5,000 For Dinner (Jerry Parsons)
August 6, 2017 Pastor: Jerry Parsons
Topic: Christ's Love & Power Scripture: Psalm 17:1–17:7, Psalm 17:15–17:15, Matthew 14:13–14:21
When you read my sermon title—5,000 for Dinner—perhaps you thought I was going to talk about the upcoming grand opening of Portillo’s restaurant here. I don’t know of any other restaurant that’s gotten so much publicity.
In the scripture leading up to today’s, John the Baptist is beheaded on orders from Herod to fulfill a promise made to the daughter of Herodias, his brother’s wife, because she had danced so pleasingly. When Jesus heard of this, he withdrew by boat to a solitary place, presumably to grieve and to process what had happened. Obviously, John’s death would have had a big impact on Jesus, because John was Jesus’s cousin who had preceded Jesus in preaching repentance and the kingdom of God. After all, Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, so he would have experienced feelings about the brutal beheading of John.
Experiencing sadness while preparing to minister to people is something I can relate to, because these past several days I have been grieving the loss of one of our members, Ray Cunningham. Ray and Sharon were part of a small group for many years that included me and Pat, Mark and Joan Klinger, and Fred and Lavone Schultz. We shared each other’s joys and heartaches during those years, in which we gathered in each other’s homes.
Ray was also a member of a small group of men from First Pres who met for Bible study every Saturday morning at the Coffee House, in uptown Normal. Ray enjoyed offering fresh ideas and generating a lot of discussion. Some of you may remember Kyle Sessions, who was a member here for many years, but who grew quite infirm in his later years. Nonetheless, Ray would pick him up at his nursing home and bring him to our meeting each Saturday, and was extremely patient with Kyle, who wanted to go to the bank and sometimes the grocery store as Ray was taking him home.
You probably are wondering what this has to do with the feeding of 5,000 people. I’ll connect the two in just a few minutes, because Ray enjoyed debating whether or not the 5,000 were fed because they shared their own food they had brought and that there was enough to go around.
Let’s first take a closer look at this event, at a story with such significance that it is the only miracle revealed in full by all four of the gospels. Matthew’s story gives us an idea as to how many people actually were fed, because he says the 5,000 fed were men and that it didn’t include women and children. Thus, it would be easy to assume that maybe 10,000 to 15,000 was the actual number fed. It’s hard to imagine feeding a crowd that large. I had an experience that gave me some perspective on feeding large crowds.
Some of you know that over the years I went around giving humorous and inspirational speeches to a variety of audiences. My last such event was about a year and a half ago for patrons of a rural electric cooperative, in the small Southern Illinois town of Albion. As incentive, in addition to a free dinner, the co-op offered a substantial discount on the electric bills of those who attended. This brought out more than 1,000 people, about double the number that normally attended. I can tell you from experience that feeding 1,000 people inside a relatively small high school made for quite a sight. The line to get in wrapped all the way around a large part of the building. Now multiply that by 10 or 15 and you would have a crowd equivalent to a jam-packed full Redbird arena or perhaps a full State Farm Center at the University of Illinois.
The people showed up in such large numbers because of Jesus’ popularity. As a matter of fact, once he noticed the crowd that had followed him, he had compassion on them and healed the sick. Yes, Jesus performed incredible acts even though they are labeled as miracles and not magic. You may recall from Pastor Matt’s sermon on baptism, he talked about the magic-like quality of baptism. One of the men who attended our weekly Bible study a few times but later vanished, resisted the credibility of miracles which he called the magic tricks attributed to Jesus. Yet, as Christians we are called upon to believe in much that was supernatural, above all - the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave. Now some pastors believe that the abundance of food in today’s story resulted from everyone there being willing to share with others the food they had brought. Some say that the miracle is that people became this generous. Either way, we are looking at a miracle. I have no trouble believing that if Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead, heal sick people, cast out demons, turn water into wine and rise from the dead, he could have multiplied the number of loaves and fishes.
You will recall from the scripture that Christ began with five loaves and two fish. The Gospel of John says these were made available to Jesus and the disciples by a young lad, who was willing to share all that he had. You may also remember that there were leftovers—enough to fill 12 baskets, collected by the disciples.
The disciples played a major role in this miracle. Apparently, Jesus’ empathy for people rubbed off on them, for they showed concern about the hungry people in the crowd, because it was late in the day. At first, it seemed they expected Jesus to do something about it. Yet, he told the disciples: You give them something to eat. We are told in the gospel of John’s account of this miracle, which Philip found the youngster with the loaves and fishes. Nevertheless, once Jesus had broken the bread and prayed, he instructed the disciples to hand out the food to the people. And, as I mentioned, they went around picking up leftovers.
