"Do not be afraid."
Pentecost X (O. T. 17); July 29, 2018
Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, and Jesus walking on the water: two amazing miracle stories. Some of you want me to give you a naturalistic explanation for both of them and some of you want to revel in the supernatural power of Jesus. Now, I can give you a naturalistic explanation, I think, and I could certainly do some shouting about the power of Jesus.
But instead this is a chance to clarify how I work with the Bible: I want to just let the stories be. These stories have powerful reassurance for us, just as they are, so I'm not inclined to explain them or to talk around them. Let's live in the stories for a bit. That's a great way to deal with any sort of story: to enter the world of the story and live in it for a while. Do you ever do that with movies? I remember coming away from The Black Panther wishing that Wakanda was a real place; we all could learn a lot from them. And after seeing The Matrix for the first time it took me about three days to convince myself again that the world I'm living in is real and not a computer simulation. So let's enter the story.
The easiest place to enter the story of the Feeding of the 5000 is as part of the crowd. We've been following Jesus around, seeing him healing people and listening to him teach. We're encouraged by what he says and we're hopeful about who he is as a healer. We might have some food with us, but we also might not have expected to be away from our work and our homes as long as we have, and so maybe we don't have food with us. But, being Palestinian peasants, we're used to being hungry.
What's this we see? Food is being passed around – barley bread and fish. It feels like a Sabbath evening; after we've said our prayers, we take a loaf and tear some off and pass it around. No one gets a whole lot, but everyone gets enough. That's how it is today; each of us gets enough but no one gets a whole lot. How did he do that? No matter; however he did it, it shows that we need him to be our leader. What has Herod Antipas ever done for us? What has the Emperor ever done for us? This Jesus heals the sick, teaches the ways of God, and feeds peasants in the desert! We need him to be King!
Why is he suddenly running away?
…Or we could enter the story among Jesus' disciples. There's Philip, who has the unenviable job of stating the obvious: we don't have anywhere near enough money to buy the crowd food. Interesting that when Jesus asks where to buy the crowd food, Philip doesn't say, "Wait a minute; that's not our job." He could also have taken Jesus' question literally – "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" – and looked around the desert and said to Jesus, "Do you see a Hy-Vee nearby?" Instead he has enough sense to look behind Jesus' question to what he really means, and answers, "We don't have the resources." Then there's Andrew – my favorite disciple, because he is frequently overlooked and is the patron of Scotland and, therefore, the one associated with Presbyterians (Go team!) – anyway, Andrew offers the resources he can find, but acknowledges right away that it isn't enough. "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" Responds to the question with a possibility, but with realism. "It's not enough."
Then there's the boy. I'm probably part of the crowd, the disciple I like is Andrew, but the character I want to be is the boy. His mom, I'm assuming, had the forethought to pack him some food so he would have it while following Jesus around in the desert. Or, maybe, she packed him some food because he's supposed to be watching sheep and instead is following Jesus around in the desert. In any event, when he overhears Jesus' question, he tugs on Andrew's robe: "Sir, the Teacher can have what I brought."
Wow. "Jesus, you can have what I brought." And it turns out that Andrew is wrong; it is enough after all. Jesus takes whatever you bring and makes it enough for what he needs to do. Among certain folks with whom I've worked they've had a practice of the offering prayer being given by one of the ushers who present it; many times I've heard that person pray, "Lord, take this offering and multiply it for your work." They're thinking of this story, I'll bet. If Jesus can take five loaves and two fish and feed five thousand people, then he can take this plate of dimes and dollar bills and pay the preacher and the electric bill. That's probably what they're thinking.
I don't know. Maybe it can work like that. But in my experience if the people don't give enough to meet the generosity of God, then the bills are not going to be paid.
I think rather the story is trying to tell us not to be afraid that who we are and what we have is too little for God. Maybe you don't speak to someone who is hurting because you're afraid you'll say the wrong thing. You don't greet that person you don't know because you're afraid of giving offense. You don't ask that question because you're afraid someone will think you're stupid. You don't try because you're afraid that you're not enough – not good enough, not smart enough, not rich enough, not talented enough…. Or simply not enough.
Do not be afraid. The boy offered five loaves and two fish and look what Jesus did with them. What can Jesus do with you? What can Jesus do with us?
Maybe that's why the next story, Jesus walking on the water, is paired with this one: it also has the message, "Do not be afraid." If we're in the boat with the disciples – hmm; it had better be a pretty big boat – and we see Jesus on the water, through the gloom, that is a frightening sight. "It's me; don't be afraid." Who did we think it was? Well, we thought it was a ghost, or a demon masquerading as Jesus, or who knows what… no, it's just me. Sorry I missed the boat. Do not be afraid.
I'm sure I could tease out some sophisticated theological point from all this, if you wanted me to and I felt that it was important. I don't. Jesus' words, "It is I; do not be afraid," are what I need to hold onto today. I suspect that is true for many of you, as well, and it is true for the life of the Church. I'm almost always afraid, to a greater or lesser extent. You don't want to know all the things I'm afraid of; or if you do want to know, a recitation of them right now won't help you any. Likewise many of you are often afraid. And I observe that the Church, as a body, is afraid. We're afraid that we won't have enough, and we're also afraid that we aren't enough. We're afraid of being out in the desert without enough food to distribute; we're afraid of being out on the lake with a storm coming on and a mysterious figure approaching.
"It is I; do not be afraid." You are enough. I chose you to be part of my Church because who you are and what you offer are enough; I always know what I'm doing. All of you – all of us – are the boy in the crowd, offering who we are and what we have, trusting that Jesus can take it and make it be enough.
Sometimes people want us to believe we are worth little because we have not done great things. Is that what God is asking of us? Or is God simply waiting for us to tug on Andrew's robe: "Sir, I have five loaves and two fish; the Teacher can have what I brought"? We offer ourselves to Jesus, who takes us and gives thanks and distributes to all, and there is plenty left over. Whatever fears keep us from setting out in the boat or offering what we have and what we are, Jesus responds simply and clearly, "It is I; do not be afraid."
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master