A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA.
July 25, 2021
The lectionary jumps around a bit this summer. When last we checked in, we were in Mark’s gospel, skipping over a feeding story. Rather than give us Mark’s account of the miracle, this morning, we have John’s account.
This is one of the few stories that is recorded in every gospel. Which may just be extra incentive to pay attention to it. The four gospel writers, as different as they are, all agree that there is something important for us in the idea that Jesus fed these people on the hillside.
And we need to be clear that in our culture, this story would not be popular if Jesus showed up and did it today. We seem to have become a culture where we are more concerned with personal success and provision than we are with setting aside personal comfort for the benefit of others. I can’t think of many people today in our political realm who would ask the boy to share his fish and bread so that the crowd on the hillside wouldn’t go hungry. The idea that we would care for each other is not politically popular.
Every so often I read the news and think, “How did we get here? How did we wake up in a world where we don’t care about each other?”
Notice what does NOT happen in this story.
Jesus does not say, “I guess these people should have planned better and packed a sandwich.”
He also doesn’t say, “we should raise taxes so that Jerusalem could have a government run kitchen here in the wilderness.”
He also doesn’t say, “Thoughts and prayers. Hunger is a real problem in our community and we should do something about it”, while then doing nothing about it.
He doesn’t determine that the enormity of the problem is a reason to not do anything either. The disciples correctly note that six months wages wouldn’t be enough to feed that crowd. There were over 5,000 people there, after all.
So, what does Jesus do?
He asks his disciples a question—
How are you going to feed these people?
At this moment, he doesn’t care what they think about fiscal policy or social engineering.
How are you going to feed these people?
Jesus may care very strongly about the role of government in the social safety net and all of that. But when we spend all of our time fighting over those issues, we aren’t answering the question “How are you going to feed these people?”
There’s a saying here that’s relevant:
Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one. (Nikolai Berdyaev)
And that is Jesus’ question. This story is less about 5,000 hungry people eating fish sandwiches and is more about the community asking itself and each other a spiritual question about how we are going to live together.
Are we going to decide that our ultimate interest is making sure that only we, personally, have enough to eat?
Or are we going to decide that our call as God’s children is to struggle with Jesus’ question, “how are you going to feed these people?”
I recognize that is often enough of a challenge to take care of our own lives. To make sure everyone is where they need to be and the bills are paid. But it is clear that we can’t be paralyzed by either the personal needs we face or the enormity of the problems we face in the world.
We have to look around and come up with some idea, any idea, about how to feed these people.
Even if all we have is a few rolls and pieces of fish. Let’s pause and notice the absurdity and the goodness of Andrew’s comment. “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish”.
I wonder if I would have had the courage to offer an observation about such a small amount of food to Jesus. I am afraid I’m more like Phillip, with the very rational observation that six months wages would not be enough to feed these people, Jesus, so I don’t know why you’re asking us this absurd question.
We’re called to be like Andrew in this story. Our job is to respond with what we have, whatever it is, no matter how small it might be. The abundance doesn’t come from the factual observation by the disciples that it will cost a lot of money to feed people.
The abundance in this story begins with the kid who has the food in the first place, and with Andrew who notices it. And then God takes what we offer for the common benefit and turns it into something we can’t possibly imagine.
While each of you is great on your own, all of us are better together. We might each be able to care for our own needs most days, but together, we can join in to what God is doing and can make a difference in the world around us.
Because one person can make a difference. And everyone should try.
This is true in so many ways. When you give of your time, your talent, your treasure, it joins with the gifts of other people here, and with the gifts of the people who have come before us, and have given us this beautiful building and the traditions that make Calvary who we are.
This weekend, Calvary is turning 167 years old, and it’s not every day you get to go to a 167th birthday party.
In many ways, we’re 5,000 people sitting on a hillside, hungry and wanting a word from Jesus. We may be thinking about our five barley loaves and our two fishes that we have in our purses—I’ll let you play out that metaphor in whatever way works for you.
The biblical story doesn’t tell us what the boy thought about offering up his loaves and fishes. If Andrew pointed you out to Jesus and said, ‘Hey, that lady has five barley loaves and a couple of fish in her purse’—how would you respond?
If I’m honest, I think there have been times in my life when I would have thought, “too bad, buddy. I packed this fish sandwich for my own lunch. Looks like 5,000 somebodies made some bad choices in their meal planning”.
I’m not really proud of that tendency. But I want to acknowledge it. We need to be able to honestly observe the ways we move through the world, so we can change what needs changing. And I think we sometimes have that tendency to hold on too tightly to what we think we need that we miss a chance to help others.
Back when I was 22 and had just graduated from college, I was volunteering at some churches in Alaska for the summer and was hosting a dinner for high school kids. Not that many people came, and we had more food than we needed. But when some homeless people showed up at church that Sunday night, asking for help, I didn’t feed them. I can list all the “good reasons” why—I didn’t know the church’s policy, it was a youth event and there weren’t other adults around, etc, etc—but the truth is, there were hungry people right there in front of me and I had food and I didn’t feed them.
I don’t have many regrets in my life. I do regret that failure of hospitality. Ever since, I’ve tried to give something, anything, when I hear Jesus ask the question, “how are you going to feed these people?”
Some days my barley loaves and fish might be boxed leftovers if I meet someone as I’m walking home from a restaurant, or canned soup I keep in my office in case someone shows up looking for food. Some days, it’s my pledge to the church that supports our Matthew 25 Partners for Change and other community partners. Some days, it’s a Saturday morning spent at the food pantry. This week, it was an actual loaf of bread I took to someone who needed groceries.
I don’t know what your five barley loaves and two fishes are right now. Each one of us is equipped with gifts that might feel so small to us as to be insignificant and not worth mentioning.
Your gifts are not small. They are not insignificant.
We offer them, and God turns them into abundance. At the end of our story today, Jesus says, “Gather up the fragments, that nothing may be lost”. That’s the God we serve. One who wants to make sure nothing gets lost. Even the left over fish fry fragments.
Friends, next week, we will be coming to the Table to be fed for the first time since March 2020. We’ve had online communion of course, but it isn’t quite the same. The communion meal feeds us in real ways. It reminds us that at God’s Table, there is always enough to go around. It gives us strength to live in faith and trust, to leave the certainty of our scarcity behind, and to rely on the mysterious abundance of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.