The reading is from the gospel of Matthew chapter 14 verses 13-21.
I invite you to listen for God’s word. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Here ends the reading. Let us pray. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O generous God. Amen.
During my recent summer vacation, I decided to go with some cousins and friends to Peru. It is a breathtakingly beautiful country. We planned an exciting trip with plenty of time for exploring and adventures. But now that I’m back, what I remember most is not anything that I could have planned in advance. Little did we know before our trip that the people of Peru are very upset with their president and government, so upset in fact, that they had planned a national strike right in the middle of our vacation. Now months of planning went down the drain. I was seriously disappointed when I first found out, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
We went to the train station one morning expecting to take a train from Cuzco to Macchu Picchu, only to discover that there were not going to be any trains because of the strike. Our taxi driver offered to try to take us to our destination by taxi. We agreed and set off only to find that the farther we drove the worse the conditions were. People had moved rocks, guard rails and burning trees into the road. Soon it became clear that we were not going to make it to our original destination. We couldn’t go back to where we had come from either because of the condition of the roads. To our surprise, our taxi driver, Juan Carlos offered to take us to the village he grew up in. It was not far from where we were and he could show us some sights along the way. The conditions of the roads would not be as bad there in the very rural areas. Without any other options, we agreed.
It turns out that Juan Carlos grew up in the sacred valley of the Incas, an amazing area with snow capped mountains, beautiful valleys and mesmerizing Incan ruins. Juan Carlos took us to the salt flats that the people have been using for thousands of years in Salinas and to see the Incan ruins he played soccer on as a young boy that have now been turned into a tourist destination. We found ourselves traveling further from the beaten path ending up in a village made of mud huts, on a mountain side. “Everyone is family here,” Juan Carlos told us. Every person we passed was an aunt, an uncle, a niece, nephew or cousin. He brought us to one of his aunt’s houses, a dark hut made of mud bricks, guinea pigs running around on the floor, a small fire burning in the corner. “You are special visitors,” he said. “We would like to make a special meal for you.” “A special meal?” I thought to myself. I wondered how they could find enough to eat for themselves, let alone feed 5 foreigners who dropped in unexpectedly in the middle of the day. I wanted to refuse, worrying we would be taking precious food from his family, but I knew I was in the middle of experiencing true hospitality at work and you don’t refuse such a precious gift.
His aunt killed the fattest guinea pig she could find and Juan Carlos took us to a field where we helped him build a small mud clump oven to cook potatoes in. Word must have gotten around the village because as we worked at our oven in the field, more relatives came offering potatoes. Aunts and uncles had heard that Juan Carlos needed them and so everyone that had some came to give them to him. What an abundance of potatoes. When the meal was ready we sat on blankets in the field, looking up at the awe-inspiring mountains eating, fish, guinea pig (not for me) and potatoes. What a feast. From arriving in a place that seemed only to remind me of scarcity, I came to discover welcome, hospitality and abundance.
In Peru, the people are struggling for their survival. More than half of the country’s population exists below the poverty line, many living in extreme poverty. The indigenous people are the poorest of the poor. Families survive by farming and tending livestock. It is a subsistence economy. The women have to take care of the households, raise the children and support the family when the men leave to find better work elsewhere. The people of Peru were on strike because they do not have enough to eat. They do not have good jobs. They can hardly support their families. They are so upset they were literally shutting the country down, moving rocks into the roads, standing in the streets demanding change. There was no way on such a day to ignore that these people are suffering and struggling and yet they took the time to make us lunch, to share their home and their food. Juan Carlos’s aunt and family did not ask “how will we feed these people?” They simply fed us. When I encounter people who have so little in terms of material possessions in comparison to what I have, I am stunned to see that they are so willing to share whatever they have. I have so much, but I often find that I am scared to share because I worry that then there will not be enough for me. I experienced inspiring generosity in Peru and on each mission trip this is a lesson I learn again and again.
When I read the scripture passage for this Sunday, I could not help but think of my experience in Peru. It was not the feeding of the 5,000, just the feeding of 5, but it felt like a miracle to me, an un-mistakable moment of God’s grace and abundant life.
