They’d been following him since just before that wedding in Cana. It wasn’t uncommon in those days to follow a teacher you liked. And this guy, Jesus? There was something about him, something that drew them in. He said, “Follow me.” They did.
But he wasn’t like other teachers, the ones who spent most of their time talking. Oh, he talked, but he did other things, too. Like at that wedding? He turned water into wine. Strange. Then, when they’d gone to Jerusalem? Instead of just teaching in the temple, like most teachers did, he threw a fit, chased out the money-changers, said it was his father’s house—yes, his father’s house–and they should treat it as such.
That one was a little scary. The authenticity and wisdom of their teacher couldn’t be denied. But it was like, while he had this over-abundance of God-sense, he was completely lacking in common sense. Making a scene in the Temple? You do something like that and people are going to start questioning your judgment…
…just like they will when they see you sitting at a well. Speaking to a woman. Alone. In Samaria, of all places. See what I mean? No common sense! Jewish men don’t converse with Samaritans, much less with Samaritan women! Of course, that woman’s whole town did come to faith because of the conversation, but still. You know what I’m saying!
So, they’d been through some strange stuff with this teacher by the time they gathered on the far shore of the Sea of Galilee. As soon as they pulled their boat onto the shore, scads of people—into the thousands–had gathered to hear him teach. Finally! Despite those social hiccups at the beginning, he was settling in to what “normal” teachers do—a crowd had gathered and he was going to teach them. Great! Until…
Even before he addresses the crowd, Jesus asks Philip: “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Bread? For thousands of people? Bought by fisherman who were out of work? So much for normal. Philip answers the question with practicality and common sense: “It would take almost a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
But practicality and common sense don’t seem to interest Jesus. It’s Andrew’s response that gets his attention: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
You know the story. Jesus feeds 5,000+ people bread and fish. Somehow, everyone eats their fill. When they’re done eating, the disciples gather twelve baskets of leftovers.
What are we to make of this story? Is it a simple miracle story? Is it a story that shows the importance of children to the faith community? Is it a story about inclusion, about how everyone was welcomed to the feast that day.
There’s one piece of information John includes that convinces me this is a story about discipleship. Jesus asks Philip: “Where shall we buy bread for these people?” Then John says: “He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.” So, Jesus’ question was a test for the disciples. Jesus knew the crowd would be fed, but the disciples didn’t know. They didn’t yet know the power of God and what they were capable of. And until the disciples knew for themselves what they were able to do, they weren’t going to be much use to God’s kin-dom, were they?
So, Jesus tested them….he gave them a chance to learn through serving what hadn’t yet sunk in from listening. Their ears had been taking in the message, but it was their hands that were going to make that message real.
I wonder what their hands taught them that day after feeding more than 5,000 people. I wonder what lessons their hands relayed as they collected twelve baskets of leftovers. I wonder if their hands taught the disciples just how capable they were of serving others.
Serving others changes you, doesn’t it? It certainly changed Sara and Derek.
One day a few years back, Sara Miles wandered into a worship service at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco and received communion. Becoming a Christian wasn’t on her to do list that day, but something about receiving the bread and wine changed Sara. In an instant, she realized just how hungry she’d been all her life…and how filling that bread and wine were.
The experience of receiving food and drink from God was so powerful that, not long afterward, Sara felt called to serve food to others. She started a food pantry at the church.
The first week 35 people came to receive food. After a few months that number swelled to 250. When the numbers ballooned to 315, it became clear that St. Gregory’s wasn’t going to be able to accommodate everyone who came. They just didn’t have the space or the resources. How were they going to feed all those people?
Then one day, a miracle happened. Sara writes: “The day the loaves multiplied began, like all my Fridays, with psalms. ‘God gives this place to the hungry,’ we sang, ‘the poor shall eat all they want.’” In the midst of preparing for the day’s pantry, someone brought Sara an envelope from the US District Court. Sara had received one of these letters before from the person responsible for dispersing funds collected by the court, attorney Derek Howard. The first check was for $25,000.
This time, “St. Gregory’s Pantry was awarded $200,000. (They) were going to get an escrow account, disbursed at twenty thousand dollars a year for ten years, because, the letter said, ‘St. Gregory’s Pantry has a tiny operating budget and no staff, but it has accomplished great things.” (245) These funds would make it possible to open food pantries in other churches in the area. Even more people would be fed.
A stunned Sara called Derek to thank him. Derek turned it back on her and said: “Thank you, for giving me the chance to do this.” “You know, I had to go to church when I was a kid, and they kept telling me what to do—sit still, say this, and, you know, I didn’t like that. I don’t like being told what to do.” He laughed.
“Now I take my kids to an Episcopal church,’ continued Derek, ‘It’s really rich, everyone’s very nice, but you just sit there, it’s very white…” He paused. “I mean, when I went to your pantry, I saw all the food, and I thought, this is what church is for.” (245-6)
“This sounds weird, but I want you to help me with something.” What did he want? The man had given us a quarter of a million dollars out of the blue. But he was so hungry.
“‘I want you to write out a prayer for me,’ Derek said. ‘I used to say one, but I forget it. Would you write out a prayer, in your handwriting, something I could say, maybe at night, or just something to remind me why I’m doing this?” (Pause) “I can’t believe I’m sitting here in my law offices,” he said, “and I’m going to cry. This is not like me.”
Sara sent him the prayer she wrote for the food pantry: “O God of abundance, you feed us every day. Rise in us now, make us into your bread, that we may share your gifts with a hungry world, and join in love with all people, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Helping people changed Derek. His hands made real what his head knew in theory. Nothing the church taught made sense until he got active feeding people. The same was true for the disciples. Jesus’ teaching didn’t mean much to them until they started putting it into action. The same is true for us. Faith won’t really make sense until we take the little—or much—we’ve been given and share it with others.
Sara’s bishop says it this way: “There’s a hunger beyond food that’s expressed in food, and that’s why feeding is always a kind of miracle. It speaks to a bigger desire.’ ‘(In) the feeding of the five thousand…the miracle wasn’t that Jesus multiplied the loaves. It’s that the disciples took the bread and did what they were told, got up and started feeding, and something happened.’ (175) ‘I consider myself one of those people who’s got to do what Jesus said when he told the disciples, Shut up. Just go feed the people.’ ‘You know, it’s a mystery. But sometimes you just have to trust and eat.” (176)
That’s what Derek did…and Sara…and Jesus’ disciples. What about us?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us sustains us and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.