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Imagine


The story of Jesus feeding the multitudes has appeared a couple of times recently in the daily lectionary. Most recently we looked at John's version of this story. Today we look at Matthew. This is the one miracle story about Jesus that is told in all four gospels. But I want you to do something different with this story today. I invite you to travel with me back in time and imagine yourself in the story as you listen for God's word to you from Matthew 14:13-21. . . .
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
First of all, I want you to imagine something audacious. I want you to imagine yourself as Jesus.

You have just heard that your cousin and partner in ministry John the Baptist has been brutally executed by Herod Antipas. What thoughts run through your mind? What feelings fill your heart?

There is great sadness. That’s for certain. But happy thoughts flit across the screen of your memory as well. Pictures flash through your mind—snapshots of playing with John when both of you were children, your families getting together for feast days, birthdays and other celebrations. You remember stories your mother told you of going to visit John’s mother Elizabeth, when Elizabeth was pregnant with your cousin John and your mother was pregnant with you.

But then darker thoughts come. You remember stories your mother has told you of your own birth—far from Nazareth, in Bethlehem. You recall the story of Herod the Great, Antipas’ father, having all the little boys in Bethlehem slaughtered. You have fleeting memories of living in Egypt. Your parents didn’t tell you until years later that it was because of Herod. And then on your way home, your parents can’t quite explain why you aren’t going back to Bethlehem. But a look of fear fills their faces at the mention of a strange name—Archelaus.

Then your mind jumps—as a grief filled mind will—to more recent events. There too was happiness—John baptizing you in the Jordan River—jubilant crowds all around. But then John had a run-in with another Herod; this time it’s Antipas, but it’s the same family dogging your steps. And you remember the day you received the news that John was put in prison. You wanted to get away—to get away and think: to pray to your Abba. The same feelings fill your heart now that you have heard John is dead. You just want to get away—to find some peace, a quiet place where you can rest—maybe with the disciples, your closest friends nearby. This news of John’s death fills you with a sense of foreboding. You know, deep down, that your own life is headed to the same kind of conclusion as John’s life. How can it end any other way? You have both been preaching the same message—and it is a message that doesn’t set well with the powers that be.

So that is what you do—you seek a getaway. You get in a boat with Peter and the others. “Let’s go to the other side,” you say, “and get away from these crowds.” But by the time you reach the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the crowds have gotten there ahead of you, on foot. It’s just like before, when you needed time alone after John was put in prison. No one left you alone then either.

What are you feeling? Harassed? Helpless? Overwhelmed?

But then you look in the eyes of the people in the crowd and you realize how needy they are; they are in far greater need than you. And you know you have the resources to help. Overflowing compassion wells up from the very depths of your being. You translate your sorrow over John into sorrow for the crowd. And you heal their sick....

Now, let's switch gears. I want you to imagine yourself as one of the disciples. Maybe you are Peter or John or James or one of the women who travelled with Jesus. The crowds have been hanging about your master all day long. The sun will be setting soon. You are out on a hillside, far from any village. It’s getting near dinner time. You are tired and hungry. But Jesus doesn’t show any sign of stopping. You make a suggestion to the master, supposedly for his benefit, but it is really your own well-being you are concerned about. “Send the crowds away master so they can get something to eat.”

And then the words that come from Jesus’ lips with a smile are surprising as ever, “Why don’t you give them something to eat?”

What thoughts and feelings flash through your mind and heart before you answer Jesus? Are you asking under your breath, “Oh why does he always make things difficult? Why is he always challenging us to the sticking point?” Do you feel frustrated? Tired? Is your stomach growling?

You know just how little food your group has brought along. So you remind Jesus: “All we have is five loaves of bread and two fish. That’s hardly enough for everyone in our own group to have a bite each!”

The moment the words leave your mouth you are sorry. You have betrayed your own selfishness. You are expecting a reprimand from the master but instead he looks at you with love in his eyes—the same love he has for every person he meets. And he says to you gently, “Bring me the loaves and the fish.”

What are you thinking now? What is Jesus going to do? What in the world is going on?

Jesus is asking everyone to sit down on the green grass. It’s a lovely spring evening. If there just weren’t so many people this would be a delightful spot for a picnic. Jesus’ booming voice echoes across the side of the hill. In waves the people begin to get the message and they obey. After all, this is the healer inviting them to sit. Perhaps he has something for them.

Then you hear Jesus pray, as you have heard him countless times before. “Blessed art you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth and fish from the sea.”

As Jesus says these words, you are close enough to watch him break the bread. The hands are tanned and rough; they are carpenter’s hands. You can see his eyes looking up to heaven as he prays. They are filled with joy and love and trust, because of the One he calls Abba.

Before you know it, the stillness of that moment is broken. Jesus is handing you some of the bread and some of the fish, asking you to give away to others. Your own stomach is growling. It’s tempting to take some for yourself first. You know there can’t possibly be enough for everyone. Many will go hungry this night. But you would rather go hungry yourself than disobey the orders of this one who has filled your life with so much hope and meaning.

