Scripture Reading: John 6: 1-21
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The feeding of the five thousand. It’s a familiar story that we know quite well. It is the only miracle story that is told in all four Gospels. Each one is slightly different, but the general message is the same… people are hungry – Jesus feeds them. Jesus is surrounded by a large crowd. It is getting late in the day and people start to get hungry. Everyone looks around confused and unsure of what to do. Jesus decides he wants to feed the people but the disciples say that it will cost too much. Soon enough, it is discovered that one young boy has tucked away in his knapsack, presumably hidden from these hungry mob, 5 loaves of bread and two fish. Which seems like a lot for just one boy to be carrying but the story goes on anyways. This meager amount of food seems like a waste of time if you ask the disciples. It will never be enough. I mean, what’s five loaves and two fish for five thousand hungry people? In this version, in the Gospel of John, adds a little more context and detail to the story, by referring to them as barley loaves. Apparently, Barley loaves was the bread commonly available to the poor. So in John’s version, the crowd is suggested to be of lower social standing – in need of food. This was real food meant for real hunger. So Jesus has everyone sit down, he takes the loaves of bread and the two fish and he turns it into enough food for everyone to eat their fill and, in fact, for there to be plenty of leftovers too. It’s a nice and familiar story.
I don’t know about you, but even though this is a familiar story, anytime a miracle story like this comes up, it always seems to throw me for a loop. My mind takes over and I start asking all sorts of questions. Did that really happen? What’s the truth in this story? Do you ever do that when you hear some of these Bible stories? The scientist in me always wants to find a logical explanation.
So that’s what I do. Often, I try to explain the miracle.
Let’s take the five barley loaves and two fish that feed 5,000 people. I mean, did the fish and the bread simply reappear any time someone took a bite out of it, or did Jesus multiply them at the beginning into hundreds of loaves and fishes, dividing them among the people? Or did it happen, as preacher Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, through the people being moved by this child giving over everything he had, that they could feel their hidden food weighing down their pockets and their heavy guilt weighing down their hearts. And so as the baskets were passed and the people slipped some of their own bread and fish in, so as to share with everyone. I kind of like that explanation.
The reason I do this…the reason I try to explain miracles, I think, is that for me it makes them more relatable. But maybe it is because then I can try to wrap my head around all of the miracles that don’t happen in our lives. If I can logically explain how this miracle happened, then maybe I don’t have to wonder about why other miracles don’t happen.
But then, as I do these mental gymnastics when it comes to trying to explain Jesus’ miracle, I get stuck. And frustrated. Because then I’m spending all this time focusing on if and how something in the Bible really happened or not. And the truth is, we can never know – and I think in the process, I’m missing the point of the story. Maybe the point of the story isn’t whether you believe that it happened or not or whether there is a logical explanation. Maybe the point of the story isn’t to worry about whether it happened or not, but what the story itself is trying to say.
So here we are today, we have a story about a man named Jesus. A man we claim to be the revelation of God for us. And he feeds five thousand hungry people with a meager five loaves and two fish. It’s a story that says, “Jesus is about feeding people who are hungry.” Which to us means God is about feeding people who are hungry. But what I can’t figure out is why Jesus used these five loaves of bread and two fish to feed everyone. I mean, he’s Jesus. Why didn’t he just make bread and fish appear out of thin air? But no. Jesus took this small offering of food, which really amounts to almost nothing when you consider the size of this crowd. It says something that Jesus takes what this young boy has to offer, these small, insignificant five loaves and two fish and uses them to feed the crowd gathered there.1
It says that God can work with the meager offerings of the people of God to do great things for the needs of this world. It says that God can take the small and insignificant things that we’ve tucked away and kept hidden from those around us and God can use it. It says that when you’ve got almost nothing to give, God can use that.
In fact, if we look back at Scripture, this seems like God favorite way to work in the world. It seems like God’s favorite thing to do is take something that is broken, or worthless, or empty and to use it. I mean, God used the barren woman of Sarah to give birth to Isaac at the old age of 90. God took Moses, a murderer, and used him to lead God’s people out of Egypt. God used a poor peasant carpenter to be the savior of the world by dying on a cross. In our Christian story, God does not conquer the world with power and might, God dies. And then God is resurrected. Which means God will go into the darkest places of the world, the most empty place, the place most void of any hope – the place of death and God will bring about life. If there is one theme in the Scriptures that can feed us it is that God takes not our successes and our gifts, but our weaknesses and our meager places and uses those.
At the annual meeting of the Pacific Mountain Regional Council last month, the keynote speaker was Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is a Lutheran pastor from the US. One of the things that she said that really stuck with me was when she was talking about this pandemic time, and the challenges that we have faced in the church and society and will continue to face. I found a quote of hers that expressed what she shared with us in her keynote presentation. In referring to the disciples, they said “What do we have?” “We have nothing. Nothing but a few loaves and a couple of fish.” And they said this as though it were a bad thing.
The disciples’ mistake was also my mistake: They forgot that they have a God who created the universe out of “nothing.” I mean, let’s face it, “nothing” is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as nothing, insignificant, and worthless, and says, “Ha! Now THAT I can do something with.”
We are often told that our successes and our gifts are what we offer to the world. To have successful careers, or to get good grades. To work hard. To treat people right. And these are all gifts to the world which God can use. But the God we are dealing with won’t just use your strengths and your gifts, God will also use your broken places and your weaknesses too. God can work with nothing to make something beautiful. And perhaps the point of this miracle is also to show that like the loaves and fishes that turned into abundance, and enough for everyone who was hungry, so does God’s love and grace have no end. The abundance of God’s love is not limited. It will feed the 5000, there will be enough, and there will be baskets full of leftovers for anyone still hungry.
I’m sure that many of you have felt like you were not sure that what you offer is enough – that it amounts to anything significant. Your donation to the Healing Fund to support residential school survivors, it can’t change what happened. Or the letter that you wrote to your MP, in support of climate action or a guaranteed liveable income, or clean water for Indigenous communities. Or the time you spoke out in support of transgender rights. Or the bag of supplies you dropped off at the collection centre for the community of Lytton who lost their homes to fire. Or during the heatwave, when you checked in on a neighbour. Or offering prayers for someone hurting. Or giving your support to a friend who needed an ear, reminding them that they are not alone.
Each time we do something to add a little more love to the world, we are offering our meagre loaves and fish. But God can take those seemingly insignificant things and turn them into so much more – with baskets full of leftovers. One letter from you, results in 1000 letters, resulting in systemic change. A $20 donation from you, turns into the $25,000 needed to fund a life-giving project. Those prayers you offered, were added to many other prayers, causing someone to feel upheld and surrounded by divine love and care. So keep offering your loaves and fishes, and out of our scarcity and insignificance will come God’s abundance. Abundance of love, and abundance of grace.
Thanks be to God for the miracle of abundance. Amen.