Sunday, July 29, 2016
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
New England Congregationalism is about as far away as one can get from the religious upbringing of my childhood. This congregation, for example, is respectable and orderly and historic. The church of my childhood was hardscrabble and rather chaotic. We Congregationalists value reason and education and proper governance. My childhood church valued emotional experiences with God. And that included a strong belief in miracles. We were firmly convinced that God regularly intervened in the normal affairs of humans. We believed in divine healings and economic miracles. My childhood memories are peopled with traveling evangelists and faith healers and testimonies of the wonder-working power of God.
That early religious upbringing still influences my idea of the ways God works in the world. Unlike some of my brilliant and faithful colleagues, I have never really had an issue with the idea of miracles. I think that the world and the universe are very mysterious places. I believe in a reality beyond the reach of our five senses. And I do believe in the power of God in the lives of people just like us. I read the stories of the Bible – the miracles of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection – and I think, “Why not?”
Now I know that there are others who cannot come to same conclusion. Those folks read the Bible or hear a sermon about something beyond the scope of regular human experience or the laws of science, and they scratch their heads and wonder how anyone could believe that.
And in churches like ours we have folks on both sides of that theological divide – and lots of folks in between. And we all live together in respect for the individual’s spiritual journey. In fact that respect for each person’s experience of God is a hallmark of Congregationalism.
So for all of you true believers and all of you skeptics and all of you folks in between – what do you make of this story?
Jesus and his disciples had rowed over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee in order to escape the crushing mobs that followed them wherever they went. They thought they had escaped this time. And they sat down on the side of a mountain to take in the spectacular view and to catch their breath. Suddenly, they saw a flash of color. Suddenly, they heard the dull roar of a crowd. Suddenly, they saw thousands of needy people coming toward them; people who needed healing for their bodies and minds and souls; people who needed food for their empty bellies. They had been following Jesus for miles without any thought of where or how they would eat. Desperation sometimes makes all of us forget to take care of ourselves.
Jesus turned to Phillip and asked: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” And Phillip, a little dumbstruck by the question, replied: “There’s no Stop n Shop out here in the countryside, Lord. And besides, six month’s wages would not buy enough bread even for each person to have a little.”
I expect that there was a pregnant pause. Then Andrew piped up: “Well, there is a little boy in the crowd today. I was talking to him earlier. And he said his mom had packed five barley loaves and two dried fish for his lunch.” At which point Phillip sighed and rolled his eyes.
And you know how this story ends. Jesus had the crowd sit down on the grass. And Jesus took the five loaves and two fish and gave thanks to God for what he had. And then Jesus distributed the food to the disciples, who distributed it to the people. And the people ate and ate and ate. Soon laughter was heard as people’s tired feet because to relax and blood sugar levels came back into normal range and hunger headaches disappeared. And even as much as they ate, the Gospel writer declares that there were twelve baskets full of leftovers. And Jesus had all these leftovers picked up so that, in his words, “nothing may be lost.”
The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is one of the few stories told in all four Gospels. In fact, there are actually six miracle-feeding stories in the four Gospels, so they must be important. And they must have something to say to us: skeptics and believers and everyone in between.
You can see this story is a number of lights. You can see it as a simple reporting of facts. You can take it at its face value and believe that our Lord Jesus Christ, who went about healing the sick and raising the dead, also cared that folks have something to eat. And there is power in that interpretation because it amply demonstrates how much God cares for our everyday needs; how much God cares for this flesh and bone bodies.
You can also see this story as a theological device. There are Eucharistic elements in it. Every time Jesus takes bread, breaks it, and blesses it, we see hints of that Upper Room and the Last Supper – that holy meal in which we continue to participate in the very Body of Christ. In fact, some prominent theologians posit that since the Gospel of John has no Last Supper narrative in it, that this is actually John’s way of commemorating that event. It’s John’s version of the Last Supper, not for twelve but for thousands. And there is power in that interpretation because it shows the breadth of God’s amazing grace and a Table open for all.
But there is another way to see this story. And some might say that it is a diminishment of the power of God. But I think a miracle is a miracle is a miracle. Maybe, the theory goes, this isn’t a story about an ontological multiplication of limited resources. Maybe this is a story about human transformation. Maybe when the crowds saw the selflessness of the little boy and the way that Jesus took the humble resources that were offered, and gave thanks for them, and in faith started to break them into small pieces – maybe when the people witnessed such an act, their hearts were pricked. Maybe their consciences were troubled by that that fig or flask of wine or piece of dried meat they had hidden in their cloaks. And they took out what they had and began to share it with their neighbors. Maybe they chose generosity over selfishness and fear. And in that sharing of resources, everyone had enough. In fact, there was a super-abundance.
And that, it seems to me, is the point of this story, whether you accept it at face value or give is a theological spin or see it as the Spirit at work in the hearts of people: the end result was the same. In the act of thanksgiving and breaking and sharing, there was enough. In God’s economy, there is always enough. But in order to get there we have to chose faith over fear and generosity over scarcity.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, God has already worked so many wonders through the ministries of this church, through you, the people who support them. But there is more to do. There is always more to do. And we don’t have to understand all the nuances of the need before we start to meet them. We can start with what we have. We can give thanks for what have. And we can share what we have with those in need. And we can do that without too much overthinking about how or where we will get the money or how we will recruit the volunteers. Find a real human need and determine to do something about it, and all the rest will fall into place. Because in God’s economy sharing always leads to plenty. And scarcity always gives way to abundance. And that’s a miracle any way you slice it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.