Soon enough the little you have been given is given away. You go back to the master, just on the off chance that he may have something more. And he does! You keep giving away to others—again and again. The supply never seems to run out. Pretty soon you realize each person in the crowd is handing fish and bread to others behind them, and so on. It’s finally time for you to sit down and have a morsel. And boy, there was never any other meal that tasted so good. Pretty soon, your hunger is satisfied and Jesus is giving new orders. “Here are some baskets to pick up the scraps. Don’t let anything go to waste.”

“Go to waste?” you think to yourself. “How could there be anything left over?” But just as before, so now—you obey. And pretty soon your basket is filled. So is Peter’s, and James’, all twelve baskets are full. And you ask one of the other disciples, “How many people do you figure are here?” And he says, “There must at least be five thousand men, not counting the women and the children.”

How do you feel now, having seen this miracle of multiplied loaves and fish?

Now I want you to imagine a completely different scene. You are a member of Matthew’s church, meeting in someone’s home in the latter part of the first century. Jesus has long since died and according to the reports you have received from Matthew and others—he has also arisen from the dead. You meet on the first day of the week—a work day for you. But the meeting is in the evening so that you and others can come. Why on the first day of the week? You meet on Sunday because that is the day that your master rose again.

Every Sunday night that you meet in your friend’s home you share a meal together. At the heart of that meal is the broken bread and poured out wine which Jesus told his disciples to eat and drink in remembrance of him. It’s like the Passover meal—only you share it every week—and it has a whole new meaning.

Every Sunday there is also a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures—stories that are familiar to you. And Matthew himself will often share new stories—tales about what Jesus said and did. On this particular Sunday night Matthew tells the story of Jesus feeding thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish.

What do you think as he tells this story? Does it seem incredible? Maybe not if the same Jesus also arose from the dead—and you’ve heard testimony of that from people who saw him alive—after his crucifixion.

What connection do you make in your mind between this story of Jesus feeding people and the stories you already know from the Hebrew Scriptures? Immediately your mind goes back to some of your favorite stories: Elijah being fed by ravens in the wilderness, Elisha feeding a hundred men on twenty loaves. Then of course there is the story of Moses feeding the Israelites bread from heaven, manna they called it, in the desert. Matthew makes the point that is already leaping into your mind: Jesus is the new Moses. Jesus is leading us to a promised land better than the one Moses led the people to discover.

But the Jesus story is different. Unlike Moses, he sends the people away after he feeds them. He doesn’t draw any attention to himself. Unlike the earlier Joshua, the new Joshua (for that is Jesus’ Hebrew name) doesn’t prepare an army to take over the Promised Land by force. At the end of the Jesus story the new Joshua is left hanging alone on a cross—one of the most hateful symbols to any Jew. But you find yourself identifying with Jesus in his loneliness. You have felt it too. Maybe, just maybe, as Jesus overcame death, perhaps he can help you to overcome your trials. Maybe he will feed you, meet your needs, in the wilderness where you find yourself wandering.

Before you know it, Matthew has finished talking and the time has come, once again, to eat the broken bread and drink the wine together with your friends. Suddenly you realize, “This is how Jesus is feeding me now—with this bread broken and this wine poured out.” And as you conclude your time of worship, Matthew reminds you of what Jesus said, “I will not drink of this cup again until I drink it anew with you in my father’s kingdom.” This life of struggle is not the end. What you see and hear and touch and taste and smell all around you; this world is not all there is. There’s a new world—a new kingdom coming—and you are part of that kingdom even now. One day this cup that you are raising to your lips will be raised by Jesus himself. And you will see it—with new eyes.

Now I want you to imagine one more thing: I want you to imagine you are yourself again—living in 2015. What does this story have to say to you now, where you live?

Is there some overwhelming sorrow in your life that makes it difficult, you think, for you to reach beyond yourself? What is Jesus saying to you about that sorrow?

What about the people who live around you, the people in your family, in your school, in your workplace? I want you to see their faces for a moment. What are their needs?
“When Jesus landed and saw a crowd he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” But then when he asks us to do something about the needs of those around us we say, “But we don’t have enough resources.” Is that an excuse for doing nothing? Perhaps if we would put the little bit we have at the disposal of the master he would feed many with it.

What are the needs of those around you? Are they hungry for something they cannot even name? Is there spiritual hunger among the people you know?

What resources do you have to help the people closest to you? Does it seem like there isn’t much to go around? What is Jesus saying to you about that?

And what do you sense Jesus saying to you today about how he wants to meet your needs? How does he want to feed you?

Can you imagine the next time you eat and drink at the Lord’s Table what it would be like to eat and to drink with Jesus present? Take that thought with you as you leave here today. Think of him even as you break bread for a meal today. Think of how he wants to feed you, and how he wants to feed others through you. Then offer yourself afresh to him to be used in his service. And remember as you do that—being a Christian is, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “a condition of complete simplicity—costing not less than everything.”

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