“Food, glorious food, “the poor boys in an orphanage sing near the beginning of “Oliver Twist.” “Is it worth waiting for? If we live for 84 all we ever get is gruel,” they start, and then they dream of “Food, glorious food, hot sausage and mustard. While we’re in the mood, cold jelly and custard….” Ending with “What wouldn’t we give for that extra bit more. That’s all we live for. Why should we be fated to do nothing but brood on food – magical food, wonderful food, marvelous food, beautiful food, food, glorious, glorious food!” Whatever our diets may include, no one can live without food. We need it to live. Today’s story is a miracle story about food. It is an important story because it is the only miracle story to appear in all four of the Gospels. In this story, Jesus provides food for thousands of people. Since only men were counted at that time, the numbers were much larger when women and children were added. And Jesus fed them with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. Everyone had enough, and there were leftovers. Yes, that is a miracle! How could it be?!?
Some have tried to logically explain it away. Everyone was very polite and only took a small bit, as we do at the communion table. Or people had food with them and added it to the pile as it went by them. Or maybe Jesus did this miraculous thing. It harkens back to an OT story where a man came to offer the first fruits with 20 loaves of barley bread and fresh ears of grain. Elisha told him to give it to the 100 men gathered, and his servant, like the disciples, was incredulous to hear that this small amount of food might feed 100. But, says the story, Elisha “set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.” (II Kings 4:42-44) As usual in the Gospel of John, the story points beyond just the facts. So it reminds us of God’s bounty over and over again, and how generous God is. “Give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Food is a basic need, and God provides.
But especially in John, God does not provide just bread and fish. If we continue reading in chapter 6, it tells us that the next day Jesus went away alone and the crowd went looking for him. When they found him, he said, in the mysterious way that Jesus often speaks in John: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” “I am the bread of life,” he said to them. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (These are words we hear often in communion.) But then he said, “But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” This, the text tells us, is when the Jews began to complain about Jesus, because he said “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” (John 6:25-27, 35, 36, 41) Jesus revealed himself with these words, yet he was not fully understood.
It is hard to understand symbolism at times. We can be a very concrete people who prefer facts and actual proof before we will believe something. Yet faith does not work that way. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen,” says the letter to the Hebrews, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” (Hebrews 11:1 & 3) For the Gospel of John, this story is much more than just a miracle of feeding. Food is a very basic need that must be met, often before we can seek deeper needs like our spirituality. John points us to the deeper needs of faith and hope and trust in what is unseen. Jesus was more than “the prophet who is to come into the world,” as they people declared at the end of this miracle (6:14). The Jews thought he was a king who would overthrow the Roman government and restore the Israelites to their own rule. But Jesus realized what they were thinking and left quickly. Over and over, people in the gospel stories did not seem to comprehend who Jesus really was. Perhaps we still do not.
It would be easy to take away from this story the need to provide for food for all the hungry in our world. And it is a real need. Bread for the World says that 795 million people around the world experience hunger every day. Yet all the statistics show that there is enough food, actually more than enough food available. Oxfam of Canada, an international development agency, says that the world produces 17% more food per person today than 30 years ago, yet more than 1 billion people go to sleep hungry every night. A study by McGill University and the University of Minnesota proves that we grow enough food for 10 billion people, the expected world population for 2050, more than 1 1/5 times enough food to feed everyone on earth now. The miracle of feeding everyone could be solved if we only find the right ways to share what food we have. Yet we are failing at this. Even here in Durham, we have folks coming to the church door or calling the office every week in need of food, or rent, or help with basic human needs. Hunger is a real problem, but it appears that it is one we could solve.
