13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." 16 Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." 17 They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." 18 And he said, "Bring them here to me." 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Many of you have adult children, so maybe you have already had this moment. The moment in which you realized that the only thing holding your 20-something kid back from being a fully-fledged adult was your reflexive parental urge to jump in and do for them what they could do for themselves. This has been my biggest stumbling block as a parent, and I revisited it this week while in Boston with Rachel. We made a frantic pre-vacation trip there on Sunday evening, driving up her stuff that couldn’t be transported by plane. On Monday, we unloaded the boxes from my trunk, deposited them in her new apartment, and then set off for IKEA for some cheap graduate student furniture.
It took hours, but by late afternoon on Monday, we sat on the floor of her apartment surrounded by a mountain of IKEA boxes filled with pieces of plywood, nails and -- as anyone who has built IKEA furniture knows – instructions that may make perfect sense if you’re building cheap furniture in Sweden, but are almost incomprehensible in America. And I knew I had a choice – I could offer to stay up all night and build the furniture for her. Or, I could go have a nice dinner, get some sleep, and leave it for her to put together on Tuesday while I flew back to Pittsburgh for a meeting.
Despite the fact that I was exhausted after a 10 hour drive and a long day of moving heavy boxes, every impulse in my feeble mom-brain wanted to put that furniture together for her. My good judgment was almost overwhelmed by visions of collapsing chairs, lamps short circuiting, and a possible trip to the emergency room. But I resisted. I said, “Rachel, you do it.” I think she thought I was kidding. But I said, no I mean it. You do it. You’re an adult. It’s your furniture. You do it.
And she did. She didn’t like it. Like her mother, Rachel doesn’t enjoy using tools or reading directions, but she got it done. And she did an awesome job. My only contribution was to bring a power screwdriver in my briefcase when I flew back to Boston so we could tighten up some troublesome screws on a table.
And I wonder how often God has to hold back from just putting all the pieces together for us when we struggling to get our lives together. We pray for God’s help, but I think what we’re really often asking is for God to just step in and solve our problems for us in a miraculous way – preferably one that doesn’t involve too much change or challenge or effort on our part. We secretly want to drop our problems into God’s lap and let God figure it out. But it hardly ever works that way, does it? It’s so annoying. God is just like, “Uh, uh. You do it. You’ve got everything you need. You do it.” And it must frustrate God beyond belief to watch the people God loves so much get so many things so very wrong. But God, like a good parent, doesn’t often step in to save us from ourselves.
Maybe the best way to enter this familiar story of the loaves and fishes is to remember how Jesus is entering into it. Jesus had just received about the worst news anyone could receive. His cousin John was dead, after being beheaded in prison by Herod. We can imagine what Jesus must have felt after receiving that news. Shock. Grief. John’s violent death may have also made clear to Jesus that the work he is doing will likely lead to the very same fate for him. It’s only a matter of time. So Jesus withdraws to a quiet place to be alone and deal with the sorrow, anger, and fear of what’s next in this difficult ministry.
But the quiet time alone doesn’t last very long. People get wind of where Jesus has hidden himself. They need what people always need from Jesus -- healing. And Jesus is able to shake off his sorrow and his anger and his worry long enough to take care of the people out of his compassion and love.
He begins to heal and it takes a long time, all day really. It’s a huge crowd and the people have a lot of problems and before you know it, it’s evening. As the sun goes down, the crowd is still hanging around, and has grown from hundreds of people into thousands. Jesus is entirely preoccupied and hasn’t noticed the time, but the disciples soon see a big problem looming. They are in the middle of nowhere and all of these needy people are going to be very, very hungry, very, very soon. Time to shut this thing down and send these people back to wherever they came from before they become a angry mob demanding food. Jesus may have the energy to keep going all night, but the disciples barely have enough food to feed themselves, let alone the thousands of people who keep streaming in to the shoreline.
When the disciples tell Jesus that it’s time to send the people home for supper, Jesus says: “Ok. No problem. You do it. Give them something to eat.” The disciples look at the five loaves of bread and two fish, and then they look at Jesus. Jesus must be kidding, right? There’s not enough food here for us, Jesus. What are we supposed to do?
I can imagine Jesus sighing deeply when he hears the disciples say, “There’s not enough.” I can imagine Jesus saying, “Give me that basket, already,” as he sighs again, lifts his eyes to heaven, thanks God for the fish and bread, and then says to the disciples, “You do it. Go give those people something to eat!”
The disciples look at the bread and fishes and see a disaster brewing.
Jesus looks at the bread and fishes and sees a dinner party for thousands.
Which view is reality? Is this really a story about a miracle that only Jesus can perform? Or, maybe, this a story about what happens when we are finally somehow able to see the world the way Jesus sees it?
The Kingdom of God is like this: Abundant. There is enough, more than enough. Enough for everyone.
The kingdom of the anxious disciples is like this: Scarcity. We don’t have enough for ourselves, so how can we feed anyone else? Better to hold on to what we have.
