And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.Matthew 14:20
It was a delight to welcome a guest preacher to our pulpit this week. Katie, a member of our congregation, has just completed her first year of seminary at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. She also happens to my daughter!
Here is the manuscript of Katie’s sermon which she graciously shared with me:
For many of us, the gospel story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, which appears in all four gospels, is one of the most familiar and beloved Bible stories. In addition to the four versions of this miraculous feeding of the five thousand, Matthew and Mark both tell us about another time where Jesus fed four thousand people. That makes six stories of Jesus feeding a multitude of people who had gathered around him! Along with telling parables like the ones we heard last week and healing and forgiving people, feeding a crowd is one of the most iconic parts of Jesus’s ministry. The prevalence of these stories in the gospels emphasizes that this was a central part of Jesus’s ministry: as he traveled and preached the good news, he regularly made sure that the crowds who came to hear him were fed, and these meals were not incidental to his ministry but rather one of the most important parts of it. The disciples want Jesus to send the crowds away to feed themselves, but Jesus insists that they be fed, even though in this particular passage he had intentionally left to be by himself.
Ministry Across Cultures
This familiar story has taken on new meaning for me in recent years. I just finished my first year of seminary, and one of my favorite classes was Ministry Across Cultures. In that class, one of the things we learned is that “ministry across cultures” isn’t something we only do when we go on a mission trip to another country; we encounter other cultures as part of our Christian lives all the time. Reading the Bible is in itself encountering another culture, since the Bible was formed in ancient Palestine, in very different cultures and contexts than any modern culture, including yours or mine. We always bring our own expectations and experiences with us when we read the Bible, reading it from our own cultural experience. But we can only get at a part of the richness of God’s Word when we read it from our own experience. Being part of Christian ministry in diverse settings can expand our imaginations, which helps us understand the Bible more fully.
In my own life, I’ve found that my understanding of the Bible became much richer and deeper after living in Palestine, in the Holy Land, for a year through the Lutheran church’s Young Adults in Global Mission program. Of course, you don’t have to cross an ocean to encounter another culture. You can read books, watch movies and TV shows, and encounter people in your own area to learn about other cultures. But I am so thankful for the blessing of my community in Palestine. I was living in Beit Jala, just outside Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, with a Palestinian Lutheran host family, attending worship at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, and teaching English at Dar Al-Kalima Lutheran School in Bethlehem and the Evangelical Lutheran School in Beit Sahour. Throughout my year there, I experienced transformative hospitality.
Strangers, friends, and my extended host family invited me into their homes, cooked for me and fed me, and guided me when I was lost. When it was midday in the teacher’s lounge at a school where I was volunteering, everyone shared generously from their own food. More than once a teacher tore her pita sandwich in half and gave it away to myself or another volunteer or teacher. Because hospitality is such an important part of Palestinian culture, the teachers and strangers who offered it could be equally sure of it being returned to them at some point when they needed it. I did not only accept food from other teachers; I gave half of my own food away often, and it balanced out in the end. These acts of generous hospitality formed trusting relationships and were able to effortlessly make up for one or two teachers or volunteers not bringing enough food with them on any given day. This is an experience I can take with me in how I live my life in the U.S. and in how I read the Bible.
In Palestine I witnessed the miraculous multiplying of pita sandwiches and cucumbers, and when I reread this beloved Bible story after returning to the U.S., it struck me very differently than it had before. If you had asked me before what the miracle was in the story, I probably would have told you it was that Jesus loved the crowd and therefore fed them. That is true! But I would not have imagined that one message God is giving us through this story is about the miracle of community and of helping each other through sharing what we have.
The Promise of Abundance
Jesus does not feed the crowds single-handedly. It’s important that the gospel does not say “Jesus waved his hands, and suddenly everyone in the crowd had plenty of food,” even though he could have. Instead, the gospel paints a picture in which someone (in John, it’s a young boy; here, it seems to be the disciples) offers their personal meal of five loaves and two fish to feed the crowd of thousands. Jesus accepts this meager offering that is at the same time every crumb that they had; nothing was kept back for themselves. Jesus blesses the food and the disciples distribute it amongst the crowd.
A lot of us today believe in the myth of scarcity: that there is not enough food or other resources to go around. That only some of us can make it, through hard work and personal merit, in a competition for scarce resources. This myth that there is not enough is the devil’s way of convincing us to cling to what little we have rather than sharing as Jesus teaches us to. The Bible counters the lie that there are insufficient resources with the promise of abundance again and again. Jesus says in John 10:10 that he “came that [we] may have life, and have it abundantly.”
In the gospel story today, the miracle is that of sharing and community. Jesus is at the center of that community and the miraculous sharing of resources, but just as important is the community itself. Jesus calls us to have faith in the reality of abundance, a promise that comes true when we follow God’s dream for us in our lives. We are called to have faith that God works through our meager offerings to create a miracle of abundance, even as the world would have us believe that there is not enough for everyone. We are called to sharing, rather than storing up for ourselves. This sharing is hospitality. Hospitality is helping each other and trusting that we will receive help when we need it. It’s a different way of walking through the world, and it is scary. But being a part of the miracle God works through the beloved community is an incomparable blessing.
At seminary, I’ve experienced this miracle of community as well. There is a long-standing tradition of students who are finishing their time at the school giving away much of their furniture and other possessions to the other students. This year, I gratefully received a lamp, a teapot, and a space heater, among other items, from the outgoing class. I look forward to passing on many of my own possessions when I finish seminary in two years. When the pandemic started, my seminary community was not able to be together in the same way as before, but through a group chat we were able to support one another. We shared resources like toilet paper, baking supplies, and cleaning supplies. It was a blessing during a time that felt scary and isolating to know that we could support each other and trust that we would have enough to go around (even of toilet paper!).
We all need practice at sharing with a mentality of abundance, and a seminary or church community is a great place to practice that! It’s a little harder during a pandemic, but we can love each other from a distance. In February, I experienced some love from a distance while at seminary: I was delighted to find some of Gloria Bowers’s famous sugar cookies in my mailbox! I was even more delighted to share them with a few friends, spreading the love that I felt from Gloria and my church community.
We can’t do anything alone. Community is essential to Christian life. When we have to be physically distant from our community in order to keep our siblings in Christ safe, and when we can’t see the full extent of our community because we’re thinking too narrowly to understand the ways God is working in the world, we are called to have faith that we are acting in community. We are called to have faith in the miracle of community and the miracle of sharing from a mindset of abundance. As Jesus preaches in Matthew 6:34, we are called to not to “worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” And we can face today’s troubles by giving fully of ourselves in obedience to God and trusting our community and the ways God is at work in it.
We are living in a time full of change and opportunity to spread hope and love through our actions. Even if all I have is five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus asks me to give all that I have in faith that both myself and all God’s creation will have enough through God’s miraculous work. So, my friends, what do we have to give?