Yesterday’s text was one of the six gospel renditions of the feeding of the five (or four) thousand. This story is told more often than any other story in the New Testament. And no wonder – it has words of life for all of us. Thoughts after the jump…
Jesus has just received word that John the Baptist has been executed. How he must have mourned when he heard that the man he considered to be the greatest of all the prophets had been killed. In his grief, he went to the desert.
The desert isn’t just a site for prayer. It’s the wilderness, a place where all the markers of civilization fall away. Food is scarce, water even more so. To be in the desert is to not know who you are, much less who or where God is. All of the things that make it a place for discernment also make it profoundly disorienting.
It’s a place we’ve all been. Unemployment can be a desert as the questions of who am I and what next extend as far as the eye can see. Retirement can be similarly disorienting. Grief is a wilderness. Sometimes the desert just grows up around us for no apparent reason at all. Depression is like that. All the beauty that so captivated us just days ago has disappeared and we find ourselves in a vast wasteland. Who am I in this wild place? Will I survive this? Is God here?
Our nation, too, finds itself in the wilderness. We seem to have lost the ability to talk to each other, even as more of our fellow citizens lose their homes, face unending months of joblessness, and teeter on the brink of poverty. It remains unclear how we will pay our debts while honoring our commitments to the hungry, the unemployed, and the elderly. Yes, I think we all know what a desert looks like.
And these crowds followed Jesus into one–willingly. How they must have needed him. Jesus is desperate for a break, and they’re desperate for him.
I wonder if when he saw them, he had something of an internal monologue, if he raised his eyes to heaven and said, God, I can’t, I have nothing to offer them, nothing but my worn out, broken down, grieving self. I want to love these people, but I just don’t know if I have enough. I wonder if God said give them what you have. I’ll be with you. It will be enough. I wonder.
All the story tells us is that he had compassion. And here we hear a word of life: God’s work begins with compassion.
It begins with an open heart. How often, when we find ourselves in situations of scarcity, we respond by closing down, trying to preserve what little is left. But God’s way, the way that ultimately leads to life, begins with this compassion. Jesus sees the crowds and his heart goes out to them.
Our translation says he healed their sick. That last word, though, isn’t the usual word for sick. It means something closer to wretched. Jesus had compassion for this crowd and healed the wretched, the oppressed, the sickly, the poor, the hungry, the unwashed, the dirty, the wretched.
Jesus sees their need and heals them. And here’s another word of life: Jesus is Lord, even of physical need. This whole story is intensely physical. Jesus doesn’t just tell them to forget the troubles of the flesh and look for salvation of their souls. He cares for them, beginning with their bodily needs.
And then the sun is setting, and the disciples, who I imagine have been running crowd control all day, are worn out. They’re tired and hungry, and they realize all these thousands of people out here in the desert must be hungry too.
And they do what any good logistical planners would do. They say, we’ve got to get these people fed. There’s no food out here. This is too big of a problem for us to solve. We’d better send them home. They go to Jesus with this infinitely reasonable suggestion. And he, can you believe this, he turns to them and says, you give them something to eat.
But, but, they sputter. We don’t have nearly enough. We have nothing, nothing except five loaves and a couple of fish. We don’t have enough.
Oh, how well we know this response. How often we feel this way.
Sometimes we wake up and think, I simply don’t have enough to face this day. We get to mid-afternoon and have been going non-stop since before the sun came up and think, I can’t do this. I don’t have enough, enough energy, enough patience, enough kindness. With the disciples we find ourselves saying, so many people need so much, and I just don’t have enough.
In our life as a community of faith we sometimes feel this way. We fear we don’t have enough, enough money, enough workers, enough energy to meet the challenges we face. Lots of you have shared that fear with me. We don’t have enough.
Facing the broader problems of our time we certainly feel this way. There are almost seven billion people in the world. If Jesus’ command still stands, you give them something to eat, how can we possibly have enough?
- 49 million in this country struggle to put food on the table.
- The horn of Africa is starving right now. 10 million people.
How can we give them something to eat?
- There are more than 14 million without work in our country.
- 6 million whose only source of income is food stamps.
- 43.6 million who are trying to feed and clothe and house their families below the poverty line.
How can we possibly have enough for that?
It seems to me this feeling is at the core of our current national conversations about our debts. It doesn’t look like there’s enough to go around, and the politics of scarcity harden our hearts and our leaders’ bargaining positions.
Jesus, we don’t have enough. We have nothing, nothing except five loaves and a couple of fish.
And Jesus says, Give them to me. Then he told 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 people. And all ate and were filled; and they took up the leftovers, twelve baskets full.
