Chaplain Mel Baars
July 29, 2012
“Sparking a Revolution”
I remember the very first time I heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand. I was in the first grade. It was a glorious time in life when every classroom gathering from school to church still had organized snack time. My teacher had brought to our Sunday school class my absolute favorite food-- still to this day-- goldfish. I could, and still can, eat goldfish with the best of them. When I saw that this was our snack, I was elated. Since it was Sunday School, though, there had to be a “lesson” before we could eat. It was almost too much to bear. I sat there trying to pay attention to what my teacher was saying, all the while salivating over the box of goldfish, partially hidden away along the back counter. We read and acted out the story using the felt board, and then colored our own paper doll-like characters, including a before miracle basket of five loaves and two fish and after miracle baskets overflowing with many more loaves and fishes. My coloring was halfhearted. I didn’t care much about the barley loaves. All I could think about was eating those goldfish.
The feeding of the five thousand is probably the most well known of all of the stories of miracles which Jesus performed in his three years of public ministry. It is the only miracle that shows up in all four gospels. It follows the standard “miracle” formula. In the initial verses, we learn the setting of our story, which is a mountain on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Then we get into the details of the problem at hand. There are thousands of people flocking toward Jesus, and it also happens to be lunchtime. Realizing that they are probably hungry after traveling far distances, Jesus says, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Since there were no Costcos or Sam’s Clubs in the immediate vicinity, procuring this volume of food in a moment’s notice would not be a simple task. Philip also points out an obvious point. Even if there were superstores where large amounts of bread could be procured, neither Jesus nor his disciples have that kind of cash. Things are not looking good.
Perhaps on a whim, or maybe even due to some divine inspiration, Andrew, one of the other disciples with them, mentions that there is a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish in his traveling bag. Then, he adds, “What is this amount of food among so many people?” Clearly, it is not going to feed five thousand people. I think he wants to make sure the rest of them don’t think he has lost his mind. His qualifying statement aside, I think his recognition of this boy’s scant resources is a significant part of this story that is often overlooked. Andrew didn’t have to say anything. In the face of literally thousands of people, it was a bold move to even mention five loaves and two fish. There is no way that this small amount of food could feed more than a few. Yet, maybe Andrew saw a spark of possibility anyway. After spending so much time with Jesus all this time, watching him heal those who had been deemed too sick to save or restore sight to one who had been blind for years, maybe he was starting to see things differently. Maybe he realized that, with Jesus, even the impossible can come true.
Once Andrew announces that there is a boy with some loaves and fish and, we assume, the boy willingly agrees to share with the crowd, Jesus tells the disciples to make the people sit down on the grass. When they are settled, Jesus takes the bread and fish, and after giving thanks, distributes the food to everyone. They are able to eat as much as they want. And, after everyone had eaten their fill and some maybe even more than their fill, Jesus tells the disciples to gather the left over bits of food so that nothing will go to waste. From five loaves and two fish, twelve whole baskets are filled with leftovers. It’s much more than they started with. The people are amazed by what Jesus has done, so much so that they are ready to take him by force and make him their king.
So, how exactly did Jesus do it? How did he feed all of those people? All we have to go by is that Jesus gave thanks, and after giving thanks, began to share these meager resources. We don’t know what happened but that from a boy’s simple lunch, there was more than enough to go around. Miracle stories like this one have undergone tremendous scrutiny, especially in a world changed by modernity, a world that thinks everything worth anything can be fully understood by science and reason. Around the time of the Enlightenment, one “best practice” of church intellectuals was to explain miracles away through some natural occurrence. In the case of our feeding story, they argued that this tale of mass feeding didn’t have to be some otherworldly moment of divine intervention. Instead, it could be explained in a more rational way. When the people sat down and saw that a boy was willing to share his lunch, risking going hungry himself, they, too, were inspired to share and began to pull from their cloaks and bags and pockets, food that they had stored away, just in case they didn’t make it back home in time for dinner.
In a world of scarcity, where we are constantly reminded that we can never obtain enough or buy all that we need, in a culture where we are encouraged to stockpile, hoard, and secure not only enough for now but also enough for the possible zombie apocalypse or, this year in particular, the end of the Mayan calendar which very well may equal the end of the world as we know it, any gesture of human generosity may be its own kind of miracle. In a way, this miracle may be the greater. That God could and, furthermore, would make something out of nothing, and give generously to us is no real surprise. This is the way that God has been acting in our world from the very beginning, in God’s very act of creation. That Jesus could teach and inspire his mostly self-centered human followers to freely share what they have, instead of hide it away for fear of losing it, now this is truly miraculous.
But, this kind of foolish generosity is what following Jesus is all about. Being willing to lose our lives so that we may find them again, learning how to stop storing our treasures on earth where moth and dust will eventually destroy, and instead, storing up treasures in heaven, this is faithfulness. When we celebrate love and joy and full life, when we embrace the whole spectrum of friendship and laughter and even tears, we discover the treasures of heaven. Living generously and holding on to one another along the way, being willing to give ourselves away, sharing the little we have even when it feels like it isn’t enough or can never really make any difference, this is what a life of faith is all about.
Of course, it isn’t ever as easy as it sounds in a sermon. We are often overwhelmed by the world that is swirling around us and threatening to take us down with it. Between the population crisis, the AIDS epidemic, continual famine, diminishing natural resources, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornados, needless shooting sprees, rising unemployment and underemployment, economic downturn, and all the wars that don’t seem to have any end in sight, it’s easy to respond to this great need with a very logical answer. What can we really do about any of these issues, about the multitude of people and problems that plague our world? As Philip so logically said to Jesus, “What can we do, because even six months wages is barely going to give each one of these people a tiny bite to eat, certainly not enough to satiate their hunger.” There didn’t seem to be enough then when five thousand hungry people descended on the mountain, just like there doesn’t seem to be enough now.
Yet despite this, somehow God still made a way for the impossible to happen. Whether it was God creating something from nothing or a boy who simply offered what little he had which ignited a revolution of sharing, something extraordinary happened on that mountain. Though there was not enough to go around, somehow everyone was fed. From just five loaves and two fish, five thousand people walked away completely full.
When Mother Teresa first encountered the very poorest of Calcutta, she felt called by God to serve them. She herself was not wealthy. She did not have many resources to offer nor had she been trained to deal with this kind of suffering or these kinds of illnesses. Even though she was just one person with very little power to make a difference on a macrocosmic scale, she was moved to found a small group of just thirteen members called the Missionaries of Charity. From this tiny beginning, a spark of love, the Missionaries of Charity grew and grew until it was thousands of members, people who committed their lives to caring for the poor, sick, and orphaned around the world. It was the love of just one that started a revolution of charity which changed the landscape for some of the poorest people in the world. The love of one, just a few loaves and fish, yet God made a way to multiply these gifts so that there would be enough to fill, to feed, to care for, to touch, and to heal the multitudes.
We are reminded again and again that with Jesus, what seems like nothing, turns into something, what feels like very little can be transformed into much, what appears empty can be made full and whole, even death can turn into life. Paul encapsulates this idea well in his letter to the Ephesians which we read a few moments ago. He says this: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” and Amen.