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Sermon for Sunday, 3 August 2014

FIRST READING Isaiah 55:1–5

1 Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.


PSALM Psalm 136:1–9, 23–26

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for the LORD is good, for God’s mercy endures forever. 2 Give thanks to the God of gods, for God’s mercy endures forever. 3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for God’s mercy endures forever; 4 who alone does great wonders, for God’s mercy endures forever; 5 who by wisdom made the heavens, for God’s mercy endures forever; 6 who spread out the earth upon the waters, for God’s mercy endures forever; 7 who made the great lights— for God’s mercy endures forever; 8 the sun to govern the day, for God’s mercy endures forever; 9 the moon and the stars to govern the night, for God’s mercy endures forever; 23 who remembered us in our low estate, for God’s mercy endures forever; 24 and rescued us from our enemies, for God’s mercy endures forever; 25 who gives food to all creatures, for God’s mercy endures forever. 26 Give thanks to the God of heaven, for God’s mercy endures forever.
SECOND READING Romans 9:1–13

1 I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit — 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5 to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. 6 It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, 7 and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. 9 For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. 11 Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, 12 not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” 13As it is written,
“I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.”
GOSPEL Matthew 14:13–21

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

As a pastor, I’ve been asked numerous times over the past 5 or so years, why we don’t see miracles like the ones we read about in the Bible. Prophets of old were used by God to keep oil in a flask and flour in the jar during an entire drought. Rivers were turned to blood, plagues were sent, waters were parted and fire was called down from heaven. Twice the sun was adjusted in the sky in answer to prayers. And these are only a few examples of God’s action at the request of His representatives. Yet we don’t seem to witness the same kinds of events today; why is that?
This is a difficult question to answer. We know God is at work in our world today, yet we don’t seem to be witness the overt evidence we’d like to see. Is it that God has changed the way He does business, or is it something else? I think part of the answer can be found in the following story.
There’s a rather humorous tale about a nine-year-old boy named Danny who came bursting out of Sunday school like a wild stallion. His eyes were darting in every direction as he tried to locate either mom or dad. Finally, after a quick search, he grabbed his Daddy by the leg and yelled, “Man, that story of Moses and all those people crossing the Red Sea was great!” His father looked down, smiled, and asked the boy to tell him about it.
“Well,” he said, “the Israelites got out of Egypt, but Pharaoh and his army chased after them. So the Jews ran as fast as they could until they got to the Red Sea. The Egyptian Army was gettin’ closer and closer. So Moses got on his walkie-talkie and told the Israeli Air Force to bomb the Egyptians. While that was happening, the Israeli Navy built a pontoon bridge so the people could cross over. They made it! By now old dad was shocked. “Is that the way they taught you the story?” Well, no, not exactly,” Danny admitted, “but if I told you the way they told it to us, you’d never believe it, Dad.”
With childlike innocence, the little guy put his finger on the pulse of our sophisticated adult world, where cool skepticism reigns supreme. Today it seems like it’s more popular to operate in the black-and-white world of facts, to trust more in science than the Bible and, of course, to leave no space for the miraculous. It’s so much easier to trust something that someone else can “explain”, no matter how far-fetched the theory might be, than to have a little faith in the unseen God. But miracles do happen every day. O we might try to explain them away and we might even be able to find plausible justifications. But we all have to admit that there are times when events simply can’t be calculated or explained.
Not long ago I was riding with a friend of mine and his young son. The young man hasn’t had his license long and was driving to gain experience. We were returning from a day on the range and were traveling along an unfamiliar route. My friend was in the back seat trying to give his son directions home when we suddenly came upon our turn. With rapid fire commands coming from dad in the back seat and the nervous and frustrated teenager behind the wheel trying to do his best, mistakes were being made. The turn we were looking for was more of a Y than a left hand turn, so the son, without looking, simply veered to the left, right into the oncoming path of a full size pickup. Needless to say I was the one in the right front seat and had a bird’s eye view of what happened next. Or should I say, didn’t happen next.
