Preaching on this well-worn text may not be what gets us preachers excited. There are no tough translational issues to work out and very few clever linguistic hoops to jump through. Wesley’s only note on this passage is in v. 15—to remind us that it was after the usual meal-time. Thanks, John. I’m glad we started a movement based on your insight (eye-roll emoji).
And yet this is the only miracle that shows up in all four gospels. Even the Lord’s Supper doesn’t get that kind of treatment. The story is brief and dense. Jesus runs from the masses who seek him out anyway and he has compassion on them. But contrary to pop-psychology/theology, Jesus is not trying to escape exertion (sorry, introverts). He is trying to move into a wilderness place (eremon topon, ἔρημον τόπον). He is acting as a new Moses, who crosses the waters into the wilderness with the crowds and, by God’s intervention, meets their physical need with a miracle. He seems, like Moses, reticent to take on the role. But once he is there and the people are there and his disciples (who would make wonderful executive pastors, wouldn’t they?) are there, Jesus is just doing a basic thing. Serving bread and fish. He takes a boy’s lunch and, like manna and quail from dust and dew, makes a satisfying meal for everyone from two fish and five loaves.
We could spend time on the wondrous image of overflowing baskets and we could talk about the overflowing grace of God. We could preach the faith of that little boy to offer his lunch, although I frankly don’t understand why it took faith. He walked all that way here to hear Jesus teach. Why wouldn’t he offer his food to him when he was asked? We could even spend our final point reminding the church that Matthew did not forget the culturally more vulnerable women and children.
But everything in this passage really points to the Church, from the typology of Jesus as the new Moses to the manna/quail and bread/fish parallel to the very numbers of the baskets—12 baskets of broken bread held by the 12 apostles who constitute the beginning of the new Israel, the Church, and will serve the church that broken bread in the Eucharist. And all of this happens in the wilderness, a desolate place—a literal food desert.
We have a tendency in our liberal evangelical circles to affirm the miracles without expecting miracle. We want to say Yes to the historicity of the miracle in our ordination interviews and then pastor like the disciples who make sure everyone is home in time for lunch. Just once, I would like to see us give that up. I would like to see us counsel a divorcing couple with the words of the Resurrection. I would like to see us preach to horny, confused, selfish teenagers with the idea of resourcing them for celibacy and merciful action in the world. I would like to see us expect sanctity from each other and our church members and not really be satisfied until we get there. The Church itself is a miracle. That we continue to gather and worship week after week in a world where there is little practical reason to do so and the church itself is often so given over to the ways and patterns of the world—this is a miracle.
But we think the miracle is in breaking natural laws—the multiplication of bread and fish. The scientific and industrial revolutions have taught us to be wary of un-spreadsheet-able dinner operations. But no, that would be wizardry. The miracle is in the act of making a people out of those ignorant disciples. It is the remaking of Israel out of the crowd. It is the breaking of bread and fish before a crowd that becomes a people of bread and wine. I think it is critical for us to remember the words of William Willimon on preaching, that it is “an art form that creates worlds.” The reality this Sunday will be that your congregation will probably straggle in, gasping for breath and life. But I am sure that they forget that the church is anything more than a place to gather out of habit or duty. Our job is to (metaphorically) throw them back into the waters of their baptism a pray that by the time we speak the benediction over them, they will, once again, be a congregation and not just an audience. The miracle is not the bread and fish, but the feeding. It is that unworthy disciples (like us preachers) were included in the Spirit-work of feeding a crowd that goes from a hectic and consumeristic mob to a People called out by God and following their true Lord. They end satisfied and fed, sitting on the grass in the overflowing benevolence of God.
It is a story of transformation into the eschatological vision of blessed happiness by means of the sacramental motion of taking, blessing, breaking and giving. I pray that as you preach this text, your words, too, will be taken, blessed, broken and given for the transformation of your mob into the People of God.
 A Voice in the Wilderness, 20.
 A Voice in the Wilderness, 109.