A little becomes a lot
A stained-glass window in St. Sulpice Church in Fougeres, France, depicts the feeding of the 5,000.
Lectionary blog for Aug. 3, 2014
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 145:8-9, 13b-21;
Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
By Delmer Chilton
While I was in college, I went to see a college chaplain to talk about the things in the creeds I didn’t believe. I really expected her to try to argue me into belief. Instead, she smiled and leaned back in her chair and said, “Yeah, a lot of people have trouble with those ideas. Instead of talking about what you don’t believe, why don’t we start with what you do believe.”
As we talked through the Nicene Creed, we came to the line “for us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven,” and I realized that, as much trouble as I was having with the “he came down from heaven” part, I had no doubt that whoever Jesus was and whatever it was he did on earth, he did indeed do it “for us and for our salvation.” It was a tiny foothold, but it was a place to start. I thought of that conversation when I read Matthew’s account of the feeding of the 5,000.
For the last few weeks, our Gospel lessons have centered on Jesus’ parables of the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is like – a sower who goes out to sow, a mustard seed, leaven in bread; all of which have to do with how the kingdom takes a small thing and turns it into a big thing quickly.
Today’s lesson shows that the kingdom of heaven is like a man who took five loaves and two fish and turned them into more than enough for over 5,000 people. This lived-out parable also shows that the kingdom of heaven, in the person of Jesus, is indeed here, “for us and for our salvation.”
As the story opens, Jesus has just learned the sad news that his cousin, John, (whom we know as John the Baptist) was beheaded by the king. Jesus needs time to grieve and acts to get it, stepping into a boat with his disciples and sailing across the lake to a lonely place. But the crowds figure out where he is going and run to meet him. Can’t you just imagine Jesus looking out at that crowd and thinking, “Come on people, give me a break.” I’m almost positive some of the disciples, probably Peter and James and John (the Sons of Thunder) were already out of the boat, acting like burly bodyguards, pushing people away.
But Jesus will have none of it. The text says “he had compassion.” “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is like – Jesus.
So, in the midst of his own grief, Jesus reached out to those in need. Too often we leap over the next few words to get to the miracle part, but we need to linger here a minute. The text says, “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” In the mainline churches, many of us shy away from the healing ministry of Jesus. Perhaps it reminds us too much of tent revivals and TV evangelists with big hair and expensive suits. It’s not so much that we think it’s wrong; it just seems a little tacky.
But Jesus’ ministry of healing was a profoundly important part of his mission. Jesus was not, in the words of an old Johnny Cash song, “so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good.” Jesus changed people’s lives in the here and now as well as in the sweet by-and-by. For us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to take up our cross with his, we must embrace our own call to cure and heal the lives of others. It is a call for us to go beyond the anointing with oil and laying on of hands to a ministry of getting involved in the nitty-gritty of people’s day-to-day needs and problems. We are called to join Jesus in having compassion and in channeling that compassion into positive action on behalf of others.
Now, here comes the part of this story that directly relates back to the mustard seed and the leaven. Just like the disciples, we look upon a world full of problems and we think there is nothing we can do or that what little we will do won’t amount to much. With the disciples, we say, “Send the crowds away – we don’t have anything here but five loaves and two fish.”
We can’t do anything about it; we don’t have anything here but some old folks and a few kids.
We can’t do anything about it; we don’t have anything here but enough money to pay the bills.
We can’t do anything about it; we don’t have anything here but, but, but, but ...
And Jesus says, “Bring them here to me. Bring me the five loaves and two fish. Bring me the old folks and kids, bring me your money, bring me what you’ve got.”
And Jesus took the bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to the disciples to distribute. And it was enough for 5,000 men, plus the women and the children. Indeed it was more than enough, there were basketfuls left over.
The kingdom of heaven is like – a mustard seed that turns into a tree that grows big enough for a bird to roost in.
The kingdom of heaven is like – leaven that a woman puts in the dough and the bread rises and rises and rises.
The kingdom of heaven is like – Jesus taking loaves and fish and turning them into a feast that knows no end.
Amen and amen.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.