July 25, 2021
Rev. Scott Landis
I began to prepare for today’s message by reading a commentary that offered some interpretative ideas on the famed story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. This, by the way, is the ONLY miracle story of Jesus that is recorded in all four gospels. Each recording is slightly different than the other three, but they all focus on an important and concept central to Jesus’ message – “Abundance.”
Each retelling begins with a challenging situation – a huge crowd had gathered. It was nearing the end of the day. The disciples got nervous. They understood the need. “They’re hungry, Jesus. What are we going to do? How are we going to feed them? We don’t have the money nor the resources to satisfy ALL these people.” I suppose it’s too bad Costco had yet to come to Judea.
They were in a fix. About the only thing they could come up with was a small amount of food that a little boy just happened to have – 2 dried fish and 5 barley loaves – and that would not go very far.
The writer of the commentary I mentioned focused on an interesting flip in the story as recorded in John’s gospel. In John’s account it’s Jesus who poses the obvious question – to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?” The gospel writer then stated as an aside, ‘He knew darn well what he was going to do. He just said this to test Philip.’ Which begged the obvious question in my mind – what would I do if I were in Philip’s shoes? Or, what would happen if perhaps a contemporary group of disciples – or what we call a congregation – was put to that same test?
Imagine, for a moment, a neighboring church in this situation. Now, I’m sure WE would respond appropriately. So, let’s think about ANOTHER church – maybe one not as spiritually EVOLVED as we are. My commentator friend suggested what might be a fairly typical response:
The Board of Trustees might echo Philip’s money-management concern, pointing out the fact that the congregation doesn’t take in nearly enough revenue to support such a project. The Outreach Committee might reinforce Andrew’s position, stating that the congregation has earmarked only a small percentage of its income for mission giving and the proposed needs far exceed the allocated amount. Besides, if we spent all “our money” on this situation, what would we do the rest of the year? The Deacons may not even respond at all – they have more important matters to attend to given the current pandemic. Maybe they would focus their energy on social distancing and ensuring that all have masks to reduce the spread of the virus. Or, maybe not since it’s outside. And the Property folks might be worried whether all these people would mess up the lawn and the foot-traffic would definitely have an effect on the landscaping.
And so, they formed a committee – to study the situation – and to determine how they might help out in some small way – responding as best they could – given their limited resources. And Jesus just shook his head.
Now, I know that would never happen here. But just in case, let’s think about this possibility for a moment.
You see, I believe, this story is included in all 4 of our gospels for a very important reason. We all tend to approach the world – our lives, our giving – from positions of scarcity. It just makes good, practical sense. After all, aren’t we taught to save, to be wise stewards, to manage carefully that which has been entrusted to us? I believe so – but maybe Jesus wanted us to see things a bit differently.
I think this story is in all four gospels to emphasize the point that Jesus invited his disciples – and still invites us today – to respond to life from a new perspective – a more vibrant and faithful perspective – that of abundance. Let me explain.
Responding from abundance means moving from clenched fists to open hands. From fear to faith. And from self-protection to vulnerability and unconditional love. Responding and living from abundance means moving from certainty into mystery – does that sound terrifying or exciting?
You see, there is much more going on here than simply feeding 5,000 or more people. Not that the miracle should be overlooked. I believe it’s the motivation – the initial mindset of the disciples – then AND now – that ought to capture our attention and force us to examine how we might miss (or even truncate) the possibility of God’s activity in the world today due to our enslavement to practicality. [Pause] If this kind of thinking frightens you – well, then I know you’re paying attention – because it frightens me to – as do most of Jesus’ teachings. Let’s go a little deeper.
Marcus Borg used to say of such unbelievable tales in the bible – the very same words Native Americans used to introduce their stories in teaching successive generations. They began by saying, “I don’t know whether or not this really happened. But I know it’s true.” Do you hear the important distinction? It’s not that the facts are irrelevant, it’s simply that they are not as important as the truth they seek to elucidate. It’s the TRUTH Jesus wants us to embrace. That’s the test he was offering Philip.
Jesus had the food part covered – he knew how that problem would be solved. What he wanted was for Philip to realize the SOURCE of – the abundance – the fact that the very presence of God was right there – in front of him.
Herein lies the genius of John’s gospel – and one we will see more of in the coming weeks. Jesus offers a sign – a miracle – or some notable event – and then interprets that sign in a way that points to those with eyes to see – ears to hear – the manifestation of God which is happening right in front of them. [Pause]
I believe that far too often we have lost touch with that possibility in our lives – and as we do – slowly but surely – the reality that God has any impact in our lives begins to erode. Given enough time, we tend to become more and more self-reliant and really don’t need God anymore. Given enough resources, we believe that we can figure it all out for ourselves. We become increasingly jaded as our endowments grow – our fists become tighter and “what is mine” takes the place of “what is ours.” [Pause]
I had the opportunity this week to spend a lot of time with 7-year-old little girl. What a delight and what a reminder to “let go and let God.” The world of a 7-year-old is one of “abundance.” It’s one of laughter, dancing, creating, flowers, and swimming. It’s a world open to possibility and constant change. Maybe it’s why Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me – do not forbid them – because they get it.” Their hands are always open because they know they have almost nothing to give – other than their heart. Might we learn from that?
I don’t know whether or not this actually happened, but it’s clear that the early church wanted to make certain we did not miss its Truth – our God is a God of abundance and wants us to live extravagantly while not wasting a single leftover.
I believe the story is trying to communicate the fact that God is present everywhere and invites us, each day, to notice the abundance of grace, mercy, beauty, and resources with which we have been blessed. God is present everywhere and wants us to make sure we share ALL that has been given with ALL God’s children – and that includes everyone.
I’ve lived long enough and been through enough stewardship campaigns AND budget shortfalls to realize an important lesson in the life of the church – that is, the church will never die due to lack of funds – but it will die without nurturing a spirit of abundance and generosity in the heart of its members.
So, I don’t know whether this actually happened – but I know the Truth – that came to life in this young boy who gave everything he had – 2 fish, 5 loaves of bread – and there was plenty left over.