Bread in the Wilderness: A Sermon on Matthew 14: 13-21

A first person story as told from the perspective of the disciple, Philip. Preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton on August 2, 2020.

They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.”  (Matthew 14: 17-18)

My name is Philip.  I am one of the very first disciples Jesus invited to follow him, so I was there from the very beginning.  I spent three years with Jesus, listening to him and watching him as he brought healing and hope to so many people. This morning I want to tell you what happened on that day when he fed over 5,000 people. 

We started the day on an awful note.  As we were eating our breakfast, someone brought us horrible news of the death of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. 

Anytime someone dies it’s terrible, but how John died made it even worse.  While throwing himself a debauched birthday party, Herod’s stepdaughter had performed a provocative dance. To reward her he promised to give her anything up to half of his kingdom. Perhaps you know the rest of the story. To satisfy the whim of his stepdaughter, King Herod executed John and served his head up on a platter, like the final grisly entree for his party.  “On the menu tonight, we have mutton, beef and the head of John the Baptist.”  That’s how callous and cruel the party was.   

This grisly and senseless death seemed to hit Jesus hard.  John was not only Jesus’ cousin, but he was also Jesus’ forerunner, the one who prepared the way of the Lord. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, John’s murder foreshadowed Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus needed some time to himself, to grieve and pray.  He wasn’t ready to face the crowds that would soon be gathering.  And so we all climbed into a boat and sailed away.

However, it was not to be.  As we drew close to shore, we saw all these curious people coming along, too.  People, lots of people.  Some came to gawp in curiosity and others came seeking something from Jesus. 

We saw them as an impersonal intrusion on Jesus’ grief. Jesus, however, saw something different.  He didn’t see a crowd; he saw people, each with their own unique stories and lives. He noticed their eyes, their aches and pains, their hopes; and he had compassion on them.  We wanted to sail on, to give the master some space, but Jesus’ heart stirred within him and he told us to put into shore. 

To see a crowd is an easy thing, but to see people takes a special talent. Jesus had that talent. “So for example, where some people saw a mean, chiseling, tax-collector, Jesus looked closer and saw someone worthy of a name, Zacchaeus.  Where we saw an untouchable leper, Jesus saw a person who suffered and wanted the touch of a human hand to heal.  Where Simon the Pharisee saw a sinful woman making a spectacle of herself by crying on Jesus’ feet, anointing them with ointment, and drying them with her hair, Jesus saw a forgiven woman who loved deeply.

And so on this day, although his own heart was broken by the death of his cousin, Jesus spent the day showing compassion to the crowd.  He healed the sick and cast out demons; he took children in his arms and blessed them; he gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and made the lame leap for joy. 

Towards evening, my friends and I noticed how tired Jesus was and how hungry the people seemed to be.  We needed an excuse to break up the crowd. So on behalf of the twelve, I spoke to Jesus.

“Jesus,” I said, “it’s getting late and the people are bound to be hungry.  Maybe you should tell them to go into the local villages and buy themselves food.”

As I look back on it, I realize that this was one of dumbest things I could have said.  We were a long way out in the country and they weren’t many villages nearby.  Any village that was close would have had maybe 30 or 40 families in it.  They only baked enough bread for their own families every day.  Even if they had the grain to bake more bread it would have taken days to do it. Ironically, it would have taken a miracle for the villagers to feed such a great crowd!

Like I said, it was just an excuse to break up the crowd, but Jesus didn’t buy it.  Instead, he called our bluff and raised the stakes, proposing something even more impossible.

“Philip,” Jesus said with a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle in his voice, “they do not need to go away.  You give them something to eat.”

“Us, Lord?” I protested, “We only have five loaves of bread and two fish.”

Jesus laughed.  “Bring them here to me,” he said smiling.  All the grief about John’s death and all the weariness from a long day of healing seemed to be lifted from his shoulders. The same compassion that he had showed to the sick flowed out of his heart and towards the hungry crowd.

Jesus made the crowd sit down on the grass.  They leaned back on their elbows, looked around at their neighbors, held their children in their laps and waited to see what would happen. 

Jesus then took the bread, broke it, said a blessing, and put pieces in each of our baskets.  I didn’t see what happened and I don’t know how he did it.  All I know is that when I looked down, my basket was filled with both bread and fish. Even more amazing as I moved around the crowd, the basket never became empty.  Everyone had enough to eat and with plenty left over–12 overflowing baskets to share with the poor.

When I look back now I wonder if the miracle was not only the multiplication of the bread and fish but also the way that Jesus transformed the faceless crowd into a family, a community, a covenant people. 

“When Jesus blessed the loaves, the crowd sensed this meal was special. As we moved through the crowds distributing the food, no one feared there wouldn’t be enough.  There was no grabbing or hoarding. The men shared with their wives and sisters and mothers, and the children were fed first.” (credit: Marilyn Salmon, Working Preacher) Although it was a simple meal, it felt like a king’s banquet, more rich and more satisfying than anything Herod had served at his table just a few days before. 

As I moved through the crowd, I looked into the eyes of each person I served.  I saw them with eyes of compassion, each one unique, each one beloved of God.  Jesus’ compassion had become contagious, not only for us disciples, but also for the crowd. 

A couple of years later, I was at another meal hosted by Jesus.  Once again he took bread blessed it and broke it, but this time he said, “This is my body broken for you.”  I realize now that the feast in the wilderness was a foreshadowing of the new feast that Jesus instituted on the night he was betrayed.  Whenever I share this meal I am once again reminded of Jesus’ compassion and united with those around me.  Thank you, Jesus.  Thank you.

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