July 26, 2015 – Loaves and fishes

Pentecost 9   July 26, 2015   Exodus 16:13-18, 2 Kings 4:42-44, John 6:1-5 Loaves and fishes *************************************************************

This has been a week full of history for our family. Tuesday we went to Plymouth Plantation and spent the day revisiting the early history of our state and our nation. We were reminded frequently of our commonwealth’s deep roots in biblical history. Church, for example, was mandatory here in the early days… Which has had me contemplating my own biblical history…

One of my odd habits in my teenage years was to put on a stack of records first thing in the morning, especially on school days, when I needed a little extra help waking up, as I sipped my first morning cup of strong coffee… Our family didn’t go to church when I was growing up. But my parents, life-long jazz fans, had some gospel records, one of which I especially liked to wake up to — a scratchy 78 rpm record, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, singing a lively song, Two Little Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread… Sister Rosetta was a formidable guitar picker and a soulful singer… But what I remember most… is the words of the song’s chorus– “with only two little fishes… and five loaves of bread.” That catchy gospel ballad got under the radar of my skepticism about God and religion… Got under my skin, into my soul… Especially the last verse — “He broke the bread up — also the fishes — then his disciples went ahead — but the more passed round — the more they found — lots left over, when all had been fedon only two little fishes…and five loaves of bread.”

When I encountered Jesus, just out of my teens, a little ways into my 20’s, and eventually started trying to follow him… One of the main threads of his gospel teaching for me was this theme of feeding the hungry with only a few loaves and fishes… A theme that eventually became a big part of my life’s work…

And of course Sister Rosetta wasn’t making this story up… It’s straight out of the bible — a New Testament story with deep roots in the First Testament. Jesus is reminding us here of our biblical heritage… in the wilderness and on the mountain and at the time of Passover. Major history markers scattered throughout the story. And this multiplication of loaves and fishes is the only miracle, other than Jesus’ resurrection, recorded in all four gospels. Signifying it’s deep importance for us still… (Let’s tune in again to the story:)

Jesus and disciples have crossed over to the other side of the lake — the Sea of Galilee — going from the Galilean Jewish side of the lake over to the Gentile side, the less familiar shore. (This story is also about crossing cultural borders — bringing the story of Israel’s God to neighbours long estranged.) People have seen Jesus healing many, working powerful signs — giving clear evidence of the power of God at work. Now they’re following Jesus, most of them probably walking up and around the far northern tip of the lake, others perhaps going across in boats, following to see what Jesus might do next. Like me in my early twenties, most of them probably were not yet committed followers, but they were intrigued enough by what they’ve seen of Jesus to want to see what might come next… And Jesus notices the approaching crowd, and asks his disciple Philip “where are we going to buy food for all these people to eat?” Jesus, we’re told, is testing Philip. Testing him in Discipleship 101 — the practice of hospitality — welcoming the stranger — feeding the hungry. Jesus is testing his disciple, asking “where are we going to buy food for all these people coming to visit?”

Testing is part of the biblical story, for better and for worse. In the exodus out from Egypt, Israel (for the worse) puts God to the test, often, complaining, whining and murmuring against God. God tests Israel in the same exodus (for the better) — bringing them into challenging situations to test and see if any will become faithful through testing. Now when Jesus puts Philip to a test, he does so very gently, even a little humorously — testing to see if Philip’s been paying attention to what Jesus has been teaching and doing. Testing also to see if he remembers Israel’s national history. Doesn’t he remember God giving manna, providing for Israel’s needs in the wilderness? Doesn’t he remember Elisha, feeding the crowd with a few loaves of barley bread? Doesn’t he remember Jesus turning well over a hundred gallons of water into wine at the wedding in Cana? Doesn’t he remember what God can do with just a little? Well, no. Philip doesn’t seem to remember. He says “six months wages wouldn’t buy enough food for them all to get a little…” No historical perspective. Disciple Andrew chimes in now, saying “there’s a boy here with five barley loaves and two fish, but that won’t go far among so many.” Again, no sense of history. Loaves then were often just the size of rolls. Five loaves and two small dried fish the size of sardines was just enough for one boy’s lunch. Like Elisha’s servant long before, with just 20 small loaves for a hundred guests, so also Jesus’ disciples are doubting there’s anywhere near enough to feed the crowd. But Jesus (done testing for the moment) has known all along what he’s going to do. He says “make them all sit down.” He takes the loaves, then the fish, gives thanks to God, and shares with everyone seated. All of them eat as much as they want… When they’re all satisfied, Jesus says ‘gather up what’s left, so nothing may be lost.’ And the leftovers are enough to fill a dozen baskets. Twelve is a symbolic number — the number of the tribes of Israel and the number of Jesus’ first disciples. Now there’s a sack of leftovers for each of the apostles… to remind them of this meal for a long time…(or at least till the food’s all gone…)

