Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Not Counting Women and Children

Rev. Kathy Donley preaching for Joint FOCUS Worship at Emmanuel



Scripture Lesson:  Matthew 14:13-21


Our story begins, “when Jesus heard this . . .”  Heard what?  When he heard that Herod Antipas had beheaded John the Baptist.  That’s where the story starts.

What do you do when your mentor dies?  First John was shut up in prison.  Then he was executed in a grotesque party trick because a stripper asked for his head on a platter.  Not only is he your mentor and cousin, but you are leading a social movement parallel to his. What if you might be next?   Should you lie low for a while, maybe quit the movement altogether, or do the most with whatever time you have?  Perhaps those were some of the things Jesus intended to figure out when he set off by himself, to be alone, to pray, to grieve. 


But Jesus was not the only one distressed by the terrible news. The crowd goes to Jesus because they are afraid and angry and discouraged and heart-broken.  Jesus comes ashore, sees people in need and immediately sets aside his own pain and sadness.   One writer says that it might be helpful not to picture Jesus as the one who is serenely above it all, pulling all of the necessary levers behind the scenes to generate an abundance of bread and fish. Maybe we need to see Jesus instead with red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained cheeks, whose hands are trembling for the sorrow of it all.[1]


This was not a day of teaching so much as a day of healing.  Perhaps Jesus restored sight or speech.  Perhaps he healed broken limbs.  Or maybe he was binding up the broken-hearted, the people who needed emotional and spiritual sustenance.  Healing work requires attention and conversation about what is wrong and how it got that way and what else has already been tried.  So, that was Jesus’s  whole day – intense listening to personal stories and confessions, careful conversation with individuals and friends and family members, affirming, including, perhaps challenging some assumptions about who was to blame, touching, hugging, healing, blessing. Over and over again.  By suppertime, he must have been exhausted.


That’s when the disciples want to send the crowd away.  “Let them go home or into nearby villages to find food,” they say. The needs of the crowd seem insurmountable, way more than the disciples can meet.  I suspect that they also resent the attention Jesus has already given to all these needy people.  They had probably been looking forward to time alone with Jesus themselves, time to process John the Baptist’s death, to pull together and comfort each other, to strategize.  So they say, “ Send them away, Jesus.  We are not in the bread business.”  But, tired as he is, Jesus is not having that.   


Jesus does the heavy lifting. The disciples just have two jobs: to distribute the food and pick up the leftovers.  And here we have the Biblical template for centuries of church potlucks – the food will be provided, but someone always has to do set-up and clean-up. 


I am struck by verse 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. It was typical of the time to only count the men, but Matthew was smart enough to realize that not everyone was being counted.  I wonder, who doesn’t still doesn’t count? Who gets overlooked, undervalued? 


Often it is still the poor, and also those with less education, the uninsured, those without access to the internet, undocumented people, those who are not registered to vote or who speak with a foreign accent.  It’s probably still children or teenagers, maybe even young adults whose ideas are dismissed for being impractical or too idealistic.


The disciples have a problem – Jesus tells them they have to feed all those people.  How do they solve it?  It begins with a child, a boy who shares his lunch, according to John’s gospel.  The boy, who isn’t old enough to be counted yet, and the uncounted mother, who probably packed his lunch. 


Megan McKenna is an internationally known author, theologian and storyteller.  I took my sermon title from her book, Not Counting Women and Children. Once she was studying this story with people from Chiapas, Mexico, one of the poorest regions in the country.  It was a woman from Chiapas who said, ‘No woman in her right mind would head into a deserted place with an elderly person or a child or someone who was sick without taking food, drink, diaper changes, the works’. [2] So when the women went after Jesus, they took what they had with them.


McKenna wonders about the 12 baskets that were used to hold the leftovers.  Where did they come from? Remembering the woman from Chiapas, she answers her own question – probably the uncounted women who set out for the deserted place carried supplies with them in those the baskets.  


McKenna writes, “This story can serve to remind us that often the ones not counted are the ones with hidden wisdom, hidden powers, hidden truth, hidden hope of the future.  The ones who were not counted had the food, the trust to share, the baskets for collecting the leftovers and the need to stay all day.”[3]


Those who are not counted are very important in this story.  And so is the what that is not counted.  The disciples want to send the people away so they can feed themselves.  Jesus says “No, you feed them.”  To which the disciples say, “We have nothing.”  Nothing, because they discount and undervalue what they do have – five loaves, two fish and a boy’s willingness to share.


What do we neglect to count?  It seems like we sometimes focus more on what we don’t have, than on what we do.  Lynne Twist, an activist with the Hunger Project, describes the mantra of inadequacy:


For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is…I didn’t get enough sleep. The next one is…I don’t have enough time. Whether true or not, the thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of.   . . We're not thin enough, we're not smart enough, we're not pretty enough or fit enough or educated or successful enough, or rich enough ever.  Before we even sit up in bed, we are already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds race with a litany of what we didn’t get to or get done that day.”[4]


The disciples say, “We have nothing . . . well, almost nothing . . . certainly not enough.”


But then Jesus says, “Bring your ‘not enough’ to me.”  We know the rest of the story.  “Nothing” became “enough” and then “abundance.”  From that nothing, thousands of people were fed and there were leftovers.


It was a lesson in discipleship never to be forgotten.  All four gospels tell this story.   Two gospels tell it twice. It was never to be forgotten because they got to participate, hands-on, in a miracle.  As the wonderful scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “When you are with Jesus you are inescapably in the bread business.  You need bread to share because it is the work of Jesus to feed hungry people and express compassion concretely.”[5]


Jesus’ followers all over the world are in the bread business.   FOCUS is in the bread business at Breakfast Club and in the food pantry.  A group of women in Mexico are in it too.  Please watch this video to see them at work. It might be hard to see the action in the first part.  It shows a couple of women cooking over a large open-air stove.  They are preparing tortillas and 30-40 pounds of rice and beans.



These women, Las Patronas,  live in a small village in southern Mexico. They are not wealthy.  The freight train goes through every day, carrying some of the 100,000 migrants from Central America who cross through Mexico every year.  These fourteen women could have said “we can’t possibly help those people.  We don’t have enough.”  But they didn’t.  In the fifteen minutes they have as the train passes, they deliver 300 lunches and bottles of water, every single day.  And contrary to what that film said, they have been doing it faithfully for 22 years. 


For Jesus’ first followers, for Las Patronas, and for us, “Discipleship is always lived in the shadow of evil, of persecution, of political danger, and in awareness of the economic realities of food, health care, and the human dignity of the vast throngs of people in the world who live in need.”[6] 


Sisters and brothers, we are in the bread business.  The bread broken and shared is a reenactment, a reminder that out of God’s deep pain and love for the world, there is abundance and joy.  Like so many other miracles, we cannot explain it, but we trust it.  We look to Jesus, opening our hands, sharing what we have, offering our meager bits, our inadequacies to the One who will bless them and multiply them, making them enough, meeting every kind of hunger,  until all are fed.  Amen.   

[1] Scott Hoezee at http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-13a/?type=the_lectionary_gospel 

[2] Megan McKenna, Not Counting Women and Children:  Neglected Stories from the Bible, (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1994 ) p. 24.

[3] McKenna, p.

[4] Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money:  Reclaiming the Wealth of our Inner Resources  (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), p. 45

[5]  Walter Bruggemann, “Embrace of the New Truth of Abundance” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Vol 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011),

[6] McKenna, p. 17