Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

"You Give Them Something To Eat!"

by John Jewell,

Sermon Text: Matthew 14:13-21

Have you ever been hungry? -- Really hungry!

I don't mean "hungry" as in "It's two O'clock and I haven't had lunch yet." I mean hungry in the sense of stomach cramps, light headedness and fatigue when you have not had anything to eat for more than a day.

Have you ever gone a day, or two or even three without solid food? Most of us have never had that experience -- much less knowing what it is like to do without food for days and even weeks. The last time I went without food was when my doctor ordered a "fasting" blood test and I could not eat anything after 6pm. The test was not until 10:00 o'clock the next morning. When I think about the desperate hunger we regularly see on our television screens day after day -- I am embarrassed to tell you how hungry I was waiting for this blood test to be over with.

As hungry as you and I might ever have been, there is nothing that can compare to the sight of children standing in line at feeding centers when a famine has hit. I can clearly remember the spectacle of children in southern Sudan who were starving to death and Congressman Tony Hall of Ohio warning that a million people were in the grip of a life threatening famine. In the same newscast, Dan Rather and company were reporting another record high on the Dow Jones as the American economy continued its record flight into increasing prosperity.

In the midst of this incongruous clash of famine and fortune in the space of three minutes, these words from today's gospel reading penetrated my soul... "You give them something to eat!"


Let's look first at the situation in our reading. Jesus has withdrawn to a place where he can pray and meditate. His cousin, John the Baptist has been brutally executed by Herod and he is in need of renewal -- the refreshment of fellowship with God. But instead of calm, there is a crowd -- instead of the needed refreshment, there is a rush of needy people. The crowd is hungry for help and hope and Jesus reaches out with a heart of compassion. When they become hungry for physical food, he reaches out with the abundance of God.

The issue of food and hunger is a powerful symbol in scripture. It takes us deep into the human spirit. In Mary's Song, God is praised as the One who, "...has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty... [Lk. 1:53 ] In our reading from Isaiah today God calls out to Israel, "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." [Isaiah 55:1] The prophet Amos warns the people that they will experience a spiritual famine because they have resisted God's invitation. " [Isaiah 55:1] Israel is sustained in the wilderness and learns to depend on God for life itself. The Lord is the One who is ever aware of and available to our needs.

Now Jesus is shaping his disciples into a compassionate corps which will carry the ministry and the message of Christ to a hungry world. When it comes time for the crowd to eat, the disciples want Jesus to send the people away to the nearby villages to buy supplies. Jesus responds with the words I trust will become riveted to your soul today.

"You give them something to eat!"

They were, of course, not equipped -- they didn't have a clue as to how they could possibly feed this crowd. What they had to offer was way too little! The rest of the story contains three powerful lessons about how it is God can use our availability to continue to offer help and hope to a hungry world.

[1] Compassion Draws the Hurting

One of the hallmarks of Jesus' ministry is compassion. Every encounter Jesus has with hurting people in the gospels is characterized by his compassionate touch. It is this compassion that draws the hurting crowds. The letter to the Colossians outlines the qualities that should mark the Christian's life. Remember? "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience..." [Col. 3:12]

Outreach and evangelism, from God's perspective, begins with compassion. I am reminded of the old quip, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Compassion will open doors that have been slammed shut by criticism and condemnation. It is medicine for a heart that has been broken or a spirit that has been made cynical. Compassion is the glue that binds a church together. John Fawcett's hymn, Blest Be The Tie That Binds, points to the power of compassion. "We share each other's woes, Each other's burdens bear, And often for each other flows, The sympathizing tear."

In a world rife with brokenness and sorrow, compassion is one of the most powerful healing forces the Christian community has. When we encounter those who are hungry for hope and help, if we listen carefully, we will still hear the words, "You give them something to eat!"

[2] We are Agents of God's Compassion

The disciples often waited for Jesus to take the lead in compassion. Members of the church often wait for the pastor to take the lead in compassion. Churches often wait for the denomination to take the lead in compassion. Young folks often wait for the adults to take the lead in compassion. Men often wait for women....

