“What are they among so many people?”

A Homily for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: St. John 6:1-21

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who abundantly provides for our every need. Amen.

Last week, the lectionary did something a little weird: it skipped over the main event. Remember, if you will, the disciples came back from their big trip and the crowds swarmed around them; so many people flooded the area that the disciples “had no leisure even to eat.” To get away from the people, Jesus and the disciples sailed to a secluded place, and the crowds followed them. Even though the throngs put a damper on the whole “quiet spiritual retreat,” Saint Mark said Jesus had mercy on the crowd because “they were like sheep without a shepherd,” and then…nothing happened. The text skipped forward something like twenty verses and the disciples were back in a boat! It left us with a big unanswered question: what happened?!?! What did it look like for Jesus to shepherd the flock, to “have compassion on” the crowd?

Today, Saint John chimes in sort of like Paul Harvey: “And now…the rest of the story.”

Mosaic of loaves and fish, Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha, Israel

Today we reads one of those biblical scenes many of us know well. Ok, the lectionary gives us two very familiar stories, but were going to put a pin in that whole “walking on water” thing for another time. The feeding of the five thousand is a story that a lot of us have heard many times before in Sunday school, complete with cute little felt cut outs – and some of us have probably taught in Sunday school. It’s told in all four of the Gospels – the only miracle to have that distinction – and a version is read two out of the three years in the lectionary. As I’ve mentioned the last two weeks, we’re entering a long stretch of reading not just about this miracle but a series of mysterious sayings laying out the meaning of the miracle. And because this story is told time and time again, because it’s so well known, there are quite a few ways to interpret the miracle.

The first interpretation is that this isn’t a miracle at all, at least not in the manner of “breaks the laws of physics” miracle. The reading goes a little something like this: the crowd was so moved by Jesus’ teaching and the young boy’s willingness to put forward his meal that they all started to share the food they had brought with them. The food was there all along, and the feeding of the five thousand is less a miracle and more a potluck: a Second Sunday Fellowship Meal on a much larger scale.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like potluck suppers as much as the next Southerner. And to be sure, this would have been the largest potluck. Ever. The Guinness World Record for “Largest Potluck Party” was set in India in 2016, and 3,264 people participated. That’s an impressively large meal, and today’s reading has 1,800 people diners. But a potluck, even a record-smashing potluck, isn’t worth talking about two thousand years later.

Lutheran rebel-pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it this way:

Not that thousands of human beings sharing with their neighbors isn’t a little miraculous, it is, it’s just that there are 6 accounts of this miracle in the gospels. 6. And since there are only 4 gospels that means that in 2 of them a version of this story was told twice. So maybe it’s just too important a story for it to just be about people sharing their lunches. Because miracles, and not lessons about sharing, are what we really need. So as crazy as it is – I believe in miracles – not because I think I’m supposed to but because I need to. I need to believe that God does what we cannot do.

Miracles are worth talking about two thousand years later. God’s active work in the world is worth talking about two thousand years later.

There’s another reading, one that packs more of a theological punch: it’s an overtly spiritual interpretation that highlights the interplay between the bread broken and shared among the 5,000 and the bread broken and shared among Jesus and the Twelve at the Last Supper. Consider the flow of the story: Jesus took bread, gave thanks (literally, euchraista), broke it, and gave it to his disciples to eat. Hmmm. We’ve seen that pattern somewhere before, haven’t we? It’s almost like Saint John is trying to foreshadow something. And yeah, that’s definitely present in the text. We’ll spend a lot of time over the next few weeks talking about it. But there’s plenty of time for that later.

No. Today, there’s a simple problem, a common, everyday problem, a physical problem: the people are hungry. And Jesus wants to know where they can go for food.

And there’s a simple, common, physical solution: send them home to get something to eat. Let them fend for themselves. It’s so obvious, right? Philip points out that it would cost half a year’s income to feed everyone. That’s a lot of money, especially for a band of wandering preachers.

And then there’s Andrew; it often goes unnoticed, but he’s so much like his brother. Simon Peter is always quick to jump in over his head, quick to rebuke Jesus, quick to put his foot in his mouth. And so Saint Andrew walks up, little kid in tow, and says, “Well, there’s this kid. He’s got some bread and some fish.” And then, wearing his doubt on the sleeve of his tunic, he follows it up with, “But come on, that’s only going to feed two, maybe three people. And *waving wildly towards the sea of people* look!”

But God does what we cannot. Our Lord blessed the loaves, broke them, and passed them around. Picture it – the people close enough to hear what’s going on but knowing – KNOWING – that there’s no way the food is making it past the first five people. But then it gets closer and closer. Ten people have been served! Fifteen! And twenty! And the food just keeps coming.

Picture the people on the margins of the crowd. Out of nowhere, some hands them a bread and fish! And they eat their fill and pass it on until the last person has eaten – and is uncomfortably full! So they start passing it back towards the center, and everyone is stuffed to the brim, but there are leftovers. Baskets of them! And not just little crumbs but large chunks of bread!

These five loaves and two fish have fed thousands with plenty to spare. Here, we see God’s over-abundant provision. Taking a small thing, Christ made it into more than enough for even the largest of crowds. As Saint Augustine puts it:

Who is even now providing nourishment for the whole world if not the God who creates a field of wheat from a few seeds? Christ did what God does. Just as God multiplies a few seeds into a whole field of wheat, so Christ multiplied the five loaves in his hands. For there was power in the hands of Christ. Those five loaves were like seeds, not because they were cast on the earth but because they were multiplied by the one who made the earth.

God is doing that even now. Consider the Church: a few people following a convicted criminal grew into a persecuted minority into an ancient and international body. It’s not because we are so special or because of our own goodness. Despite our sinful nature, God has sustained us over two thousand years, uniting us into the Body of Christ for the sake of the world. Consider our own position: a congregation with, on a good day, forty people in our pews is able to maintain a food pantry that feeds at least that many people on a weekly basis — not for our financial gain but to help solve a common, physical problem: the people are hungry.Christ takes our small offerings, our scant few loaves and fish, and uses them to exceed all of our needs. God gives us more than enough.

And our Lord is not done with us yet. God is continuing to miraculously grow the Church’s ministry, both across the world and here in Macon. Sharing ordinary food like barley loaves and fish or pasta and canned veggies points us to the meal in which we share extraordinary food. Feeding the hungry is an act of coming together in community, an act of communion that points us to Holy Communion with our Lord and the entire Church. God has bigger plans in store for us: a food pantry that is stuffed to overflowing, that is exceeding every need, that builds up community, a community that bridges economic and racial divides, that builds up relationships and heals the wounded Body of Christ.

So come, dear ones, be bold in the Spirit. Let us offer up our humble gifts of loaves and fish, and put them into the hands of Christ that they may multiply. Let us watch and proclaim the greatness of the Lord as God uses our gifts to fill the hungry with good things.


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