Did Jesus really feed five thousand people with donated, meager provisions? Did people really leave for home with full bellies? Were there really so many leftovers afterwards that it took twelve baskets to hold them all?
Some say this happened—absolutely. Others offer a qualified yes—quickly explaining that what likely happened was that Jesus inspired and unleashed people’s generosity, that his magnetism compelled everyone to reach into their pockets and packs to share food they had squirrelled away.
Did this miracle truly happen? We have our “yes indeed” camp, as well as our “yes, and” contingent. And then we have folks who take after Thomas Jefferson who didn’t believe any of the miracle stories in the gospels were true. Like the third President, some view our story today as a beautiful, well-meaning myth.
There’s no shame in asking “Did this miracle really happen?” But let’s not stop there. Let’s also ask “Was this a one-time thing or has it happened elsewhere? Where might God be trying to manifest a similar miracle now?”
I ask for a reason. You see, twenty years ago I had my own loaves and fishes experience, a feeding of a multitude with what at first glance seemed to be very meager provisions. Because God has a sense of humor, God found the perfect place for me to learn about God’s ability to multiply and provide—Bountiful, Utah, where I was a new pastor.
As soon as I landed in Bountiful, I called the Conference Office to tell them they were welcome to use our very spacious building if ever the need arose. You see, it pained me that we had this incredible resource going so underutilized. Months later, the Conference Moderator asked if my congregation would host the next year’s annual meeting. I said yes but I wasn’t thrilled.
By then I knew the congregation well enough to know that we had a lot of room but that was about it. We were not a well-oiled machine, we didn’t have many leaders and the ones we had were stretched thin, and we had no one (besides me) who had ever even been to an annual meeting.
Forget five small barley loaves and two fish—it felt to me like we had a few slices of Swiss cheese, which are, as you know, made up mostly of holes.
Our three days of hosting arrived at last. Two hundred lay delegates and pastors from Utah, southern Wyoming, and Colorado filled the building. Not only that but the President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ, John Thomas himself, was also in our midst. I held my breath and said my prayers.
Time flew. When our closing worship ended, church members met our guests in the hallway with sack lunches for their long journeys home.
As people hurried to leave, I was astonished by how many took the time to seek me out to tell me what a rich experience they had had. Many offered that they thought this had been the best annual meeting they had ever attended. I was floored.
I stayed behind with the clean-up crew and then waved them off with copious thanks. Like Phillip, my fears around scarcity had been in vain. God had transformed our little into a lot. Our guests had lacked for nothing. Like Jesus’ crowd, they had headed home full—fuller than full even.
Alone in the building now, marveling over this home-grown, most unlikely miracle, genuinely astounded by the abundance that had washed over all of us, I made my way from one end of the long church building to the other.
And as I did, I saw the strangest thing—lining the hallways was one basket, then another, then more. Each one spilled over the joy and gratitude our guests had left behind. Nothing was wasted. And even those who stayed behind had more than they knew what to do with.
OK, God, I remember thinking, I get it. You work miracles. You multiply and magnify. You invite us all into the experience of plenty even when, especially when, our provisions seem impossibly slim.
We humans have our ways and God has God’s. We need only recall the news of the week and then consider our lesson today to see how different these ways can be one from the other.
In one story, the world’s richest man climbs into his ridiculously expensive rocket ship, blasts off, then drops back down to earth eleven minutes later—all for what? Vanity and personal satisfaction?
Meanwhile a hungry, needful world looks on—a world the wealthiest man in history doesn’t even have eyes to see.
And then there’s Jesus, and the team he has gathered in love. When our hearts burn with the same kind of love Jesus had for people, when their needs burden us in the best possible way, and we ache to respond—just as was true for Jesus, then we can trust that God is in the mix. And we can trust God will do whatever is needed to support our compassionate action. Including magnifying and multiplying what we imagine isn’t enough.
When our hearts burn with compassion, when we dare do what Jesus did, when we willingly, consciously, faithfully take the little we have, and like Jesus ask God’s blessing upon it, when we then break and give it just as Jesus did that day, then there is absolutely no telling how much God can do, how much God can bring forth for the sake of those who hunger and hurt.
Eight years ago when Community Spirit had just formed, we quickly put together a Facebook page. Along with our address and worship times, we needed a pithy, powerful description of this new church and its central purpose. And so this statement was born: We are a community gathered by the Spirit, enlivened by progressive Christian faith, aching to make a difference in the world.
