Brown Bag Miracles Rev Dr Durrell Watkins Aug 3rd, 2014 Herod had arrested John the baptizer and bound him and put him in prison because John spoke against Herod’s relationship with his sister-in-law…Herod had John beheaded in prison…John’s disciples claimed John’s body and buried it and then they went and told Jesus about it. When […]
Brown Bag Miracles
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Aug 3rd, 2014
Herod had arrested John the baptizer and bound him and put him in prison because John spoke against Herod’s relationship with his sister-in-law…Herod had John beheaded in prison…John’s disciples claimed John’s body and buried it and then they went and told Jesus about it. When Jesus got the news, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place…Crowds followed him. When Jesus landed, he saw the crowds and had compassion on them and healed their sick. That’s the point in the story where we began today.
Jesus’ response to the tragic death of John is to bless life by contributing to the well-being of others. In the face of injustice, Jesus reaffirms his commitment to making a positive difference in his world.
Jesus looks at the crowd and has compassion for them. The Greek word used in the text actually means “his bowels yearned for them,” which suggests a deep feeling, a concern in the gut, a fully embodied concern for hurting people.
Such compassion isn’t just pity (which is usually pretty useless). Compassion means to “suffer with”. Jesus honestly cared about the people’s suffering and entered into their situation with them to help raise their spirits and their hopes.
Jesus shows that compassion requires action, and compassionate action can be healing. He cured the sick (according to the story), by seeing past their condition to their innate wholeness, dignity, and sacred value, he helped people feel more fully alive. That kind of compassion, that sees past conditions to the sacred value that conditions cannot define nor limit, that calls for loving action, would have us respond differently than we have historically to issues like segregation, Apartheid, marriage equality, children seeking refuge in a new land, women seeking to answer a call to professional ministry, and conditions by which the poor are kept in poverty. To see people in pain and wish to lift them up rather than to dismiss or condemn them is exactly the Jesus response to suffering. To be Christian may be a simple matter of reciting ancient creeds or partaking in ritual events, but to follow Jesus is to care deeply about the so-called least of these, and that care must then be demonstrated with our giving, with our voting, with our efforts to feed, heal, and comfort the hurting.
In addition to doing what he could to minister to the sick, Jesus then called on his friends to feed the hungry. He said, “Give them something.”
Kind words, good wishes, heart-felt prayers are all important and helpful, but what “God does for us God does through us.” The prayers and wishes are most effective when they lead to positive action. Jesus didn’t pray “God please ease their hunger,” he told his disciples to start feeding them. His prayer was to affirm gratitude for the food they had to share, not for God to do what they were unwilling to do themselves.
His disciples were at first reluctant to do as Jesus wished. They immediately responded from a place of scarcity thinking. They said, “We don’t have anything, except…” and then they named the resources they had. They did seemingly have fewer resources than the great need required, but it wasn’t true that they had nothing. When people do what they can, needs start to be met. We live in an abundant universe and by blessing and sharing what we have, we see miracles of provision taking place not only for us, but through us to bless others.
So Jesus blessed what they had and started to share. The standard liberal interpretation of the story is that when Jesus had his disciples share what they had, little as it was, everyone in the crowd started sharing what they had. It would be unlikely that in a crowd of thousands no one brought a lunch or a snack with them. There were no fast food drive-through windows or all night diners. In a world without Lester’s, people knew to carry provisions with them when they left the house.
When Jesus starts passing around some fish and some loaves of bread, other people might have broken out their jugs of wine or water, their figs or dried meat, their nuts or berries or loaves of bread. When everyone shared whatever they had, the giant potluck proved to be enough for everyone. Blessings shared seem to multiply, while blessings hoarded never seem to be adequate.
Another plausible understanding of the tale is that it is simply an updated and retold version of the story of the prophet Elisha feeding a multitude with some barley loaves (2 Kgs 4), the point being that the God of history is the God of the present; the God of provision from the past is still a God of abundance.
Whether the Elisha story is factual or not doesn’t matter; the story is meant to suggest that we live in an abundant universe and as we share what we have we are participating in the circulation of divine supply. That is true regardless of any individual imagined event.
A third possible understanding of the story is that it is purely symbolic. Whether or not the story was inspired by Elisha feeding a crowd with a few loaves or if the story is about how gifts shared seem to bless people beyond any individual gift’s ability, we can also see the elements in the story as representing various ideas.
As water often represents consciousness, fish could represent ideas. Ideas shared tend to multiply. Gossip spreads like wildfire, and, words of comfort and hope also multiply. The ideas we share spread out and touch many people. The fish might be the attitudes we share in the world.
Bread represents meeting of basic needs.
The people are tired…they sit on the grass.
They are hungry, Jesus shares the food he has.
They are ill, he comforts them and offers the hope of healing.
Bread could symbolize the attempt to minister to every real need. In the story, everyone gets something.
Charles Fillmore suggested that the breaking of bread in scripture represented one being stirred to action. Jesus breaking and sharing bread might simply mean people at their best doing what they can to love and help others.
For me, the most exciting part of the story is when the author says that the disciples “took up what was left over of the broken pieces, 12 baskets full.”
Remember, Jesus is mourning the loss of John. People are sick, tired, and hungry in front of him and he doesn’t even have enough food for a decent picnic for 2 people, let alone a crowd. After a long, sad, day, he encounters human need and has limited resources, or so it would seem. In such a situation, one might feel broken. But even when broken people dare to imagine possibilities and do what they can for those who might be hurting even worse, there is something left over, a good feeling, a sense of renewed hope, an increased trust in the goodness of life.
Broken people shared what they could with other broken people, and needs were met and blessings were left over, 12 baskets full (blessings for each disciple, for those who accepted the challenge to move past their fears of limitation and do what they could to make a difference).
We probably have more to share than we realize, and when we share what we can in love, we find that more was done than seemed possible, and there is something leftover for us as well. Call it divine economics, but there is something healing about the simple act of sharing. Compassion that leads to action also leads to miracles, that is, a different way of perceiving and experiencing life.
Maybe you’ve received some bad news, like Jesus did. Maybe there isn’t much you can do to change what has happened. Maybe it is true that the past is past, but it is also true that the future has infinite possibilities. Matthew’s Jesus shows what to do…keep moving forward, keep caring about others, keep seeing what is possible even if what is at hand looks scarce. Choose to see abundance where none is obvious, choose to see hope when situations seem hopeless, choose to believe that health is possible even when the test results are disappointing, choose to that while we will never have a better past, the future is still up for grabs and our attitudes and actions and choices are creating that future.
Even when we feel broken, we can still choose to believe that we have something to share that will lift up others, and we may find, as Jesus’ disciples did, that we will have something left over to lift our spirits as well. That’s the point of the gospel story’s brown bag miracle, and this is the good news! Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2014
Let me be glad and grateful for my blessings.
Let me know that I have something to share.
I now wish for healing love to flow through me into the world.
As I give love, needs are met…
and there are blessings left over for me.
And so it is.