Nothing But

Nothing But

Matthew 14:13-21

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.

Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen

            Today’s story is one of the most familiar in the Bible. We color in the fish and loaves in colorful drawings. Youth act it out in Vacation Bible School, brilliantly I might add. But today I want to highlight two characters who are powerful in this story, though not explicitly named. Two characters who shape the force and ongoing impact of this story, though mostly from backstage, a shadow in the wings.

            This first hidden character is tragedy. According to the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the feeding of the 5,000 began on possibly the worst day of Jesus’ life. It was the day he heard about the brutal beheading of his dear friend and family member, John the Baptist, in an act of casual cruelty by Herod. After hearing this, the text begins, he wanted to withdraw. Grieve. Pray.

            I certainly understand why we don’t spotlight Tragedy in this story. The feeding of the 5,000 is powerful enough on its own, and besides, it would be too dismal to say, now kids, as you color in the loaves and fishes, I want you to add a grey cloud over each of the disciple’s heads and a shining tear on Jesus’ cheek. It would be far too intense to say to the middle school drama team, “Now, before we act out the feeding of the 5000, I want you to imagine the worst news you’ve ever heard in your life. The kind of news that makes you sick to your stomach and want to run away. And action!” No, we don’t do that. So, tragedy stays mostly on stage left in our telling of this story.

            However, let me tell you why this matters. At some point in our lives, we are the ones who get “the news” like Jesus did. And upon hearing this, we may want to withdraw, like Jesus did. The news is different for every person. You feel a lump. You receive the divorce paperwork. A neighbor sends you a picture of a tree crashing through your living room. Someone calls you and whatever they say blurs out your vision and you are in a dark tunnel somewhere between before and after. And in those moments, what if this story were fully there for us? What if it were able to remind us when we needed it most that on the heels of tragedy the world experienced God’s wild generosity? To be able to say to your wounded soul, “the feast is coming”? That is what is here.

            Another hidden character in this story is Nothing. I am not trying to be cute with this. Nothing is a major player in this story. Nothing is what the crowd had to eat. Nothing is what was near that deserted place. Nothing groaned from thousands of stomachs. Nothing is what the disciples thought they could do. Nothing is very powerful, because nothing can turn a polite gathering into a scary mob. We tend to call it scarcity but that is just a modern word for being unacceptably close to nothing.

            At some point in our lives, we will also face the big nothing. Maybe it’s a stack of job applications that led to nothing. Or a ton of work on a relationship that seemed to add up to nothing. Nothing in the bank account. Nothing on the calendar. Nothing we can do for someone we love. Nothing the doctors can do at this point. Nothing to stop the political dysfunction. As Edie Brickell says, “There’s nothing I hate more than nothing. Nothing keeps me up at night. I toss and turn over nothing. Northing could cause a great big fight.” In those moments of hot powerlessness, what if we had this story as a reminder when we needed it most that nothing is always something. What if it could move us from despair to inventory? That is what is here.

            In our story, the disciples had nothing but… nothing but two fish and five loaves. As is always the case, they had something. The word nothing here was less a statement of fact than an acknowledgement of what they had already deemed insufficient or uncertain. If you want to know the scariest terrain for any human heart, it is insufficiency and uncertainty. I know what that sounds like. “If I share two fish and five loaves, there is no way it will get past these folks over here. Then, every single person here will be upset. Then, they will call me unprepared and reckless. The people over there will feel slighted I didn’t start with them and will never forgive me. We could be facing a brawl, or worse, disappointment, which is absolutely intolerable, because it means we will not only be hungry. We will be alone. We will be rejected. That means the safest plan is to share nothing.

            But thank God we know how the story goes: Jesus says “bring them here to me.” And the disciples share what they have, which is not nothing. And then everyone eats. 5000 men, plus at least that many women and children. And there are leftovers, broken but beautiful. 12 baskets. 12 being the perfect number throughout Scripture. There is something cosmic and gorgeous happening here that dazzled people such that every Gospel account includes this story. In terms of details, accounts of this miracle are even more consistent than those of Easter morning. Now, some scholars like to say that the miracle was the fact that everyone there spontaneously shared food they had been withholding, but I doubt that would have registered as powerfully as this event did. It was miraculous. It was irreducible.

            And even so, I suspect that we have heard sermons about miracles and abundance often enough that we need to see this story from another angle. We need to notice the miracles from the margins as well. And I believe that this story gleams even more when we see its location smack dab in between personal tragedy and our everyday recognizable fear.

            Last week, I arrived at church on the heels of a long night. A huge storm had flicked over giant poplars in our neighborhood like chess pieces. Suddenly, people we knew well were among the millions in the world whose lives were upended because of violent weather, grabbing their belongings, leaving their homes, and cast completely onto the kindness of others. Now, I was not nearly as shaken as I imagine Jesus was when he heard that the great tree of John the Baptist had been felled by Herod, but I did feel in my bones the nearness of the world’s tragedy.

            And then there was the fact that the power outage had thrown off my routine. I arrived at church, saying, “Lord, I’ve got nothing. No power in my house. No coffee in my system.” And then I noticed I had no laptop which meant no sermon in my bag. Even though I had time enough to drive home to retrieve it, last Sunday in my pink dress, I felt like Blooper Show Barbie.

            Little did I know, tragedy and nothing were setting the stage, waiting in the wings, for another miracle to come into view.

            In the multitudes buzzing around the Gathering Space were two familiar faces from my former church, Jean and Johnny Fulton. Johnny had spent more than a decade of his life lost to addiction. You’ve heard me mention him. For months at a time, he’d go missing. His mom, Jean, had prayed he’d go to jail because jail would safer than wherever he was. He’s part of why I care so much about behavioral health. But then last Fall, I started hearing this incredible news. Johnny was home again and doing the hard work of sobriety. Judy, an adorable 80-year-old former congregant, emailed me to say she’d hired Johnny to assemble her squat machine from Amazon and other odd jobs. I know she also appreciates the company. Her email said, “Becca, I asked him what changed him, and he said, two things: his dog and church.” She added, “So I just want you to know, if you ever wonder if what you do matters, it does.”

            Back in the Gathering Space, I said, “Johnny, oh my word, it’s amazing to see you. Did you know you were my Easter sermon this year?” Johnny said he did. Both his mom and Judy had told him. Then he said, “I’m working at Great Harvest Bread Company now. While I was incarcerated, I had nothing but time, so I learned to bake bread. It’s kind of cool. I baked the bread for Easter communion this year.” I said, “Because of course you did. Loaves for the multitudes, that’s just perfect.” He had known tragedy, it was inked on his hands. He had known nothing, nothing but time, and he found himself doling out the bread.

            So, dear ones, when tragedy is breathing heavy near you, when you want nothing more than to retreat, to turn it off, to send it all away, or when fear tells you there is nothing, nothing you can do, take heart: that is where the invitation comes from Christ. To give. To see something that you hadn’t before. To show up. To take part in the miracle. Madeline L’Engle says, “Some things have to be believed to be seen.” And I will take that one step further. Because God is so good, and because God knows what we can stomach, some things have to be tasted to be believed. The gifts of God for the people of God.

            Thanks be to God.