There’s a stark difference between the world that we see, and the Kingdom of God. When we drop our scarcity blinders, if only for a moment, and look a little more closely at what we are holding in our hands, maybe we can see how abundantly God has already blessed us. Maybe we could see the world the way Jesus sees it.
I thought about this text on Tuesday night when the community gathered to hear about Holy Family Institute’s plans to care for up to 3-dozen children who have arrived in America from Central America without family or parents accompanying them. One of the arguments made in opposition to Holy Family’s plans was that money spent to care for children from Central America would result in not enough money left to care for American children. People spoke as if compassion for children is a zero sum game and there’s only so much of it to go around. I think Sister Linda Yankoski said it best when she answered the question about why they were welcoming the Central American children when she said this: “There’s a child sleeping on a floor in Texas. I have an empty bed.” Taking care of 36 children from Central America will not result in less care for the more than 11,000 American children and families that Holy Family Institute serves each year. Holy Family simply believes that they can do more. They believe their compassion can extend even further, because they follow Jesus of deep compassion, and they trust in a God of astonishing abundance.
This scarcity mindset extends, unfortunately, even into churches. I recently heard about a church that decided to reach out to their neighborhood by holding a summer festival on their lawn, including food booths run by the deacons to raise money for local mission. One of the deacons suggested giving free tickets for the food booths to the local food pantry to distribute to clients so that they could come to the festival free of charge. One of the deacons said, “We can’t possibly do that. How could we figure out how much food to buy? What if we don’t have enough food for the people who are paying?” Another objected saying, “We can’t give out free food! We’re raising money for mission!” It may not surprise you to hear that most of the people who attended the festival were church members, which is probably what most of church people wanted anyway. They really weren’t interested in getting to know their community.
See, that’s the real danger of scarcity thinking -- it lets us off the hook and excuses us from doing those things that make us uncomfortable or are just plain hard to do. Unglamorous. Scary even. If we say we don’t have enough, then we don’t have to do anything and we can send people away. And yet, this is exactly the opposite of what Jesus would have us do. In fact, you could almost say that Jesus is daring us to act. People are hungry? You feed them. People are in pain and suffering? You take care of them. The world is falling apart? You get involved to make it better. With whatever you have, even if it looks like very little or even nothing. Help in whatever way you can help, even if you feel completely helpless.
This story isn’t about an inexplicable miracle of magically expanding loaves finding their way into empty bellies or amazingly multiplying fishes jumping out of baskets into hungry mouths, all thanks to a little Jesus hocus pocus. It’s a story about the people of God trusting that the deepest needs of this world can be met by God’s people in the world right now. That’s not a miracle. That is gospel truth, as plain as the nose on your face. We are the miracle. We are the miracle. We are the miracle we’ve been waiting for. Right here. The miracle is sitting right here in this church. And the miracle is sitting in the church up the road and across the county and across the ocean and around the world. 2 billion Christians. You want to tell me we can’t get something done with 2 billion Christians, even if each of us has just a couple loaves and a couple fish? And if we invited the Jews and the Muslims and the Hindus and the Buddhists and even non-believers of good will to come along side of us, we might just get something done.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not that our problems as a church, or a country, or even as a world have so big, but that our expectations and aspirations have become so small. Part of that is understandable in most parts of the world where merely scratching out a daily existence is a minor miracle. But most of us walk around thinking we only have a couple of loaves of bread and a few tiny fish when, in fact, we have many more resources than we imagine.
For the next six weeks, beginning this Sunday, we will be engaging in conversation with each other about the future of our church and the possibilities that exist for vital ministry here in this community. You’ll be talking about what we already do well as a community of faith – what excites us about ministry here. What challenges us? What do we need to learn about the community around us? How are their needs? How deeply do we understand the way in which people will engage in church into the 21st century? What has God already given us to do the ministry that needs to be done here and now, not 20 or 30 years ago? What is Jesus already up to? Where is Jesus already at work and how can we get in on that kingdom building action? After those conversations, there will be more conversations, more dreaming, more praying, more asking of questions and looking for answers as we talk about adapting to a new reality. What we will become is entirely up for grabs. But I promise you, we will be changed. And God has already given us everything we need.
The disciples could have hidden the small amount of food they had. They could have kept it in their satchels and made sure that they would have something for themselves at the end of the day. But they didn’t. They took what little they had and gave everything to Jesus. He blessed it, and blessed them, and then he told them to go get busy. Feed my people. There’s enough for everyone.
So here’s what we’ll do. Take what little you have and hold it in your hands. That small holy gift you’ve been holding back for such a time as this although you didn’t know it. Now that you’re looking at it more closely, you are almost embarrassed. It doesn’t like very much, does it? Hardly worth mentioning, really. But hold it out anyway. Trust him. Wait for him. And you will hear his voice that says, “Oh yes. This. This. This is what I’ve been waiting for you to discover while you’ve been fussing about your fears and your failures and all those things you though mattered so much to me. This. This. This, I can work with.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.