Last weekend, I began the sermon by reminding people of an expression one of our retried Pastors used to use. He said, "Many people want to serve God, but only in an advisory capacity!"
After all, it would be a lot easier if all we needed to do to serve God and make the world a better place was to give God some helpful advice and then let God sort it all out. But our relationship with God doesn't work like that, and one reason is that Jesus won't put up with it!
In today's Gospel reading, the disciples literally try to serve God in an advisory capacity, and they don't get away with it! The story begins as Jesus decides to go to a deserted place to pray and reflect after he hears about the beheading of John the Baptist. So he got into a boat with his disciples and headed across the lake.
The lake's not that big, so it wasn't hard to figure out where the boat was going. People saw where they were going, and they journeyed around the lake to where Jesus ended up - more than 5000 of them. And as much as Jesus wanted to be alone, when he saw the crowd, he had compassion on them. He taught them; he healed their sick. And the disciples apparently just sat there and watched.
So at the end of this long day of just sitting there and watching, the disciples decide to give Jesus some helpful advice. After all, they're his friends and everything! As though Jesus couldn't figure out that this was a deserted place, and that it was late in the day, they helpfully point this out to Jesus and suggest that the crowds be sent away so that they can go and buy food for themselves. Oh, and notice they don't offer to do this FOR Jesus - they just suggest that Jesus should do it!
"Gee, thanks for the advice", Jesus counters. "But let's do this instead: YOU give them something to eat." And continuing in their quest to give good advice to Jesus, they tell him that all they've got is 5 loaves of bread (which is probably about as big as one of the pita loaves we use for communion) and 2 fish. The math just won't work.
And of course, they're right. The math just doesn't work out. If this is going to happen at all, it'll take a miracle that only Jesus can do. And as the story unfolds, Jesus DOES perform a miracle. Everybody is fed, and there's food left over. But Jesus only does this miracle through the active participation of his disciples. They can't simply be spectators. And they can't simply be advisors.
And it may be that because the disciples actually participated in this miracle - instead of just watching Jesus do it - that it was remembered so well. In fact, this is the ONLY miracle that Jesus performed that's reported in all 4 Gospels ...
And so a piece of this miracle - besides getting everyone fed - was that Jesus was actually able to get his disciples to be active participants in what he was doing, instead of thinking of themselves as spectators or advisors.
And that means that Jesus was using the opportunity of this situation to prod his disciples to:
- Be willing to address a problem that seemed too much for them to deal with, instead of literally telling the "problem" to go away...
- Focus on what they had to deal with the problem, instead of grousing about how bad the problem was ...
- Take action to address the problem, even when they couldn't see how their actions would really make much of a difference ... (Jesus didn't say, "Hey, I'm gonna do a miracle"; They only saw that afterwards...)
And a piece of what this miracle means for us, as modern disciples of Jesus, is that Jesus is also calling us to be active participants in what he's doing in our lives and in the life of the world. We're not just supposed to be spectators or advisors. We're called to be people who so trust in God's presence and love that we're willing to be disciples who:
- Address problems that seem too much for us to deal with - this is the first thing that makes me want to just throw up my hands and walk away (or hope the problems go away). I see, and I read about, all the ways our world is a mess. And I can't solve those problems any more than one of those first disciples could feed 5000 people; the question Jesus asks me - and asks you - isn't whether I can fix it. The first question is simply whether I'm willing to not walk away...
- Focus on what we have to address the problem - I know that when I face what seems like an insurmountable problem, I look at what I have and realize that I don't have what can fix it (it feels like even less than 5 loaves and 2 fish); And then, I spend an enormous amount of time and energy grousing about how little I have or how little I can do; the question Jesus asks me - and you - isn't how much we have, but whether we're willing to use what we have ...
- Take action to address the problem, even if it doesn't seem to make a difference in the big picture - I know that often I ask, "what's the sense of spending my time and energy and money if it doesn't seem like it'll make that much of a difference?"; but the question Jesus asks me - and you - isn't whether we think we can fix the problem, but whether we're willing to take what we have and actually do something ...
And I don't know if Jesus will ever take something I do and work a miracle through it. But I do know that Jesus does work through our actions. And if I don't act, I'll probably never really be a part of anything significant that Jesus is doing in my life.
Jesus' miracles - like all of Jesus' life - were not intended to be spectator events. And they weren't intended to be moral examples so we could give God, or each other, helpful advice.
Instead, Jesus intended them to be a call to action. They were the inbreaking of God's kingdom into the life of the world. They were invitations to his disciples to be active participants in the new things God was doing.
And they're also Jesus' reminders to us that, if we actually want to see and experience God in our lives, we need to be active participants in what Jesus is still doing in us and in the world around us.