Sermon preached for the 2016 Presbytery of the Peaks Confirmation Retreat at Camp Bethel, VA.
When the apostles returned, they described for Jesus what they had done. Taking them with him, Jesus withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. When the crowds figured it out, they followed him. He welcomed them, spoke to them about God’s kingdom, and healed those who were sick.
When the day was almost over, the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away so that they can go to the nearby villages and countryside and find lodging and food, because we are in a deserted place.”
He replied, “You give them something to eat.”
But they said, “We have no more than five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all these people.” (They said this because about five thousand men were present.)
Jesus said to his disciples, “Seat them in groups of about fifty.” They did so, and everyone was seated. He took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them, and broke them and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. Everyone ate until they were full, and the disciples filled twelve baskets with the leftovers.
I want to begin by finding ourselves within the story. Close your eyes if you like. Imagine yourself sitting on a hilltop in Galilee. The sun is warm on your face, with a salty breeze coming up from the sea. You can smell the salt and hear the slap of the waves far away. The ground is hard and dry—it hasn’t rained in a while. You’re sitting on some scrub grass, and it pokes your hands when you lean back. Your family and your neighbors are sitting all around you—it’s amazing how many people are here. You can hear people sneezing, shifting positions, whispering to their friends. You can hear babies crying and children running around behind you and their parents shushing them. But most of all, you strain to hear one voice—the voice of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s him you came to see, after you heard so much about him. They said he does miracles. They said he knows about God. They said he’s worth taking the day off work. So you came, and you’ve been here all day. You’re getting hungry, but you don’t want to leave. You don’t want to miss what he’ll say next.
Are you there? Are you in the crowd? Can you picture it? Now, I want to introduce you to some of your neighbors. Some of the other folks who have come to meet Jesus with you.
There’s a family down to your right. Too many children and not enough money, it looks like. They aren’t from Bethsaida. The father came looking for work, but that’s been scarce. They don’t look right and they don’t talk right and nobody invites them over for the holidays. Nobody wants to play with their children. Nobody brought them food when the baby was sick. Most people don’t even notice them. They came today half-expecting to be turned away, or shoved to the back. But instead, they were welcomed. Jesus himself saw them as they filed in. Peace, said Jesus to the father. Peace, said Jesus to the mother. Peace and joy, and Jesus to the children. Make sure you sit where they can see, Jesus said. And I’m so glad you’re here. You belong here.
And so that family to your right listens to Jesus, and for the first time they feel like this place might be home after all.
There are twin boys behind you, sixteen, maybe seventeen years old. Their father takes them to the synagogue every week, but they’re losing faith. It all seems so remote, this idea of an all-powerful God, while the Roman soldiers are so close by. They’ve heard of a group of rebels, a group that’s got weapons, a group that needs recruits. They argue about it with each other while they watch their father’s flocks of sheep. One of them doesn’t think it’s right to kill anyone. The other isn’t so sure. It’s a dog eat dog world, he thinks. They came today because they heard Jesus might be the leader they’re looking for. But when he talks, when he starts to teach, they’re astonished. He says things like “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “love your enemy.” He says that’s what the kingdom of God is like, a place of love and not hate, peace and not violence. The first brother looks at the second. His face is determined, but he’s decided not to join the rebel gang. He’s going to follow this Jesus instead. He wants to be a part of this kingdom of God.
Beside the twin boys is a woman holding her daughter in her lap. She finds it hard to concentrate on Jesus’ words because all she wants to do is look at her daughter. She was one of the first to arrive when she heard Jesus was in town. She’d heard that Jesus could do miracles, and her daughter was sick. She wasn’t sure if Jesus would help her—her—because of the kind of woman she’d been. Until her daughter got sick, she’d been wealthy. Privileged. She’d had servants to do her bidding and she wasn’t very kind to any of them. She had thought she deserved her cushy life. She knows better now—she hadn’t deserved it anymore than her daughter deserved to be sick—and so she trembled as she got closer to Jesus, carrying her daughter on her hip. But she stopped trembling as soon as she looked in his face, as soon as she saw the compassion in his eyes—for her daughter, whom he healed with the touch of a hand—but also for her—her—and he said, “your sins are forgiven.” She could hardly believe it—forgiven!—but she took her daughter and hurried to find a spot with a heart lighter than it had been in years, and she smiled at her neighbors and wondered if there might be life for her yet.