I love imagining the murmuring as Jesus begins to pass the loaves, as each person tears off a hunk, and passes it to the next, and they see it is enough, there’s plenty, gracious plenty.
How did it work? Did Jesus’ love overcome the laws of physics? Some suggest that perhaps his act of sharing set others free to do the same, that everyone had a little food, and when it was shared, it was more than enough. To some that seems like a cop-out, a cheap explanation that robs the story of its miracle. Maybe it does. I don’t know.
I am not a person for whom sharing comes easily. I have trouble just sharing french fries, even when the meal in front of me clearly has enough food for three people. I am constantly convinced that there won’t be enough for me, much less anybody else. So if I were in a desert with barely enough food for myself, it would absolutely take a miracle to get me to share.
Who knows how it happened. I don’t. What the gospel tells us is heartbreakingly simple: it seemed they did not have enough, but with Christ, it was more than enough. In the middle of that desert, in the twinkling of an eye, they had a feast.
Friends, here is the truth: with Jesus, our little becomes gracious plenty. Our five loaves and two fish feed a crowd.
This story is still true. Jesus still looks at the crowds, and looks at us and says, you feed them. And when we despair that we do not have enough, he says, give what you have. I will do the rest. And he always does.
We know this is true. Deep in our hearts, we do, don’t we?
When we’re not sure we have enough love to go around, we take a deep breath, say a prayer, and then find that there is enough, at least for that moment, and the next.
When we, like the disciples, are overwhelmed by the scale of need, we so often want to do as they did and say, send them away. How can we possibly make a dent in all the need? Let’s make it go away.
The truth is doing what we can with what we have in Christ’s name yields more fruit than we might guess. In the last twenty five years the fraction of the world living in extreme poverty, less than $1.25 a day, has dropped from one half to one quarter, and the fraction of hungry people has dropped from one in three to one in six. This is not just luck or the inevitable result of progress. This is because individuals, community organizations, and religious institutions have worked hard, because businesses and corporate leaders have sought more equitable ways of doing business, because governments have made a commitment to work on behalf of the poor, and, most importantly this has happened because God takes what we offer, in all areas of life, and transforms it into more than we could have dreamt.*
When we fear in our public life that there’s not enough to go around, and we hesitate to speak up because we don’t have all the answers, Jesus’ word still stands. You feed them he says. And even as we fear there’s not enough, we can start where his disciples did, by giving what little we have–sharing our food, using the privilege of our place in the world to search for answers, and demanding better solutions from our leaders. We can remind our leaders that God’s way, and faithful society, always begins by looking at the wretched, the poor, the sick, the hungry, and having compassion. And we can remind our leaders that when we fear there is not enough, our first obligation is always to the poor. You feed them, he says. Jesus promises to take our little, our not enough, and make it enough.
When we wonder if we have enough in our community of faith to meet the needs of our neighborhood and be the light of Christ, Jesus says yes, you have all you need. The right people are here. I am with you, making a way out of no way, multiplying the bread of human effort. Step out in faith. I will meet you on the road.
When we fear in our own lives that we do not have enough to meet the challenges we face, to pay rent or our mortgage, to make a relationship work, to face one more day of a job we hate, or one more day of looking for work, when we fear we don’t have enough love inside to go around, Jesus looks at us with compassion in his eyes.
You say you have nothing, he says. But I see five loaves and two fish. Start there. Give what you have. There is no gift too small. One foot, in front of the other, and then breathe. One day, or even one hour at a time, and then pray.
Give what love you have, and I promise you this: I will take it and multiply it beyond your wildest dreams.
Jesus does not promise that it will all be easy. He faced grief, and betrayal, and poverty, and death. We too will face heartache and hardship. But Jesus promises this: he will not leave us orphaned. We do not face it alone. And he will be faithful.
There is a way out of the desert, a way that leads to a land flowing with milk and honey. Jesus still calls us to follow, to give what we have, to give our very lives in service to his love. And he still promises to take what we give, to take even our broken, flawed lives, and transform them into beauty beyond all recognition. He still calls and says, give me your five loaves and two fish. It may not look like much. It may not look like nearly enough. But give it to me. And in the twinkling of an eye we, too, will find that there is a feast in this wilderness, a feast with room for all and plenty to eat.
Friends, this is the great good news of the gospel. May we share it faithfully.
****Data from David Beckman Exodus from Hunger: We are Called to Change the Politics of Hunger, (Louisville: Westminster, 2010) pgs. 5, 6, 12, 13. by Sarah Wiles July 31, 2011 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA