God. At this Eucharist, let us remember those who are hungry or poor in the world today. May we, who share in this bread of life, be so empowered, with God’s help, to respond to the needs of those who hunger in any way.

Five loaves, two fish, over five thousand fed.

So I ask you: How might you be a miracle to someone?

You. You give them something to eat.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.