Sermon on the Feeding of the 5,000 (preached for pastors, musicians and church leaders)

I preached and Dr Gordon Lathrop presided. I loved his book, Holy Things so much. One of my favorites from seminary.

I preached and Dr Gordon Lathrop presided. I loved his book, Holy Things so much. One of my favorites from seminary.

(I spent about 25 hours working on a sermon for the closing Eucharist of the ELCA’s Jubilee worship conference, Called to Be a Living Voice.  It was a huge struggle and I was too in my head about it…trying to make sure I said all the things I thought they’d want me to say and wanting it to be a “good sermon” because I knew the Presiding Bishop and lots of synodical bishops and seminary professors and people I respect would be there. I kept fighting that stupid thing for hours at a time for 2 weeks and it fought me back. The night before the event I woke up at 2am and re-wrote the whole thing. I laid in my hotel bed in the middle of the night and simply wrote a sermon that I myself needed to hear rather than one I thought would impress people or one that I thought they’d want me to preach. Moral of the story: My stubbornness is no match for the Holy Spirit’s bossiness)

Being a Christian can sometimes be just a wee bit embarrassing. I mean, since I believe in Jesus, sometimes it feels like my normal unchurched friends look at me like they suspect I might also think the Easter Bunny is real or believe elves in trees really do make Keebler Cookies. It’s all a bit fantastical this Jesus stuff and the miracles are especially embarrassing to say you believe in. My friends who aren’t Christian know that the laws of Newtonian physics aren’t suddenly flexible if you just have enough faith. Atoms and molecules don’t just shape shift wily nilly. It’s more reasonable to believe that things are only what they seem. Water stays water, 5 loaves stay 5 loaves and the dead stay dead.

I get that. And I’ve read many rational and not at all crazy explanations for what really happened at the feeding of the 5,000. Explanations you could offer to your most normal non-churchy friends without feeling like you have to apologize for being so silly as to believe in real miracles. With very little effort we can easily just explain away the feeding of the 5000 as little more than an idyllic picnic with a whole bunch of people. Since obviously bread and fish didn’t just suddenly replicated themselves like Jean Luke Picard’s cups of Early Grey Tea on the Enterprise. What happened that day was obviously more like a big wilderness potluck where everybody felt so compelled to be good people after hearing Jesus preach that they all opened up their picnic baskets and gave parts of their fried chicken and potato salad to their neighbors so that (and not miracles) is why there was enough food to go around.

But I just couldn’t bear to preach a “Jesus wants you to be nice and share your juice box” sermon to you today since I suspect you learned that lesson already in Nursery school.

Not that thousands of human beings sharing with their neighbors isn’t a little miraculous, it is, it’s just that there are 6 accounts of this miracle in the gospels. 6. And since there are only 4 gospels that means that in 2 of them a version of this story was told twice. So maybe it’s just too important a story for it to just be about people sharing their lunches.

Because miracles, and not lessons about sharing, are what we really need. So as crazy as it is – I believe in miracles – not because I think I’m supposed to but because I need to. I need to believe that God does what we cannot do.

Because if God just acted in ways we could – we could all just be our own Gods. And if history tells us anything,…it’s that we make terrible gods.

But I wonder if, Like the disciples, we too make the mistake of not always realizing how different God is from us and what a good thing that is. That we have a God who can actually feed so many on so little. A God who created the universe out of nothing, that can put flesh on dry bones nothing, that can put life in a dry womb of nothing, NOTHING is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as “nothing” “Insignificant” “worthless” and says “Ha! Now that I can do something with”.

The resource that Jesus had in abundance that day that a few loaves and couple fish became a feast for 5,000 people wasn’t the fried chicken and potato salad hidden under people’s tunics…the raw material that Jesus had was the need of humanity for a God that can do miracles. This need is an endless resource.

