Pentecost XI, July 31, 2005
“You Give Them Something to Eat”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During this past year, I’ve had the opportunity to see what the daily life of a pastor is like. I have visited people in the hospital and people who are not able to leave their houses. I’ve visited many who were sick and some who were dying. I’ve been present at weddings and funerals, baptisms and confirmations. I’ve prayed with many of you and for you. I assisted Pastor T. in giving into your hands and mouths the precious Body and Blood of our Savior, Jesus. I have shared God’s Word with you from this pulpit and in Bible studies. I have experienced the challenge of dividing time between my “job” and my wife and daughter. I have learned from you what it means to be the people of God in a particular place; what it means to be at the same time saints and sinners, family, the Body of Christ.
And I have also learned that there never is, nor will there ever be, enough time to do everything that a pastor is expected to do, or even everything he would like to do. The role of a pastor is, in its essence, delivering forgiveness of sins through the preaching God’s Word and through the Sacraments. There are things that go along with that, like bringing God’s Word and Holy Communion to those who cannot receive it in the church, or bringing comfort and peace to those in the hospital or those who have lost loved ones. In order to do those things, the pastor continually has to be studying. Jesus says in Matthew 13:52, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Bringing out the new and the old from the treasure of God’s Word requires that a pastor be engaged in continual study of that Word. Beyond that, there are fellowship meals, meetings, counseling, and above all, prayer. And with all of those things, the pastor still needs time for his family. I have learned that it is not easy, and yet the joy of the Lord runs deep.
Experiencing all of that, and more, during the last year has given me empathy for the disciples in Matthew 14. After hearing that John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod because of a spiteful wife and a rash promise, Jesus withdraws to an isolated place; Mark tells us that His disciples went along. But the crowds of people who have been following Jesus everywhere He goes are eager to hear more. They are sick in both body and spirit, and they need healing from the Good Physician. Jesus, whose body must have been exhausted from constant attention to the needs of others, does not complain or avoid them. “He had compassion on them and healed their sick” (14:14).
The disciples, ever practical, ask Jesus to send the crowds to whatever town they might find, so that they can buy food. It is likely that the people, including Jesus and the disciples, had not eaten for a long time, considering how far they were from their homes. Perhaps the disciples were thinking about the words Jesus had spoken to them earlier in the day: “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). Mark says that they had not even had time to eat because of the crowds (6:31). Come on Jesus, they might have been thinking (or even saying), you said we would have time to rest. How could Jesus argue with the fact that the people needed to eat? But Jesus shocks them with the words, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16). Not only have the disciples not been able to eat or rest all day, now Jesus wants them to go to who-knows-where and get food for thousands of people! Jesus even asks them the question, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat” (John 6:5)? To demonstrate to Jesus just how impossible this assignment is, they show him the five small loaves of bread and the two little fish, given to them by a young boy from his lunch sack (John 6:9).
Jesus had promised the disciples a day off. He knows that they are tired from their mission work, from preaching and healing (Luke 9:6). But Jesus’ mercy is not confined to the times when He feels like being merciful, or when He is fully rested. His is a constant, burning love for people who have no other place to turn. We can and should strive to be like Jesus; but how much easier it is to identify with the disciples! You who are parents know what it feels like to be asked constantly for one more thing. When all you want to do is lie down, your children still need food, care, and love. You who are students know what it feels like always to have one more assignment. Just when you are finished with one book, or one paper, you have another waiting to be completed. You who are employees know what it feels like have work piled high on your desk. When all you want to do is go home to your family, you have one more form to fill out, or one more client requiring your attention.
Besides the work you have as parents, students, and employees, there is the work of the church. There are board meetings, vestry meetings, voters’ meetings; Bible study, church, Sunday School. Always one more thing to be done. Even so, tired as you are, Jesus says to you, “You give them something to eat.” He asks, “Where shall we get the money, so that the lights and air will stay on? Where will we get the people, so that the church will remain open? And when the people do come, how will we meet their needs?” Do we have a million-dollar budget, by which we can provide for every need of body and soul? Do we have exciting and highly-produced multi-media programming by which to draw people to the message of Christ crucified? Or are we just behind the times, doomed to fade away as the world moves on without us? What about the crowds who need compassion, who need healing? If we cannot give them the things they think they want, what do we have to give to modern, sophisticated, and technologically adept people? Without traveling great distances or acquiring great funds, how shall we provide for them? In spite of our objections, both mental and spoken, Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”
But, Lord, we have only a little money, a little time. What can we offer that is worth anything? Jesus answers, “You are right. You have nothing to offer. Your money is not enough, nor is your time. Your meetings are not enough, your attendance on Sunday mornings is not enough. Your programs are not enough; neither are your efforts to be welcoming and approachable. It is not within your power to give people what they really need.”