But this story talks about more than just food. We can be a part of the miracle of providing food for the bodies and for the souls of others.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest who has been declared one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English language, illustrates this so well with a story in one of her books on this passage. So I will share it with you in her words:
“Over the last couple of weeks, I had the dubious honor of driving to Arizona and back with nine teenagers and my infinitely good-natured spouse. We went to repair homes on a Navajo Indian reservation. We went with half a dozen paintbrushes and some other tools, most of us with only a vague notion of how to paint a house or build a flight of stairs. We went, in other words, with nothing less than five loaves and two fishes, and the Navajos knew it. The tribal officials who had approved our visit had been told repeatedly that 240 teenagers would arrive on July 7, but when we got there very few arrangements had been made. It turned out that they did not believe we were really coming, so they did not buy their share of the supplies. They had had promises before, and nothing had come of it. So they had waited to see, and what they saw were 240 kids from Vermont, Minnesota, California, Texas, and Georgia getting out of vans and buses and cars in their cut-off jeans with their bedrolls and water pistols, piles of empty soft drink cans and bubble gum wrappers cascading out the doors behind them. Needless to say, there were not many engineers, electricians, plumbers, or contractors among them, just a crowd of sleepy, skinny, confused-looking kids.”
As she continues to tell the story, word spreads, and the Navajos people begin to gather, coming by car, on bicycles, or on foot to see what is happening. “I imagine,” she says, “there were some pretty good laughs around their dinner tables that night. ‘Did you see who they sent to work on our houses? A bunch of kids!’ At least that is what many of us were thinking about ourselves. Five crummy loaves and two little dried up fishes.” But she continues to tell how they were divided into work teams of five to 40 houses, with tasks from building a sheep pen to roofing a house or building a porch. Her group was given tile, scrapers, glue, razor blade, measuring tape, and an electric drill. The house on which they were working had no electricity. Even her “infinitely good-natured spouse” was discouraged, thinking they should do something big, “like building a hospital or working on a school,” at the least. It sure still seemed like five crummy loaves and two dried up little fish.
But then, she relates, “halfway through the week a funny thing began to happen. Navajos who had been watching us from the sidelines began to pitch in. Old Mr. Hart, who could not walk without a cane, patched the sheetrock in the room where we were working. Larry Silversmith worked all day long on his grandmother’s house with another crew and then continued long after they left each night, finishing up whatever they had left undone. At a third worksite, a whole crew of young Navajos showed up to help rebuild Annie Begay’s house…
If a bunch of Anglo kids would come all the way from Vermont to work on Annie’s house, they said, they guessed the least they could do was help. There were so many of them that they almost put our teenagers out of business, but Annie said to let them work, that it was a miracle. She said she had been praying for the day those boys would wake up from their sleep and do something for somebody else. She said it was an answer to her prayers. Five crummy loaves and two little fishes.” And by the end of that week, 42 of the 46 projects were completed, with new roofs, new paint, new corrals, new tile, new porches, new stucco. The reservation gave the teenagers rugs, paintings, and flags as gifts of thanks. They even made them honorary Navajos. (BBT, Mixed Blessings, pp.93-93)
It is a great story, and it tells us how we can be a part of the kind of miracle that Jesus supplied that day on a hillside. When we eat with and watch the children at Families Moving Forward, when we donate items needed for Open Table Ministries, when we pack meals in this very room, we help to feed the hungry of our world. When we teach Sunday School, go with the youth to Montreat, or keep the nursery, we feed the souls of our children. And, simply put, that is our calling as Christians, to care for one another as Jesus cares for us, feeding with what we all need – good food for the body, and good food for the soul.
This church is particularly good at caring for one another and for the larger community. That spirit of giving, that faithfulness that follows a giving Lord will continue long after all this staff has gone our way, because Westminster has proven, over its 55 years, to be that kind of a church, one that believes and lives out the words on the bulletin, seeking always to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.” That is who Westminster will continue to be, as long as you make it so! Together, we can do miracles – we can feed the hungry of body and of soul. May it be so. Amen.
Sloyan, Gerard, John (Interpretation Commentaries) (John Knox Press, KY, 1988)
Taylor, Barbara Brown, Mixed Blessings (Cowly Pub, MD, 1998)