Monday, August 11, 2008

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Preached at St Mark's Church, Derby Rd, Portsmouth, on 3rd Aug 2008

Reading: Matthew 14:13-21

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Last week, in our gospel reading, we were given a series of metaphors...pictures which help us to get an idea of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. I'm sure you remember - the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast, like treasure, like a pearl of great price - and so on. In other words, we were being asked to think about just what a precious, valuable, life-changing idea the Kingdom is. And we were also being invited, through the metaphors of the yeast and the mustard seed, to be aware that God is the one who is bringing his Kingdom about, day by day, year by year, as more and more people turn to him. If you want to read my sermon on that topic, then let me invite you to look it up on my website - the address is in the pew news.

This week - the focus changes. In the story of the Feeding of Five Thousand, we are being invited to move beyond mere words, mere allegories and metaphors, into an actual demonstration of Kingdom principles at work. What we have before is essentially a simple story. Jesus has been pursued by a great crowd. The text tells us that in fact there were far more than five thousand people - because in typical patriarchal fashion, all the gospel writers only bother to count the men in the crowd! There were also women and children...so, we might surmise that there may have been as many as 15 or 20 thousand people in the crowd that day. When evening falls, the disciples come up to Jesus and say "Don't you think we ought to send these folks away to buy some food". But Jesus has other ideas. Taking a few loaves and fishes, he blesses them, and starts to distribute them among the crowd. The food somehow multiplies - so much so that there are 12 baskets left over.

How that happened exactly is a subject on which scholars have debated for centuries. Was it an actual miracle of multiplication? Or could it be that people had, in fact, brought food with them? After all, there are not many people who would go out to a deserted place - miles from home - without at least packing a few sandwiches for the kids. The people of that time are not all that different from us. Children still squinnied when they were hungry. So perhaps, when Jesus started to distribute the five loaves and two fish, many other people started to open their picnics up - and began to share with each other. After all, if people of those days were anything like us, you can be sure that most people packed far more in their picnic than they would need!

Whether or not this story was about an actual multiplication miracle, or whether something much more ordinary took place, we can be sure that what took place was significant. So significant, in fact, that it is the only miracle (other than the resurrection) that is recorded in all four Gospels. Perhaps, like with the story of the calming of the sea, Jesus' power over matter, his divine power, was once again being demonstrated. We could, if we wish, quite legitimately read this story as a demonstration of Jesus' status as the Son of God - Lord of the Universe.

Or, if we choose, we can learn that by a simple act of example, he encouraged others to open their hearts, and share what they had, with their neighbours.

There are two lines in this story that I would particularly like to draw your attention to. In verse 16, after the disciples had suggested sending the people away to buy food, Jesus replies, "They need not go away...you give them something to eat". Then, a few lines later, after he has blessed the food, in verse 19, Jesus gives the food to the disciples, for them to pass it on to the crowd.

There's a real challenge to us in these few words. God is the source of all life, and the provider of all the food in the world. But he gives the task of distributing that food to us, his friends and followers. The disciples could quite easily have decided amongst themselves that five loaves and two fish was not nearly enough food to go round. They could have taken the blessed food, and just eaten it themselves. But no, Jesus commands them to share what they have. Here we see a really important Kingdom principle at work. The Kingdom of Heaven is not about getting and keeping, its about giving and sharing.

How very different this is than the world in which we live today. We live in a time when getting and keeping have become such a normal pattern of life, that very few people question it. We live in the time of 'consumerism' - when consuming as much of the worlds resources as we can has become the norm. In fact, we might almost describe consumerism as the new religion. Temples, mosques and churches have been replaced by shopping arcades. The priests of this new religion are the marketing managers, who tell us what we should believe, and more importantly, what will make us happy. "Buy more stuff!" they cry, and find fulfilment. How different that is from Jesus' idea of "Give stuff away, and find fulfilment!". Icons and religious imagery have been replaced by advertising posters. Hymns and spiritual songs have been replaced by jingles and advertisements.

But Jesus still calls to us across the centuries. "You fool!" he says, to the man who has stored up great wealth for himself. "Do not store up for yourself treasure on earth, where is will only rot and decay. Instead, store up treasure in heaven, where it will last for eternity". "Don't try to get - learn to give!"

There's one last thought I want to share about this command of Jesus to his friends, in verse 16: "You give them something to eat..." Here at St Mark's we find ourselves in the middle of a relatively poor community. I know many of you do not have spare cash - and that is also the case for many of the people who live around here. The other problem that I know is very real in this area is the problem of loneliness. House after house contains people who live alone, and who have very few opportunities to find and make new friends - to feel a connection with the wider humanity around them.

That is why some of us have a vision of establishing a community cafe, in the downstairs hall of this building. What we want to provide is a really low-cost option for people who have little money; the chance for them to buy a cheap cup of tea, or a hot snack in the middle of the day. We want to provide a place where our neighbours who live around this building can gather together, in a warm, friendly environment - to find and make new friends...and to learn, at a deep-down level, that even if they are widowed, poor, and in bad health - they are still loved...by us, and by God, and that there is still purpose to their lives. We want to introduce them to the God who says 'give', not 'get', - give of your time to one another, share each others burdens, belong to the family of God.

But to do that, we need volunteers who will be prepared to take up Jesus' command to his disciples..."You give them something to eat". We need people who will commit to just one, or two days per month, to do precisely that...to serve their brothers and sisters of this community.

So let me, in conclusion, ask you to ask yourself...could it be that God is calling me to take up the call to give something to eat to the crowd who are gathered around this church? Could it be that God is asking me to unpack my picnic basket of time and talent, and to share it with my neighbours? If you think that may be so, then please speak to Christine Watkins after the service. Christine has kindly offered to give some of her picnic basket of time and talent to co-ordinate our new Community Cafe...but she needs many other people to open up their baskets too. (Website note: Christine can be contacted on 023 9266 5753 on Mondays and Thursdays between 9.30am and 2pm, or via email to stmarkchurch@portseaparish.freeserve.co.uk )

Think about it...please. We have the space, we have the tables, we have the chairs and the kitchen. We can buy the food. We just need the people who will love and care for their neighbours – and who will “give them something to eat”.

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