Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves."
Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."
They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."
And he said, "Bring them here to me."
Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
(Matthew 14:13-21, NRSV)
The other day I got home about 5:15. My husband had gone out for a walk, and because he was leaving before dog dinner time, which is 5 p.m. on the nose, or the snout, as the case may be, he fed the dogs early. I know he did this because he, like the dogs, is a creature of habit, and can be relied upon to do certain things in certain ways.
And just as I might have predicted, the dogs, especially Molly, began to tell me a story. “Wroo wroo,” said Molly, “I am starving!! I have been neglected and forgotten, and there has been no dinner!!!”
“Oaf!” said Sam. “What she said!”
Yes, if you had asked them what they had for dinner, they would have assured you, “Nothing!”
Although there is an abundance of dog food in the house, and it comes in bags of 30 pounds at a time, they worry that there will not be enough. Sam watches as the meals are prepared, ready to jump at any foul beast so daring as to come between a dog and his dinner. Various ingredients go into the dish first: a little canned food, a dietary supplement, and green beans for Molly who is (ssh!) on a diet—and then comes the sound of the scoop going into the giant bag of kibble! It is almost too much to bear!!! Sam jumps up and runs to the place where he will eat, and gives a little yelp of joy when the dish-bearer comes toward him!
It feels good to get your rightful meal, not to worry about where that next one might be coming from and when, not to have to wait and still have nothing.
There is *plenty* of nothing in this gospel passage, people who feel they have nothing left to give emotionally or nothing to give materially, and people who don’t even count, who are “plenty of nothing” in and of themselves.
But we will see Jesus bring plenty out of nothing and ask us to do the same.
In the past few weeks, several families in the congregation have been touched by death. Any one of us who has learned to live without a beloved family member or a cherished friend feel sadness for them and understands to some degree, how they might be feeling. If it hasn’t happened to us, it’s happened to someone we know. And so I imagine all of us can understand what Jesus might have been feeling having gotten the terrible news that John the Baptist had been murdered. For that is the news that begins this story, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Jesus wanted to get away, to think about what had happened; Jesus wanted to grieve for the person who baptized him.
Knowing a person close to us has had his or her life taken forcibly is *not* something we've all experienced. A boy I knew growing up was killed when the RadioShack he worked at was robbed. I had not seen him for many years. He was not a part of my daily life. I have to admit that as young teenagers, we did not get along. But A. was part of the fabric of my early years. His older sister babysat my little brother and me, and their father worked with our father, and I spent a lot of time at their house, or so it seems in memory. Even though the time when we had played together was far in the past, A's death left a shocking hole in the tapestry of the life I knew, my sense of who was safe and who was not. And so despite the distance in time and relationship I had to take a moment, really more than a moment, to remember A, to pray for his family, and to consider my own life.
Jesus withdrew to do the same thing, feeling depleted and shocked, for he was surely human as much as he was divine. He needs to sort out what has happened. John, who prepared the way for him, has been murdered as part of a palace plot, beheaded as the prize requested by a young girl at her mother’s instigation. King Herod let it happen because he felt ashamed and embarrassed by his life and the truth John had told him about it. Jesus heard this terrible news about a barbaric death, and he needed to get away. He is grieving. Perhaps he feels he has nothing to give, but the people follow and somehow he gives what they need. “He had compassion for them, and he cured the sick,” although his own tank needed filling.
I’ve had tanks on my mind this week as we are fairly sure someone tried to siphon gas from our cars the other night. The latch on Pure Luck’s fuel hatch is broken, and although mine is electronic, the digital message I saw when I got in the car let us know someone had been fooling with it. I asked him how much gas they could have gotten, and he told me, “Not much, I was running on empty.”
I wonder how many people in that crowd that came from the towns felt the same way: empty, a little desperate, willing to trust a guy who was popular with crowds but had come out of nowhere to attract so much attention. People left their homes, apparently carrying plenty of nothing, and followed him to the shore. We read that they numbered five thousand.
But wait! It says more. Those who ate were about five thousand MEN, BESIDES women and children.
It may have been the style of the time. It may be that we should feel amazed that Matthew bothered to mention at all that there were women and children there in addition to the men. But, oh! It makes me sad to think that the head count did not include people like me. Suppose we get our attendance count did not include women and children? We would have a mighty paltry attendance figure. In fact, we might seem like plenty of nothing.
But this story is about another way of hearing that phrase. It’s about hearing that plenty can come out of nothing. The disciples want to send the people home, don’t they? They may fear a food riot, or a lack of food riot, and they don’t want to be responsible. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish!” That wouldn’t have been much for the twelve of them and Jesus!! The disciples are sure they don’t have enough to share, but Jesus makes plenty out of their nothing.
We have begun to talk in this church about how we can be present to the people in this community who may be hungry or in need this coming winter, because even though on some level it’s a thrill to see gas prices drop below $4 a gallon, the trouble is not over and the prices people have to pay now just to get to work, and the impact transportation prices will have on grocery prices, are just beginning to domino.
And I wonder, what is the role of this church in this particular place and time in reaching out to those who may be hungry this winter? I’ve heard the stories about the Ice Storm ten years ago, about the use of the church as a shelter and the communal meals cooked and served here. Could we bring our impressive kitchen skills together to provide a meal to people right here in town?
We may be inclined to shrink back, to say, we will have our own fuel bills to pay, our own worries. We may feel we have only two fish and five loaves, not enough to meet all the needs.
Plenty of nothing, that’s what we fear we would be able to provide.
But the truth is, each of us has something to give, and in combination we might be surprised at how much we have.
Think again of Jesus, emptied out by shock and sadness, yet moved by compassion to help those who needed what he could give. Think of him, moving through his grief to heal others. Think of him, touching people who felt they had nowhere else to turn.
Even in the face of Jesus’ example of deep compassion, the disciples still worried they would not be equal to the challenge of caring for the crowd. They could not believe their resources would stretch far enough to make a difference. Yet we read that in the end they picked up what was left over and filled twelve baskets with the broken pieces, with plenty of nothing.
Plenty can be salvaged and shared, blessed and broken. Plenty can be given, just as we are given to share the compassion of the one who fed not just five thousand, but so many more, of the one who will feed us again today. Amen.