Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
July 31, 2011
Matthew 14: 13-21 (NIV)
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. 14When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
15As 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.”
16Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
17“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
18“Bring them here to me,” he said. 19And 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. 20They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
We’ve all heard it numerous times in our lives, or perhaps said it ourselves on occasion, “Excuses, excuses!” It could be our workout day, and we are sick and just don’t feel like it. “Excuses, excuses,” says the personal trainer. Or maybe we know we shouldn’t have dessert in the restaurant, but we just can’t pass up the opportunity to try the new house specialty. “Excuses, excuses.” We could be trying to get our kids to clean up their room, and they suddenly decide they need to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, and check their email. “Excuses, excuses,” we say with exasperation. The list could go on and on. Quite simply, if there is something we don’t want to do, we can usually come up with some at least semi-valid excuse not to do it. And usually we do.
Then again, sometimes instead of giving an excuse not to do something, we just “suck it up” and do it anyway. The scripture passage we heard just a few moments ago is full of opportunities to make excuses; and sometimes excuses are offered, sometimes not. Matthew’s telling of the “Feeding of the 5,000” immediately follows news of John the Baptist’s beheading. Upon learning of his violent death, Jesus and his disciples “withdrew to a solitary place.” They were hoping to get away for a while, hoping for some peace and quiet to sort through their pain and sorrow. This was Jesus’ cousin after all, not to mention a fellow prophet and friend. Understandably, Jesus needed time and space to mourn the loss, to pray to God, and to deal with his feelings of grief. But it was not to be so, Matthew tells us. No sooner had Jesus and the disciples shoved off in their boat, than the crowds began appearing on the shoreline.
It would have been more than easy, and definitely understandable, for Jesus to make excuses. “Just keep rowing guys, I need some quiet. My friend has been killed. I need to take a break from work while we get all this sorted out.” He could have even looked over to the crowds and said, “I’m sorry friends, not today. My cousin and colleague has been killed, and I need some time with friends and family.” And I believe those people would have been understanding. “You’re right Jesus. I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. We will be praying for you.” Then they would have turned and gone on their way, patiently awaiting the time when Jesus was prepared to return to the work of ministry again.
But Jesus didn’t make excuses. Even though he was certainly feeling the grief of loss, he didn’t keep rowing away from shore, seeking quiet and solitude. Instead, he turned, saw the crowds and, Matthew tell us, “had compassion on them.” Then, even though he was hurting himself, even though he was grieving and wanting some peace and quiet, Jesus returned to the shore and healed the sick. But the story doesn’t end there. We get the impression that Jesus worked all day, through the afternoon, and into the evening healing the people. And before he knew it, it was meal time. The disciples came to him with an excuse of sorts, an opportunity for a break and some peace and quiet finally. “Jesus,” they said. “It’s evening. You have to stop now. The people need to get back home so they can eat.”
But hear again Jesus’ response, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
“But Jesus,” they said, “we only have five loaves of bread and two fish!”
You can almost imagine Jesus shaking his head, can’t you? “Excuses, excuses!” he must have been thinking. But instead, he just said, “Bring them here to me.” And after he blessed the bread and broke, the disciples handed out the food. And everyone ate and had their fill, with food to spare. “The number of those who ate was about 5,000 men, besides women and children.”
Amazing isn’t it? To think that over 5,000 people ate to fullness with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Imagine how disappointed those people would have been if Jesus had made excuses and continued on to find a place of solitude. Imagine if Jesus had listened to the excuses of the disciples and sent everyone home early. People would not have been healed. People would not have been fed. Miracles would not have happened, much less been witnessed by those great crowds. People would not have known the love of God and the miracle of God’s kingdom at work on earth. And it all could have gone sour with just a few excuses. But Jesus doesn’t make excuses, Jesus makes sacrifices.
That is the gospel story at its simplest. God in Christ Jesus loves us unconditionally, even to the point of sacrifice. The “Feeding of the Multitudes” is the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels precisely because it strikes at the very heart of the gospel message. It is a story of great power not simply because of what happens, but because it demonstrates that God is love, it teaches what it means to follow Christ, and it assures us of God’s power for good in the world. The key reality in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is that Jesus had compassion. Despite all the hurdles and difficulties, despite the powers stacked against him, and despite his own personal hopes and needs, compassion for people was Jesus’ prime motivation. He cared about the wholeness and well-being of all people, and Jesus made sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice, for the healing of the nations and for the good of every person.
Are you prepared to do that? Or is an excuse all you have prepared? Aside from the message of God’s sacrificial love, an equally important point of this passage is to teach about discipleship and what it means to be a disciple of Christ, about making sacrifices, not excuses. This is about the church’s job in the world! Jesus did not feed the 5,000, he told the disciples to do it. Jesus took what was available, blessed it, gave it to the disciples, and told them to hand it out. To that point, they had only been busy spitting out excuses, “It’s getting late. This place is deserted. We don’t have the money to feed this people. I don’t have time to go and get food. It’s too long of a walk anyway. We only have five loaves of bread and two fish!” Now they can’t make excuses anymore, Jesus is telling them to “suck it up” and work with what they’ve got. And what Jesus does with what we give him is so mysterious and powerful that it cannot be described in words. This is where faith really comes in; right when we are thinking of all the excuses we can muster about why we can’t do something, God steps in, giving us the power to work for good in the world, and then calling us to make some sacrifices and do just that!
The question for each of us today is, as disciples of Jesus Christ, what sacrifices are we willing to make? As we stand on our own hillsides amidst overwhelming need and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, I ask you, “What’s in your picnic basket?” What are you prepared to offer to Christ? For indeed, all of us have something to offer, no excuses! As with the small boy who simply made his supper available, so we can do the same. You see, it’s not our ability, but our availability that matters to God.
Are we available to reach out to our community for the sake of Christ, or are we full of excuses? All around us are people who are homeless because of unemployment and foreclosure. Children are suffering because their parents are doped up on METH. People are in agony because of the heat. Cars are not available, so groceries aren’t either. Then there are those who are ill and have no access to medical care, or those who are lost and lonely following the loss of a loved one because of death or divorce or some other falling out. And there are some whose physical needs are provided for, but who are spiritually depleted, turned away from the church years ago they are full now of cynicism, and doubt, and anger.
These are the hungry multitude on our hillside. Are we making ourselves available for them, or are we making excuses? And like the disciples who wanted to be like Jesus, do we have compassion for their plight? Are we ready to make some sacrifices, to set our own wants aside for their well-being? How much do we care about the people in the community that surround this building; about the people who do not go to church and do not have a relationship with God? Do we want to serve God’s kingdom? Do we want Christ’s church, this church, to grow? Or would we rather make excuses?
It was true when Jesus walked with the disciples 2,000 years ago, and it is equally true today. There is no time more urgent than the present to be Christ’s hands and feet working in this needy world. And if we are willing to make some sacrifices, if we are willing to “take up our cross and follow” Christ, then, as the Apostle Paul wrote, Jesus is “able to accomplish abundantly more than all we ask or think.”
Do we look at the crowds and say, “It can’t be done,” or do we look at Christ and say with confidence, “With God all things are possible?” This story about the feeding of the multitudes reminds us that Jesus wants us to help do God’s work in the world. We have to give all that we can of ourselves and our resources. We have to have faith that God will take our offerings and bless them abundantly for the good of all. And just as the disciples were Jesus’ hands and feet giving that bread and fish to the 5,000, we, the Church of Jesus Christ, are called to be the hands and feet of Christ today.
May we respond to the needs around us not with excuses, but with compassionate hearts, offering all we have to Jesus so that he might bless it for us to share. Amen.