I took a different take on the “Loaves and Fishes” story this time around. Please let me know what you think!
(Audio will be up later tonight!)
Maybe It’s Not About The Loaves … Or The Fishes
A pastor walked into church one Sunday morning and realized during the singing of the first hymn that he had left his sermon manuscript in his office. The scripture that morning was the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the Loaves and Fishes story.
He decided just to wing it, but in the middle of the sermon got a little bit flustered and tongue-tied. Specifically, he said that Jesus took five thousand loaves and two thousand fishes, fed five people and still had plenty left over.
At that point during the sermon, a man in the back of the congregation called out, “Well, anybody could do that!”
“Could you?” replied the pastor, not realizing that he had mixed up the numbers.
“Certainly I could,” the man replied with a snarky tone.
After the service, the pastor confided in one of the deacons and complained about the man’s conduct in church. The deacon explained to the pastor that he had, in fact, flip-flopped the story during the sermon. The pastor scoffed. “Well, next week, I will not leave my sermon in my office. I will show him!”
The next week the pastor confidently approached the altar and preached his sermon. During the course of the sermon, he once again brought up the miracle of the loaves and fishes. He talked about how the five loaves and the two fishes had fed five thousand people. He then pointed towards the heckler in the back of the congregation and asked, “Could you do that?”
“I sure could,” the man replied with confidence.
“And just how would you do that?” the minister asked.
“I would use the loaves and fishes left over from last Sunday.”
We all know the story: John the Baptist had just been killed in prison and Jesus withdrew to a deserted place on a boat. When he returned saw a crowd of thousands that had gathered at the shore (the scripture says five thousand, but that number only included the men – most likely there were over 20,000 people there that day). The disciples tried to tell the crowd to go home and to buy food for themselves, because they did not have enough food for everyone. But Jesus calmly told the disciples to let the people stay and asked them to bring him the fives loaves and the two fish that they had. Jesus blessed and broke the bread and there was enough to feed not only five thousand men, but also the women and children and there was plenty left over.
There is no doubt about it – it was a miracle.
In fact, if you look at all four Gospels, this was the only miracle recorded. It was – and is – a true testament to the disciples, to the crowd that had gathered and to us reading today that God provides. This is a story that draws parallels to the book of Exodus in the Old Testament when the people of Israel were exiled and without food in the dessert and unleavened bread – or manna – fell from the sky so that they could eat abundantly. This miracle story reminds us that God nourishes our bodies, that God is a creative love, that Jesus is a redemptive hope and that the spirit sustains us – always.
This miracle pushes us to remember that if we trust, God will provide. It is a miracle that, through the generations, Christians have clung onto in the worst of times and glorified in the best of times. God is good – all the time.
But here is the problem with that interpretation: We are living through a recession. There are people in this community and in our country that have very little. We live on a planet where resources are not evenly spread. There can be abundance in one place and utter desolation in another. Needs are great, but resources are limited. People die of hunger every day. Bread For The World, a faith-based organization that works to end hunger on an international level, estimates that 16,000 children die every day of hunger. That is one child every five seconds.
A skeptic of the Christian faith might ask, “Where is the miracle in that?”
Miracle stories are difficult to preach on when the reality of what individuals face every day is dark and dismal. Why did God provide for the thousands that day on the shore 2,000 years ago, but not for the 16,000 children that day every day today? Why not for those in our community who are struggling to make ends meet?
That is a question I cannot answer.
This scripture lesson can be a beautiful reminder of God’s grace and power in our lives. But it can also be an opportunity to struggle with some of the unanswered questions that we face in the reality of the world that we live in.
I do not think that this story is about the loaves – or the fishes. In fact I do not think that any reading of the Gospel should be done as a way to literally interpret the words on the page and make sure that they live out here – today. I think that they are meant to inspire us, to call us and to push us to a ministry greater than any that we can envision today.
Here is a question: What does it mean to be Christian?
Now, that’s a loaded question that I doubt any of us have the same answer to. But I would wager a guess that most of us here think that there is more to being a Christian than just believing in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is a hands-on aspect to living a Christian life. There is an element of service and mission, an element that mimics the one that Jesus displayed to his disciples and to the people he met along his journey. And there is a call to us to be the face of Christ – in an imperfect and human way – to the people that we meet along our own journeys.
There is a hymn in the New Century Hymnal, which is the UCC hymnal that came out in 1995, that is called, “Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant?” It is based off of the old hymn, “The Servant Song”. The lyrics are so beautiful and just so true to our call as Christians that I would like to share them with you this morning. The hymn sings:
I do not think that this story is about the loaves or the fishes; I do not think that this story is about waiting for our own loaves and fishes miracle; and I do not think that this story is about looking beyond the reality of the world that we are living in and hiding behind the curtains of the unknown “God’s plan” and “long-awaited miracle”. I think that this story calls us to be the providers of the loaves and the fishes. I think that this story reminds us that in a moment of hunger and in a moment of need, Jesus stepped up and said, “Do not send these people away, we will provide them with food and nourishment.”
I have talked about this before, but my call to ministry came in 2003 following a trip to Honduras to observe an educational mission in the small village of Teupasenti three hours outside of the capital city. When the Mission started it was focused solely on education, but they realized very quickly that you cannot teach hungry children. And now one of the biggest parts of the organization is its feeding program. Since 2003, I have returned once to Teupasenti, embarked on many fundraising journeys for the Mission and a few weeks ago was asked to fill an open slot on the Board of Directors.
In the eight years that I have worked with the Mission, I have learned a few things. First and foremost, God does need to be present in my ministry and in my service, I need to pray to God for guidance and for strength and to provide us all with patience and resources. But I also cannot sit idly by and just expect a miracle to happen. I need to be proactive in my ministry and in my service and I need to be the face of Christ to my brothers and sisters who are struggling.
Yes, God is active and present in the Mission, but so are the individuals that are called to actually live out the gospel message. And yes there have been times when finances and programs were tight and we had faith in God that things would work out – and they did. But in those moments of uncertainty individuals stood up and answered the call to serve. There is a point of intersection where the road of the divine and the road of individuals that feel called to serve intersect. And that is where the true miracle happens.
I do not think that when Jesus said to the disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat,” he meant to imply to them that they needed to stop the crowd and wait for the miracle. I think he meant to imply that sometimes it is important to remember that we are all in this together. As the hymn says, we are here to help each other, go the mile, bear the load, hold the Christ-light for one another, hold out our hands, speak peace and see our journeys through together.
There is a food pantry that my church in Connecticut supports that is called Loaves and Fishes. And I always thought that was such a beautiful way to connect an unexplained miracle that we read about in the gospel and the understanding of what we are supposed to do to live out the gospel.
It is not about the loaves or the fishes. It is not about food of substance appearing out of nothing. It is not about wondering why the miracle happened in one place and not another. It is about us – and what we are called to do, every day.