For several weeks we have been focusing on the teachings of Jesus. And in a few weeks we're going to work through some of the parables of Jesus. But here for a couple weeks we're going to do some actual stories about Jesus himself and the things he did, not just what he said. By the time we get to chapter 14 this morning, we are halfway through the gospel of Matthew, and at this point, something really terrible happens. John the Baptist is killed by Herod. Jesus cousin and his friend, the one who baptized him, the one after whom Jesus originally modeled his message. They both were saying, "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near." Jesus takes John's death very hard and immediately tries to get away to grieve, but the crowds don't let him. And from this point on, Jesus begins to shift what he says and does. This is the first hint that the way into the Kingdom might not be all sunshine and puppies. The death of John the Baptizer is a glimpse, a foreshadowing of what Jesus himself will experience. It is not until after John's death that Jesus begins to foretell his own death. The stories we are going to hear this morning are some of Jesus's most famous miracles, but don't forget as you hear them that they happen in the context of grief and transition for Jesus.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 14:13-33
Three voices: Narrator, Jesus, Disciple/Peter
Narrator: When Jesus heard that John the Baptizer was dead, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
When evening came, the disciples came to him and said,
Disciple: “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late.
Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
Jesus: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
Disciple: “We have nothing here, except five loaves of bread and two fish.”
Jesus: “Bring them here to me.”
Narrator: And Jesus directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, plus women and children.
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.
After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, being tortured by the waves because the wind was against it. In the darkest part of the night, Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, crying out in fear:
Disciple: “It’s a ghost.”
Narrator: But Jesus immediately said to them:
Jesus: “Take courage! I AM. Fear not.”
Peter: Lord, if it’s you tell me to come to you on the water.”
Jesus: “Come, Peter.”
Narrator: Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the mighty wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out,
Peter: “Lord, save me!”
Narrator: Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him, saying:
Jesus: “You of little faith why did you doubt?”
Narrator: And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying,
Peter: “Truly you are the Son of God.”
How do we make decisions? How do we decide what to believe and what to do? What or who has authority in our life? That word, "authority," has the root word "author." So the question is, Who gets to author our lives? What is the standard we use for deciding what goes in our life stories?
For many years, the Christian community has recognized four main sources of authority, four different things we consult when deciding what to do and what to believe. We can remember them using the word "REST."
The R stands for reason. We use insight from science and we take a rational approach to whatever the question is.
The E stands for experience, specifically your personal experience. We consider what our past tells us about the present.
The S stands for Scripture. We look for wisdom in our sacred texts that has bearing on the situation.
And the T stands for tradition. We consider how the people in our tribe, whether that's our family or the church, we consider how have they handled situations like this in the past.
Reason. Experience. Scripture. And Tradition. The primary sources of authority in our lives, especially when it comes to doctrine (what we believe) and ethics (how we live). Now you may have other sources of authority, or you may phrase them differently, but these are the main ones that most of us use.
We all use them in different combinations and different situations. One person may always start with Scripture and another with personal experience, but probably at some point when making a decision, we think about all four: reason, experience, scripture and tradition.
Now why am I bringing this up? Because both of the stories we read today are about miracles. And when the subject of miracles comes up in American churches in our denomination and with our demographics, many people immediately want to ask the question, "Did that actually happen?" By which we mean, "If I had a video of it, would I be able to see exactly what is described in the Bible story?" And what I want to point out is that the way we answer that question depends on which source of authority we use.
For example. If reason is your main authority, you will say "No, that did not happen." Food cannot be replicated and humans cannot stand on top of liquid water. Maybe there's another explanation for the same result, or maybe this was written for another reason, but it didn't happen like this. OK.
However if Scripture is your main authority, you will say, "Yes, it happened exactly like it's written." The Bible says what it says and means what it means. Jesus could do things that defy reason.
What if personal experience is your main authority? Well you might say "No, it didn't happen, because I've never seen anything like that." OR you might say, "Yes, I think it did happen because I have had experiences in my life that defy reason."
Now, in a congregation like ours, we recognize that all of those answers are valid. But the challenge is, in a congregation like ours, none of those answers are going to bring us together. We are a mishmash of people who believe different things about Jesus and the world. And we are all just crazy enough to keep worshipping with people who think differently from ourselves because we know that actually helps us grow in spiritual maturity. But if I stand up here and answer this question based on reason or scripture or experience, some of you are going to spend the rest of the sermon thinking about how you disagree with whatever I've just said.
