July 29, 2018 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here. Video is available here at the 20:21 mark.
“Where are we to buy bread for all of these people to eat?” Can you imagine the panic that flooded Philip’s heart and mind when he heard Jesus ask that question? “Where are we to buy bread for all of these people to eat?” And it was Jesus asking the question—Jesus! He was supposed to have the answer to questions like that. He was the boss. He was the leader. He had always had the answers. And now Jesus wanted Philip to figure out how they would feed a multitude of hungry souls in the middle of nowhere?
Not long after Elizabeth and I were engaged, my mother told me a little story about her mother-in-law. I think my mom wanted me to know that, as I began married life, she would try her best to be a supportive presence in my wife’s life and not the kind of mother-in-law about which people tell real-life horror stories. To make that point, she recalled for me a moment early in her marriage when my father’s mother drove from Birmingham, Alabama, to Atlanta, Georgia, to make her first visit to her son and new daughter-in-law’s home. My grandmother worked at a dance studio, and she had to finish that day’s teaching before she set out for the three- or four-hour trip. With a change in time zone, her arrival would be especially late, but, about the time when my mother expected her to show up, it occurred to her that her guest may not have eaten supper. “Surely she will have already eaten; it’s nearly nine o’clock,” she said to my father, trying to push that growing sliver of fear out of her mind, but the fear didn’t go away. “She never said anything about dinner, but what if she hasn’t eaten?” my mother continued as the fear steadily grew. Jumping up, looking in the cupboard, and finding almost nothing, her fear escalated into a full-blown panic as my mother considered the implications of having nothing to offer her mother-in-law. “Where am I to buy something for my mother-in-law to eat?” she said to my father, who probably just shrugged his shoulders. Adding another can of tomatoes to some leftover chili and fixing a skillet of cornbread didn’t provide much, but it was enough to avoid the shame of having nothing for her mother-in-law’s first visit.
What do we do when we look out at the hungry multitude coming toward us—not just the hundred and twenty or so people who come twice a week for Community Meals or the 40,000 or so people here in Washington County who live at or below the poverty line but the entire starving world that needs our help. What do we do when we see them coming and hear Jesus say to us, “Where are we to buy bread for all of these people to eat?” How do we answer Jesus’ question?
We could tell him that it isn’t really our job to feed all of these people. Some of the people in the crowd that day may have had a relationship with Jesus and his disciples, but most of them had come out because they had seen or heard about Jesus’ miracles. Just as when news that a church is handing out free meals begins to spread, people show up not because they care about the church or its mission but because they want something to eat. And is it really the church’s job to feed them all? Plenty of them could afford food on their own if they just shifted their priorities a little bit away from a fancy smart phone or cable television or designer clothes or alcohol and drugs and spent that money on basic nutrition. And why does our church have to be the one that feeds them. The multitude around Jesus could have gone back to their homes or to a nearby village or to another preacher or another agency to get the food they wanted. Why did Jesus ask Philip to figure it out? Why did Jesus ask his disciples to take on the responsibility for feeding these 5,000 people?
Because feeding them is our job. As followers of Jesus, it is our calling to feed these people, indeed to feed all hungry people. The kind of people who left their homes to walk out into the wilderness and hike up a mountain to see Jesus are the kind of people who were desperate to be fed. Some of them may not have needed physical nourishment, but most of them did. For most of them, their spiritual crisis was born out of an economic crisis. We know that because usually the kind of people who had enough on their own weren’t very interested in Jesus. The rich and the powerful ignored him or laughed at him or, sometimes, plotted against him. And the people who set out in search of Jesus that day were just as smart as you and I. They knew how to estimate how long they might be gone and what provisions they might need for the journey, but sometimes people are so desperate that they set out with nothing in their pockets because they either have nothing to put in them or because their need is so great that they have forgotten how to care. Those are the people who were searching for Jesus, and they are the same people who are streaming toward us. And Jesus looks at us and asks, “Where are we to buy bread for all of these people to eat?” What will we say to him?
It is our instinct as the church to assess both the need before us and the resources we have to respond to that need in measurable quantities. “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,” the Finance Committee says. “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish,’ the Rector replies, “but what are they among so many people?” It is our job as the leaders of the church, as the stewards of the resources entrusted to us by God and by our parish, to count costs and estimate resources. But it is never our job as the people of God to allow an attitude of scarcity to overcome a theology of abundance. How different would this encounter have been if Philip had said to the crowd, “Even six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of us to get a little, but following Jesus has taught me to believe in miracles. Come on, everybody. What do we have to work with?” And how different would it have been if Andrew had walked up with the boy’s basket and said, “Here are five barley loaves and two fish, truly a gift and a blessing among all these people.” When Jesus took them and multiplied them and gave them to the crowd, it would have been the same miracle, but it would have been one that the people of God believed in even before it had taken place. When we look out at the multitude coming toward us, isn’t that what Jesus is really asking us to see?
Hunger. Homelessness. Poverty. Addiction. Hatred. Discrimination. Gun violence. Domestic violence. Children separated from their parents at the border. Refugees sent back into the violence from which they fled. These needs are all around us, and the people to whom they belong are coming straight to us. People are hungry for food and security and healing and peace, and they are streaming toward us to find what they need. They need us because, as followers of Jesus, we believe that God loves the poor and meek and vulnerable and holds them in the center of God’s heart. Where are we to buy bread for all of these people to eat? How will we ever find the resources we need to make this world the dream that God dreams it could be? I don’t know. I don’t have that answer. But I do believe in miracles. And I do believe that unconditional love has the power to change the world. And I know that you cannot love your neighbor as yourself or love the world unconditionally and ignore the needs that are in front of you.
Later that night, after Jesus had taken the loaves and the fish and fed the entire crowd so that everyone was satisfied, he sent the disciples ahead of him across the lake. In the midst of a tumultuous sea, the disciples looked out and saw Jesus walking toward them on the water, and they were terrified. “It is I,” he said to them, “do not be afraid.” John tells us that “they wanted to take him into the boat,” but they looked up and immediately saw that the boat had already reached the land toward which they were going. What a strange way to finish this miracle story! Perhaps John wants us to remember how the fear of insufficiency often prevents us from seeing that God has already given us everything that we need.
Have faith in God. Believe in Jesus. Trust that in him there will be enough. Don’t be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the need ahead of us or the limitations of the resources we have at our disposal. God is with us. So bring your offering to God and, through the ministries of your church, share it with those in need and know that, with Jesus here among us, we will transform the world into the place God dreams it could be one loaf, one meal, one person at a time.