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A Miracle in Five Scenes

A sermon on Matthew 14:13-21

[for an audio recording of this of this sermon, click here. Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash.]

As the only miracle story reported in all four gospels, today’s gospel story, if not this specific telling of it, is probably very familiar to most of us.

Most of the time, I feel like these kind of texts are the most difficult to preach.

It can be hard to connect to the power and wonder of stories that we can recite from memory, and it can be even more challenging to find something fresh and engaging to say when it feels like everything has already been said ten times over.

But this week, I had an unexpected experience as I re-read this familiar narrative: I found myself in the story.

I found myself identifying with feelings and moments that I have skipped over in the past. I found the story connecting with my real life in ways that don’t always happen with scripture.

And, as a result, I found myself drawn into the unfolding progress of the story with a surprising level of anticipation, given that I already knew all the details. Despite the familiarity, I still felt a drive to find out where this story would take ME. And it was a journey that actually made a difference for me this week.

So, I want to do something a little different with my time in the pulpit today. I want to try to take you on the same journey, and I am going to do that by slowing down to tell the story in five distinct “scenes.”

Scene 1: Wilderness

The story starts with Jesus “withdrawing” to a deserted place by himself, and this is where it hooked me.

Because, I FEEL that.

I know that need to just withdraw… to pull back from the noise of the world, to a quieter place where there is enough space for grief… and I suspect that many of you know that feeling as well.

Jesus’s grief is for a person, but that’s not the only kind of grief that can knock us sideways and leave us struggling to deal with the activities and responsibilities of our regular lives.

We can grieve for loss of health and strength in our bodies, or for broken or messy relationships, or for expectations about what we thought our lives were going to look like.

And grief may not be the only reason we have a need for a deserted place - that need can just be about exhaustion, or frustration, or a nagging feeling that things just aren’t right… that something is out of balance and there’s no way to figure it out, or renegotiate boundaries, or heal in mind, body, or heart until we get some space to breathe.

And even though the wilderness is a place of isolation, and maybe even danger, sometimes that seems like the best alternative… especially because the wilderness has so often been the place where transformation happens.

Richard Swanson notes that the Hebrew prophets, “remembered the wilderness as the place where God shaped and trained, supported and gave life to the Jewish people.”[1]

The wilderness is where everything else gets stripped away and it is just us and God, as we can wrestle together with whatever pains or problems drove us out there.

In the first verse of this story, we learn that Jesus has the same longing and the same instinct that we have for wilderness withdrawal.

Scene 2: Need

Jesus went to the wilderness to be alone, but the crowds followed him.

And here is where my heart just breaks. Because it’s not fair.

Jesus should be allowed to hurt.

He should be allowed to grieve.

He should be allowed to be tired.

He should be allowed to have NEEDS that take up space and demand a break when he is struggling.

And he just found out that his cousin has been killed by the same people in power whom he is on a collision course to upset, and he just needs a minute.

But the people don’t see his needs - they only see their own… and so he does too. He sees them, and he feels compassion for them, and so he gets to work healing them.

It is at this point in our slowed-down storytelling that my heartbreak turns to guilt because… uff. I’m not there.

I don’t take so kindly to people interrupting my wilderness time.

Once I let go of the weight of expectations and claim some space to be needy myself, I tend to get protective of that space and defensive about demands that try to call me back.

So, when I see Jesus’ wilderness time interrupted and see him so quickly turning from self-care to compassion, my first thought is to hurt for him, but soon after my second thought is to feel bad about myself.

To see in Jesus’s example a condemnation of my own neediness, since he set his own aside.

But then we get to Scene 3: Grace

This is not actually a new scene in the story, it’s just the same scene from a different character’s point of view, because it occurs to me that… maybe I’m not actually Jesus in this story!

And if I switch to see myself in the crowd instead, suddenly Jesus’ compassion becomes exactly that… compassion.

I remember that a central truth of the incarnation is that Jesus came to suffer with us (that’s actually what the word compassion means).

And just like Jesus, the crowd goes out to the wilderness too.

In part - at least - they were following Jesus and looking for his healing, but maybe they were also, intentionally, coming to the place where God shapes and trains, supports and gives life to their people.

And maybe that’s why the crowds stay… even after they have been healed. Even after their immediate individual needs have been met, they stay in the wilderness waiting for something more. Waiting for a different kind of grace to change their lives.

Which brings us to…

Scene 4: Community

In most of Jesus’ miracles we see the power of God moving through him… when he heals the blind or demon-possessed or crippled, or calms the storm, or raises the dead.

But in this story, we see him draw his disciples into the action.

He first commands them to feed the people.

And when the disciples express doubt and produce only a small amount of food, Jesus accepts what they have to offer and then calls them to distribute it.

Which means that they get to be an active part of the miracle. They get to see the bread and fish multiplying as it passes through their hands.

And it also means that Jesus doesn’t have to do this miracle alone. He may have set aside his time of isolated grief in the wilderness, when confronted with the needy crowd, but he finds a different kind of support.

Jesus, and his disciples, and all of the thousands in the gathered crowd experience a community miracle - a miracle where everyone’s needs are met, and everyone is part of the sharing that keeps going on until everyone is full.

And I have to believe that this is exactly the kind of shaping, and training, and transformation that we should expect in the wilderness… the kind of miracle that extends beyond one need, or one meal to genuinely change the community-orientation of the people who were part of it.

Which brings us, finally, to Scene 5: Leftovers

What started as barely enough food for Jesus and his twelve friends becomes twelve baskets full of broken pieces after many thousands have eaten.

When I imagine myself there, sitting on the ground with a stomach full of food and a mind and heart full of wonder, I imagine feeling a bit bemused by everything that had just happened.

But then I imagine myself looking at those baskets overflowing with extra food and finding in that evidence of excess a promise that this wilderness encounter was not just a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It's one thing to produce enough in response to an overwhelming need.

It is another thing to produce abundance.

The extravagance of a miracle with leftovers is an assurance that God’s power has not been stretched… not even when Jesus is caught at his most exhausted and vulnerable, in a space to which he withdrew to get away by himself.

Because it isn’t just Jesus by himself. It’s the whole community that is drawn together by need, but also by the openness to God’s power that really can transform things… beyond just the immediate moment and its needs.

Wilderness, Need, Grace, Community, and Leftovers.

It’s not the typical telling of this familiar miracle story, but it is the one that has spoken to me this week of hope.

The hope that I’m not alone with I feel overwhelmed.

The hope that Jesus’ response to my needs will always be compassion.

The hope that it’s OK for me to just be one of the crowd, rather than holding myself to his perfect standard, and that I can still be transformed in that role.

The hope that I am part of a community that does the work of providing and changing together.

And the hope that with God’s power and grace, there is always more leftover for whatever comes next.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year A. p. 188.


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