Scripture: Matthew 14:13-36
Given at UPC of Amsterdam, NY on November 10, 2013
There are several stories in the Bible that force you to suspend what you know to be rational thought in favor of seeing something that just isn’t there. Forces you to pretend that things aren’t the way that you know they are. Forces you to believe. Whether it is stories of burning bushes that are not consumed, or red seas parted, planets that stop spinning, the Bible asks you to suspend belief in what you know to be rational. And when Jesus comes onto the scene that level of disbelief required to follow him becomes even greater. There are stories of virgin birth, sight to the blind, healing of the sick and then there are these stories that are paired together today. A story of hope and a story of fear. Of wanting and uncertainty. A story of public miracle and a story of a private moment between Jesus and Peter. And both say something very profound for the nature of faith in our lives together.
In the first, you have to imagine some of the frustration that Jesus is feeling as he once again faces the crowd that has sought him out and has surrounded him. Having just gotten the devastating news that his cousin, his friend, John the Baptist had been murdered by Herod. Even this child of God could not begin to comprehend the senseless nature of this loss—the violence with which Herod had killed John. And maybe in a rush of sadness and uncertainty, of sadness and loss, Jesus, for the first time in his ministry had the overwhelming desire to run as far away from these people and this mission as he could and not look back. Not able to mourn the death of his cousin. Not even able to have a time of solitude that he might gird himself for the coming days and weeks. Not even time to reconnect with his parent, the one to whom he brings everything. The crowds, 5,000 men, plus women and children, pressed in for just a taste of the hope that Jesus was offering to them. How could they know that he genuinely desired to be somewhere else. But he spoke for hours, and healed folks, and set children on his lap as he blessed them and as time passed the disciples started to realize that it was getting late in the day and maybe it was time to send these folks on their way that they might have a chance to find something to eat. But Jesus would hear none of it and in response tasked the disciples with the job of feeding this multitude of people. And you have to imagine the incredulous looks that they gave Jesus as they heard him speak these words and as they amassed all the food they could muster for the people until they were done and realized that they had 5 loaves of bread and two fish. And you have to think that they felt like failures when they returned to Jesus and all they had were these loaves of bread and fish. And here we come face-to-face with the competing orders of the world. The old order of the world that demanded that the disciples send the hungry away because all they had was enough to feed themselves and no one else. The old order that demanded that they take care of themselves and let everyone else fend for themselves. But Jesus was not bound by the old order of the world. Jesus had overcome the old order of the world. In Jesus was a new way of being, a new way of doing, a new way of seeing. And so it is that Jesus took these meager offerings and was filled with gratitude and lifted the basket to the sky and gave thanks for all that God had blessed them with and sent the disciples out with the food. And the people ate and ate until each had her fill and after the disciples made their way back through the crowd they were able to collect twelve full baskets of leftovers. Because in the old order of the world, feeding those folks was impossible. In the new order of the world it was what they were called to do.
Now we are told that immediately following this, Jesus sent the disciples away by boat so that he might try once again to find some solitude to be with his thoughts and to pray. And after having some time away he began to make his way back to the boat and here we are asked to suspend our belief that a man cannot walk on the water. And as Jesus nears the boat the disciples see him but because he is walking on the water they decide that he must be a ghost. Until he calls out to them and calms their fears, reassuring them that he is with them. That he will not let them go. And Peter. And God love Peter. Peter decides he is going to test his faith just a little further than the rest of the group as he asks Jesus if he might step out onto the water with him. And Peter’s faith is great enough to get him out of the boat. Great enough to hold him on top of the water, but not great enough to subsume his fears of the towering waves into his faith and as he becomes overwhelmed, he also begins to sink. And Jesus looked down at the sinking disciple, loved him, and reached for him, and with a single touch, Peter rose back out of the water and returned to the boat.
And the pairing of these two stories, these two episodes of miracle strung one directly into the next, brings the disciples to the realization that each of us has had at one point or another. And the text tells us they, worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Because the last day, the food arising out of food until all those folks had been fed where before there was barely enough food to feed the disciples, the experience of seeing Jesus walking across the water, of Peter jumping out of the boat and walking to Jesus, the seas calming when Jesus entered the boat, because of all of these events coming together in which the spirit moved. All the followers of Jesus were brought to this place of conclusion, of assurance, “truly,” they said, “you are the son of God.” Finally, they had eyes to see.
