Scripture Texts: 2 Kings 4:1-7 and Luke 9:10-17
Limited. It is a word we don’t like to think about placing upon ourselves. I know as I get older, the limits in life seem to be much more apparent then they were even five years ago. In college, I could pull all-nighters and not have them phase me a bit. Now, if I don’t get that eight hours of sleep, life seems bleak. Too much coffee has become too good of a friend. Lucas helps me realize how much energy I don’t have. Where does all his energy come from, as he runs around the couch for the umpteenth time and I sit on the couch, hands wrapped around my coffee cup, smiling, getting exhausted by just watching him? The only thing right now that seems to be unlimited is the number that pops up on the scale in the bathroom.
In our text this morning, we read about a situation where the disciples feel they have hit the limits in their ministry. The feeding of the 5000 is one of those rare stories we find mentioned in all four gospels. Let us hear the Word of the Lord…
Read Luke 9:10-17
The disciples have just returned from this incredible experience where Jesus has sent them out through all the countryside and villages to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom, cast out demons, and cure diseases. People came to them, and they taught as Jesus had taught and healed as Jesus had healed. The disciples had touched people, and they were made well. They had never experienced anything like it. And when the disciples were done, they came back to Jesus, filled with excitement. Jesus was then taking them to Bethsaida, probably to discuss what had happened, but probably more for the same reasons that prompted his own retreats after busy periods of ministry: prayer and renewal as well as to deal with the temptation that can arise from public praise.
But the retreat is to be short lived. Word spread that Jesus and his band were headed to Bethsaida. And many, many came from the surrounding country side, from the villages and towns, and interrupted this spiritual retreat. One of the things we learn about Jesus during these ‘interrupted’ moments is he doesn’t send people away or say “I’ll get back to you.” He deals with those in front of him. In this case, he welcomes them, teaching and healing.
As the sun starts to sink low in the western sky, the disciples begin to mumble. “How many people are here?” Peter whispers to John. “I don’t know, thousands, maybe, but they keep on coming. Look, there are a dozen more coming down the road.” Philip looks over, “They can’t stay out here all night long.” Now, their mumblings are about genuine concern for these people. Here they were, hungry for food and a good word, in the wilderness, with sunset quickly approaching. If Jesus would just stop talking, this crowd could disband; they could go into the surrounding villages and find food and shelter. All twelve of them approach Jesus, pull him aside, and tell him to send the crowd away so they can find food and lodging.
But it is hard to say exactly how they respond to what Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” Do they laugh? Do they cry? What little they had was planned to be shared among Jesus and the disciples that night. Dinner of bread and fish for thirteen. Luke tells us there are five thousand men present. That doesn’t include the women and the children. There easily could have been over ten thousand people there. As Peter looks down at the loaf of bread he is assigned to carry, and then up at the ocean of faces looking toward him, he must have realized how limited he really was.
When we look out at the world, in many ways we feel like what we have in our hands for resources seems very limited, just like Peters. I read an article recently from a fellow seminary student who thought going to seminary would allow her to figure out how to get the resources together, especially across denominational lines, so that, quote, “we could stand together to transform our society into the reign of God that Jesus came to establish.” After three years, especially after taking church history, and learning just why we are such a divided church, she realized it wasn’t that easy. Maybe we need a new program or a new fund, something more that we can put into our hands for resources to reach out to others and take care of this problem! And week after week, people are turned away because there is no money left in that new fund. Or someone leaves the church because they are burned out after they end up caring the weight of that program entirely on their own shoulders. We are limited, especially when we try to do it all, especially all by ourselves.
Peter felt limited. That is understandable. There were a lot of people there, how could this measly amount of bread and fish feed more than just a few people? But Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to feed this multitude of thousands of people to overwhelm them, he knows how limited they are as individuals. He asks them to do it because he knows what they are capable of doing through him. Peter seems to have forgotten the work that he had been empowered to accomplish, in and through the one who had sent him out to proclaim the good news and to heal in the villages. Only through Jesus were the disciples capable of doing this great work of ministry and compassion. On his own, Peter would have stayed a fisherman. On his own, Matthew would have still been a tax collector. Each disciple is a limited human being with limited resources.
