Sally has six tangerines

(Sermon for August 3, 2008 || Proper 13, Year A RCL || Matthew 14:13-21)

“We have nothing here.”

This is the disciples response to Jesus’ preposterous notion that they might possibly find enough food to feed all these people—five thousand men plus countless women and children. They followed Jesus here to this desert to be near him, to feel his compassion and his healing touch. They followed Jesus here and now the evening has come and the crowd is restless, hungry, pressing in. The place is deserted: there’s no vendor anywhere. The hour is late: there’s no time to search. The crowd is massive: there’s no food anyway, not even for the disciples.

“We have nothing here.”

The disciples rummage in empty rucksacks, hoping that a further perfunctory exploration of their food stores will mollify Jesus. “They need not go away,” he had said. “You give them something to eat,” he had said. But they aren’t expecting us to feed them; we’re under no obligation. Furthermore, we can’t give what we don’t have! And…

“We have nothing here!”

To punctuate their point, they turn over the last rucksack and shake it… “Oh, except for a few loaves and a couple fish.” They count them: five squashed loaves, two dry fish. They trace figures in the air—so that’s one loaf per thousand men and two-fifths of a fish. They raise doubtful eyebrows when Jesus asks them to bring him these pitiful scrapings from the bottom of that last rucksack. They start chuckling, but their laughter dies when they look at Jesus’ face. They’ve seen that look before. They know what it means. They bring him the loaves. They bring him the fish. And they wait, incredulous but expectant.

“We have nothing here.” The world suffocates us with this lie so often that we forget we ever knew how to breathe. You will have no friends until you wear this catalogue. You will have no transportation until you drive this luxury car. You will have no romance until you purchase this diamond. You will have no beauty until after your gastric bypass.

“We have nothing here.” Suffocation leads to apathy and apathy leads to hopelessness. And hopelessness drives away from us any thought that we can participate in changing the world.

“We have nothing here.” These are hopeless words, empty words, words incapable of carrying promise or releasing imagination. These words stifle creativity and leave no space for the deep breath of blessing.

But Jesus invites us to take this deep breath with him when he says: “Bring them here to me.” The disciples take him the measly offering: five loaves and two fish. With no thought about how comically small an amount of food this meal is, Jesus looks up to heaven and blesses the offering. Then he breaks the bread and cuts up the fish. He hands the blessed food to his disciples, and they give it the crowds. And they keep giving away the food and giving it away and giving it away. All the people have their fill, and the disciples gather up quite a bit more than they began with.

This is, of course, not how math usually works. Math usually works like this: Sally has six tangerines. She gives Joe two of her tangerines. How many tangerines does Sally have? Four. Right. But the counterintuitive nature of Jesus’ blessing learned a different kind of math. Sally has six blessings. She gives Joe six of her blessings. How many blessings do Joe and Sally have? 12? 36? I’m unsure of the exact equation, but the mathematics of Jesus’ blessing always add and multiply; they never subtract or divide.

When Jesus offers blessing, say, in the form of bread broken and shared, Jesus offers himself. When we take him in, Jesus nourishes us with his blessing so we can bring that blessing to others. When we sing, we can lift our voices in one great song. When we tear down our walls, we can share our lives with one another. When we serve God in the world, we can demonstrate that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. And blessing will spread and grow and multiply. When we share Jesus’ blessing in the form of our gifts and talents, we participate in Jesus’ divine math and discover that Jesus never exhausts his blessing.

The disciples fail this math lesson when they say, “We have nothing here,” because they do, in fact, have something! They have five loaves and two fish, which is seven more than nothing. In Jesus’ day, seven was a number of perfection, a number that signaled completion. So, the disciples miss another math class: 5+ 2 = Completion. They had the exact amount they needed, once Jesus’ blessing got hold of the food. But the disciples were too busy worrying about the nothing they thought they had to notice the something they had.

We have something here.

We have five loaves and two fish. Sure, they are a bit squashed and bit a dry. But we have them. Jesus, what can you do with them? You can bless them and break them and share them, and your nourishing sustenance can overflow through this deserted place.

We have something here.

We have a group of people who have come together to praise your name, O LORD, and to share in your blessing. They are fewer than, perhaps than there has been in years past, but they are here. Jesus, what can you do with them? Your blessing flows into and out of our hearts. Your gifts inspire us and your love moves us to serve in your name. And your nourishing sustenance overflows through this gathering.

We have something here.

We have all the good gifts Christ has given us. We have the grace and the energy to use those gifts to serve God in this world, this world that tries to suffocate us with the lie that we have nothing. But this lie vanishes when we take that deep breath of blessing, which comes from the Spirit of Christ. Christ blesses us in the breaking of the bread, and when we share that blessing it spreads and grows and multiplies. Thanks be to the God who blesses us to be blessings in the world.

We have something here.

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