Thankfully, we have another source of authority to consider. What if we think about this from the standpoint of tradition, specifically Christian tradition? When asked whether the miracles happened, Christian tradition would actually say, <shrug!> "I don't really know and that's not the point, because the miracle is not the end of the story; it's part of the bigger story." Whether it "happened" or not, this is a story that our ancestors in the faith found important enough that they passed it down. It's one of the few things that shows up in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For 2,000 years, our people have been finding themselves in these stories.
Stories are powerful, not because they teach us facts but because they teach us truth. Author Neil Gaiman says "Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated." If we stopped reading a story as soon as we got to something we didn't accept, we'd miss the point of the story.
So this morning, I invite you to consider what these two stories have to teach us about abundance. The word abundance comes from the Latin word for large waves. Abundance is having not just enough, but more than enough, extravagance, overflowing. Another story about Jesus quotes him saying that he came that we may have life and have it abundantly.
Now according to the advertising industry, abundant life means abundant money, sex, and power, which we get by being young and attractive and fully able-bodied. There's a religious version of that called the prosperity gospel, which is basically the same cake with Jesus frosting on top. However, that's not what we see in the actual stories of the life of Jesus and his followers. He, and they, and we experience plenty of sickness, poverty, grief, and strain. But that doesn't mean that we can't also simultaneously be living abundant lives. Jesus doesn't promise us abundant stuff; he promises us abundant life. Earlier in the book of Matthew Jesus says, "Life is more than food and the body is more than clothing."
When we are living with abundance, it spreads to those around us. People are drawn to Christ because of what they see in our lives. When we exhibit peace and joy, regardless of our circumstances, we can expect to see this church continue to grow as our friends and family come looking for what they see manifested in our lives.
So what keeps us from abundance? Fear. Especially the fear of scarcity. Some psychologists believe that there are really only two basic human motivations: fear and love. Everything we do, we do out of love or out of fear. When we act in love, we experience abundance. When we act in fear, we experience the very scarcity we are trying to avoid. This we see in both our stories today. When Jesus asks the disciples what they have to feed the people, they say, "We have nothing ... <mutters> except this little bit and we can't share that because it's not enough for everyone and if we give it to other people, we won't have enough for ourselves." With Jesus there is no such thing as "nothing, but." Whatever we have is enough for him to work with. To experience abundance, we must start with the assumption that what we have is already enough.
Because whenever Jesus gets involved, there's always MORE than enough. There's 12 baskets-full-leftover enough. It's an interesting pattern that the miracles of provision in the Old Testament include people having enough but the stories of Jesus's provision include people having more than enough. Like, stupid extravagant amounts. The best wine saved for last and plenty of it. Catches of fish that strain the nets and almost sink the boats. Meals with a leftovers for days. It's as if God wants us to begin to expect abundance in our lives, to the point where we stop being afraid of scarcity.
But unlearning that fear takes time. To experience abundance, we must practice courage. Take Peter for example. He handed out food at that miraculous feeding. He caught more fish than his boat could hold. He'd even been in a boat when Jesus calmed a storm before. And yet, he still sinks. BUT the important thing is that he makes progress. He had enough faith to get out of the boat and across the water almost to Jesus. He was doing it! He accepted Jesus's invitation to take courage and fear not. So what happened? Friends, as cliché as it sounds, the story says that Peter started to sink when he took his eyes off Jesus. He noticed the wind, he started paying more attention to his situation than to Jesus, and he started to sink.
And Jesus let him drown because he failed. No! Jesus gets right to him, pulls him back up, and walks with him to the boat. Peter cries out, "Lord, save me." (Same word we always use for salvation.) And Jesus says, "You betcha. I've got you." Jesus honored the growth he saw in Peter. Now, Jesus does gives Peter a little nudge by calling him Jesus's favorite nickname for the disciples. Our Bibles translate it, "Ye of little faith." It's actually one word in Greek: o-lee-go-piss-tee. Matthew makes this word up because it's only found in the Bible and he uses it five different times in his book. Jesus lifted Peter up and said, "Whoa there, Mr. Tiny-Trust, when are you gonna make up your mind?" Why did you doubt? What's with you trying to look at two things at the same time? That's what the Greek word for doubt means.
Abundance is always our choice. Even if it looks like there's not enough, choose abundance. Even if you're in a stormy situation, choose abundance. The word we translate faith means trust, like the kind of trust you have in your family and friends. Every time we decide to trust that Jesus is who he says he is, that we are fully loved and cherished, that we already have more than enough, and that we have nothing to fear—every time we do that, we will experience God's abundant life, and we will spread it around. Amen.