You get the point.

Jesus, on the other hand says, "You _________________" (What? "...give them something to eat." We are appointed -- ("Ambassadors for Christ..." as Paul put it. - 2 Cor. 5:20) -- to become for others what Christ has been for us.

And here's something critically important. Jesus taught his disciples by example and by "on the job training." The streets and alleys, hillside and valleys were his classroom. True enough, he taught them concepts and principles, but most of all he taught by example. "Come and follow me -- Come and see." The followers of Jesus caught his compassion by seeing it. Though he taught them that God is a compassionate God -- seeing compassion in action made it come alive.

It is important for our children to learn about Christ, about the church and about the bible. But it is crucial that they learn compassion. Not just about compassion. But to learn compassion by seeing it in action in the fellowship of faith.

A youth pastor I know, wanted to teach his confirmation class what it means to live as a homeless person. He arranged a well planned, carefully thought out "cardboard village" which was to be built in a village park. The young people would spend a day and night in the village. They would have to go through a "mock" bureaucratic maze to get approved for a box to sleep in, blankets to stay warm and a small ration of food.

Many were excited about the project. But as you might expect, many were not excited about the project. In fact they were vigorous in their opposition. Some of the comments ran along the line of: "The time could be better spent learning their bibles." "I heard they haven't even memorized the Beatitudes yet." "What if it rains? They could get sick." There were more, but the project went ahead -- in spite of the objections and notwithstanding the two parents who would not allow their teens to participate.

The impact on the group was significant. Each year, the church would treat the confirmation class to a "fun day" at a theme park or some similar event. The class decided to take the funds that would have been spent on their fun day and give it to the "Hunger Action" fund of their denomination. "It wasn't all that much," the youth pastor told me, "But every one of those kids has a new sense of compassion for the homeless."

Maybe it wasn't much -- but then again, it is amazing what God can do with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish! And that brings us to the most important lesson of all.

[3] God will Make Us Equal to the Task

It does not matter how much you have!

What matters most of all is what God can do with what you have!

You have likely hear the term compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue happens when we see so much pain and anguish our hearts begin to grow accustomed to the daily sight of misery in newspapers and on television. If we allow it to continue to penetrate our feelings, we would be overwhelmed. Compassion fatigue is a defense mechanism of our inner self to protect us from becoming paralyzed by the horror around us.

So we get used to it. It doesn't strike home as much. And besides....

"I'm just one person. What can I possibly do in the light of such overwhelming need?" Or in terms of our gospel lesson, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."

If there was ever a time when people felt overwhelmed, it was watching the thousands upon countless thousands who fled Kosovo into neighboring countries. The need was immense. ABC carried a human interest story about a Macedonian baker and his family. This man was personally responsible for taking in and caring for over 700 people. His small bakery ran 24 hours a day to provide bread for the hungry. Refugees helped with the cooking and distribution. A camera crew visited the home of the baker's brother. There was an average sized home with a courtyard. 100 refugees -- men, women and children -- had found refuge in this one home!

The baker, smiling, told the interviewer that he was now running out of flour and supplies and that soon there would be no more bread for any of them. Without consideration of the cost to himself and his family, this man was willing to give everything he had to give hope and help to all he possibly could. I could almost hear the words of the Macedonian man in Paul's dream-vision. "Come over to Macedonia and help us." [Acts 16:9]

One of the central propositions in our reading is that God can take our "not enough" and turn it into "more than enough." Amazing things can happen when we see with eyes of compassion and make ourselves available to God as agents of compassion. And remember -- Jesus Christ never asks us to do anything he is not able to give us strength to do.

Somewhere in your experience this week, you will see a person or situation where compassion is needed. If you are open to it, you will know in your spirit that God needs an agent of compassion. And when you begin to wonder what can be done for this person -- or in this situation -- and the words will come to you:

"You give them something to eat!"


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

The key theme in the readings is food. The crowds are fed, Isaiah calls the poor to come and eat and the Psalmist says of God, "You give them their food in due season." This connection works for the gospel reading, the Hebrew scripture and the Psalm -- but Romans 9:1-5 does not seem to fit into this scheme at all. There is no mention of food in Paul's words.

