I want to begin by saying thank you for welcoming me back into your beautiful sanctuary this morning. It is so good to be with you again. This congregation holds a special place in my heart, for one because you were so central in the lives of my husband’s parents, Don and Nonie Hall, and also because of the many ways the people of the Lutheran Church and Grace Church have worshipped and worked together over the years. It has been a blessing to be in partnership with you, serving this island community we love.
Today’s gospel story, John’s version of the feeding of the 5000, is a favorite of mine. It’s about community, and abundance, and has much to teach us. Let’s take a look at it.
Jesus and the disciples have taken a boat across the Sea of Galilee and withdrawn to an isolated place in the hills, looking for a retreat from the constant work of ministering to the people, and from the increasingly virulent attacks by the religious establishment. They hope for some time alone, but it seems they are not to get it, for the crowd has followed them.
Jesus looks up and sees the approaching crowd. He understands their hunger–he has seen it so many times–and so he turns from the moment of retreat to minister to their need. The gospel writer tells us that Jesus has a plan for how to help the people and also to teach the disciples about ways to satisfy the people’s hunger. Jesus begins with an ironic question to Philip: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip, of course, answers that there is no way they have enough money to buy food for all these people. Jesus has made the first point clear: they are not going to be able to go to the store and buy dinner for this crowd.
Andrew looks for another solution and comes close to finding it. A child has come forward and offered five barley loaves and two fishes, Andrew reports. “Ah, but forget it,” Andrew says, “That could never be enough.” Isn’t it significant that it is a child who offers the food? A child who has not yet learned the assumption of scarcity–who has not yet come to see the world as a place of limited resources, where everyone needs to hoard what they have, lest it disappear in the yawning chasm of need, and the giver be left with nothing. The child comes open handed. “Are people hungry?” the child asks. “Here, give them my five loaves and two fishes.” Andrew scoffs at the child’s offer, but Jesus does not. “Make the people sit down,” he says. They do, and the miracle unfolds.
We picture the scene. Everyone is standing, straining to see and hear this young rabbi they have heard so much about. All are facing forward, interacting with each other only, perhaps, to shoulder someone aside to get a better view. But then Jesus invites the people to sit down, and a whole different dynamic takes over. People understand that with everyone sitting, they will be able to see. They stop competing for a good view, and for the first time notice friends and acquaintances. They smile at one another, move to make room. Some go over to sit with a friend, exchange a hug and a greeting. The faceless crowd begins to become a community.
Once the people are sitting, Jesus goes on with the lesson. He accepts the child’s offer, holds up the five small loaves and the two fish, and gives thanks to God for them. All that we have is gift, he teaches. We would not have the bread if God had not given us the barley plant, nor the fish if it had not been present in the lake to be caught. The responsibility to feed this crowd does not rest solely on human shoulders, Jesus teaches: God is here.
Then Jesus does a tremendously vulnerable thing: he passes out the five loaves and two fish to the crowd of 5000. This doesn’t have to work. Everyone in the crowd could cling to the vision of scarcity. Those with food could hoard what they have, and those without could end up hungry, and angry. But the people don’t hoard. They follow Jesus’ example, and that of the child. Seeing Jesus and the child share what little they have, the people do the same. In the end, there are twelve baskets of fragments left over, and everyone is satisfied. It isn’t that everyone’s belly is necessarily full, but everyone is satisfied.
Pretty amazing, that, in a crowd of 5000. How often does it happen that everyone, even in a much smaller group, is satisfied? However, these people have had a rich experience of community, and a powerful lesson that when people open their hearts, God’s abundance is made manifest.
Last spring a group of students and adults from Lopez had an experience of community and a lesson about abundance that was not so different from the ones we have just studied in John’s gospel. To share the students’ experience, I invite you to come with me for a little while to the streets of Athens.
It is dusk on an April night. Six students and two adults from Lopez High School have already walked 5 miles today, seeing the sights of Athens. They’re tired, and somewhat anxious. They know they’re going to be distributing tea and sandwiches to hungry people, but they don’t know exactly how that will play out. And they’ve left the glitzy part of Athens behind. This neighborhood has fewer tourists, more trash in the streets, and more poverty.
Principal Dave Sather, who is with the group, has set up this opportunity. Two years ago he accompanied another group of students to Greece, and shared their shock and dismay when they witnessed thousands of Syrian refugees camped in the Port of Piraeus. On this year’s trip Dave wants the students to have the chance to do something positive in the face of suffering. Through the Anglican church he has arranged for the group to volunteer in a feeding program, initiated and at first personally funded by Nicolas, a Greek Orthodox layman. Now, with support from the Red Cross and several faith communities, Nicolas organizes volunteer groups from as far away as England and Japan to help distribute food.
The Lopez students begin by assembling sandwiches at the Red Cross station. Then they head out into the neighborhood, led by two volunteer guides from Armenia and Iran. They come to a woman wearing a hijab. One of the guides offers her a sandwich and some clean clothes. Her eyes light up as she accepts the gifts. A group of youth, some as young as 12, come running from a park. “Here comes the sandwich guy!” they yell. ” But, so, where are you from? Americans?? What are you doing here?” These refugee children from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, are incredulous that young people would come all the way from America to serve them food. In their own languages they express their gratitude.
The Lopez students hand out sandwiches, tea, and clean underwear until 11 pm. Back at the Red Cross station they meet with Nicolas. “If what I do keeps one person out of jail,” he tells them, “I’ve done my job.” In the days that follow the students talk over their experience. They speak of being surprised that Nicolas doesn’t wait for needy people to come to him, he goes out and finds them. And although they are shocked by the desperate need of the people they served, they are also deeply moved by their appreciation.
These young people and adults from Lopez have had what can only be a life-changing experience. They have seen extreme poverty and suffering, but they have also seen kindness and generosity. They have witnessed churches and volunteers from all over the world come together to form a community, and that community has transformed privation into abundance–an abundance not only of food, but also of love, and of gratitude.
So, the message of the feeding of the 5000, and of the students’ experience in the slums of Athens, is that God has not given us a world of scarce resources, in which we need to compete viciously for the basic things we need, like food, shelter, and love. Scarcity is an illusion, as theologian Parker Palmer says: abundance is the reality. And the abundance which God holds ready for us is released when we act in community to pass God’s gifts along.
Very well. But what about famine in sub-Saharan Africa? What about countries ravaged by war? What about people fleeing from the devastating effects of climate change? How do we help God’s abundance become real in a world where there is so much privation?
These are huge questions, of course. We could decide, like the disciple Andrew, that these problems are simply too large to be solved. Five loaves and two fishes will never feed all these people, so forget about it. But then there is the child, offering what he has. “Are people hungry? I have five barley loaves and two fishes…”
And so we offer what we have. Our youth feed hungry people in Greece. Here at home we distribute commodities and operate the food bank. Lutherans and Episcopalians cooperate to provide summer backpack meals to hungry families, and we bring the produce of our gardens to Lopez Fresh. We work to create a Home Fund that will finance affordable housing in San Juan County. We insist that our tax dollars go to support the most vulnerable in our country, and increased humanitarian aid around the world. We demand diplomatic solutions to world conflicts, instead of violent ones.
A child holds out five loaves and two fishes; a youth hands a sandwich to a hungry refugee; island folks join together to build a caring community–and God’s amazing gifts to humankind are made real in the world. In Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Ephesus:
Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to that One be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen