Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Our gospel began "Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself."
What Jesus heard was that his cousin, John the Baptist had been killed.
Killed by Herod.
You may remember the story: Herod had imprisoned John the Baptist because John had been calling into question the propriety of Herod being with his brother's wife. Although he had John the Baptist imprisoned, Herod was frightened to kill him because he was afraid of how folk would react - they saw John as a prophet.
But, on his wife's birthday, Herod enticed her daughter to dance by promising her she could have any favour she wanted. And the daughter, Salome, at the urging of her mother, requested the head of John the Baptist on a plate.
A gruesome tale.
So John the Baptist met his end.
This was the news that Jesus had just received.
That his cousin, the man who had prepared the way for him, the man who had led him to the waters of baptism had been murdered.
Jesus response was to withdraw - to seek some space in which to mourn his loss.
And so he took a boat out on the water, seeking some quiet, to be alone with his grief.
I can't think of a better place to get away than taking a boat to a desolate place.
That may not be your idea of retreat.
Indeed, the very idea of retreating might be alien for you.
But, when I want space to think, and, especially, when I want space to mourn, water does it every time.
Be it still water or roaring water, I can find calm and healing by streams, rivers or oceans.
So Jesus, needing space to mourn, takes a boat and goes off to a desolate place.
Clearly not desolate enough!
Because crowds of people manage to follow him, not on the water, but on foot.
So that, by the time he came ashore, there was a great crowd of people waiting on him.
No gentle re-entry for Jesus!
Straight back into the fray!
I'm sure many of you know that feeling all too well.
I know I do!
But Jesus, when he saw the crowds on the shore waiting to greet him, was filled with compassion.
And right away, he began to minister to them, healing the sick.
As the people hung around, soaking up that ethos of care and compassion, the day wore on.
The disciples wanted to bring what must have been a long and tiring day for Jesus to a close as evening came.
But that was not to be.
Jesus compassion was far from exhausted.
And he had something special in store, not just for the crowd but for his disciples too.
The author of Matthews gospel is keen, throughout the gospel, to point out to us the nature of God as mirrored in the actions of a Jesus.
In the story of the feeding of the 5000, we are confronted with the overwhelming compassionate nature of God.
A God who is affected by loss, who mourns, but who, even in the midst of grief reaches out - who sees the need of a hungry crowd and reaches out to heal and to feed.
But, in this story, we are also confronted by an enabling God.
A God who equips ordinary people to respond to need and to feed those around them.
When the disciples ask Jesus to send the crowd away to find food, Jesus counters their demands with the challenge: You feed them.
Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
Of course the Son of God could have done that himself.
But the nature of God is to enable us to care for one another.
We, who pray for miracles in our daily lives today are often charged and empowered to bring those miracles to fruition.
As you know, earlier this year, I was lucky enough to spend time in New Orleans with some awesome colleagues.
There are many special foods in New Orleans, but one of my favourites was the po'boy.
This took many forms but was basically a baguette or sub sandwich filled with all sorts of loveliness - a fried shrimp po'boy with Cajun spices was probably my favourite.
But the origin of the po'boy intrigued me.
Legend has it that two brothers who went to New Orleans, working on the street cars before opening a coffee stand in the famous French Market, decided to support their former colleagues during an industrial dispute just before the Great Depression.
The street car workers, striking for fairer conditions as were other transit workers through the States, were fed bread and whatever fillings were to hand by these brothers allowing them to hold out for fairer working conditions.
The sandwiches were known as poor boy's sandwiches - and became the po'boys that are an inventive and varied speciality today.
Sadly, the Great Depression resulted in the fight being lost but the "poor boys" continued to be cared for.
Ordinary people working miracles, reaching out in compassion to feed one another.
Whatever else is going on in the gospel passage we read today, a passage that has so much in it when we stop to examine it again, a passage that reveals something new for us every time.
Whatever else is going on, let's be mindful today of the nature of God that we find reflected there.
A God moved with compassion.
A God who enables ordinary people to respond and to effect change.
Our call as disciples today, is to reflect those facets of God to the world we serve.
To respond with compassion.
To reach out with the gifts that we have, feeding one another, enabling one another, effecting miracles in our everyday.
And, just before we leave the story today, what about the leftovers?
Not only were people fed that day, but there was an abundance.
An abundance that Jesus had folk carefully gather up.
Isn't that the essence of grace.
That when we share, there is always more than enough.
Grace knows no limits.
It grows in the giving - both in what is shared and in the giver:
The bits left over,
what of those?
Pieces left strewn around,
no longer required.
yet Christ leaves none discarded
but calls for all to be gathered in,
saved and treasured.
Baskets filled with an extravagance-
that can only be imagined.
A hungry crowd,
a boy's packed lunch,
a great big picnic.
and still enough
to go on sharing
and grace of God.
Thanks be to God
(The image is of the "tea van" meeting pilgrims on Iona with a welcome cuppa)