The Tough Question (John 6:1-21)

July 26, 2015
John 6:1-21; Eph. 3:14-21
Last week we read about Jesus trying to get away with his disciples to do some check-in and processing, but the crowds followed him.  The verse I would have lifted up last week was Mark 6:31, “Jesus said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’”  Let me tell you…at this point in the summer, that invitation sounds mighty appealing.  The text last week went on to mention that the crowds found Jesus even as he tried to claim his much-needed time off.  But then the reading we had last week skipped the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus calming the storm, and ended with the crowds eager to bring their sick to Jesus.  Jesus never got his time off.

Today we jump over to John chapter 6, and we hear those stories that were skipped last week–Jesus feeding the 5,000 and Jesus walking on water.  There are some interesting parallels between Mark 6 and John 6, but there are also some interesting differences.  If we were sitting around a table we would look at those similarities and differences.  But today I want to think about those times when you find yourself in a situation that is totally overwhelming and bigger than your capacity to control, and the challenge of claiming the presence of Christ in that time.

The story we read today is commonly known as the Feeding of the 5,000, even though the text tells us that there were about 5,000 men.  So we can assume the size of the crowd was closer to 10 or 12,000.  After spending 5 days in Detroit for the ELCA Youth Gathering, an event that drew close to 30,000, I have a new appreciation for the disciples and the challenge they face in this passage.  They’re already tired from an intense season of ministry.  They’re really just looking forward to getting away from it all, sitting around the fire with Jesus and telling stories.  They just want to sleep.  But the crowds follow them.  And with the crowds comes the need for food.  Whether they’d like him to or not for their own selfish reasons, they know that Jesus won’t turn people away.  He just won’t.  It’s not what he does.  It’s not who he is.  So it’s not surprising that Jesus says, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”  Faced with the crowds and their hunger, Jesus doesn’t turn them away.  Instead, he invites the disciples in to an experience that will challenge and transform their faith, their view of Jesus and their relationship with each other.

Has this ever happened to you?  Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve been asked, “How are we going to meet the need of the people around us?”  This can happen in big and small ways.  In small ways, at the end of a long day or week your children ask you what’s for supper.  In small ways, just as you get through your own health or relationship crisis, you find out your friend has cancer, or you find out your coworker is battling depression, or you find out your son lost his job.  It happens when volunteer teams work hard to put on VBS, just to turn around and host pool parties, mini-golf outings and planning meetings in preparation for fall youth ministry.  Just when you are ready to rest, you see the need around you and you face the question, “What are we going to do to meet this need?”  And no matter how much you’d like to walk away, in these situations saying, “nothing” is not an option.

In large ways, this happens when you see the news and hear about yet another racially-motivated crime or injustice.  It happens when you read about workers protesting low pay and unfair working conditions.  It happens when you hear about young people choosing drugs, violence and suicide over community and healthy living.  “How are we going to feed these people?”  Jesus asks.

The author of John tells us this question was a test, because Jesus already knew what he was going to do.  Does that mean that when we encounter need in the world around us we, too, are being tested?  I don’t think so…at least, not in the sense that we might fail or lose our spot at the head of the class.  When Jesus looks at the crowd and asks, “Where are we to buy bread,” Philip responds like many church people do—“we can’t afford it.”  Philip immediately looks for a solution and is hindered by what appears to be their LACK of resources.  But his wrong answer doesn’t keep Jesus from acting.

How often is that the first place you go when the need feels too great?  For me—almost all the time.  It would cost too much.  I’m not qualified.  I wouldn’t know what to say.  But Jesus invites the disciples past the perception of scarcity into an experience of abundance.  And I love that where that abundance begins is with the loaves and fish of a little boy.  You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to know how radical it is that this detail made it in to this story.  Because even in our educated, progressive culture, it’s still hard for us to really create space for the gifts and resources children bring to our community.  Our tendency is to leave the problem-solving and mission-doing to the adults.  But this little boy is instrumental in offering the first tools through which Jesus can meet this need that felt too big to the disciples.

