Inger B. Hanson
Year A / Pentecost 9
Shepherd of the Mountains, Jackson, WY
August 6, 2017
On Matthew 14:13-21 The Beauty of the Unnecessary Miracle
We have a God of abundance.
We get sort of used to hearing that,
but I don’t know if we always know it our bones,
or if it slips our minds when it comes to how we understand God,
what we ask or expect of God.
We have a God of abundance.
And I’m not just talking about full bellies,
or having more after a simple meal than you started with.
The story of the feeding of the five thousand (plus women and children!)
points to an abundance of miracles. And types of miracles.
I think we often limit miracles to being just about healing,
or rescue from dire circumstance.
We look to God when we need a miracle –
when we or someone we love has gotten a cancer diagnosis
or been in an accident, when there’s been a fire or a flood,
or the third overdue payment reminder has come.
In Matthew’s gospel, the people needed those kind of miracles too.
Matthew tells us that crowds of people left their towns
and followed him on foot to a deserted place.
And we know that at least some of were sick.
And yet what I imagine as these desperately needed miracles –
the illnesses perhaps uncurable by the medicine of the time,
the ones both the same as but as individually particular
as other dramatic stories in the gospels –
these miracles aren’t the focus of the passage.
Matthew summarizes them in just one verse:
Jesus “had compassion for them and cured their sick.”
Instead, the focus of this story is not on an individual’s cure or rescue, but on a picnic.
And let’s be clear: Matthew doesn’t give us any indication that there’s been a famine in the area,
or that the crowds are starving.
There’s not that kind of urgency to the story.
The disciples are even thinking ahead,
considerately trying to send the crowds home in a timely manner
so they can stop by what I like to imagine as the hot meal or soup bar
at the grocery store before it’s shut down for the day.
I don’t think anyone would have been offended.
It doesn’t seem like this one meal is make or break;
missing it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Matthew doesn’t even give us a significant explanation,
like Jesus was only half way through an important lecture,
and the rapt crowd needed to stay to learn more.
A miracle of convenience?
An unnecessary miracle, when we consider all the types of needs that Jesus encounters?
God is expanding my usual definition of what a miracle is, when they occur.
God is expanding my definition of what God cares about, and when God acts.
And God is expanding my usual definition of who a miracle is for, and who God cares for.
The miraculous is invading the ordinary.
5,000 men, and women and children besides.
In spite of what we know about group think or crowd behavior,
I’m struck by the sheer number of people caught up in this miracle,
remembering that this crowd is made up of individual humans each with their own stories.
Surely not all patient. Surely not all kind.
Surely not all merciful. Surely not all poor.
Whatever label we usually think of Jesus acting with and for,
it’s hard to make those generalizations with a crowd this size.
This story seems to teach that miracles aren’t just for the deserving, or for the desperate,
but for collectives, for impromptu communities.
This miracle is not asked for, not necessary, not urgent,
not for an individual we can identify with…
but Jesus wants to do this miracle.
Maybe, even, it’s a miracle for Jesus.
The passage begins with Jesus learning of John the Baptist’s death and withdrawing –
presumably to grieve or to ponder.
“But when the crowds heard it” – just that Jesus had left? Or about John the Baptist? –
perhaps they too were grieving, pondering what this might mean.
Perhaps in the healing, in the interaction with the crowds he had tried to escape,
Jesus had found comfort and a bit of healing for his own grief.
Pastor Jon Beake wondered if the feeding of five thousand (and woman and children besides)
is Jesus throwing a funeral feast.
“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
Jesus expands who does miracles too.
The disciples are invited to be part of God’s action.
And then, in language closely related to the meal we share at communion,
loaves and fishes are multiplied.
All “ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces,
twelve baskets full.”
What was the outcome of this ordinary miracle?
I think far more than just full bellies and leftovers to take home.
Far more than even wonder, or fledgling faith inspired by this power of this sign.
I’m curious about the mutual comfort of a funeral feast;
where in the face of death God comforts Jesus and the crowds with overflowing signs of life.
But surely one of the five thousand (or one of the women or one of children besides)
wasn’t that hungry.
Surely one already believed.
Surely one didn’t know or care that much about John the Baptist.
Surely one of them was a bit like me
(okay, so I like John the Baptist, but in a pretty academic way).
What might this ordinary miracle mean to them? What might it mean to us?
Teton Trail Runners holds a special place in my heart
disproportionate to the miles I’ve put in with them.
This summer I’ve only made one or two runs,
but I think wistfully of the parking lot conversations.
The organizers, you see, don’t just check us in as we cruise (or limp, as the case may be) in.
They haul a water cooler and simple snacks that encourage folks to linger,
and usually a large group migrates to the nearest watering hole.
It’s not necessary, and not urgent,
but this simple generosity does something rather miraculous:
it nourishes and deepens relationships.
It affirms life, beyond just the run.
To me, Matthew’s telling of this ordinary miracle honors fellowship and community.
It shows God’s investment not just when God is most needed,
but also in the ebbs and flows of everyday life.
God works in abundant ways, and divine intervention mingles with the actions of disciples.
It’s an ordinary miracle, but a life-giving and sustaining one.
God’s abundance isn’t just about quantity, but an extravagance of style and approach.
God’s care for the relationships of our lives
can be glimpsed in the small touches or grand gestures.
And we are invited to care for our community with healing generosity
that takes us beyond assessing need or desperation to flourishing together.
This week, may God’s ordinary miracles surprise and fill you anew.