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Enough to Fill Our Souls and Then Some

(a sermon for July 29, 2018, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, based on John 6:1-15)

Actually, if you want to leave early this morning, I can give you the good news of this morning’s text right up front:  God cares about our hunger!

The story of the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle story of Jesus that gets told in all four of the gospels, which tells us a couple of things immediately: first, that it’s a very important story; that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all felt that this account of Jesus feeding the multitudes with a scant amount of loaves and fishes so clearly got to the heart of just exactly who Jesus was that it needed to be included in each of their accounts of his “good news.”  It also suggests, I think, that the gospel writers saw this as a story to which almost anyone could relate because most everybody knows what it’s like to be hungry; and moreover, how wonderful it feels to be filled up and not be hungry anymore!  We can all relate to hunger; and the good news here, as we’ve said, is that God cares about our hunger!

Actually, I would suggest to you that hunger is the universal experience!   Rev. Debra Metzgar Shew, an Episcopalian vicar and inner-city social worker in Atlanta, has written that “from the moment we are born,” she says, “we are faced with it… we all feel it.  We all know it.  It is incessant… It propels us to the things that give us life… to the things that quite literally we can’t live without.  We [all] spend time and effort and energy of every kind making it go away, on filling ourselves with something, on staving off our hunger and keeping it at bay.”

Now I’ll admit that that does seem like a bit of an overstatement, especially when you consider that for all of us in this room, and truly the vast majority of us in this affluent culture of which we’re a part, “staving off hunger” is nothing more difficult than opening the refrigerator door or ordering out for pizza!  That said, however, I think we’d all agree that there’s more than one kind of hunger; that there is a yearning within every one of us to be filled up with something more than just food.  We all want to know what it is to be truly loved; we all need to feel a true sense of belonging; we’re looking for our lives to have some kind of purpose and meaning: when those kinds of things are missing for us we’re left wanting… yearning… hungering.  It’s no coincidence that when you ask someone who is going through some difficult transition in life – the end of a relationship, for instance, or the loss of a job, the death of a loved one; you name it – when you ask that person how they’re feeling, very often one of the first things they’ll say is that they feel empty; that there’s a void inside of them that needs to be filled.

Oh, yes… we know about hunger, don’t we?  I dare say that most of us here know what it is to have our hearts ache in the midst of that kind of emptiness.  We understand what it is to be, if you will, spiritually hungry, where our souls are empty and wanting, and needing, somehow, to be filled up… but the question is, what does all this have to do with this story of Jesus feeding a multitude on a grassy hillside along the Sea of Galilee?  Well, as it turns out, as John tells the story, this particular miracle of Jesus has as much to do with caring as it does with the ability to stretch out two fishes and five barley loaves… and as we’ve noted, God does care about our hunger!

To get to the heart of this, however, first we need to understand that Jesus had spent that entire day healing the sick, and that a huge crowd, “attracted by the miracles they had seen him do,” [The Message] was getting larger by the hour and in fact had followed Jesus up a hill where Jesus and his disciples had gone to sit down.  Not only this, but John adds an additional tidbit to the story; that Passover was just about to begin, “the festival of the Jews,” and being true to his faith and heritage, Jesus knew that it was only good and right and hospitable to feed all those people who had gathered.  And so he turns to his disciples (and this, by the way, is unique to John’s version of this story; in the other gospels, it’s the disciples who ask about this), and Jesus says, “Where are we going to buy bread for these people to eat?”

Now at this point of the story we get two very interesting reactions to this request: first, there’s that of one of the disciples, Philip, who immediately starts counting change.  Even as Jesus is asking the question, Philip’s busy calculating how much money it’s going to take to feed everyone there; and of course, there’s no practical way they can do that.  There’s not enough in our budget, he says; our resources are tapped out as it is, and besides, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Philip, you see, represents every one of us who obsess on categories, logistics and expectations; in other words, if it’s not there in the ledger, if it can’t be seen in black and white and proven empirically, then it can’t be done, so don’t even try. Philip embodies the trait within so many of us that will lead us in walking along every part of life’s journey while refusing to take a single step purely in faith; which on the face of it seems very prudent and practical, and yet in large part because of it ends up leaving one feeling a constant and indescribable hunger in their lives.

