his morning we take a hiatus from Mark’s gospel and plunge head first into John’s account of Jesus feeding the multitudes. The story of the feeding of the 5,000 is one that is told in all four gospels; Matthew and Mark also tell separately of the feeding of the 4,000 which is suspiciously similar. This is obviously an important story—one of feeding very hungry people and where Jesus makes something out of nothing. But I would rather not focus on the actual miracle account of the story. Rather I will focus on the overall message of how hunger, feeding people and how our feelings of inadequacy can be an opportunity for God to open us up to understand that we are in fact enough.
HUNGER: We are born hungry. Our first instinct out of the womb is to want nourishment. And, throughout our lives we eat and are satisfied until we are yet hungry again. Hunger is incessant, it is complex and sometimes it is downright conflicting. Sometimes we look for ways to be comfortable or overly satisfied with food. Other times, we try to keep hunger at bay. Some of us actually spend time and effort to make hunger go away, actually hurting our bodies. “I’m hungry, so I’ll go for a walk. I stuffed myself at lunch so I am going to skip dinner. I won’t eat at all today.” These are just some of the ways in which we play games with food, manipulating our minds into thinking that we don’t need food when we really do.
FEEDING: I find it interesting that in John’s version of this story Jesus is the one who asks, “Where are we going to buy bread for all these people?” In the other three gospels it is the other way around. Jesus knew what he was going to do, but he wanted to test Phillip. It is scary when a person in a much high capacity than ourselves looks at us and asks, “So, what are we gonna do here?” And, that’s what Jesus was doing with the disciples. How are we going to feed these kazillion people when we don’t have any food here? To which the disciples start devising ways they can solve this. They say in so many words, “Well, let’s see, our budget is quite small, half a year’s paycheck won’t cut it. No, we don’t have the kind of resources that will take care of all these people.” I’m sure at this point Jesus is rolling his eyes knowing full well that conventional tactics won’t work.
Finally, it is Andrew who notices a kid with some lunch—five barley loaves and some fish. I love that this boy is clearly not someone with any power or influence. And barley flour is used by poor people not the rich. It is a detail only John mentions. It reminds me that so many times we look to those in power to fill the needs of those who are without, when it turns out that those who do not have much can fill the needs of others who are poor.
One other note regarding John’s gospel is the fact that Jesus is the one who hands out the food. The disciples do this in the other gospels. Jesus gives thanks and then distributes the bread and fish. It is what Jesus does at the last supper, it is what we witness every week at our own altar table and it is significant because the kind of food Jesus doles out to people is not what will sustain them, not really. Jesus is the real food and in a few verses from this reading Jesus tells the people that he is the ‘bread of life,’ and whoever ‘believes in him will have eternal life.’ He knows as we all do that we need physical nourishment but he is saying that it is not enough to eat things that will perish and rot. What Jesus wants is for us to hunger for him, to want the bread that he offers—the bread of life. The kind of bread that makes us part of him, that gives us everything we need for our journey here on earth. That is the kind of nourishment that won’t feed us one moment then leave us hungry the next.
JOHN ALSO SHOWS US IN THIS TEXT THAT THE DISCIPLES’ INADEQUACY OVER BEING UNABLE TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO FEED ALL OF THOSE HUNGRY PEOPLE IS REALLY A BLESSING IN WITNESS. THEY WILL WITNESS FOR THEMSEVES THROUGH JESUS THAT IT IS OKAY NOT TO HAVE ALL OF THE SKILLS THAT THEY NEEDED AT THE TIME. When I was in Seminary, one of my degree was to complete a CPE, or a Clinical Pastoral Education Course. It is a structured clinical experience designed to enhance counseling skills and to build on student competency in pastoral care. This can be done in a nursing home, a hospital or a prison, but is usually carried out in a hospital, which is where I fulfilled CPE. It can be carried out part-time over a whole year or full time in the summer, which is what I chose.
I was petrified to enter the program because, A—I hated hospitals and B—I could not even imagine speaking pastorally to someone who was ill. I believed that I had nothing to offer anyone who was lying in a hospital bed. I must have looked like I had two wooden legs every time I entered a patient’s room—feeling totally inadequate.
To be honest this is where I relate to John’s reading in a big way—the disciples’ inadequacy. They look at the need of the people versus what they think they have to offer. I know for myself that can be a frightening feeling. Isn’t that how a lot of us feel when we act as though smallness and inadequacy are things that would never be worthy to bring before God? That is exactly the feeling I had when I walked in a room to offer some pastoral care to patients.
But we only have to look at so many of the parables to find that Jesus’ teachings are usually about how God creates something beautiful and amazing from something very small. Jesus never said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a Fortune 500 Company with super happy shareholders.” It is always insignificant and so easy to miss. Even Paul writes in Corinthians that God’s strength is perfected in our weakness
But we tend to think that weakness is something to be ashamed of. We feel as though we have to hide it and pretend it doesn’t exist, like the Seminarian trying to avoid CPE.
I’m not sure God is happy with all our strength and what we like to think of as virtuous self-confidence and pride. That’s when we can become arrogant—that we might act like, “That’s okay God I’ve got this.” That is not what God wants from us, I believe he prefers us in our poverty. That way we may just realize like the disciples that what we have is enough because it is never all there is. How else could I have stumbled through building pastoral care skills in the hospital that summer and witness the Glory of God in every single patient. No, I didn’t have the right words every time I entered a patient’s room, I didn’t understand immediately when to pull back in a situation and when to just go for it. That came in time. What I needed came from God. In my inadequacy God was there to teach and form and love me. I love that!
By the end of that summer I was certainly not a consummate pastoral care phenomenon—I’m not today. There are days when I truly come up short and understand later through God’s grace that I have so much more to learn. One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that most folks who are hurting like a “listener” more than a “talker.” That is something I continually try to work on.
Finally, even though I have not been at St. Stephen’s that long at all, and even though I do not know most of you very well, I venture to guess that you are wonderful care givers for each other. I have seen that in different ways over the past couple of months. You give freely and lovingly and that is the best kind of giving. Amen.