Lin Hatfield Dodds
Matthew 13:31-34 & 14: 13-21
Today is the second Sunday in a month long series focused on different expressions of our collective life and witness here in this place. Today we’re celebrating our work and ministry through UnitingCare Kippax.
Our gospel reading is the story of the feeding of the 5000. Who in the church doesn’t know that story? Jesus is joined by a huge group of friends in a picturesque spot by a lake, realizes that no-one remembered the picnic, and so produces food for 5000 in a flash from one small boy’s lunch. Remember that?
When I was growing up in the 70s, my family had a large orange plastic laundry basket. The plastic was “woven”, as if it were a real basket. I used to imagine lots of those baskets lined up, filled to the brim of left over loaves of sliced and plastic wrapped Tip Top bread… all lined up on a green lawn by a lake that looked suspiciously like Lake Burley Griffin. Of course the story’s about a picnic by the lake!
Well, although that’s what some of us remember from Sunday school, it’s a pretty sanitized version of the story. What the bible tells us is that Jesus had just heard that John the Baptist, the guy who baptized him in the desert, and his cousin, had been killed. John had just been beheaded in the most brutal way for speaking truth to power.
Today’s reading from Matthew starts “After Jesus heard about John, he crossed Lake Galilee to go to some place where he could be alone”. Just imagine how he was feeling. His cousin, his mentor, his friend, gone. Beheaded.
Matthew continues “But the crowds found out and followed him on foot from the towns.” It seems that Jesus travelled by boat across the lake and was beaten to his place of grieving by a growing crowd of needy people. And when I say needy, I mean needy. People were sick. They were lame. They were blind. Many would have been dressed in rags. Picture the scene: thousands and thousands of people straggling around the lake, intent on having their needs met by this one celebrity healer.
Because that’s what Jesus was by then for many – a celebrity healer. That’s why people had come out in the heat, carrying their children, their parents, limping their way on rough paths. Because they wanted what they knew Jesus could give.
That’s much of the Sunday school version of the story busted. Jesus was trying to get away from the crowds to grieve. There was no picnic. He was pursued by an upset crowd, hungry for his magic healing touch.
I think that the most extraordinary part of this passage is what comes next, before the feeding of the 5000. As Jesus arrives on the far shore of the lake, to the spot he hoped would be quiet and still to be confronted by a large, rag-taggle, loud crowd, Matthew records that Jesus felt sorry for them and healed everyone who was sick.
Everyone who was sick. You may or may not know this, but feminism hadn’t emerged in those days. There were not actually 5000 people. The bible records that there were 5000 men, and women and children. That makes a crowd of closer to 20,000 than 5000.
You can bet that if you’d trekked around that lake you’d done it to seek healing for someone you loved. Let’s be conservative and say one in ten people needed healing. Heck, lets say one in twenty. That’s still a thousand people. Jesus stepped out of his boat and right into the middle of what would have resembled a field hospital and healed everyone who was sick.
His compassion for others overrode his need for some time to replenish his own reserves. It is this same compassion that we tap in our UnitingCare services, that staff and volunteers dig into on a daily basis as they empathise and support people in need.
Back at the lake, as day turned to night, the disciples (who continue to impress with their capacity to state the obvious) come to Jesus – who has to be exhausted after a day of healing – to note that it’s getting dark, there’s no food, and Jesus really needs to send people away.
It’s funny, because every time the disciples advise Jesus to turn people away or not let them come near (remember the children? Let the children come to me?), he promptly does the opposite. You’d think they’d learn…
Instead of making hunger the crowd’s problem and sending them away, Jesus looks at his disciples and says “They don’t have to leave. Why don’t you give them something to eat?”.
Wow. So the feeding of the 5000 starts with Christ putting the onus on others. You feed them. You feed them with what you have.
As we know, what they had was a fairly pathetic few small loaves of bread and a couple of fish. And that’s what Jesus turns into an impromptu meal. Christ picks up the food, looks to heaven and blesses it then hands it to his disciples who in turn pass the food out to the crowd. And there is abundantly enough.
This is usually the part of the story that we are gripped by. But really, think of that day again. Jesus healed everyone. People who couldn’t see. People with skin diseases. Children with difficulty breathing or walking. Jesus healed them all.
You can bet the production of dinner paled beside the miracle of healing that day. I wonder whether Jesus took the loaves and the fish and blessed them not just to feed the crowd’s bodies, but to feed their souls. To make the link between the healing they had experienced and the God of grace and life and love whose gift that healing was.
In a much less dramatic way, that’s what we are doing this morning – making the link between the worshipping life of the Uniting Church and the care expressed by UnitingCare Kippax’s services and supports explicit. And giving thanks.
Today’s story from Matthew speaks to us about three foundational elements to living our faith in our world:
- Active compassion driven by empathy. Faith requires us to nurture our empathy and act to meet need around us, even and especially when it’s inconvenient or costly.
- Acting rather than waiting for someone else to act: “You feed them”, and having faith that starting the ball rolling can be enough.
- And finally, when Jesus sailed across the lake, he travelled from Jewish country to the land of the Gentiles – from the known to the other. Christ keeps calling us to come and dance on the edges, to travel to distant shores, to embrace the other. To discover a common humanity together through loving service.
When we live like this, we do so in the light of the great Christian message that God stands in solidarity with us, and with those most marginalized.
I thank God that one key way that our community of faith lives our faith here in West Belconnen is through UnitingCare Kippax’s service to the community.