The greatest challenge that any of us face in this lifetime is to peer into the times of gathering darkness and still perceive the light. To see all the needs of those in our midst and still believe that out of five loaves and two fish that we might feed a multitude. To see that each of us possesses a single grain of spiritual sand and that laying that grain of sand on the scales of justice and hope and love just might be the tipping point between heaven and hell. To see that we are valuable just as we are, but that so are they. To see that the work is so plentiful and at times the workers too few. To see not a storm threatening to overwhelm us all but rather the calming hand of Jesus resting on each of our shoulders until the weather has subsided and we have returned to the ground of our being, returned to God.
And perhaps a greater challenge than all those others exists when we know that we will never live to see the work we have done, the seeds we have sewn grow into the fruits of the spirit that we each yearn so earnestly for the world to have. Because we realize like the great 20th century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr that, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love”. Right not, at this very moment we live in a time of infinite possibility and infinite challenge. A time in which the future is not yet written and the past is forever lost in the dustbin of history. A time when we might choose to work for the peaceful sustenance of all persons or when we will decide to have a battle for the survival of a select and lucky few. A time when we might sew seeds of peace in the furtive soil of areas that have devastated by natural disaster, by material poverty, and by the scourge of our age, massive, manmade tools of war designed to elicit the most pain from those who cringe in their houses each day when they hear the sounds of planes overhead or bullets exploding from the barrels of guns in the not far enough distance. We live in a time of great advancement, in which we have before two paths from which to choose. Down the one, we can, in an effort to ensure our own survival, amass all that we can while simultaneously guaranteeing that some will go without. Down the other, the chance to eliminate global hunger, global disease, global struggle. The chance to view all persons as beloved children of God each with an equal opportunity to live into this life and strive for all the wonder that life has to offer. With the exponential growth of the internet around the world we can see a time when all children will be able to draw from the same well of knowledge, each child existing just a few clicks away from wherever they find themselves. Whether in the United States, or a tiny village in rural China, or country racked by poverty in Africa. We sit on the precipice of being able to do all this and more, but only if we have eyes to see.
In our own church and community we perhaps struggle with some of these issues. We perhaps struggle to cast out in faith even though we cannot see the final destination, even though we know that none of us will ever see the full promise of our good works fully manifest themselves on the stage of history. We struggle even to know what that next thing that we are called to do is. And yet, we live in a time of great and increasing need within our community and our world. A time in which God calls on all the faithful to stop whatever it is that we are doing and work for the end of suffering for those in our midst and those whom we will never see. And there is no other community in the world, no other gathering of people whose sole mission in the world is to walk with Jesus as he walks through the poorest sections of town offering hot meals and the warmth of love. There is no other community in the world whose sole mission is to stand with Jesus as he works to be a peacemaker in the world. Calling for an end to violence in all its forms. There is no other community in the world that declares that it sees the Christ dwelling in each person whether they realize it or not and so human rights must be for all people, not just a select few. No group that desires so earnestly to be with Jesus that we follow him to the cross, to the tomb, so that we might rise with him and return to God. In this time and place, we have the chance to do great and wondrous things alive with the spirt of the risen Christ if we will but step out just an inch in faith believing that in stepping out in faith, we might allow the spirit to blow where she will and take us where we are called to go.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to be talking about the importance of stewardship in the life of the church. We are going to talk about the exciting ministries already going on here and the exciting things we would like to do in the future. We are going to talk about the need for each of us to use our time and our talents and our resources to be about the work of God in Amsterdam and throughout the world. And we need all those pieces to come together for us to be the faithful people that God has called us to be. We need your time. We need for each of us to ask ourselves where am we being called to use the time with which we have be blessed. We need to as ourselves how might we best use the talents with which we have been blessed. As we cast our eyes across the landscape of the world we might see the needs of the world and become totally overwhelmed by them, but as Howard Thurman once pointed out, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” And folks, we need to share our resources with the church and the world. Like those first disciples who made sure everyone in the group had enough to live, had enough to dedicate themselves to the work and worship of God, we are called to give freely of our resources that all may live into their God given right to experience life and experience it in abundance.
Friends, in our lesson for this morning, Jesus took the meager supplies of the disciples and fed huge numbers of people starving for the gospel and for sustenance. In returning to the disciples he showed that he would never, ever leave them to face the darkness, the storms of life on their own. Let us too gather at this place today, seeking to use whatever we have to support those in need knowing that in our walk, we are never separated from the love of God as we have experienced in Christ Jesus. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.