And then there’s Andrew; who I suppose did have a role in setting the miracle in motion, and yet, it should be noted, did so in a rather defeatist kind of way. Well, he says to Jesus, there is this kid over there, and he does have a few barley loaves and a couple of fish… “but that’s a drop in the bucket for a crowd like this.” [The Message]  Now, what’s interesting here is that Andrew has immediately found three different reasons not to use the boy’s loaves and fishes: first, because he’s a child (the original Greek in this text  emphasizes the fact that he’s “just” a little kid, and therefore of no real help whatsoever); second, that there’s not nearly enough barley and fish to go around, and so why bother; and thirdly, because in biblical times barley was considered to be “the grain of the poor,” much cheaper than the wheat that was used for feeding horses, donkeys and cattle, and often what the poorest of the poor would use to make their own flour to bake bread, Andrew may well have thinking (with some validity, I must confess!) that such food shouldn’t be taken from the poor in the first place!

Valid concerns or no, however, what we can glean from this is that Andrew represents those of us who can find a million and one reasons why we’ll always be hungry.  And you know the list of reasons as well as I do:  I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not religious enough, I’ve done bad things in my life; there’s no way that someone like me could ever, should ever deserve to be filled up with good food. No matter what you say to me here, I know better; to be hungry, you see, is just my lot in life!

So… what we’ve got here on this hillside of Galilee is Philip, who in essence refuses to believe in miracles, and Andrew, who is reluctant to accept them.  But then, to all the Philips and Andrews of that world and this one, here comes Jesus; taking a mere five loaves of cheap bread and a couple of random fish, giving thanks to God for the blessings of his creation, and then sharing this rather meager meal with everyone seated there on the hillside!  Yes (!), there was food enough for everyone… and then some; we know that because afterward Jesus had the disciples go around and collect the leftovers, and there was enough to fill twelve baskets!  And all it took was two loaves of barley bread and two fish; but more than enough for Jesus to fill up every belly and every heart in the place.

It was a true and utter, “God is at work” kind of a miracle, and of course, they were all amazed by it; so much so that, as John describes its aftermath, the people recognized Jesus as “indeed the prophet who is to come into the world,” and tried to take him by force “to make him king.”  I mean, if Jesus could do this to bread and fish, just think of what he might do for them; as far as they were concerned, this was more manna from heaven and they needed to do whatever they could to keep it coming!  But of course, like their ancestors before them, they’d missed the whole point of the miracle and the meaning of the food they’d received: the eternal truth that it was Jesus himself who was the real and important food; and that Jesus’ real purpose was and has always been to provide the kind of spiritual sustenance that lasts not simply for a moment but for a lifetime and beyond; that unlike so many things in life that would seem to fill us up at the moment but ultimately leaves us feeling empty, Jesus is bringing us that from God which will keep us filled up with good things.

You see, God cares about our hunger… and God is not about to leave us to subsist on all that which is perishable or, shall we say, “full of empty calories;” God does not wish us to spend our lives searching for all those things we believe are going to bring us fulfillment and satisfaction, yet will inevitably fail us.  Money… power… status… whatever form it takes: so many of us go through our days thinking that the “next” thing is what’s going to finally fill us up and give us that love and sense of belonging we’ve been yearning for for so long;  but you see, God knows better.  God wants us to know and to feel what is to be really full, and well-nourished and wholly satisfied, and that only comes with the food that lasts; and that food comes from Jesus, who is the Bread of Life, which is truly enough to fill our souls and then some.

I wonder how many of us are feeling hungry this morning; and not merely for a Sunday brunch!  I wonder how many of us have come here today, at least in part, out of a nagging feeling of being empty inside; maybe out of the realization that all that other stuff in life that we thought would make us feel good and full and alive just didn’t do it for us and that there’s got to be something better. I wonder just how many of us have heard Jesus’ call to work not for the “food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life,” (John 6:27) but have never taken true advantage of the offer; maybe because it seems unrealistic in a dog-eat-dog world to be so graced with limitless love, or perhaps because somehow, somewhere in our hearts we’ve convinced ourselves that what God does could not ever make it better for us.

Well, if you’ve come here this morning feeling like that, then I would say to you that it would be good for you to think about what happened on that hillside with loaves, fishes, and the caring and all-pervasive love of God through his Son.  Maybe it is hard for us to wrap our post-modern minds around 5,000 people having supper on the basis of a few loaves and fishes, but remember the point of the miracle is not so much the food but the one who brings it.  What we need to remember is when God is at work; when God makes use of whatever small amount of resources or talents or patience or compassion or even faith we have, God will do with it far more with it than we could ever have dreamt or imagined… and if we can trust in that, miracles can and do happen!

For you see, that’s the good news (I told you that at the very start of this message!):  God cares about our hunger… and if we’ll let him, God will give us enough food to fill our souls… and then some.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on July 29, 2018 in Jesus, Life, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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A Summer Day With Jesus: Something to Eat

mark 6b(a sermon for July 10, 2016, the 8th Sunday after Pentecost; fourth in a series, based on Mark 6:30-44)

The thing was, we really weren’t planning much of a 4th of July celebration this year.