Maybe the mistake the disciples made wasn’t only that they forgot how God works, but also that they forgot that they too were hungry. They defaulted to “what do I have” rather than “what do I too need, and is that also what the people in front of me need?”. The disciples seemed to forget that their own personal need for bread, and not their own personal resources was the thing that qualified them to participate in the miracle of feeding thousands with nothing on hand. It was not their cooking skills, it was not their ability to preach enough Law that they guilted everyone into sharing; it was their own deep hunger which exactly matches that of the crowd. How often do we forget this ourselves? That what we really have going for us – the asset we all carry around is not homiletical chops or choral conducting expertise, or leadership training – it’s our own personal need for a savior. A need identical in quality and quantity to those we lead. And this need you and I have for Jesus, in not a scarce resource…the need for forgiveness and love and mercy has no limit. Let that be our nothing from which God creates real miracles.

Yet I myself so often forget this. I am too easily overwhelmed by the hunger of the multitudes and I look around trying to figure out what I have at my disposal that might feed them and I keep coming up short – short on compassion, short on skill, short on will. And I think of how God called me to this and needs me to feed God’s people and so I lean on my own resources and when I do I quickly see how little there is. A few loaves? A couple fish? It’s never enough.

5 years ago I decided that I was going to take a 48 hour silent retreat every 6 months. Before you start thinking I’m some sort of spiritual giant let me add… That was 60 months ago and so far I have gone on…hold on …let me do the math…oh yeah, ONE. But for the one I did go on I went to a Catholic retreat house outside town and I was matched up for spiritual direction with a tiny little nun named Sister Eileen. I remember thinking it an absurd idea to take spiritual direction from someone I just met. Because, you know, I’m complicated…. way too complex for someone to “get me” in an hour long meeting. Ends up I was right. It didn’t take an hour for her to get me. It took like, 5 minutes. See, I was hoping she’d give me work to do. Spiritual practices…. Stations of the cross, say the our father, lectio divina…some work that would make me a better leader – a more spiritual pastor for my people instead, but instead she looked me in the eyes and said. Nadia. I don’t think you should DO anything while you are here. Just walk these grounds knowing that God loves you totally apart from any work you do. As you might expect I thought that sounded awful. Because as soon as I tried, I just started crying. How can the work I do be important if God loves me quite apart from the fact that I do it?

That’s the irony. Maybe the more important and transformative the work is that you do the more you need to know that you are loved by God with or without doing that work. The more you need to know that when Jesus looks out and asks where are these hungry people going to get food he is including you in the category of hungry people and himself in the category of bread.

This is why the magic matters and cant be explained away through human reason – because if human reason were enough to love us and save us and create beautiful things out of dust then Christ dies in vain and the promise is null. No brothers and sisters, I want some miracles.

When I rely only on my strengths which, trust me, are few, when I think I have only my small stingy little heart from which to draw love for those I serve, when the waters are rough and storms are real and I am scared – filled with fear of what is happening or not happening in the church, filled with fear that I don’t have what it takes to be a leader in the church, filled with fear that everyone will see nothing in me but my inadequacies, I have forgotten about Jesus- my Jesus who’s making something out of my nothing and walking towards me in the storm. That’s our guy. The Man of sorrows familiar with suffering, friend of scoundrels and thieves, forgiver of his own executioners, resurrected on the 3rd day, the lamb who was slain, the great defeater of death and griller of fish and savior of sinners.

 In him there is not one category of people who teach and one who need to learn. There is not one category of people who heal and one who need wholeness. There is not one category of people who minister and one who need care. There is just one category: hungry sinners in need of a savior. So together we come away with Christ to sit in the grass and be fed…and you are in as much need of being fed, healed and ministered to as those who you care for. Because the work you do IS important and it is transformative but you, my sweet, dear friends, are loved entirely and completely by God with or without doing that work.

And in this life of ministry that we are in sometimes you just don’t realize how tired you are until you go away to rest and reach again for the hem of his garment. And then, hands extended someone looks you in your eyes and says, “Child of God, the Body of Christ Given for you” and then you realize – you had no idea how hungry you really were. Thanks be to God. Amen.

About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org