We are a community gathered by the Spirit. Chew on that for a moment. This church began as God’s idea. In other words, we did not invent ourselves. We were—and are—gathered by the Spirit.
…Enlivened by progressive Christian faith. Or progressing Christian faith, as some prefer to say. Ours is a faith that grows and changes and evolves. A faith that is not held captive or constrained by doctrine or dogma. A faith that is broad and deep, spacious and gracious. A faith with facets our church calls the Five Smooth Stones—bold claims we identify this way: Love Wins, This World/This Life Matters, Brains Belong Here Too, We Are Both Spiritual and Religious, and We Are Free to Be and Become Fully Ourselves.
Not everyone has a hunger or an appetite for this kind of faith and this kind of faith community—but for those who do, we offer a feast beyond compare. Or rather, God offers a feast that is our pleasure, our joy, our privilege to share with those starved for what we have and who we are when we are together.
Gathered by the Spirit, enlivened by progressive Christian faith, we are aching to make a difference in the world.
This ache is God’s fertile field. It means everything to God. Truly. Jesus didn’t feed a multitude because it was a nice thing to do. A culturally appropriate thing to do. No, Jesus fed the multitude because he ached knowing that folks were hungry, that they needed nourishment before they headed home again. He ached knowing that many were too poor to have been able to bring a picnic.
More than this, Jesus ached because people were so hungry for hope, for God, for Good News that they sought him out without giving any thought to their bodily needs.
Whose hunger, whose circumstances, whose struggle—when you see it, when you feel it—genuinely makes you ache or breaks your heart? Don’t mistake pity for compassion, don’t confuse feeling sorry for feeling solidarity.
For whom, for what do you ache?
Jesus said that where our hearts are, there also will be our treasure. And with today’s gospel lesson in mind, we could well imagine him saying “Where your ache for others is, there also is where you can make a difference.”
Let’s be honest. We can make a difference without feeling an ache. We do it at Christmastime when we toss a few coins into the red kettle outside of City Market. We can make a difference without feeling an ache when we roll our recycle bins to the curb or when we brighten someone’s day with a small courtesy or kindness.
But when we begin to act from a place of ache—from a place of solidarity and compassion—that’s where magic happens. That’s where miracles are born. Our aches for others move us to do what Jesus did—that is, take the little we have, bless it, break it, and give it. And in this, God works, enabling us to make a difference.
And the difference we make winds up making a difference for us, as well. Because, as our miracle story makes plain, no one goes home hungry. Even the ones who pass the bread and fish find bushels of nourishment waiting for them after the crowd has gone home. No one goes hungry. No one goes unfilled.
I want to leave you with some questions that qualify as your spiritual homework for the week. Don’t rush. Don’t settle for pat or conventional answers. Take these questions like Jesus took the bread—ask God’s blessing and then break them open. Take them and chew on them. Digest them. Let them become part of who you are.
So here you go:
When you look upon the grassy hillside that is our community, region, nation and world, what do you see? Who do you see whose hunger makes your heart ache? What grieves you? What calls to your heart and soul for a compassionate, just response?
Your earnest answers are where God’s miracle of multiplication is waiting to be born. Embedded in your ache is the Spirit beginning to bring something out of nothing.
And what about us as a congregation? When we look out over the landscape with Jesus at our side, when we let ourselves take in the many different hungers around us, what burns in us, what begs for a response?
What do we have that might seem small but in God’s hands could feed a multitude? What is the difference we collectively ache to make? Whose hunger genuinely pains us? What realities before us truly grieve us?
I suspect that the more we let our hearts feel what they feel, the more we find words to express our aches, our longings, our yearnings, the more we will discover how the little we think we have is enough—more than enough—to feed the hungriest around us.
And the more we will come to see that the difference we can make will also make a difference for us as a congregation. After all, everyone feasts when God is providing the meal. No one, not even the servers, go home hungry.
Let us pray:
Sit with us, O God, as we sit with our questions. Attune our hearts, make receptive our spirits. Put a spotlight on the aches of compassion and solidarity we feel for others, aches that lead us to do and be what is nourishing, what blesses, what makes a difference. A difference not only for others but for us, your friends and allies. Your partners in love and justice.