9 Pentecost, Proper 12 – July 25, 2021
The feeding of the 5,000 is one of the most iconic stories in the gospels. In fact, it is the only miracle story to appear in all four of our gospels. It is termed iconic because it is a multi-dimensional story. An icon is a doorway into a deeper mystery. This story is iconic because it points to something deeper than just an amazing feat.
This story illuminates our common experience of hunger which is to say, our shared sense of need. John says that the news of Jesus teaching and healing had spread throughout the region and that he was being sought out. People were coming to him because they had a need that was too much for them to handle and the news they were receiving about Jesus was igniting hope that he could do for them what they could not do for themselves.
But notice that the gathered people did do something in the presence of Jesus…Jesus required the gathered people to act. Jesus asked Philip to buy bread. Philip says there is just no way to buy enough bread for all these people. And then there is a boy who offers five barley loaves and two fish – a “practically divine” act.
I think you are all familiar with Alex’s Lemonade Stand. Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF) emerged from the front yard lemonade stand of cancer patient Alexandra “Alex” Scott (1996-2004). In the year 2000, 4-year-old Alex announced that she wanted to hold a lemonade stand to raise money to help find a cure for all children with cancer. Since Alex held that first stand, the Foundation bearing her name has evolved into a national fundraising movement, complete with thousands of supporters across the country carrying on her legacy of hope.
Alex did not disqualify herself. She’s somebody who knows how to dream and act on her dreams. She could have said: I’m not old enough, I’m not wealthy enough, I’m not something-or-other enough, to make a difference. And maybe none of us would have noticed had she done this. But she did it. Any many people have been blessed by her legacy in cancer research.
Today’s Gospel presents us with a young boy who gives what he can give: five barley loaves and a couple small fish. We don’t know the boy’s name, where he comes from, or who his parents are, but we know about his gift to hungry people. We know that, like Alex, he refuses to stand back and do nothing. Oh, he could do it differently. He could decide he isn’t old enough or wealthy enough to make a difference. After all, in the time and place where he lives, there are many ways in which children simply are not recognized. Or he could conclude that his gift, from a child, doesn’t measure up as a gift. He could buy into the disciple Andrew’s grumpy judgment: Five barley loaves and a couple fish—what are they among so many?
But—thanks be to God!—the boy hands over his little bit of food. He gives the gift. Then something happens. Something that those who view the world as a place of scarcity never take into account. The gift is mysteriously multiplied. One little lunch becomes a catered meal for five thousand, a picnic in the wilderness, with leftovers.
The mystery factor is this: When we give, we don’t give simply to a hungry crowd or to cancer research. We give to God. And, perhaps, strange to say, our gift sets God free to do something, to burst forth in new, unexpected ways. Lemonade sold to help medical research. A little lunch given up to feed a crowd. With God in on the act, who knows how far the ripple effect of such choices will reach? Who knows how many times these stories will be told?
You’ve heard me talk about and quote a colleague, Becca Stevens . Becca just finished another book, entitled Practically Divine and she has this to say: “It was my mother’s example of showing love through practical means that gave me the wherewithal to open a home for female survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction more than 25 years ago. Initially, it seemed a bit ridiculous to me to think that by starting a small community filled with love, we could somehow change the world, but now it seems more ridiculous to me to think that somehow the world will change if we don’t do something.
Now, I can see clearly that one loving gesture is practically divine. The bravest thing we can do in this world is to not cling to old ideas or fear of judgment, but step out and just do something for love’s sake, because love is the most powerful force for change in the world”.
Erich Fromm, was one of the world’s leading psychoanalysts who wrote in the 50s. He saw love, or rather the experience of loving, as a verb. It’s not a permanent state of enthusiasm, it’s a practice and that practice gets repeated all the time. It requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it’s a practice.
Consider how many of the Jesus stories we love center around meals, feasts, and dinner tables. The gospels are full of references to Jesus eating and drinking with others. He multiplies wine in Cana to keep a party going longer. The religious leaders of his day accuse him of gluttony because he practices table fellowship with sinners. He accepts the dinner invitation of Simon, a Pharisee, and invites himself to the home of Zacchaeus, a hated tax collector. His last act of love for his disciples before his death is to gather them around a table, and feed them bread. His own body.
When Jesus feeds the five thousand, he does more than fill their stomachs. He encourages hungry, needy, weary people to sit down together, to notice and attend to each other, to take pleasure not only in the possibility of their own fullness, but in the fullness of the whole. The point is not to hoard, scheme, conserve, or quantify. The point is to enjoy abundance in community. To learn that in God’s kingdom, there is enough. Not just enough for one, but for many.
Whatever the miracle is, Jesus is able to perform it because he takes basic human needs seriously. When his disciples look at the crowds, they see only their own insufficiency. Their own scant resources. The impossibility of the situation. But Jesus allows himself to see genuine need, and he allows that need to hit him squarely in his own gut. In the face of the crowd’s deep hunger, despair and apathy are not options; someone has to act. Someone has to feed. Someone has to gather.
In the words of Becca Stevens, “Love is the most powerful force for change in the world.” Our gospel reading for today ends with the story of Jesus walking on the sea after it had become rough. Something of interest. When rowing a boat the rower faces one direction while rowing in another. As we pull at the oars, our physical gaze only takes in where we’ve been, not where we’re going. When Jesus says to the disciples in the boat, “it is I, do not be afraid”, they wanted to take him into the boat, but then they discovered they had reached their destination. There was a sense of an impassible distance, a yearning, that seemed to vanish in an instant with the presence of Jesus. Today’s story is about how Jesus meets our deepest hungers.
May God meet your deepest hungers of body and soul with extravagance and grace. And may we know how to receive—and give—such feeding, because love is the most powerful force for change in the world. Amen.