So we stand before our God with empty hands and diseased hearts, at a loss for words as we realize we are in no position to feed anyone else—we cannot even feed ourselves unless God wills it (although we act as if we can). We feel like Philip, the disciple to whom Jesus says in John 6:5: “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” And we answer like Philip: “We could barely make enough in an entire year to give each of these people just a little.” But John tells us what we are too blind to see: “[Jesus] said this to test [Philip], for he himself knew what he would do.” We cannot see what we should give people because we are looking for it within and among ourselves. When Jesus asked the question, Philip and the other disciples looked in all the wrong directions. They looked at the massive crowd, at little boys’ lunches, at the money in their pockets; but never did they look at the One for whom feeding five thousand men, plus women and children, was a minor event.
Where do you look when it seems impossible that the money in the church budget will stretch to cover salaries and bills, let alone mission work? Where do you look when members are dwindling but populations are growing? Where do you look in your own life when creditors, children, bosses, teachers, and congregations demand more than you can give? Do you look to your own strength, your own finances, your own ability to pull yourself out of trouble? Do you look at what you can give to people? Those things are as likely to solve the problems of life and church as five loaves and two fishes are likely to feed five thousand.
Imagine if Philip and the other disciples had attempted to feed all those people with that little boy’s lunch. Would it have gotten past the first family? No, and our weak attempts at feeding people with bread that does not satisfy fare no better. People come to the Church for various reasons. Some want money; some want spectacle; some want a self-help class; some want their egos stroked by feel-good preachers who find it easier to scratch itching ears than to bind up broken hearts. Jesus says to the people in John 6:26: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” They liked their full bellies, but they had empty souls.
Shall we, the Church, be complicit in giving out the food that perishes, and neglect the food that endures to eternal life? Every other thing can be found outside the Church: the coffee’s better at Starbucks, the movies are better at the theater, the rock and roll is better at the club, the self-help is better at Alcoholics Anonymous. But none of them is the Church, and none of them has the one thing that can be found only in the Church. It is the one thing that the disciples, the crowds, and we so often overlook, though He stands right beside us all.
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many” (John 6:9)? “And [Jesus] said, ‘Bring them here to me’” (Matthew 14:18). Before the disciples have even asked, before they even think to ask, Jesus takes their feeble gifts and multiplies them into food for the multitude. He looks up to heaven and gives thanks. Even that which we consider ours to do with as we wish is a gift from God. “Every day He abundantly provides everything I need to nourish this body and life,” as Luther put it.
And Jesus takes what He has first given us, whether much or little, and He feeds people. Jesus takes the very things that appear weak and poor and worthless, and He makes them the bread that will endure to eternal life. Such food that endures to eternal life cannot be found in the things that perish with use. Only the Son of Man can give you that food. Only the Son of Man is that food. Thanks be to our God, He gives Himself freely to all who ask and all who seek! “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst’” (John 6:35). The faith that the Holy Spirit gives to see Jesus for who He is is the faith in which we eat and drink and are saved. Christ gives Himself in the faltering and stumbling words of humans who speak the simple yet profound Word of God. He gives Himself in the products of crushed grapes and broken grain made holy by His divine words. He gives Himself in a splash of water that forgives sins because He said it would. These are His means, and they are overflowing in their abundance. Just as each of the disciples gathered a basket-full of crumbs, Jesus’ gifts more than satisfy.
When the offerings in the plate are as loaves and fishes to the thousands owed, know that He who fed the thousands can and will provide—He may even use you to do it! Whether the people come to our doors or we have to go to their doors, know that it is Jesus who builds His Church with the foolish, the weak, the low and despised, the nothing—even us, dear friends. When the people do come—whether we can meet their physical and social needs or not—know that there is abundance in this place which no human eye can see: Jesus Christ, the bread not only for our travels in this desert life, but also for the wedding feast in the life to come. What do we have to give to modern, sophisticated, technologically adept people? Only what the Church has always had to give: Jesus, only Jesus!
Look no longer at your meager work, your inconsistent service, your lackluster accomplishment. Look instead to Jesus’ all-sufficient work on a Roman cross; look instead to His never-ending service on your behalf; look instead to the salvation He accomplished to perfection—perfection so perfect that He alone can become the failure to, literally, end all failures. He is the bread of life; taste and see that the Lord is good. Feed your families, friends, and neighbors with Jesus Christ crucified, and they, too, will be filled to satisfaction. Jesus says, “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price…. Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Isaiah 55:1-2). Hear, eat, drink, live. Amen.
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7) for He fills you with the finest of wheat (Psalm 147:14). Amen.
— [Timotheos], 7/26/05