About 20 years ago, I led a group of college students on a mission trip to Kenya. My sense of “mission trips” is that the people going receive the greatest benefit. We went to ngong hills outside Nairobi, after seeing the city, we got back to the church and there were about 150 school children sitting in the rough wooden pews. They had been waiting for us to arrive and they sand songs for us, we sang for them. (No I wasn’t allowed to do a solo) We had been told that many of the children there had not eaten for a day, sometimes there is food for the school lunch program and sometime not, some of the children could afford to go to school and many could not. We were given boxes of cookies, shortbread to share with the children, so we began to hand them out to the children who were eager to accept. Then came a very awkward moment, the elders of the church brought out about fifteen sandwiches for the guests to share and continue in conversation with the group. It was clear that the sandwiches were for us and that the children were not included in the headcount. They had been invited to remain and meet us and ask questions about America. That’s when one member of the group said, I can’t do this, we can’t just eat these and not share. We ate this morning, they didn’t. Let’s give them what is here. It was the closest thing to the feeding of the five thousand I have ever seen. Those few sandwiches were divided up and divided up such that everyone got at least two pieces. That wasn’t the part that got to me. It was at this point that one person in our group, Lisa, had the courage to show unchecked honest emotion and began to openly cry. Some in the group offered a hug or a kind word, as she said there is so much hunger, so much poverty, is this all we can do hand out a few bites? The sight I will not forget is an elder from the church drying her tears saying “we have Jesus, that is enough.”
The feeding of the 5000 is the only “miracle” of Jesus that is recorded in all four of the gospels. This incredible event takes place after Jesus has taught many of the parables and word about him has begun to spread. People are flocking to see him and hear him. So in our story, five thousand have gathered, and here, sadly only “males” would be in that count, so there were probably women and children as well, who knows how many in total. Maybe 15,000 people.
While Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t mention where the bread and fish comes from. In John’s retelling of this story, we hear that the loaves and fish came from a young boy. Like many others who play such important in scripture, we don’t know who is the little boy was, but we do know what a difference he made. It is easy to imagine that there were some in the crowd, who stayed at a distance, and were too far removed to really understand what happened. The question, “Who was that little boy?” is a good one – for without him – this miracle may not have happened. When Jesus was responding to the needs that were around him, the little boy was the only one who brought forth something to share. He was the only one willing to come forward and say “here’s what I have I know it’s not much but you could have it.”
There’s great deal to be learned from considering how Jesus interacted with the crowds and the disciples. We can only guess why such a large crowd was following Jesus. Perhaps, some had heard of the tragic death of John the Baptist and sought Jesus out for comfort and reassurance. Perhaps some have been following Jesus for quite a while and were awaiting another series of parables. Perhaps, some just saw the crowds and wanted to be part of the action, without any desire to be changed themselves in anyway. We don’t know what motivated people to come out and join in. But now, in this moment, they were there – and they were hungry. (Imagine having to feed all those people!) Many of us today may be seeking Jesus for different reasons. And we should take comfort and assurance, knowing that Jesus can and does take care of the needs of all of us of all who were there no one leaves hungry. Whatever brings you near is fine.
This is a familiar story one that we’ve all learned in Sunday school, it puts to us a simple and clear call – to share what we have – and it will be enough to do wonders! It is a living example of the parables that preceded in the scriptures; we’ve heard them in the past, the parables of the sower, and of the wheat, and of the mustard seeds, parables and points to reality of abundance in what appears to be scarce. Each one of us knows scarcity, in one way or another, in our lives, a scarcity of time, or money, or energy, to do the things we would like. We look at the demands on us and what the world seems to be asking and we think to ourselves “I just can’t do it I have nothing to offer it is better for me to retreat.”
As the gospels would tell it, just before this moment. Jesus himself had had two experiences of apparent scarcity. He is rejected by his home town when he tried to preach and heal, and he has just learned of John’s execution. So there must be a great emptiness within him. Now he is surrounded by thousands of people, his disciples presenting him with more scarcity and rather than turn them away saying I can do nothing for you, leave me alone. Instead of doing the understandable and the perfectly acceptable he embodies what he is been saying all along. He lives out that the kingdom of God is like a few loaves and fishes that can feed thousands. He shows us that there are things that we can give away and give away and still never run out.
One of the most interesting and powerful prayer sessions I remember being part of was one where we first held stones in our hands and reflected on the hard places in our lives in the areas of scarcity where we felt we were hitting rock bottom, and then we held pieces of bread and reflected on the gifts in our lives that we had an that we could offer to others and never run out. What in your “lunchbox” that will you always have leftovers of? For each of us, there is something different. (A love of people, a hopeful attitude, something within you as part of your very soul, that is a gift from God, that you share with others and yet never lose? That search is part of our faith journey, to find what we have as gift, and then give it away to others. (Could be a sense of laughter, an appreciation of music, a desire to serve the poor. We each have at least one thing.
Jesus refuses to stop helping just because he and the disciples are exhausted from work and with grief and from the crowd. In their weariness, the disciples can only see their meagerness and shortness of their resources. “We have nothing” they say. Jesus does not let them stop at that and say “it’s okay, you don’t have much – I can’t expect much of you.” Instead of focusing on their lack, Jesus commands that they bring what they have. Using the words of the Eucharist he accepts what they bring and gives it back and orders that the disciples give it away. The scriptures say he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave.
This is the model of discipleship. God calls us to bring ourselves, our lives, our failings, and our hope all before God. Are we willing to come, and say, here is what I am, here’s what I have, you can have it. As we do – do we trust that God will take can get back to us and call us out to take an going to world and do wonders. We will give them we will give, and still there will be more that something leftover! Amen.