There are two significant lessons from what I just said, and that is - Jesus can use even the smallest gifts to bless others, that no contribution of time, talent or money is too small for God to multiply. Further, God is ever so generous and by displaying his amazing powers, he can create an abundance of whatever we need. Look at what seems to be a miracle within a miracle. First everyone in this crowd was fed, and secondly, they all ate until they were satisfied. Isn’t that just like the God we serve, who provides in abundance, which showed his mighty power and resources. The amount of food they started with was meager, to say the least; and yet, they ended up with a feast. Highly significant, though, was the fact that Jesus had compassion on the crowds who were hungry. Whereas we serve an omnipotent God. We have a Savior who, though being God incarnate, has human feelings and very much cares about all of our needs. To me, this is one of the most appealing things about Christianity. Our God is not distant and cold. He feels for us.
As Christians, we are called to provide food for the hungry, of which, there are multitudes. There are many organizations that we can support in order to feed the hungry. Mary Ann, our liturgist today, is in charge of Home Sweet Home ministries, a major supplier of food, in addition to services that assist the hungry and the needy. Some of you know the joy of feeding the homeless at the Salvation Army’s, Safe Harbor. Others may contribute to missionary causes, including Heifer International which provides live animals, some of which provide a regular supply of milk in areas of the world, where poverty exists.
We can’t overlook the Midwest Food Bank, which provides food to thousands and thousands of people, food that is donated to not-for-profit agencies such as local food banks. At this rate, this organization’s outreach has grown. It’s as if God is multiplying the resources as he did when the 5,000 were fed.
It would appear that Christ addressed more than physical needs in his ministry. When the scripture said he healed the sick, we can assume that the meaning of sick wasn’t limited to illness or injury. People back then and today are in need of spiritual healing. Jesus responded to this by providing food for the soul.
You may recall that Jesus is referred to in John 6:35 as “The bread of life.” In other words, people are born with a spiritual hunger that can be satisfied only though a relationship with Jesus Christ. Now, just as we are obligated as Christians to feed those with physical hunger, we also should help to feed them spiritually. This comes from living a Christ-centered life, in a way that others may hunger after the bread that feeds us.
How we reveal Christ to others can take many forms. Therefore, it may seem quite a stretch to talk about a long-distance bicycle ride in connecting with helping to feed people’s spiritual hunger. A year ago, about this time, I gave a sermon here in which I chronicled the exploits of one of our members, Julia White, when she rode a bicycle all the way across Iowa in what is known as the RAGBRAI, which stands for Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. (It was started by the Des Moines Register.) This grueling event attracts up to 20,000 cyclists from all over the country and the world. Julia, who is an excellent writer, this year gave frequent updates of here progress on Facebook, and I found myself being moved by some of her words. By the way, her husband, David also took on the challenge and completed the race this year. Riders average nearly 70 miles per day as they traverse the state from west to east, ending up at the Mississippi River, where it is customary to dip their bike in the water. Communities along the way are designated as overnight hosts for the riders.
I noted in Julia’s progress report near the end she wrote: I have seen the kindness of the human heart and the inspiration we can be to others. The opportunity to ride today to celebrate life is a precious gift. I am grateful to reflect God’s light back to the world.” After the event, I asked Julia to elaborate on her comments, especially about the light. “She wrote: I think reflecting the light of God is so important. There is so much shadow in this broken world, but we don’t have to stay in those places. We can take every opportunity to flood our surrounding space with love and joy. We can use whatever chance we have to project to the world that there is healing, there is unconditional love, there is grace and mercy for all of us. Amazing things can happen and ordinary, broken people can climb mountains higher than their craziest dreams.” What Julia is describing is how we as individuals can do our part in feeding the spiritual needs of others, even in something as seemingly mundane as a bicycle ride. Julia added that she and Dave rode for those in their family who could not. This included Dave’s mother who passed away this past year and his sister, who is battling cancer.
Now, many of us aren’t capable of riding a bike across Iowa; nevertheless, we can reflect the light of Christ’s love on the job, in our families, with our friends and even with strangers. If you are like me, you are sometimes surprised to find that people who seemingly have everything going for them, in fact are really hurting inside, perhaps facing major crises in their lives; and yet, many of these folks do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Without being heavy-handed or intrusive, you and I can tell those we meet about Christ’s love and we can show them in how we live. Through our actions we can provide spiritual food for those with much need.
Now, if you’ll permit me to make another big leap, in terms of the meaning, we can gather from the feeding of the 5,000, the reference book, a lectionary commentary, I was given after my lay pastor training, suggests that the breaking of the bread along with the orderly way in which it was done, and the prayer that was offered, all point to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The initial readers of the gospel were bound to draw a connection between the feeding in Galilee and the feeding in the upper room in Jerusalem right before Jesus’s crucifixion. My book says: “At communion we are reminded that Jesus takes seriously all the dimensions of human brokenness and need.” This commentary seems significant for today, because we will be partaking of the Lord’s Supper.
As we do so, let us recognize that our savior who fed thousands in one setting is equally willing and able to feed each of us and to assist us in feeding others. Praise be to God.