Last week, I began this blog by discussing what it means to preach the gospel. I argue that the gospel is always what God does: for us, in us, through us for the sake of the world. Only when people know that God is for us, with us, working through us, saving us, loving us, can we freely give our lives for others.
So, how would you preach the gospel this week? The Revised Common Lectionary uses the story of the feeding of 5,000 (actually, more like 10,000, but more on that later) from Matthew. Where is the gospel here? I am struck by two things: Jesus compassion for the crowds, and Christ’s ability to take the little the disciples had to offer and make it enough for the need of all. Jesus has just learned of the death of John the Baptist. He no doubt is grieving the death of this man of God, and perhaps his disciples too are shaken to know that John was beheaded by Herod. (According to the gospel of John, some of the disciples originally were followers of John. But even for those who weren’t, the death of John, whose ministry paralleled that of Jesus, would have shaken them to the core. If John wasn’t safe, neither was Jesus and neither were they). Yet Jesus’ compassion is not only for himself and his immediate circle. He has compassion on all who come to him, and uses what he has to help them out.
He also asks the disciples to use what they have to help the crowd on whom he has compassion. It’s not enough, the five loaves and two fish, to feed an enormous number of people. Yet, with Christ’s help, it is enough to feed all and to have much left over. I often see congregations fearful that they don’t have enough to benefit the crowds around them on whom Christ has compassion today. They use their resources mostly for themselves, fearful that if they share first with the crowds, they will not have enough for themselves. Frankly, I’m not sure five loaves and two fish would have been enough for Jesus and his 12 disciples if they had kept it to themselves. Maybe some of the disciples would have left hungry (depends on how big the loaves and fish were, I suppose). But by giving what they had to God and trusting Christ with it, they and the crowds received far more than they could have imagined. For God takes the little we have to offer and makes it enough, often with abundance for more than just ourselves.
That is why in my ministry as a parish pastor I not only emphasized the need for individuals and families to give first of time, spiritual gifts, and financial resources to God, I also encouraged the congregations I served to give generously beyond themselves, first to the ELCA through the Synod, but also to other institutions and agencies that showed Christ’s compassion for the crowds they served. I found in my thirty years of parish ministry that when we put God first, God came through, providing not always everything the congregation wanted but supplying what was needed. I think I’m accurate in saying we saw this not really as our work, but as God’s work through us. When we gave first to God, we discovered God was already providing for us, and continued to provide for us in our need.
So, I would go with a stewardship theme for this sermon, but there is another tack you could take. A friend of mine a few years back preached on the very last verse of this lesson, which reads: And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. My friend pointed out that, according to the society in which Jesus lived, women and children did not count. The number of those who were fed was closer to at least 10,000, one would think, and yet the number 5,000 was given because women and children did not count. (At least Matthew notes the fact that women and children were excluded. Mark and Luke simply state that those who ate numbered 5,000 men, leaving out the women and children entirely). My friend’s sermon emphasized the fact that the women and children were fed as well as the men. Society may not have included them, but to Jesus, they counted. They mattered and continue to matter to God. The same is true today for all those we in society may claim do not count. These people matter to God. And the God who lives in and through us will work through us to reach out to them, because we know they are a part of the crowds on whom Jesus has compassion. We know they count. Who are these people today? I think you all know who in your community may not count to others. Some examples might include the undocumented, Muslims, the poor, those on the right or left of the political spectrum with whom you or others may disagree—each of you can figure out who it is in your community that does not count. To God, they count. And through us God reaches out with compassion to help them know that they count.
God bless the preachers in our synod as they proclaim the gospel this weekend.