8/3/2014 sermon: “Looking up to heaven”

Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Matthew 14:13-21
8Pentecost, Proper 11, Year A

Looking up to heaven

I remember the first time I heard a preacher explain away Jesus “feeding the 5,000,” as this miracle is called. The premise of the sermon was that when Jesus blessed the five loaves and two fishes, people shared what they had been hoarding with those who had no food. Perhaps you have heard such a thesis, as well.

The sermon I heard was a stewardship sermon, and the message was clear: Hand over what you have, so that those who are hungry can eat. I remember feeling ….. bothered ….. by this explanation, angry even by the casual dismissal of the miracle of Jesus’ actions. Granted, getting a large crowd of people to hand over their secret treasure IS perhaps as miraculous as multiplying five small loaves and two tiny fishes to feed thousands of people. But our gospel lesson today is not a stewardship message; rather, this message is all about “looking up to heaven,” about discipleship.

Distilled to its very essence, our gospel lesson today is this:

  • After Jesus had spent time alone with God, a crowd gathered around him and the crowd was hungry.
  • Jesus told the disciples to feed the crowd.
  • The disciples began a budget discussion.
  • Jesus showed them how to accomplish ministry with very few resources. Jesus taught them that, whatever they did with what little they had, they needed to begin by “looking up to heaven.”

Let’s follow the action in today’s lesson to see what Jesus taught them about “looking up to heaven.”

First, “Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Sometimes, we disciples must get away for some alone-time with God to remind us about “looking up to heaven.” Jesus’ friend, John the Baptist, had just been executed. Perhaps Jesus was afraid. The solution? Alone-time with God. Perhaps Jesus was discouraged. The solution? Alone-time with God.

We don’t like to think of Jesus having a flicker of fear or discouragement. However, if we acknowledge Jesus’ humanity we can understand why Jesus needed some God-time. Perhaps Jesus was contemplating and praying about what John’s death would mean in terms of a change of direction for his ministry. It is clear that Jesus’ work DID take on new directions in relation to what was happening to John-the-Baptist. For instance, after John had been arrested Jesus began to preach that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and he called some fishermen to be his disciples. Perhaps Jesus just needed some alone-time with God after John was killed, time to ask God, “What should I do NOW?” AND “Are you SURE that this is what you want me to do?” Perhaps Jesus needed alone-time with God to remind him about “looking up to heaven.”

Whatever caused Jesus to spend alone-time with God, he emerged with a new agenda. And what did he find when he returned? Verse 14 tells us that he “saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.” So Jesus’ new agenda was a lot like his old agenda: LOVE them, TEACH them, HEAL them. But this time Jesus went one step further than he had ever gone before: He also FED them, not just with spiritual food, but with physical food as well.

I want to get to WHY and HOW Jesus fed the crowd, but first I want to note that Jesus didn’t immediately do this himself. Instead, he told his DISCIPLES to feed the crowd. This is where, I imagine, they looked at each other, began to argue about the lack of money. Can’t you just hear the tone of their voices when they asked Jesus JUST HOW to feed the crowd with no food or money?

Here’s the discipleship lesson:

First, Jesus instructed his disciples to bring what they had to him. Much like our Senior Warden’s and Vestry’s commitment to live with what we have, Jesus instruction reminds us that we must commit what we have to Jesus.

Then, Jesus told the crowd to sit down on the grass. There was a promise to use what little the disciples had to meet the crowd’s very great needs. Please notice that Jesus didn’t feed only his disciples; Jesus was teaching the disciples how to care for the crowd, how to have compassion and to care for those who were outside their own small group.

Then, this is the important part, Jesus “looked up to heaven.” How often do we disciples forget to “look up to heaven” before facing the large challenges that confront us?

Finally, Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist.

Oh, I know that we count Maundy Thursday as the first Eucharist, when Jesus instituted the sacrament of bread and wine that we share, even to this day. Scholars say that Jesus’ feeding of the crowd was a “foretaste” of the Eucharist, a foreshadowing of this heavenly meal, as well as a flashback to the Israelites being fed in the wilderness by manna from heaven. By this feeding miracle, Jesus revealed plainly who he was, for all who had faith to understand and eyes to see.

So, too, we have this story today of the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 to tell us exactly who Jesus is. Jesus is the one who showed us how to be children of God: love the crowd, teach the crowd, heal the crowd, and feed the crowd, spending time alone with God and looking up to heaven as required to accomplish God’s mission in this world. Jesus is the one who has the power of God to do all things, who teaches us that we, too, have this power.

To know this information is one thing, to apply Jesus’ teaching to our lives is quite another. How was Jesus’ time apart with God like our own personal discernment, and our own discernment here at Resurrection? How are our Re-Visioning and Redevelopment effort “looking up to heaven?” How is our budgeting process like the feeding of the 5,000?

Just as I was contemplating these questions, by the way, Resurrection received a small check, for $27.50, made out in a shaky hand. The check was from a total stranger, and the memo line read, “For your greatest need.” How can I not see that check as the equivalent of our own five small loaves and two tiny fishes? How can I not see that funding our new mission will only be accomplished by “looking up to heaven” and by using what is at hand.

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