(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