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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

The Rev. Adam DeVries

August 3, 2014

 Mourning Meal

Matthew 14:13-21


            Our scripture this morning may be very well known. It is one that our Sunday School kids hear all the time, one that the Gospel writers felt was so important that they recorded it in all four accounts, but it is a little unique and particular in today’s text. You see, in Matthew, this feeding of thousands comes right after the news that John the Baptist has been killed. Our text begins, “Now when Jesus heard this.” The ‘this’ that Jesus heard was that John the Baptist had just been beheaded, and so it is this overcome-with-grief-ness that sends Jesus out to a deserted place. Right off the bat we have something to learn here in this first line: Jesus knows what it is to grieve. He knows what it is to mourn and be saddened by tragedy and death.

             The next line: “But when the crowds heard it....” Not when they heard that Jesus was going somewhere, but when they heard that John the Baptist was killed, they followed Jesus to that deserted place on foot. And then they met Jesus there. Can you imagine it? Can you picture it? Jesus pulling up on the shore and these people, thousands of people, coming to the shore and greeting one another in this deserted place. Here again is something to take away. Not only does Jesus know what it means to mourn and grieve, to be overcome with sadness, but Jesus meets us there. When we are in places of isolation and feeling like we are in places that are deserted, overcome by tragedy, we are not there alone. No, we are actually met there by the One who saves. So the feeding of thousands that takes place in this story is a meal of mourning.

             These mourners greet one another, and the text says that “Jesus saw them and had compassion on them.” If you have ever lost someone in your family or someone close to you, you know what this is like. When someone passes away you want everyone who was friends with them to get together, everyone who knew that person. Maybe one of the reasons they were in the deserted place was because that is where John the Baptist did much of his ministry. They wanted to go to “John’s place,” to hang out and tell “John stories” where John used to be. You can see it on people’s faces when they greet one another right after they have heard a loved one has died. There are tears streaming down their face but somehow a smile because they know they are with people who knew the person they loved. That is what this compassion is. Jesus does not just leave us in these places that are deserted, but actually comforts us there and invites us to comfort him. This is a two-way-street comforting time celebrating John’s life and mourning his tragic death.

             And then the text says that “Jesus healed their sick.” Now, obviously for Matthew, Jesus heals the sick because Jesus is the Messiah. However, there may be something else going on here. Could it be that part of the healing that takes place, part of the sickness, is the sickness of being overcome by grief? And could it be that there is a particular kind of miracle that occurs in places of mourning? When someone dies walls are taken down. It is much more easy to say, “I’m sorry.” It’s much more easy to say, “I forgive you.” And you are in a place where you want to celebrate that person’s life well and somehow say goodbye. Maybe that was part of the miracle taking place?  

             Then the disciples show up. Maybe they were there before, maybe they weren’t, but they come into the scene and they start to look at the situation from a practical standpoint. And they say, “Jesus, it’s getting late, and this is a deserted place, and these people haven’t eaten, so can we send them away?” They go ahead and create an “us-them” mentality: There are all these mourners over there but we need to have our time over here. And Jesus responds emphatically: “They don’t need to go anywhere.” Jesus is expressing this radical hospitality, this “they’re with us, and we’re with them” – there is no separation. And then he says, “You give them something to eat. You do something about this.” It is crucial that we don’t miss this point here. Part of being a disciple means that we are called to be a part of what Jesus is doing in the world. We are not just following Jesus, we are enacting Jesus’ miraculous works in the world. Jesus says, “You do something.”

             And they say, “We don’t have anything, we have nothing!” And then right in the same breath, they say, “Well, we do have five loaves and two fish.” And so there is this scarcity mentality that the disciples have. “We don’t have anything. Well, we have five loaves and two fish.” And eventually, at the end of the story, “We have twelve baskets full.” Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish, begrudgingly so, from the disciples. And we can’t miss this – not only does God invite us to be a part of what God is doing in the world, not only does Jesus say, “I want you to be my miracle workers,” but Jesus also uses the things that we have, the things that we think are nothing, to make Jesus’ miracles happen. God calls us to be the miracle workers and asks us to use what we have as the miracle material.

             Jesus takes the disciples bread, their miracle material, and then gives it all away. He breaks it and – the same verb formula that is used in the Lord’s Supper – he breaks it and gives it to his disciples to hand out. Again saying, “Disciples, you do something. You make my miracle happen.” Can you imagine what it was like for the disciple who said, “We don’t have anything, we just have these loaves”? And then Jesus takes it, breaks it, and gives it back to the disciples to distribute to the crowds. The disciple holds the loaf in his hand. “Okay, this isn’t going to last long.” The disciple breaks up a piece and he hands it to someone. He breaks off a piece and he hands it to a little boy. Breaks off a piece and hands it to an old woman. Breaks off a piece and hands it to a man. And slowly – imagine how long this takes – five thousand people, over five thousand people, and then after hours of feeding these people, the broken bread fills up a whole basket of leftovers. What do you think Jesus intended the disciples to learn? You are my miracle workers. You are the people who I chose to bless the world with. The reason there are twelve baskets is because there are twelve disciples, and the twelve disciples are filling them all up at the end of this impromptu mourning meal.

             There are several discussions about how this miracle takes place. Obviously, Matthew intends this to be a miraculous work that connects us to how Jesus is like God in Exodus feeding the Israelites with manna from heaven. But also there is another theory that when Jesus started to share what he had, everyone else shared what they had. Could it be that what they were doing is what we all do when tragedy strikes? We don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do, but we sure do know how to bake. Could it be that some of these thousands brought food to share among the mourners. Regardless, this is Jesus’ miraculous, wondrous work that takes place here.

             So what are the things that we have to take away from this story that every single Gospel writer includes in their narrative? Well, every good Presbyterian sermon – this is what my Dad taught me – has three points. So here you go.

             Number One. We are not alone. We are not alone. Part of the good news of the Gospel is that in times of sadness and joy, in times of sorrow and happiness, in times when we are in a deserted place and when we are in places of great bounty, we are not alone. Jesus meets us there and invites us to be in relationship. Jesus meets us and mourns and celebrates with us.

             Number Two. There is a unique kind of miracle that occurs around places of mourning and grief. We are more open to receiving the miracle of being healed from our grief. Not to put it away, but to mourn well, to have a mourning meal. We are more likely to say, “I’m sorry.” We are more likely to say, “I forgive you.” We are more likely to be willing to say, “Goodbye.” So maybe there is someone in your life that you need to say “I am sorry” to, or “I forgive,” or to say goodbye. Perhaps Jesus wants to perform this miracle in your life.

             And then Number Three. Maybe the loudest message. God invites us to be about and to enact and to join in what God is doing in the world. We are not just bystanders who watch what God is doing, and say, “Isn’t that neat?” No, we are the miracle-workers by God’s grace. Our nothing, our “but I only have five loaves” are the miracle materials that God chooses to use to transform this world and continue in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. The third point here is that God invites us to participate and join in and continue God’s mission in the world. What are the miracles that God is calling you to enact? What are the 5 loaves and two fish that you think are worth nothing in the face of the world’s grand problems? Jesus says to us “You, do something about it.”

             So may you remember that you are not alone. May you be open to the miracles of emotional healing that Christ can performed in your life. And may you know that you are called to be Christ’s miracle-workers in your homes, schools, workplaces, and world.


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