At first glance, it might appear that we have two Gospel readings today, two different stories. One is about the feeding of the five thousand, and the other is the story of Jesus walking on water. But I think they are actually one story, because ultimately they both come down to the same core issue, the same core theme of fear and trust.
In the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples have a lot of fear. We’re not quite sure what their fear is, they might not even know themselves. They could be afraid of a hungry, angry crowd—a “hangry” crowd, if you will. They also seem to be afraid that maybe Jesus is going to go make them buy some food, and if they buy the food it won’t be enough for the hangry crowd, and they will end up broke at the same time. So maybe they’re afraid of going broke, I don’t know. But they are afraid in this moment, and Jesus takes the fear that they have and uses it as an opportunity to teach them about trust. He takes those five loaves and those two fish and he uses that to feed the multitude of five thousand people. The Lord will provide. In the midst of their fear, the Lord will provide what they need.
There are two common interpretations of how this miracle happens. One is the supernatural explanation: Jesus is the incarnation of God and of course has the power to multiply the bread and the fish so there is enough for everybody. That is one interpretation. The other interpretation is that the boy was not the only one with food in that crowd, but he was the only one willing to admit that he had food and was willing to share it with others. The boy is the only one without fear in this story. Like the disciples, the people were full of fear, but when they see Jesus begin to distribute the boy’s food, some of them begin to loosen up and share as well. As that goes on more and more people share until by the end, all the people, who in their fear had been hoarding everything they had, there was ultimately enough to feed everybody. There was not just enough, but there were twelve baskets left over. That is another interpretation of this story.
The Gospel story does not tell us how the five thousand were fed, but that is not the point of the story. The point of the story is that the Lord is going to provide in the midst of the fear. Whether the disciples fear, or the fear of the crowd, in both situations it’s about the Lord teaching the people how to trust.
The story then continues on the boat on the lake when a storm comes and threatens to sink the boat and take their lives. In this past week when I have been preparing for this sermon, I can’t help but think of those people on the lake in Missouri on the Duckboat who drowned when a storm suddenly came up. It’s the same kind of thing for the disciples here: a storm comes up suddenly and threatens their lives. They are desperately rowing and trying to get to shore, and are sore afraid. In the midst of that, Jesus shows up, and the story says they go from fear to terror. They do not know how Jesus can suddenly show up there on the sea—he must be walking on water, and they do not know what that means and it is very scary for them. In the midst of all this fear, Jesus says it is I. Do not be afraid. You can imagine Jesus wanting to grab them by the shoulders and say don’t you get it, yet? Don’t you understand what happened by the seashore with the feeding of the five thousand? The Lord will provide. In the midst of all the fears that you have, the Lord will provide.
It’s an ancient story, isn’t it? Fear wasn’t new to the disciples; fear is not new to us. Abraham and Sarah had their fears and their issues with trust. Fear and trust. They of course started with trust: they gave up everything for the promise that God made for them. They went off on their journey, leaving their home, leaving their family, leaving everything they had to trust in the Lord. As time wore on and the promise did not come through, they began to fear, and the Lord had to come back to them and say trust in me. They said OK, we will trust again. And then more years go by, and again the Lord has to come and say trust in me. This goes on over and over again: the fear and the trust, the fear and the trust, the fear and the trust, until finally they have that baby that God had promised. And then what does God do? God says to throw it all away, and go up on the mountain and make a sacrifice. Fear and trust.
It is the same story for Moses up on another mountain. That burning bush calls out to him, the voice of the Lord saying Go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go. Moses is full of fear at that moment. He has been told to go confront the most powerful man in the entire world and say let my people go. Moses has a whole litany of fears. But to this litany of fears, God has a whole litany of promises, a litany of responses to trust in God. Fear and trust. Moses does it, he gets the people out of Egypt and into the wilderness where there is again fear because the people have no bread, they have no water, and they are sorely afraid for their lives in the wilderness. Can’t we be in slavery, for at least we had onions to eat? Fear and trust. And the Lord provides the water they need, the food they need. I think the wilderness story is one big lesson in fear and trust. The food the Lord provides is only enough food for the day, forcing the people to trust in the day-by-day providence of God to give them what they need. In their fear, which they have been working on for forty years and which keeps coming back, they try to hoard that food. But it doesn’t work, and God is not very happy about that. He teaches them to trust in the midst of their fears, day by day.
It’s the same story with Esther who has to save her people from the new most powerful man in the world, the King of Babylon. She has to go to him and say that Haman is trying to kill my people and trying to kill me. Do you really want that to happen? She is sorely afraid, and has to learn to trust in God.
It’s the same story for Mary. When that angel comes and says don’t be afraid, Mary is afraid, because you never know what is going to happen when an angel shows up. She becomes more afraid, because the thing the angel asks of her is one of the scariest things in the entire world. A teenage, unwed woman? We all know what that means. It is going to be, at the very best, scandalous for her family and to her community, and in that culture, it could also put her very life at risk. Fear and trust. Mary learns how to say let it be with me according to your word, to trust in God.
That’s what the disciples are encountering today: to learn about fear and trust. In all of their fears—of the crowd, of going broke, of the storm on the lake—they have to learn to trust that God will be with them. God will be with them, not only to provide them what they need, but there will be twelve baskets left over. Fear and trust.
I’ve noticed that in all of these stories, God never says the fears are unfounded; God never says that it is ridiculous that you are afraid. No. God says that in the midst of this fear that is very rational—it’s rational to think that a ninety year old woman is not going to have a baby; it’s rational to think that Moses is not going to stand up to Pharaoh and his army, or that they will not find enough food or water in the desert; it’s rational for Esther to think that the King is going to follow the laws and kill her; it’s rational for Mary to think it is not a wise idea to get pregnant before she is married; it’s rational for the disciples to think this is too many people for us to feed and this storm is too dangerous—these are all rational, reasonable fears. God is not demeaning their anxieties and their worries, but is saying I am in the midst of them. It is I. Do not be afraid. I will provide. It might not be as you think it may be, but I will provide.
It is the same story for us. This story is our story. In all the fears that we have, which are all reasonable—fears for our children and our grandchildren, fears of loneliness, fears of hopelessness and despair, fears of losing a job or not getting a job, fears of going broke, fears of earthquakes, fears of wildfires—there is so much to easily be afraid of in this life. And God is saying that we need to learn to trust in the midst of it all, that the God who created this world, the God who came down to be one of us and experience every aspect of our lives, the God who works through the Holy Spirit in us is working something out, something for good, something that will leave twelve baskets of leftovers for us. Fear and trust.