Matthew 14.13-21, Romans 9.1-5, Isaiah 55.1-5
Do you have a special place you like to go when you need peace and time to think deeply about important things?
Some people find it helpful to be among nature, looking out to sea or across fields, certainly many have come to this building to find space to think and pray at times of great sadness.
Sometimes we just need to be alone with time and space to mourn or get our thoughts together.
In Tom Wright’s commentary on Matthew he offers us the challenge of thinking how we would feel if we walked to the top of a mountain looking for peaceful solitude only to be surrounded by cheerful hikers or went into a little church to get away from it all only to be invaded by a boisterous wedding party.
Our mood and our mind set would not be on the same wavelength as the hikers or wedding guests so how would we react? Probably we would groan and move on wondering if there is anywhere we can get away from people.
When you think of it like that it makes Jesus behaviour in our gospel reading today quite remarkable.
John the Baptist has been killed because he spoke out against Herod Antipas’ marriage to his brother Philip’s wife when Philip was still alive, which was a violation of Jewish law. John, Jesus’ cousin and co-worker has been beheaded. Not only a great source of sadness for Jesus but also a thought provoking warning of what lay ahead for him too.
No wonder that Jesus’ withdrew in a boat to a deserted place’, but when he went ashore great crowds were waiting for him. Who could have blamed Jesus if he had said to them ‘give me a break people I’m not having a great day, I just want to be alone.’
But his reaction is more like the people we admire when they take great sadness and adversity and turn it into positive energy, for example when people raise money or raise awareness when they have suffered a personal tragedy.
In Jesus case he saw others needs before his own and reacted by showing compassion and curing the sick.
The very fact that he had sought remote solitude meant that the crowd found themselves far from home, prompting the disciples to show their concern as the evening drew in, suggesting that Jesus sent them into the villages to buy food.
Jesus reaction startles the disciples when he effectively says ‘you feed them’. Matthew places this story in a section of the gospel about training the disciples for their mission, so perhaps Jesus is challenging them to understand what they can do, getting them to realise new things are possible.
Loaves and fish were the basic Galilean peasant diet but the meagre portions carried by the disciples led them to think it’s not worth even trying to share with all the people present. There’s a good chance that most in the crowd were there looking for more meaning in their lives, hungry for more than food, while elsewhere the wealthy and powerful had all the mod cons of Roman life with food on the table.
Jesus wants to change the disciple’s way of thinking to one where small resources can achieve great things.
We have a reminder of the Last Supper. Jesus takes bread, recognises it as God’s gift, blesses it, breaks it, and distributes it. Like the bread we will share today it represents the abundance of God’s love and he wants all to share in it.
Jesus shows us what this means in real terms as the likes of Zachaeus the hated tax collector and Mary Magdalen of questionable repute are invited to join his kingdom showing that God loves all of his creation all the time, even those who lose their way. A lesson to most of us who are a bit more selective with those we love.
You probably don’t need me to remind you that it’s important to look for the context of stories and events in the bible. So if you are stopped by the security man on your way out of the supermarket don’t even think of opening your bible to prove that God said ‘Come, buy wine and milk without money, without price’!
Isaiah is explaining that the real meaning is once again to show God’s boundless grace and challenge our natural ways of thinking.
The theme of generous love continues in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Take one step back in the text to the end of previous chapter and we find Paul asserting that nothing ‘will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. Contrast this positive message with today’s words, which aren’t easy to get to grips with in isolation, and we find a sorrowful Paul agonising over why people who are Jews just as he was cannot recognise Jesus as the Messiah. He would even be willing to be ‘cut off from Christ’, be condemned to damnation, for the sake of bringing his fellow Jews to Christ.
Paul doesn’t shy away from his Jewish identity, for many years he followed Jewish law until he was confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus. In his second letter to the Corinthians he boasts of his Jewish heritage saying’ Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.
He tells us how his kindred Israelites have been given so much of value through their religious heritage including their affirmation as chosen people, God’s presence in the desert and his covenants with the patriarchs. All these things point towards and prepare the people to recognise Jesus when he comes, yet, for many it simply isn’t the case.
Of course it’s a problem that goes way beyond the Israelites. Many of us have colleagues, fellow students, friends, loved ones who don’t respond to God’s love in a formal religious way. I think it helps us if we remind ourselves that God is big enough to deal with this, the problem can be our desire to organise and formalise in a way that makes us feel more comfortable, but in doing this we only let others have a glimpse of a small part of God.
We need to try and grow our trust in God as we remind ourselves of his unconditional love.
As Matthew and Isaiah remind us, God’s generosity is not restricted by the small resources we are able to offer.
As we look around our neighbourhood and beyond it’s not hard to find many people in need. Jesus still says to us today ‘you give them something to eat’. If we will respond with whatever we can, even those who don’t have much, we will find that Jesus takes it, multiplies it and many needs are met.
In the case of the local food bank contributions left in the box near the font many do this literally, in the case of the support and encouragement we offer to others we often find that this gets passed on with interest. We need to spread the message through words and actions so that others know that they can approach God, hold out empty hands and have them filled to overflowing.
After all in the feeding of the five thousand all needs had been catered for and many baskets of left overs were also collected up.
I found this poem which seems to capture the essence of the generosity which runs through our readings today.
The bits left over,
What of those?
Pieces left strewn around,
no longer required.
A plethora of scraps 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 boys packed lunch.
A great big picnic.
People fed and still enough to go on sharing the blessing
and grace of God.
3rd August 2014