Most of the time, I don’t know what to think about miracles. If I’m honest, they confuse me. I always wonder what really happened? Did God do something amazing and humanly impossible? Or were people God-inspired to do things they were capable of but had never felt like they could do before? Or are miracles just different interpretations of ordinary events? The what-ifs could go on.
This story from Matthew is a pretty incredible what-if. We get used to calling it the feeding of the 5,000, but it was actually a lot more than that. They only counted the men to get that number, but there were women and children there too, they were just separate. It may actually have been the miracle of the feeding of the 20,000. What else could it be but a miracle when you have 20,000 people show up for dinner and all you have to give them is 5 loaves and 2 fish. The disciples start to get anxious, but Jesus is not. He blesses what he has and tells them to start handing it out. When the baskets come back, we are shocked to find there is more than they started with. How could that be?
John Pilch of Georgetown University has this to say, “Contemporary, scientifically minded, rationalist American believers are skeptical about a multiplication of loaves. Some interpreters propose that the “miracle” was Jesus’ success in getting this group of people to share their personal provisions. Such sharing would be truly extraordinary for an American crowd of individualists but quite commonplace in the group-oriented Mediterranean world.”
We Americans have gotten good at being self-sufficient. Everything in our culture encourages us to be. As Christians, we are called to sometimes be countercultural. Can we accept that we can’t do everything on our own? We need other people and they need us. God who is powerful enough to do anything on God’s own, needs us to be involved in God’s life too.
Teacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor says that she has a problem with miracles that “mesmerize” us and lead us to leave everything up to God. “Miracles,” she writes, “let us off the hook. They appeal to the part of us that is all too happy to let God feed the crowd, save the world, do it all.” But in reality, it’s not going to happen unless we participate, Taylor says: God tells us, “Not me but you; not my bread but yours; not sometime or somewhere else but right here and now…. Stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead.”
Those are strong words. Imagine if everyone took them to heart. What a different world we would be living in. I have been blessed to see that you have been miracle makers. I am so impressed by the generosity of spirit, the outreach and action of our faith community. But at the Night Ministry bus in Chicago or on the high school mission trip to Belize and in the mountainside village in Peru, I have seen that there are still greater needs that call us. These needs can seem overwhelming, too big to think we could really make a difference. Who are we to change the world anyway?
Going back to our lesson from scripture, not only does it inspire us to be part of God’s miracles, what also matters is the message that there was more than enough. I’ve noticed that over the past year, I have been thinking a lot about the word “enough.” It seems to come up a lot in questions I ask myself. Am I working hard enough? Am I thin enough? Am I praying enough? Do you have your own list of enough questions? Maybe ones like: Do I spend enough time with my kids? Do I make enough to support my family? Working with the youth I see that they ask themselves tons of questions like: Am I smart enough? Tall enough? Strong enough? Popular enough? But when is enough ever enough? We could drive ourselves crazy trying to live up to the expectations, waiting for it to be the right time, waiting for us to be the right people.
What I hear in this miraculous story is: we have what we need. I know it doesn’t seem all that miraculous but if we really believed it, I think it would be. I will admit that almost every day I buy something and I usually tell myself that I need it. But do I really? I don’t need anything bigger, better, faster, newer, etc. etc. I have enough, more than enough already. Juan Carlos and his Peruvian family helped me to see that. I am enough simply because I am a beloved child of God and so are you. What happens if we try to stop wrestling with the doubts and fears that make us think we need more and if we attempt to accept the abundance that is right here, right now. It is hard, but I know it is worth it. If we can see the abundance of life, instead of the scarcity, if we can believe that God chooses us to be God’s body in the world, then we can also see that we can be miracle makers. Without knowing it, we probably already have been. God’s life-giving gifts are nourishing the world through you. Through you, just as you are, not the thinner you, not the wealthier you, not the younger you or smarter you. You just you. Don’t wait. Don’t worry whether that is enough to make a difference in a world hungering to be fed physically and spiritually.
Go out into the world and be miracle makers, bread sharers, abundant life givers for all you meet. You have all you need. You are you. That is the miracle and it is more than enough.