August 6, 2023 Sermon: Dinner for 20,000

Rev. Rhonda Cooper
First & Franklin Street Presbyterian Church
August 6, 2023
Genesis 32:22-31
Matthew 14:13-21

I love the story of Jacob wrestling all night with the stranger in Genesis, chapter 32. I do love it: Old Jacob refusing to let go and hungering for a blessing, old Jacob who paid the price of perpetual lameness for the rest of his life. However, this morning let us turn to the Gospel lesson, where we encounter a multitude of men, women and children, hungering for healing from illness and infirmity. They all came, looking for the doctor, belabored and grieving himself. If you include in the count the women and the children, they became, as evening wore on, they became as many as 20,000 hungry people, which is a lot of people needing their dinner.

In Matthew chapter 14, Jesus and the Twelve disciples have just received word of the murder of his cousin John the Baptizer, in the palace of Herod the king. This innocent kinsman of Jesus had been slain, his head presented to court on a royal platter. Jesus was weary and grieving and looking for a respite from the crush of the crowds. He was weary, and perhaps also wary, for despite his popularity, He had just been mocked and rejected in his own hometown. He was continually trying to teach the 12 what they needed to know to continue his work. He was tired, looking for some R & R in Galilee, when the crowds found him out, bringing themselves, their families, their sick and their sorrowing, as many as 20,000 souls. And the hour grew late and the crowd became restless and hungry, not only for the healing mercy of Jesus but for their dinner as well.

We could assume that the Twelve were somewhat befuddled by this situation. Their first response was for the Great Physician to send the people away to the villages where they could buy their dinners. What were they thinking? Send 20,000 people late in the day for fast food in the village? Perhaps the disciples were insensitive in even assuming that the people had the means to purchase food. Or thinking that the surrounding towns could handle the sudden demand. 20,000 is a lot of hungry people – a little less than half the capacity of Camden Yards. And to their surprise, perhaps even to their chagrin, the Teacher told them it was up to them to feed the crowd, to give out of what they had, and with the assurance it would be enough. They must have been shaking their heads behind his back.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all recount this story, the only miracle story that all 4 Gospels include, a clue that this was an important memory for the earliest church, that is, the multiplication of a few loaves and fishes to feed thousands on a hillside. Perhaps this story was evocative of the gracious provision of the Creator, evocative of many meals shared between Christ and his followers, evocative of the table fellowship of the earliest believers with one another, so evocative that it endures to the present day, to this very morning in Baltimore, Maryland… the only miracle story recounted in all 4 gospels.

Yet this was not really a new story for the Jewish followers of Jesus. They must have remembered the story of the God’s miraculous provision of manna in the wilderness, Exodus 16, for the people of Israel after their exodus from Egypt. The people became hungry and many wanted to go back to the land of their captivity, so great was their hunger. And God provided for 40 years until they reached the Promised Land.

And there is that story in II Kings, chapter 4, when an old man brought an offering of a few loaves of bread and some ears of corn to Elisha the prophet – who in turn ordered the old man to give the offering to the people because there was a famine, there was a need. The old man answered, much as the disciples in the gospel story, incredulously, “How can I set this little bit of food before a hundred people?” Well, the old man did as the prophet Elisha directed, and there was enough, miraculously, and like the 12 disciples in our Gospel lesson, the old man found himself gathering up the leftovers.

I hate to say it, but the disciples likely would have known these stories from synagogue school. They had seen a lot of miracles already, yet they were resistant. In fact, the emphasis in this gospel story itself, even more so than the miracle, is the interaction, the teaching moment, between Jesus and the 12. What does he tell them? First, gather and share what they have. How do they respond? First dubious, then amazed, then energized, at both the miraculous provision and the fact of the leftovers. What was the lesson? That they must respond to the people’s needs, whether of illness or hunger, regardless of ability to pay or purchase. This is at the heart of compassion which Jesus entrusted to his first disciples and the church, even to the present day.

He entrusted them to take the elements of bread and fish, the basic ingredients of a peasant’s meal, to move among the multitude and share the wealth, so to speak. And I suspect, far more than anyone else present, the 12 disciples were most affected by this miraculous show of providence and power. And so the story endures to the present day. Out of mercy Jesus heals, out of mercy Jesus feeds. You see, for the Gospel writer, concrete questions about things such as food and health also belong to faith. And thanks be to God, the liveliness of the Risen Jesus continues to energize and empower us. The faithfulness of Jesus as well as our faithfulness demands a sharing of our resources with those in need. We should be pleased that our church joins the ranks of local religious communities who provide food to our hungry neighbors. To you who are involved in the Food Pantry ministry, in any way, we honor and appreciate your efforts on behalf of us all. This is truly an outgrowth of our faith. And this ministry reminds us that at the root of hunger, of food insecurity, is poverty itself.

Poverty, of the old, the infirm, the sick, the young, the unemployed, the under-employed, the emotionally & socially disconnected, poverty is the root cause of food insecurity even now, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Friends, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 / hour (barely $15,000/year) is not enough to adequately house, clothe, transport, and feed one person, much less a family. Even in Maryland, with a minimum wage of around $13/hour – we can understand why people go without what they need to live. We can understand why people working two jobs still go without health insurance and as a result suffer unto death. At least I hope we can understand, and as people of faith make the conscious decision to share out of our resources and our power. Why? Because it is a matter of our Christian faith.

We can also make some noise about what it takes to address poverty. Honestly, I would like to have that conversation with Jesus today, for I do wonder, could He still be saying, “Trust me, you can make a difference. Don’t send them away hungry.” So thank you, church, for the Food Pantry ministry. Thank you, church, to those who write letters to our elected officials, to those who march in protest, to those who take a stand to address the root causes of hunger and poverty in our present day and time. Thank you, church, for paying attention to those who don’t have the resources to go into the village and buy their dinner. Thank you, and thanks be to God, whose compassion and mercy are wider than our hearts can fathom.
So be it. This is the word of God for the people of God. So be it. Amen.

ABOUT REV. RHONDA COOPER: Rev. Rhonda Cooper has been the Chaplain of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital since 2005 and is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and holds a master of divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. She served as a pastor for 15 years before becoming a hospital chaplain and is a Board Certified Chaplain through the Association of Professional Chaplains.