There is, however, a bridge text that can connect the lectionary readings into a cohesive theme. Read Matthew 15:22-28 -- the story of the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus for healing for her daughter. Jesus responds in terms that connect with our Romans text. He is sent to the house of Israel. As Paul reflects, God is anxious to reach out to those who are the original "children of promise". Note the story from Matthew:

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly."

Jesus' use of the metaphor of food connects Paul's concerns with In the Romans reading, Paul expresses his anguish over the fact that Israel will not answer God's call to " what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food..." There is abundance -- as Jesus shows in the feeding of the 5000+ -- but Israel will not eat. All the more heartbreaking because, as Paul points out, Israel once "had it all." (The adoption, the glory, the covenants...)

The central thread running through the texts is God's invitation to come and partake of the abundance made available to those who will respond.

Matthew 14:13-21

The lectionary reading from Matthew skips over the prelude to this story. It is important to know what the "this" is in, "Now when Jesus heard this..." It is, of course, the report of John's beheading by Herod. When Jesus hears this, he retreats to a "deserted" place -- the place of prayer. It is in the place of prayer that Jesus is sustained by his Father's presence. "Crunch time" brings us to our dependence upon God and our need for spiritual sustenance. This wonderful story of the feeding of the multitude calls to mind the feeding of God's people in the wilderness. In context, Matthew's story here says, "God is enough."

The importance of this story is reflected in the fact that all four gospels record it. [ Mt. 14:13-21, Mk. 6:32-44, Lk. 9:10-17 and John 6:1-15 ] Several biblical themes are a part of this story:

* The wilderness as a setting where the people of God are fed
* The hesitancy of the people of God to believe God can provide
* The miraculous provision of food and the abundance of God
* God provides through human instruments

Interpreters of this story view it variously as:

* A straight forward miracle story
* A symbolic preview of the Eucharist
* A rationalist view -- the story is about how many were led to share their provisions when the five loaves and two fish were shared.

The key to the story, regardless of interpretation has to do with God as Source and disciples as instruments. The central line is, "You give them something to eat."

Isaiah 55:1-5

Isaiah is called the evangelist of the Old Testament and in these verses a heartfelt invitation is issued that even the New Testament does not surpass.

The invitation sounds like an incredulous advertisement in our Sunday newspapers. Come and receive something for nothing! Most savvy persons in our time would say, "If it sounds too good to be true -- it probably is." Except -- this is the Lord God speaking!

The point is that God desires to gives us beyond what we are willing to receive. "Listen, so that you may live," the prophet cries out on God's behalf. Jesus said wistfully to his people, "You will not come to me to have life." [John 5:40]

Verse two asks a question that could easily be turned into a message. "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" The point would be made to those who spend 65 hour weeks trying to get ahead... "Does your work satisfy?" This would be a great opportunity to raise the question of the relationship between work, family and life's spiritual foundations. The theme I would pursue here is... "If something is missing -- Isaiah might just have a clue!"

Romans 9:1-5

Paul's opening statement in this passage is absolutely astounding! It goes to the essence of how valuable the spiritual dimension of life is. In our time -- our culture -- the spiritual dimension of life is undervalued, if not dismissed entirely. Yet, a relationship with God is of such inestimable value that Paul is in anguish over the fact that his people do not have that relationship. His expression of this is amazing. I could wish that I myself... were cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people."

The essential point at which this passage could address our time is in its ability to address the "take it or leave it" attitude so many have with respect to the church -- or the life of faith.

If the other passages in the lectionary readings are geared toward the issuance of God's great invitation to life, this passage is an expression of how God is grieved when the invitation is refused. There is another dimension here. The grief in Paul's heart points to the need to discuss the consequences of rejecting the invitation of God to life. Why is Paul in such grief -- unless the consequences of rejecting God's invitation are devastating? This merits exploring the question, "What does it mean to never accept God's invitation?"

See Also:

Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost

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