August 3, 2014
I wanted to start with that video because it’s a natural extension to all the parables and conversation about the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s here and now. You and I are part of it. And it extends beyond you and me to include the work God is doing through all of us as we come together.
As I was reading and pondering this story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish, I’ve also been thinking about the faith formation ministry of this congregation. School is about to start up, and it’s time for us to make some decisions about programming, format, curriculum. And let me tell you…it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the needs…by the crowd that is gathered hoping for some food. Because we know that even if the numbers are low, the hunger is great. People of all ages are hungry for all kinds of things—love, belonging, community, meaning, answers, strength…just to name a few. They come to church hoping to meet Jesus and have that hunger fed…or they don’t even come to church. And to be honest with you, it’s easy for me to respond the way the disciples do: It’s late. Let’s just send people away and expect them to find their own food. We don’t have what we need to meet these needs. Our volunteer database is deserted. People are busy. You don’t really expect us to feed these people, do you?
You all know this story, right? If you’re involved at all in the church, you know how easy it is to point out what we don’t have enough of—we don’t have enough money. We don’t have enough volunteers. We don’t have enough kids. We don’t have enough young adults. We don’t have enough time. We don’t have enough new leaders. Whatever it is, when we see the needs around us—in our own congregation, much less our community, nation and world, we resort to claiming our scarcity. I’m really good at this. The need is too big, we say. Send the crowd away and ask them to find their own food.
But what does Jesus say? First of all, he says, “don’t send them away.” Hungry people need not be sent away. Don’t send the kid with special needs away. Don’t send the 92-yr. old with alzheimer’s away. Don’t send the family living in a really complicated situation away. Don’t send the baby who cries during worship away. Don’t send them away. When the hungry crowd comes to meet Jesus, but their hunger seems more than we can handle, Jesus’ response is to say, “don’t send them away.”
Then Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” Again, I understand how the disciples might respond to this. I’m not qualified to feed these people! I’m not trained to feed this kind of crowd. I can barely plan a meal for myself, much less feed the crowd.
That doesn’t sound like us in the church at all, does it? We don’t try to get out of meeting people’s needs because we’re not trained or equipped. We don’t hesitate to serve others because we are too caught up in our own lives. We don’t find really justifiable reasons to avoid feeding the hungry crowds. No…that doesn’t sound like us.
But Jesus again doesn’t let the disciples off the hook…give them something to eat, he says. Now, when the disciples realize they aren’t going to get out of it, they begin looking at their resources—what do they have that is AT ALL helpful for feeding these people? We had a meeting that was a little bit like this yesterday. Leaders from children and youth ministry, worship, property and Christian Service all got together to talk about what we have together that may be helpful to feed the crowds we’ve been called to serve. And let me tell you…our resources felt a tad scarce compared to the need. But what we discovered, I think, is that when we came together and shared our meager resources with each other, we found that indeed we have something. It still feels insufficient, but I think we all left that meeting feeling like we are not empty handed. And that’s what the disciples discover. There ARE resources in the community. In other versions of this story the loaves and the fish are presented by a child. Who he is and why he’s the only one in the whole crowd to have any food is sort of beside the point. The point is that the disciples discovered resources Jesus could use to feed the hungry crowd, but they had to look into the community itself…they had to be willing to receive from the very people they thought they were supposed to feed.
In the church we spend a lot of time trying to come up with food for hungry people. What will feed visitors? What will feed young adults? What will feed retired singles? What will feed over-calendared families? But I wonder what we would discover if we invited those we are called to feed into the conversation. What resources would we discover among the children and youth if we invited them to the table? What resources would we discover among our hungry and homeless neighbors if we invited them to the table? Jesus challenged the disciples to find something to feed the crowd with, and once they realized they couldn’t send the people away, they discovered gifts and resources within the very crowd they had been challenged to feed. Jesus didn’t let them get out of feeding the hungry because they weren’t qualified, trained, or prepared. “You. You. You. You. Give them something to eat.” Remember what we said last week—the kingdom of God is here…and YOU are a part of it.
So the disciples come up with some resources, a few loaves of bread and a couple fish, but they’re still not sure it’s enough to feed the crowd. It’s not hard for me to see myself standing before Jesus with my skills and resources and feel like they are insufficient. “We have nothing here but a small team of people who are already committed in too many places. We have nothing here but a budget that we’re not sure is going to balance. We have nothing here but two communities of people separated by a causeway.” The hunger of the crowd seems too big compared to what we have to offer. Are you with me?
This week what Jesus says jumped out to me in a way it hasn’t before: “Bring them here to me.”
That’s the game changer in this story. Without that, the crowd is too big…and the hunger is too great…and the resources are too few. Without that, the disciples stay overworked and under-resourced, exhausted by the effort of managing their tasks, and overwhelmed by the pressure of pleasing everybody around them. And that’s not where Jesus does his best work. That’s not where miracles happen. But when we hear Jesus’ invitation to bring what we have to him, the whole outcome changes. JESUS is the game changer. It seems obvious, but it hit me this week in a new way. Without constantly bringing our selves, our time and our resources to Jesus, what we have is not enough…who we are is not enough. And we can try to cut up our pie into more pieces, redistribute our resources, re-prioritize our to-do list… But without bringing the bread and fish to Jesus, the crowd stays hungry.