I could clearly see the look on the gentleman’s face as he unexpectedly found himself barreling toward us. I’m sure he saw the look of “this ain’t gonna be good” on my face. There wasn’t time to hit the brakes and the son didn’t know what to do but keep driving. As far as I’m concerned, you can use all the physics in the world and you’ll never be able to explain why I didn’t become his hood ornament. Where braking distance = velocity squared over mass times the coefficient of friction; the math says we should have been occupying the same physical space. Algebra can’t explain it, but I can: a miracle. God’s hand of mercy was upon us that day and an event that should have happened, never did. And in the same manner, when we read the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we tend to focus our attention on the question, “Did it really happen?”
I’m sure we’ve all heard this miracle clarified in different ways; there have been a number of attempts to “explain” the miracle. One attempt says that the people were so moved by Jesus’ generosity, and the generosity of the little boy, that they brought forth the food they had hidden under their clothes and in their traveling pouches. This way everyone was satisfied. Another theory says that the story isn’t really talking about physical hunger but spiritual hunger. When the small amount of food was passed around everyone tore off a minuscule symbolic fragment. In this Jesus is said to have satisfied the thirst of the soul not the stomach. However, I think these questions say more about us, than they do Jesus.
If Jesus is the Messiah, and I believe He is, then there is no question but that He performed miracles, and did so, on a regular basis. The point of the story of feeding of the five thousand isn’t necessarily to prove that miracles happen. Again, He did. Rather, the point of our gospel lesson for today is to teach us three things; that Jesus is the fulfillment and is the Word of God, it teaches us that we’re to serve at the Table of our Lord and that we’re given the ability to use what we bring.
The Israelites knew about the coming of the Messiah from the prophets and they were anxiously awaiting His arrival. It had been centuries, four centuries to be exact, since the last prophet had spoken in the Land. Malachi called a hard hearted and idolatress nation to repentance 400 years before Christ. It had been longer still, since Israel and Judah had a leader like Moses or Elijah, David or Solomon. The scriptures were alive in the life of the Jewish people; as children they grew up hearing the stories of their ancestors and being told that one day God would send the Messiah who would fulfill the hopes and promises of all those years. The “hunger” of the group of 5000 men gathered to hear Jesus teach, who followed this man from Nazareth, were all asking the same question, “Is this the one?” There were probably as many reasons for coming to hear Jesus that day as there were people there, but they were all asking the same central question: Is this the Messiah or is He one of the Prophets? And then the sun began to wane and the end of the day drew near.
Despite the fatigue Jesus felt from the constant demand being placed on Him, He had compassion on the people and He healed the sick and then He taught the people. They had been listening for hours. It’s quite possible that there was as many as 20,000 people, 5000 men and their families, a stadium full, sitting within a valley, all listening and trying to answer that central question. It was now time for supper and the disciples, perhaps out of care for their Master or feeling quite hungry themselves, wanted to send the people away. But Jesus surprised His disciples and said, you feed them.
There were many occasions when the disciples respond as any of us would. They said to the Teacher, we have here only five loaves of Bread and two fish. How in the world will that feed so many? But Jesus offered opportunities for the twelve to see God at work, to see something other than the empirical world they had come to know and understand. Jesus asked for the food, blessed it, broke it, and broke it again, and again. The food went out like a piece of paper folded many times and now being unfolded, a geometric progression of growth. And then the people thought they understood. This is one of the Prophets who has returned.
Elisha, the heir to Elijah’s ministry during the time of King David once fed 100 men with twenty loaves of Barley. In that story a servant in a time of famine brings 20 loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in a sack as an offering to Elisha. Suddenly Elisha says, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But the servant said, “How can I set this before hundred people?” Sounds familiar doesn’t it? We have nothing here, five loaves and two fish: we’re a small church in rural area between Dallas and Cherryville, an aging congregation surrounded by churches. There are 5 other churches on this road alone not to mention the additional churches in a 5 mile radius. The resources we have are so small, how can we possibly feed so many? All are perfectly reasonable reactions and good explanations. But Elisha says, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.'”
The Messiah would come in the spirit of the Prophets of old. That’s what the people had been told. Jesus one day asked His Disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” They replied, “Some say you are Elijah, some say you are Jeremiah, others say you are one of the prophets.” And so there Jesus stood on the hillside in the shadows of that history and feeds not 100 but as many as 20,000, and not with 20 loaves but five and two fish. It was clear to all, this man was fulfilling the word of the Lord. That this was God’s messenger.
It’s remarkable to me how much the past is tied to the present. And how much the future depends on that connection. We see it in the life of our Lord. Jesus reveals who He is and teaches who God is, by repeating or acting out the stories and lessons of the recorded experiences and yearning of the people. In this way Jesus fulfills the word of the Prophets. Jesus steps into their lives and brings the past, the Old Testament past, to life. He is the Law and Prophets incarnate. That was the reason for the Transfiguration. The old stories breathed to life again. In a word, He is the fulfillment.
This is great theology, and we can’t skip over these truths, but we can’t miss the other lessons this story teaches about our Lord. It’s interesting to note how the story ends–and they all were satisfied. Jesus feeds the multitude out of compassion. There is no final teaching at the end. Matthew simply says, they were satisfied.
So the first lesson we find in this passage is that it teaches us who Jesus is. He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. The second point in this story is that it teaches us that we’re to serve at the Table of our Lord. Just over 10 years ago, many of us watched as the rescue team at the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania served in an effort that many of us thought would end in tragedy. Little did we know that they were participating in a miracle. At the climax of the rescue efforts, chills ran down our backs each time a miner was pulled from the earth.
The round cage they used to extract each miner gave me a claustrophobic feeling just looking at it. I, for one, tried to imagine what three days down that hole felt like. And I wasn’t surprised when it became a made for TV movie. One of the humorous images told about, in their days together, is the story about the lunch box. Apparently, just as they found the hole that would become their 77 hour life support, a lunch box with a corned-beef sandwich and a mountain dew suddenly appeared floating in the water–we know how coal miners eat. That was all they had to eat for three days. I don’t know about you but if I had my choice of drinks in a collapsed four-foot high coalmine shaft with nine terrified guys it wouldn’t be Mountain Dew. Way too much caffeine for the moment.
Over the years we’ve all seen many people serve this country in so many ways from Maine to Hawaii, Alaska to Florida and some of them have sacrificed their lives. We can name some of the heroes. Not the least of these are rescue workers like the ones who pulled the miners from the depths of the earth in Pennsylvania. We never know as we serve, that down in the shaft a miracle is happening. That God is at work beneath our feet. That He is multiplying our efforts because He cares. It’s the nature of His Kingdom to care and do miracles. That’s what the Disciples were learning.
The disciples were content to send the people home, but God was at work. He wasn’t done; He’s never done. As they handed out the bread, they were participating in something much larger than they were capable of understanding. Thousands were suddenly fed with food that didn’t exist in the instant before Gods unfolding blessing by a Messiah who calls them to serve. God is always at work fulfilling His word and calls us to serve in response to that fulfillment. He’s calling us to serve at the Table of our Lord, wherever that might be. Finally, we’re given the ability to use what we have and what we bring.
In 1872, at the age of 16, Booker T. Washington decided he wanted to go to school. He walked 500 miles to Hampton Institute in Virginia, and presented himself to the head teacher. Washington later recalled, “Having been so long without proper food, a bath, and change of clothing, I did not make a very favorable impression upon her, and I could see at once that there were doubts in her mind about me.” Finally she said to him, “The adjoining recitation room needs cleaning. Take the broom and do it.”
A lesser person might have been insulted by being assigned menial work. But Washington recognized immediately that this was his big chance. He swept that room three times and dusted it four times. He even cleaned the walls and the closets. Then he reported to the head teacher that the job was finished. She examined that room like a drill sergeant. She even took a handkerchief and rubbed it across the top of a door. When she couldn’t find a particle of dirt, she said, “I guess you will do to enter this institution.”
As a 16 year old, Washington couldn’t do a lot of things. But he could clean a room. And he did it to the best of his ability. As Christians we’re called to love and serve our neighbor not as a passing gesture but out of love and concern. Sometimes it’s much easier to send folks away, than it is to serve and watch God do miraculous things in our lives and in the lives of others. Extraordinary events begin with the recognition that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Word of God, that it teaches us that we’re called to serve at the Table of our Lord and that we’re given the ability to use what we bring. And it all begins with ordinary gifts.
Yes, miracles still happen every day; all we have to do is stop being so skeptical, have faith in God and be open to His will for us and for what He wants us to do in our community. We also need to stop looking at our 5 loaves and two fish and saying that’s all we have and start trusting God to multiply what we have and use it to satisfy the needs in this community. What gifts and graces do we have that we haven’t fully activated? What table is the Lord calling us to serve?

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