Favorite Bible Stories, Sermons

How will we feed all these people?

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” (John 6:9, NRSV)

I always seem to start in a new ministry position on a Communion Sunday, and it always calls up memories of my nervous anticipation about presiding over Communion at my ordination. There were about 300 people there, six times as many as we see on a Sunday here, and yet nowhere near the numbers who followed Jesus out onto that grassy plain. (John 6:1-14)

He had been healing people and challenging the authorities, and something about him made a huge group of people want to get closer to him. If nothing else they were curious about what would happen next. 5000 people is a lot of people. There were 3000 or so at the United Church of Christ General Synod in Cleveland, and I didn’t see half the people I hoped I would. I only ran into members of the Penn Central delegation once!

On our way back from Cleveland, we talked about camping vacations and wondered why campsites were appealing. I’ll admit to growing up in a family where camping never happened. I like the idea in theory, but I can’t help thinking that for moms especially, camping means packing all your stuff so that you can spend time preparing a meal in a more primitive setting, and then cleaning up the meal and starting on the next one.

Now imagine you are at a campsite with a lot of other families, and no one packed any food, and they are coming by to check out what’s in your larder.

A crowd of thousands stretches patience and resources quickly, especially when no one has prepared properly.

How will we feed all these people?

It is admittedly a set-up, the question Jesus asks about getting provisions for all those people. He knew something like this would happen. In John’s gospel, he is never surprised. John doesn’t spend time making the case that Jesus is human and divine. His Jesus is always and in every way God, from the prologue (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…) to the epilogue’s many post-Resurrection appearances.

We don’t know so much, cannot be sure of things in advance.

At my ordination, in my home church, we had Communion by intinction the way they always did it. I helped once as a student, holding a chalice, but the Communion logistics were otherwise opaque to me. On the big day, got through the words of the liturgy without stumbling. Now it was time to serve the people. I held the one plate of bread while the two Associate Pastors of the church stood on either side of me, each holding a chalice.

First my kids came up; Lucy was seven. It fills my heart up to remember it. Then the next few pews came, full of friends from my home church. Farther back somewhere was a group from the church that had called me to be their pastor, but I couldn’t see them.

It was a big church, and it was pretty full. I smiled and kept trying to call people by name, and tried not to count how many came forward, but I couldn’t help it. I worried about the provisions made for the day. As the loaf got smaller, the line got longer and the people got taller. No, really. I could not see past them. Each new face seemed to loom over me.

That kind of anxiety rules when we are excited or tired or overwhelmed.

Last December, you may remember, we drove to Massachusetts right after church one Sunday to hear Lucy sing in the annual Vespers service at Smith College. On that long car ride we discussed Christmas and in particular the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day menus. Like the disciples, we wondered how we would manage when the whole family descended upon us, and we upped the level of difficulty by inviting the choir from my wife’s church to a party between the later services. Did we have enough dishes, pots, pans, crock pots and punchbowls?

It’s possible we had the silliest argument ever.

The disciples have a real problem. They are out in a field. They don’t even have inadequate serving dishes. They have none whatsoever. Even if a town were close by, what store would have enough food for thousands of people? It’s not like they had the money anyway. Even six months’ wages would not feed such a crowd.

Providentially, Andrew noticed a kid who packed a better lunch than the string cheese, pretzels and applesauce my ten-year-old tends to put together. Apparently other people in the crowd did not plan ahead as well. And thanks be to God Jesus did not have to multiply those little drinkable yogurts.

Bread and fish were staple foods in the community.

How will we feed all these people?

This story is the Communion story in John’s gospel.

On the night we think of as the Last Supper, they share food, but the primary ritual enacted was the washing of feet, no “this is my body, broken for you.” This miraculous feeding of 5000 people – imagine it! – gives us the taking and breaking of bread, and the giving thanks for it. It is the beginning of a section in which Jesus talks more than once about being bread.

“I am the bread of life,” he says, “the bread come down from heaven. Those who eat this bread will never be hungry.”

Some of the best stories are only found in John, or they are a different version of a vaguely familiar story. John elaborates, creates characters, makes us feel like we’re not just reading a story. We are in the story. We get to know the disciples: Philip is dubious; Andrew is paying attention. There is a young boy. We picture a child with some sort of bag; maybe we think of the mother who packed his lunch. We might remember illustrations from children’s Bibles or Sunday School pictures, the robed groups sitting on the ground, and the baskets – where did they get the baskets? were they big ones? small ones? – and the baskets used to collect the leftovers.

Cerezo Barredo
Cerezo Barredo

And we picture Jesus, who knew this time would come, who knew that after he was gone many things would be different, but there would still be groups of the faithful gathering, and they would still get hungry, and they would still break bread. To remind them, in the great story from John 21, when the risen Christ appears to the disciples on the beach, he cooks breakfast for them over a charcoal fire, a breakfast of bread and fish.

He is God all along.

I believe in the power of God, who makes something out of what seems like not much.

Jesus gave thanks for the little boy’s packed lunch, for the five loaves and two fishes. And in the giving thanks, the miracle happens. Suddenly there was enough and more than enough. The disciples carried the food to the people, and no one left hungry. Jesus appeared to them and cooked breakfast himself. He left the disciples with the instruction to feed his sheep.

How will we feed all these people?

I wonder how the disciples felt after everyone had been fed. John tells us the crowd named Jesus as the prophet who was coming into the world, a way of describing the Messiah, the Son of God. A healing might help one person or one family, and be noticed by one neighborhood, but feeding 5000 people, with just five loaves and two fishes? Amazing. Disturbing.

Perhaps every miracle resides somewhere between anxiousness and wonder.

On my anxious and wonderful day of ordination, as the loaf began to approach the level of crumbs, an old friend and longtime Deacon appeared at my elbow. He was holding another plate, and on it was a fresh loaf.

I began to see the light at the end of the aisle.

How will we feed all these people?

The demands on the church feel overwhelming these days. There are so many needs in the world, needs for all kinds of feeding, both material and spiritual. We may feel like we have nothing to give, or that if we give what we have, there will be nothing left.

I believe in the power of God, who makes something out of what seems like not much. We will feed all these people, we will find our miracle, by giving thanks for what we have and sharing it beyond all the limits of our usual expectations.

God will multiply whatever we bring to the table. Amen.

(I am off-lectionary this summer, preaching a series on Favorite Bible Stories. This is #1.)

3 thoughts on “How will we feed all these people?”

  1. I know there are much more spiritual lessons in this, but what I got out of it: Their son and my son could make lunches together very happily. Some version of the above is what my boy took to school every day last year. –Wendy

    1. This: “Perhaps every miracle resides somewhere between anxiousness and wonder.”
      So much to think about here!

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