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One of the disciples says to Christ, "Jesus, where does he think he is -- Sizzler?" Jesus simply looks heavenward with an expression of exasperation.
Religious groups down under were not pleased calling the commercial "irresponsible," and adding that it "borders on blasphemy." The ad was finally pulled in the wake of the protests.(1)
"Borders on blasphemy?" Just between you and me, I think Jesus would have gotten a kick out of it. The early church certainly liked the story - it is the only miracle other than the resurrection that is recorded in all four gospels. At least a zillion sermons have been preached on it - sermons about miracles in general, sermons about Jesus' remarkable appeal as crowds traipsed around the countryside after him, sermons about Jesus' compassion, sermons about our role in God's work - Jesus gave the food to the disciples who then distributed it to the crowd ("Go, thou, and do likewise."), or the always reliable focus on the generosity and unselfishness of that one little boy of whom we read in John's account of the event.(2) There are any number of sermons here.
Something jumps out at me on this particular day that might go right past me on some other Sunday. As you Bible scholars know, there is something wonderfully instructive in the way our gospel writers present their material; chronology is always subservient to the message they want to get across. Here in Matthew, the story occurs right after the beheading of Jesus' cousin, John the Baptist. In Mark's gospel, the original telling of this miracle story, the event takes place not only after the death of John, but also right after the return of the disciples from their first "mission trip."(3) Luke follows the lead of Mark.(4) Now, here we are in Warren, on this day before our Mexico Mission team departs, and suddenly we are presented with what is obviously a "Mission Trip" lesson.
The disciples had come back to Jesus after their mission to the countryside. Two by two they had gone out, preaching and healing. Now they have returned for a debriefing retreat, telling Jesus about successes and failures, sorrows and joys. And it is at this moment, we hear the story of the miraculous meal. Why? Why here? Why now? I think the answer is one that will speak to our mission team as they head to Mexico tonight, and it will speak to any of us when we are concerned that what we bring to a particular task may be inadequate.
Listen again to the disciples: "This is a remote place, and it's already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food."
Jesus says, "Naw, they can stay; YOU feed them."
"What? We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish, and that is not enough for anything!"
Lord, only five loaves of bread and two fish. Lord, only five loaves of bread and two fish. That is the response of the ages when people feel overwhelmed by the task confronting them.
To you who are preparing for the mission trip tonight, I know you have had some of those feelings. Gee, I'm not a contractor; I don't know anything about construction - will I be a help or a hindrance down there? Only five loaves of bread and two fish. I don't speak Spanish - how can I communicate? Only five loaves of bread and two fish. Gracious, I'm not that great at teaching Bible stories in my own language, what in the world will I manage in someone else's? Only five loaves of bread and two fish.
We all feel that way at times. The parents worried about guiding the kids on the right path despite all the pressures to stray. "What are we to do? We have only five loaves of bread and two fish." The laid off worker who struggles to survive in a difficult economy. "I have only five loaves of bread and two fish." The spouse who is desperately trying to make a go of a troubled marriage, but knowing nowhere to turn to rekindle the passion. "I have only five loaves of bread and two fish."
Certainly that was the response of the disciples when the crowds followed Jesus and them on their post-mission-trip retreat. Jesus says, "You give them something to eat."
What? We only have five loaves of bread and two fish.
Fortunately for the Twelve, and for us, Jesus intervenes. He says softly, "Bring them here to me...and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over."
There is the good news for you mission travelers who wonder if you have what it takes for this trip. It is the good news for anyone feeling inadequate in the face of the pressures of life. The answer is no, we often do not have what it takes. At best, in the face of overwhelming odds, we only have five loaves of bread and two fish. Only...only...only. But we have a friend who whispers, "Bring them to me."
Remember this the next time you encounter a moment when life seems so big and you feel so small, whether heading off on a mission trip or just into the dreary desert of the day-to-day. Remember, someone is close who can do what you and I cannot, someone who can take our paltry little handful of loaves and fish and turn them into a feast. Again, Jesus whispers, "Bring them to me," and suddenly, miraculously even, our little becomes a lot.
1. Paul King, "'Miracle' TV ad multiplies headaches for Sizzler," The Nation's Restaurant News Magazine, August 10, 1998 quoted in Homiletics, July/August, 2002, p. 49
2. John 6:1-13
3. Mark 6:7ff.
4. Luke 9:1ff.