A Sermon for the Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Rev. Reebee Girash, Associate Pastor
March 22, 2015
Text: John 6:1-15, NRSV (offered in worship as a drama)
1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.
2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.
3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.
4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.
5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?"
6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.
7 Philip answered him, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little."
8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him,
9 "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?"
10 Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.
11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.
12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost."
13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.
14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world."
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
Ever wonder, what happens in all four Gospels?
The Baptism of Jesus
Jesus cleanses the temple
Jesus heals a paralytic
A woman anoints Jesus
The last supper
Jesus’ Death and Resurrection
and this story: feeding the 5000
Those are the parallel stories you’d find in all four Gospels.
Not the Lord’s Prayer
Not the birth of Jesus
And this story is told 6 times, because Matthew and Mark each tack on an extra 4000 fed.
What is the significance of this story?
Why do we hear about this crazy picnic in all four Gospels?
Maybe it gets told six times because it’s true.
It might be because all the Gospel writers found this moment crucial to their faith, found it central to the meaning Jesus had in their life, found the truth it spoke to them profound. I mean truth in the way Flannery O’Connor spoke of it: “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”
Let us consider for a moment that this is a true story, then. What is true about it?
In 1995 - you heard this story last week from Nancy and I heard more of it from Susan N. - in 1995, this congregation worked with the Eliot Church of Roxbury and then on our own, to cook and serve a meal at the Long Island shelter, two or three hundred people at a time, six or seven times a year, huh, how many thousand meals is that? Susan said, “Going out to the shelter (over the bridge that was definitely rickety even then) and serving the hundreds of men and women who stayed there each night was an experience that had a big impact on me and I know on others.” Like Diane and John, like Kathy and Rich, like David and Vince. But if you had said to this congregation, at the beginning of that time, we’re going to feed thousands of people - if Jesus showed up on January 1, 1995 and said, You feed them - well. I can imagine the response from any realistic person. It would have sounded a little like Philip - "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." - a little like Andrew, “what are five loaves and two fish among so many people?" But the story is true, on an island in the middle of the harbor, people ate and were satisfied.
But it did not stop on Long Island. Because John C. can tell you when they stopped having outside groups cook for Long Island, he started serving meals at the Allston Brighton Community Supper, which he and others have been doing for five years. In the beginning he wouldn’t have imagined doing it this long – but then he started reserving every Wednesday on his calendar, looking forward to it every week. Count that, five years x 40 or 50 meals a year times fifty people on average…how many people fed? He says, Long Island and Allston Brighton have been tangible and immediate ways to of helping meet people’s most basic human need, that of an adequate diet. But it didn’t stop with John, because John brought his sons – you see, the family loves to cook for crowds at home, so it was only natural to cook for hungry folks just down the road. They still come serve on holidays. And there’s David and Doug and Nadja. And there’s Amy, and Henry. John says, Henry, a fifth grader, comes with such joy and enthusiasm. They know this story is true. And by the way, if you need proof, John says: Just come. Come some Wednesday night.
I could tell a dozen other stories from this congregation, but I also want to tell you how other Christians, in Boston, are living into this story.
A few months ago, a sixth grader from Arlington heard about the closing of the Long Island Shelters and he said to his mom, a friend of mine, “Mom, we have a guest room. Let’s let someone stay with us.” He believed the truth of this story, that Jesus could use his loaves and fishes, could make their guest room a home. Now, mom said no - but then together their family started finding other ways to support homeless folks in Boston, through the BostonWarm shelter at Old South, through the Friday Cafe in Cambridge. Making sandwiches and brownies and showing up and sitting at a table and sharing a meal where all were fed. The story is true. I love this story, and Henry’s story, and Carolyn and John’s sons story, because I want every one of our kids to see this truth – that they have loaves and fishes to give, that they have an answer to Jesus’ challenge: You feed them. And having fed people, maybe we grownups will go one step further and ask: why are they hungry? Why are they homeless? What’s going on here?
One more true story.
At BostonWarm the day shelter for Long Island refugees, volunteers started figuring out that people didn’t have hats, razors, thermal underwear, flip flops for use in public showers. And one of the volunteers said, I can’t buy thermals for every person here, I just can’t, but I want to, what can I do, with what I have? So they set up an Amazon Registry and so many tangible goods came in for folks that they had to schedule a special Amazon Box Opening Party. 12 baskets left over, the story is true.
I want to say a word about economy.
I might fear to speak because I know we have economists and public policy folks and money managers and even a physicist in this room who will say, do not take this financial advice.
God’s economy works differently from the world’s.
In God’s economy, there is enough for all - somehow, someway when we see the need, when we look at what we have to offer, when we ask God to do the math instead of us - twelve baskets left over.
Over and over in the Gospels, Jesus encourages people not to count the cost but to start with generosity.
5,000 were fed. True story.
It was just a few weeks ago, in a meeting after church about our endowment, when someone asked a radical question: what is the purpose of our money? (This was our own Josephine.) It was a good question.
Some folks - I’m not talking just about Eliot here, but in every church I’ve ever known - some folks will say: we do not have enough money to balance the budget, to give to this cause, to x or y or z. After all, we only have five loaves and two fish.
Other folks, though, will say:
We have five loaves and two fish. What can we do with that? Let us give thanks to God, we’ve got five loaves and two fish! Jesus, can you bring your calculator over here? Put the fish in one column of the spreadsheet and the loaves in the other. What do we get? How many can we feed? 50? And then from somewhere in the back of the sanctuary, down the aisle comes rolling a few more cans of tuna. How about 200 people? From out of nowhere comes in a bread basket, and now we’re on the way, how about 500? Uh-oh, now someone’s gone out to make stone soup. Well look at that, if they can do it so can I, someone’s up in front lifting up the bread and blessing it and breaking it, and oh my, 5,000. Five loaves and two fish, let’s give thanks and break that bread.
There are a lot of hungry folks in this world.
And we look at our own lunchbox and see
five loaves and two fish.
We often react like Philip and Andrew, seeing only problems, not potential.[i]
But the message of this story is: do not despair, shut down, or withdraw, or send them away. Choose to believe that there is enough. Set the people down on their picnic blankets, give what you can, maybe even give what you’re not quite sure you can, and ask Jesus to do the math.
Because maybe one of these days, we’ll be at the heavenly banquet. But if we want to get a glimpse of it, just a little early, we have to believe we can answer Jesus’s challenge: you feed them.
It’s true: there’s enough for all. Do you believe it?
Let us pray.
O God, do the math for us. Make every day of our lives like a picnic by the shore, where there is enough for all, and twelve baskets left over. Amen.
[i] Fred Craddock, writing in New Proclamation: “We often react like those disciples seeing only problems, not potential...our power resides in our ability to reject the notion that we should [send these people away]”