After all, we’ve been in the throes of major repair work at our camp up in Maine for several weeks now; there’s quite literally been a huge, gaping hole in the wall where a fireplace and chimney used to be, and my wife Lisa (who’s been up there overseeing the project and helping out where she can) has been knee-deep in brick, mortar and dust!  Moreover, our contractor (who’s also our nephew, Gabe!) had to leave in a few days for National Guard duty and wanted to try and finish up before then; and so he decided to work the holiday, and brought his brother (our other nephew, Josh!) along to help!  So, given that a lot of the family couldn’t be with us anyway and that we all had plenty of work to do at the camp as well, Lisa and I just figured it’d be a low-key kind of Independence Day, albeit a pretty busy one!

But then things started to change:  first, Gabe’s wife Chelsea called and asked if it would be okay if she and their baby daughter came down late in the day and stay the night along with Gabe; then it’s Josh’s wife Alex with their two young children who thought they might come down to go swimming in the lake; and then we remember that Lisa’s sister and her mother are going to be on their way back up from southern Maine right around suppertime and so they really should stop in… well, suffice to say that suddenly we had ourselves a 4th of July celebration!  And now there’s salads being made, hot dogs and hamburgers are cooking on the grill and everything’s being laid out on the table for a pretty impromptu yet rather sizeable holiday feast!  Nothing formal or fancy, mind you; and I’m not at all sure what the little ones were thinking about all this (I actually overheard Josh’s little boy Thomas – four years old (!) – ask his Daddy if he could “speak to him in the ‘Dining Hall,’ please!”); but in the end, we all had a great time, everybody was well-fed and it was a perfect way to cap off a very busy day.

It wasn’t until later on that it occurred to me that the scene probably wasn’t all that different from what it might have been like on “a summer day with Jesus.”  This comes through clearly in our text for this morning, Mark’s version of the story “Feeding of the 5,000.”  Now, this is arguably one of the most important stories we have about Jesus in the gospels: not only because it’s one of a handful of passages included in all four gospels but also because it’s a story that gets to the heart of just exactly who Jesus is and what he’s about; and it’s presented in a fashion to which we can all relate.  Because, you see, no matter who we are, where we come from or what our experience in life happens to be, we all know what it’s like to be hungry.

The Rev. Debra Shew, an Episcopalian vicar from Atlanta, says this very well. She writes that hunger is the universal experience.  “From the moment we are born, we are faced with it… we all feel it.  We all know it.  It is incessant… it propels us to the things that give us life… to the things that quite literally we can’t live without.  We [all] spend time and effort and energy of every kind making it go away, on filling ourselves with something, on staving off our hunger and keeping it at bay.”

Granted, I would hasten to add here that most of us cannot ever claim to know what it is to be hungry in the sense of not having enough food and water to survive; we are among the most well-fed, if not over fed people on the planet, and for the vast majority of us, “staving off our hunger” is no more difficult than opening up the refrigerator or ordering pizza!  So I don’t want to be flip here; but all that said, we also need to understand that there’s more than one kind of hunger, and that every one of us yearns to be filled up with something more than just food.  We want to know what it is to be truly loved, to have a sense of belonging, to know our lives have a real purpose; and when those things are missing, we are left with a real hunger.  It is no coincidence that when you ask someone who is going through some difficult transitions in life – a divorce, for instance, or the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one – when you ask that person how they are feeling, very often one of the first things they’ll say is that they’re feeling empty; that there’s a void inside of them that needs to be filled.

Oh, yes… we all know about hunger, don’t we?  We all know what it is to have our hearts ache for that which we need so deeply; and so many of us have had that experience of emptiness in our lives.  We’re hungry; but the good news is that Jesus is here, and he wants to give us something to eat.

Well, as Mark tells the story it is late in the day, and it had been a busy one for both Jesus and his disciples  So many people: hundreds, if not thousands of them all clamoring for Jesus’ healing touch, looking to be made free of their diseases and their demons.  It’s also worth mentioning that in Mark this also comes on the heels of the news of John the Baptist’s beheading, so there’s also profound sadness and grief that’s entered into this particular day; to the point where Jesus himself has urged his disciples to get in the boat and “’Come away to a deserted place… [to] rest a while.’”  But of course, this wasn’t to be because the crowds only “hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.’”

These people weren’t going away, and there was much work left to be done!  But the point is that Jesus did not react to this “great crowd” with weariness or anger; in fact, we’re told “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”  You see? There’s this emptiness amongst the people, this hunger and need to be fed, and here’s Jesus right there ready to fill them up with good things!  And if that’s not evidence enough; later on, when it’s really getting late and everybody’s starting to get physically hungry; about the time the disciples are ready to send everybody out “to the surrounding country and villages” to buy themselves some supper, Jesus once again answers with compassion that transcends not only the lack of bread and fish, but also the kind of bone-crushing exhaustion that comes at the end of both the day and one’s own strength. He says simply, ’you give them something to eat.’”  And before you know it, five loaves of bread and couple of fish manages to be enough to feed 5,000 (or perhaps even more since Mark makes a point of counting only the  5,000 men who were being fed!); and there were leftovers!

It’s an amazing miracle, to be sure; but even more than this, it’s an incredible study of contrasts: all the while that the disciples are seeking to send the hurting masses away to take care of themselves, here’s Jesus taking what they have, as meager as it seems to be, blessing it and offering it up for the sustenance of all; and it ends up being more than enough to fill their empty bellies and their barren souls.

But lest we assume that this is simply an old story with a very happy ending, understand that the contrast we’re speaking of is one that continues to exist even today… and even with us!  William Willimon, in fact, has written that this story paints a disturbingly clear picture of the contemporary church.  “Send them back to town,” he says, “where they can buy something to eat… send them to the local mental health center.  There they can get ‘professional help.’ Send them to the Department of Human Services – anywhere other than here.  Increase the Social Security payments, let the government provide day care – anywhere other than here, anybody other than us.  Master, send them away.

All too familiar, these cries of protest and disbelief; our own hopelessness that nothing can ever be done that can possibly satisfy the hunger we see around us, much less the hunger within ourselves.  And yet, here’s Jesus; still taking the bread, still blessing the bread, still breaking the bread, still giving the bread… here’s Jesus, diligently and lovingly feeding his people, giving peace where before there had only been strife, bringing purpose and fulfillment into the barren emptiness that so often seeks to starve us.  Jesus comes to us and has compassion on us… and miracle of miracles, God’s people are fed, and filled up!

You see, there are at least two things that we can take from our text this morning; two sides of the miracle, if you will.  And the first that yes, that over 5,000 were fed that day; and likewise you and I are fed daily out of the same compassion of this one who is truly the bread of life.  We all know what it is to be hungry in this life; but whereas everything else the world and its culture has to offer ultimately leaves us empty, our Lord offers to give us the food we need to live with fullness, dignity and joy; and in times like these, that’s a miracle indeed.  But the other side of the miracle is that as you and I are fed, so we are called to feed others with the same kind of compassion.

In most cases, you know, scripture reveals relatively little to us of the tone of voice that Jesus used in his words and teachings; but in this passage it’s pretty clear that when Jesus says, “You give them something to eat,” the emphasis was definitely on the word you“YOU give them something to eat.”  In other words, get up, stop making excuses and go feed these people!  Even when the disciples protest that there isn’t enough money or food to feed everyone; even as Jesus is already blessing and breaking the loaves, we need to remember here that it’s the disciples’ hands that are passing the baskets to the crowd!

You see, if you’re going to spend a summer day with Jesus, rest assured, you’ll be put to work… because as his disciples, you and I are always and ever being used by our Lord to make sure the people he loves will be fed.  It might come in working at Friendly Kitchen, or helping to make sure the shelves of a food pantry are well-stocked; for that matter, it might come in sitting with them in a hospital waiting room, or maybe it’ll happen in the middle of the busiest part of your day when you suddenly realize that you’re being asked by someone near you to just stop… stop long enough to listen, truly listen, to their pain.  To spend time with Jesus, you see; to walk with him and to do what he does requires from us true compassion.

It takes LOVE.

Beloved, our Lord offers to each and every one of us the miracle of sustenance; the blessing of being able to walk through this pilgrimage of life having been truly fed, and well-fed at that.  But there are so many who are empty, and need the kind of nourishment that only our Lord can bring forth; but the truth is that might well require you and me to bring them that basket of bread and fish.  Our Lord needs us to bring our compassionate love to every situation and to every person; and to have the kind faith that moves us from weariness to action, from reluctance to willingness, and especially these days, from fear to boldness.

The question is, I suppose, can we ever share our love to the extent of feeding 5,000, so to speak?  After all, there is so much hunger in this world, and of every variety.  All I know is that if we’re willing to let our Lord make use of whatever small amount of resources or talents or patience or compassion or even we think we have; then certainly he’ll do far more with it than any of us could ever have dreamt or imagined.

Because there’s still a lot of daylight left, friends… and even now, Jesus is still saying to us, “You give them something to eat.”

Let us do just that, beloved… and as we do, let our…

…thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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