But when a limited person with limited resources gets in the hands of an unlimited God, watch out! Jesus asks his disciples to have the people sit in groups of fifty. See what is happening? Jesus again uses the disciples as instruments through which his will can be accomplished. Then, Jesus takes those five loaves of bread and those two fish, looks up to heaven, and blesses and breaks them. As he hands the broken pieces to the disciples, we can hear him say, “Peter, you give them something to eat. All that they need, I am placing in your hands.” “John, you give that group under that tree something to eat. All that they need, I am placing in your hands.” “Philip, you see that group with all the children sitting over there? You take your bread and fish to them. All that they need, I am putting in your hands.” “Bartholomew, take this bread and fish and give them to that group of widows over there. All that they need, I am placing in your hands.” And on and on Jesus went, handing the broken pieces of the bread and fish to his disciples so that they could give all who were there, men, women and children, something to eat. And all ate and were filled. And there were leftovers, enough leftovers that each disciple had an entire basket of bread. It was almost as if Jesus was telling them, “In what little you thought you held in your hands, God has brought much.”
Friends, the good news of this text is that in Christ, we are capable of great things. The apostle Paul says it this way in Philippians: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Christ is capable of using our limited humanity to affect this church and this community. God can even use us to change the world in Christ and with Christ. God gives us what we need to accomplish his work with him.
When you look down at your hands, do you see limiting age, hands that are weathered by the years, hands that are incapable of doing God’s work in the world? God sees those hands differently, God sees them holding another hand, the hand of child, as stories are told and wisdom is shared. God sees those hands folded in prayer, and God sees those hands serving a meal to strangers and welcoming friends. When you look down at your hands, do you see the hands of youth, hands that seem too young to offer anything? God sees them differently. God sees them reaching out to those who need a steady hand, God sees them playing with the lonely, and God sees them holding a paint brush putting stain on a fence. When you look at your hands, do you see just plain, empty hands with nothing to offer? God sees them filled with the life that he has given you, God sees them filled with the resources he has given you. God sees them as the hands of Christ, reaching out to a world in great need of not just hearing about God’s love, but of being filled. Filled with God’s love as the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the outcast welcomed back home.
If you are worn out from doing the work of the church, I don’t want you to hear this message as a need to ask God for more resolve so you can plow back into whatever ministry that has wiped you out in the first place. Accepting your limits while at the same time accepting Christ’s promise to use those limits to do extraordinary things with your life takes discernment, prayer, and thoughtful action. It means asking the Holy Spirit to guide you, that your hands are doing the work that Christ has called you and empowered you to do. We need to be sure what we are doing is not following after the desires of our own hearts, but following the will of God. And just as important, it means acting as part of a community. Notice that Jesus didn’t just send one disciple to feed the crowds, leaving the other eleven standing back watching or off on some other task. He sent them all. He sent them all together to serve those in need, to do the ministry he was calling, leading, and guiding them to do. There are no Lone Rangers when it comes to doing Christ’s work in the world. It takes all of us.
After church today, we as a congregation will be attending the Stewardship Commitment Lunch so the church can put together next years’ budget, a living document which attempts to account for how we will seek to be faithful to God’s gifts as a community. It is fitting that we have heard this story today, as Jesus calls us to give of ourselves and our resources, even within our limited means and then watch what he can do in and through us. No matter how limited we feel we are, when we have invited God into our lives, when we dwell with God in prayer, relying on the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, God will always do more with us than we could ever expect.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
 Pierce, Denise. Article titled “What I’ve Learned in Seminary,” from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary Windows. Summer 2010. Page 6.