Last week in Detroit, speaker after speaker lifted up the reality of brokenness in our communities.  Racism, mental illness, economic inequality, lack of community—the hunger of the crowds was overwhelming.  And yet, the power of the Gathering was that the youth were invited to be part of what God is doing to feed that hunger.  Teenagers were invited to see that whatever they have—as meager as a few loaves of bread and a few fish—is exactly what Jesus is looking to use to feed the masses.  And I have been so blessed by the growth I’ve seen in this congregation as we continue to strive to integrate children and youth into our ministry together.  I can tell you story after story of how the kids in this congregation offer their insight, their energy, and maybe even their critique, and through whatever they bring, Jesus does whatever it is that Jesus does, and I walk away filled.  Let us not overlook the gifts and offerings of the young people in our midst.

So here’s the question for us:  first, when we are faced with the reality of the hunger of those around us, do we first go to our scarcity—what we DON’T have or how much it’s going to COST us?  And secondly—are we becoming the kind of community that acknowledges, receives and activates the gifts and offerings of children and youth?

Remember how in John’s telling of the story Jesus already knew what he was going to do?  One of the things I think the rest of the story is about is that the disciples re-learn the value of community.  The disciples learned that kids bring something really important to that question, “What are we going to do about these hungry people?”  And the disciples learned that their role in feeding the masses was to simply share the abundant and unexplainable gift given to them by Jesus.  Jesus was the one who made those loaves and fish be enough for everyone.  But the disciples, the children, the men and women sitting in the grass—they were all part of what Jesus was going to do.

We could say that the problems are too big and whatever we try won’t be enough.  But the witness of this story and others like it is that as followers of Jesus we are invited to wrestle with the question, “What are we going to do to feed these people?”—not because God can’t do it without us, but because in answering that question we are invited to re-encounter and be amazed by a God who is not hindered by the magnitude of the problem or the meagerness of our resources.  I would say that every time we are faced by that question, whether in small or large ways, we have to first push past our inadequacy and our tendency to start with how much it’s going to cost us.  But when we can trust Jesus past our scarcity, and when we can become a community that invites the gifts and resources of EVERYBODY—whether they’re a 7-yr. old or a 97 yr. old—and when we can see that whatever we have is open to be used by God—even if it’s just a measly loaf of bread and piece of fish—what we discover is that Jesus has abundantly more for us than we could ask or imagine.

The last thing I think this story shows us is that when we accept the invitation to be about the work God is already going to do in our midst, stuff happens that we can’t exactly explain, nor can we take credit for.  I’ve seen this in children and youth ministry over the last five years.  The task of forming faith in young people is one that often feels overwhelming, and a task I often feel entirely unqualified to do successfully.  And yet, through the faithful partnership of the dedicated volunteer teams who join me in teaching, leading, organizing and visioning, I see unexplainable signs that Jesus is at work in these kids’ lives.  And I know this is happening in ministries throughout this congregation—not just children and youth ministry.  It’s easy for us, I think, to be where the disciples were at the beginning of this passage—exhausted from the intensity of ministry, overwhelmed by the need that we know is out there, and inhibited by our perception of scarcity.  But I wonder what would happen if we took time to tell stories of how lives are being touched through the small and large things people bring to the work Jesus is already doing in and through this congregation.  I bet we would discover, like the crowd did on the mountainside, that we are filled and nourished in ways we can’t exactly explain, and that there’s plenty to go around.

I do think that God would work in the lives of kids, youth and adults with or without my help.  But the fact is that God has called and chosen me to be part of this community at this time.  God has called and chosen YOU to be part of this community at this time.  And the crowd that surrounds us and is desperate to encounter Jesus may not be the 30,000 people of the Gathering in Detroit.  It may not be the 5,000 plus people on a mountainside.  But whatever the size, there are those who have a hunger that is too great for us to feed, and yet Jesus is asking us what we’re going to do about it.  And by the way, saying “nothing” is not an option.  Instead, we are invited to faithfully join in what God’s already doing, so that we can move beyond our response of scarcity to an experience of God’s abundance.

So what do you do when you find yourself in a situation totally out of your control?  Do you try to calculate what it will cost of your physical resources so you can regain control and FIX the problem?  Do you hope the problem will just go away so you won’t be inconvenienced?  Or do you step deeper in to community where you end up being amazed at how Jesus does his thing in ways that totally surprise you and are sort of unexplainable?  Do you allow yourself to be nourished by the gifts and resources of young children and teenagers?  Do you take a seat in the grass—among other people who are hungry—and celebrate the wonder of what Jesus is doing in and through you?

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