But when we take Jesus at his word…when we bring what we have to him, doubts and all…when we do what Jesus tells us to do, he does immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine, in ways we cannot explain.
Now, let me be clear. The amazing ways Jesus feeds the crowd through our meager resources are not always easy to see or even immediate. Pr. Marie shared yesterday that early in her pastoral career she made a commitment to engage in genuine relationship with children and youth in her congregation. Now, 10 years after starting her first call, she is seeing the benefit of her investment in one young person’s life as one of the first kids who greeted her in her first call still invites her to keep walking with her in the ongoing journey of life and faith. So the miracle might not be as immediate as it is in our text, and it probably won’t at all be what we expect. Because we have to remember that Jesus’ focus through this whole story is the hungry crowd. It is not fat disciples. Jesus uses what the disciples have to feed the hungry crowd, not to satisfy the disciples’ desire for more food.
So when we bring whatever we have to Jesus, he will do something with it. But what he does with our resources is not for our benefit—it is ABSOLUTELY to feed the hungry crowds. Do the disciples get fed? Yes. They do. But the primary motivation for Jesus’ miracle is compassion for those who are hungry.
So, let’s review what is going on in this story: The disciples faced a crowd with needs that are genuinely too great for them to meet on their own. But Jesus refuses to let them send people away. Let the hungry people stay. Then Jesus makes it clear that it is not okay for the people to stay hungry. The disciples are challenged to find something for them to eat. Armed with a clear mission to find food, and unable to send those in need away, the disciples discover that they do indeed have resources, even if what they have seems insufficient. But it’s not until they bring what they have to Jesus that Jesus can do what he does best—bring abundance out of scarcity, hope out of despair, life out of death. And that’s exactly what he does—beyond what the disciples are expecting. But all that Jesus does in and through the disciples is not so the DISCIPLES can feast on God’s abundance, but so that the CROWDS can feast on God’s abundance. The disciples experience it, but it’s not the purpose.
So as we think about the mission and ministry of this congregation, I see a couple of application points:
First of all, we need to open our eyes to the hunger of those around us…people who have come to encounter a living Christ who loves them and enters into their suffering with and for them for the sake of redemption and renewal. At times we are those hungry people. At other times we have been called to feed those hungry people. But we need to open our eyes to the hunger of the crowds.
Secondly, we cannot turn people away because their need seems like more than what we can meet. When they come into our community to encounter Christ, we are called to let them stay. And that means making space for pain and brokenness. That means not turning away people who are struggling to find their way in life. That means letting the hungry people stay, because we believe Jesus is going to do something in and through us to feed them…and maybe because they are the ones with the resources we are looking for.
Third: we have been given the challenge to feed the crowd. Who that crowd is and what their hunger is invites additional conversation and prayer. But we cannot get out of Jesus’ invitation to “find something for them to eat.” That’s not a job for the professionals…it’s the mission of all who follow Jesus.
Fourth: we have resources that Jesus wants us to use. We might have to look at and listen to people beyond the usual suspects, but we do have the resources. We might find them in the kids. We might find them in the retired single widow or widower. We might find them in the young adult who thinks differently than we do. But we have something in this community that God wants to use in mighty ways.
And finally, when we bring our resources to Jesus, through prayer and humility, even if what we bring seems insufficient, Jesus will do what Jesus always does—multiply it for the sake of the Kingdom. Because that’s ALWAYS Jesus’ focus—those who are hungry. And that should be our focus as well. After some study of scripture and conversation together yesterday, I am excited about what God is going to do through the Faith Formation ministry of this congregation this year. Sometimes we are the hungry crowd, who come to Jesus because we don’t know where else to go and we’ve heard he does some cool stuff. This story promises that we will be fed. Sometimes we’re the disciples, who are called to see the hungry around us and find something for them to eat. This story promises that we will be called to engage. Whichever we are…when we bring what we have to Jesus, miracles happen and lives are changed.
This passage starts with Jesus being followed by a crowd that needs healing. Jesus has compassion on them, and this compassion moves him past his own grief and exhaustion into the work God is doing in and through him for the sake of others.
There is no individual congregation, ministry, or member apart from the work we all do together. We are the church together. That’s what the planning team that met yesterday began to wrestle with, and will continue to pray about and wrestle with throughout the year. As we look at the hunger of the crowds that came here to encounter new life in Christ, does our compassion do what it did for Jesus and the disciples? Does our compassion move us beyond our own grief and exhaustion, beyond our insecurities and lack of resources, into each other’s lives where we discover relationships and resources through which God can do what God does best, which is feed the hungry, heal the sick, release the captives, and care for widows, orphans and strangers?
May it be so, Lord…may it be so.