You notice, as you listen to Jesus, that there are twelve men who wander around, looking busy, looking important, looking increasingly anxious as the day wears on. You wonder who they are, and you lean over to the person sitting next to you and ask. “Those are his disciples,” you hear. “They travel with him everywhere.” “What are they so worried about?” you ask. “I think they’re worried about food. I saw one of them with a basket, but there’s no way one basket of food will feed all these people.”
You think back to your cousin’s wedding a few years ago, when they ran out of food. It was so embarrassing. You cringe a little from the memory. But this is even worse—if this Jesus and his disciples can’t feed the people, a lot of them won’t eat tonight.
Your friend pokes you in the side. “Look!” The disciples are on the move, giving directions to the crowd, and people are moving, gathering together into groups. You find yourself sitting with the twin boys and the big family and the mother with her daughter, sleeping now. You smile, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
You look to the front again, and Jesus has got something in his hands—bread—and you can hear him praying, blessing the food. He breaks the bread in two, and hands it to his disciples, who take it towards the crowd. You start to wonder what’s going on—that bread won’t feed more than a few people. Who’s going to get to eat? Jesus’ friends? The richest people? The children? Will it be sheer lottery luck?
And then suddenly you notice that the disciples keep passing out bread, to every person, this group of fifty and that group of fifty and another group of fifty and as they get nearer you realize with a lump in your throat that this is a miracle you’re watching. You’re about to eat a miracle.
The bread gets to you and you take a big piece, and there’s fish to go with it, and it’s all fresh and delicious after a long day. And everyone eats and eats, and nobody goes hungry, and the woman’s daughter wakes up and starts playing with the children of the big family and one of the twins pulls a shepherd’s pipe from his tunic and starts to play and everyone laughs and eats and you think, this is it. This is the kingdom of God.
And you think, thank God for the person who was brave enough to offer their two loaves of bread and five fish. Thank God they didn’t hold back.
You struggle to your feet as evening sets in, and you look at the baskets of leftovers and you start to think who they might go to, who didn’t make it here today, who goes hungry in the village. And you make sure the big family gets some and you take some for your grandfather, who can’t walk anymore, and you can’t wait to tell your parents about what they missed, about what you learned, what you saw, and how you feasted. About Jesus.
Jesus. You turn for a last look, searching the crowd for him. It’s hard to see with everyone milling about. Maybe he’s gone already. You wouldn’t blame him. But then—just as you get ready to give up—you spot him, and he spots you too, and raises his hand in a gesture of blessing. Then he disappears back into the crowd, but you know—now and forever—you are blessed.
Friends, this is the power of worship—whether done on a Galillean hillside two thousand years ago or in a Presbyterian sanctuary in 2016. In worship, we gather together, one community of God. In worship, we are welcomed, regardless of who we are, or where we’ve come from, or what we’ve done. In worship we are taught, taught about God’s kingdom, formed and shaped into the people God wants us to be. In worship we are healed, healed of our loneliness, of our guilt, of our fear, healed, forgiven, and freed. In worship, we feast—feast on God’s word, feast at God’s table, feast on each other’s friendship—feast on God’s love. In worship, we find that what we have to offer is enough—more than enough—however small or worthless we might think it is. And finally, in worship we are blessed, and sent out to share that blessing with others.
Friends, this is the power of worship—Christ gathers us, welcomes us, teaches us, heals us, feasts with us, accepts and multiplies our offerings, blesses us, and goes with us into the world.
For worship and all its gifts, we give thanks. Amen.