And this feeding of 5000 is told by John in ways that remind us of our biblical history — Israel’s formative years in the wilderness — when all the people ate manna gathered from the ground every day, forty years, at no cost, and there was always enough. Reminds us also of Elisha and other great prophets of Israel, who also fed many from a little…

Reminds me again of Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing now the postlude at the end of her song — If we all love one another — the whole world would all be fed — with only two little fishes — and — five loaves of bread…”

Which sounds like one huge mega-miracle… Feeding the whole world on two little fishes, five loaves of bread… But in John’s gospel we actually don’t even hear the word “miracle.” What we usually call ‘miracles,’ John always calls “signs.” Miracles tend to leave us thinking about what has happened. Signs call our attention to Who makes it happen. The sign of loaves and fishes points us to Jesus, who does all the multiplying. And all the signs in John’s gospel point us always to Jesus. The one we should always be trying to follow… And yes, Jesus can sometimes be a bit difficult to follow… So…  We also need human role models to help us with following Jesus… Like the little boy who gave his lunch…

Jesus may be able to feed the whole world from scratch. But that’s not, apparently, God’s plan. And Jesus makes this little boy’s giving into a large teachable moment. As Jesus takes the boy’s lunch as it is offered — two little fishes, five loaves of bread… And blesses it and shares it… and turns it into a feast for thousands… That little boy has been a role model for all of us ever since. We watch that boy sharing his lunch, and think, “we can do that.” And we can. We do… When we share our tithes and offerings for the church and the Food Pantry and Imagine No Malaria… With every ten dollars we give to Imagine No Malaria a child’s life can be saved. (Over the past year and a half we’ve raised about $3500 for the Methodist campaign against malaria, saving about 350 lives so far.) The seven thousand dollars give or take we raise through our Pumpkin Patch every year translates into at least several thousand meals for people in our town every year… And every Sunday by God’s grace and through the help of the video ministries of Dick Anderson and Arne Carr, our worship services can be enjoyed by all who watch us on cable tv or online. All of these ministries require some sacrifice. Some giving of our time, our talents, our money. But when we give, like the little boy with his two little fishes and five loaves of bread… We too are helping Jesus feed thousands. We too are richly blessed…as we share in his banquet.

Can we do more? Don’t we sometimes have more than a day’s lunch we can give to Jesus to be shared with those in greater need? St Augustine asks us in our quote for the day, to “Find out how much God has given you…And from it take what you need… The remainder is needed by others.” John Wesley said the same thing. If we can live on less in order to give more, we should do so. This was one of Wesley’s standard preaching refrains. All the good we can do for God and neighbor we should do. So… If we can do more — why don’t we always do more? If we believe Jesus really can and will bless and multiply our offerings — why not give more — a lot more — even a little more… of our time, treasure, and talents to the God we love?

Yesterday our family attended yet another historic public event — Colonial Day at Aptuxcet Trading Post. We were watching men dressed up as colonial militia. As one of them explained the fine points of militia life for us, I was overhearing another man, also in colonial garb — which made his words sound all the more like the voice of biblical history speaking — telling his colleagues (all dressed in colonial garb) about his wife quitting smoking… “She quits every Monday,” he said. “She puts on the patch, and goes off to work. Then, soon as she’s out of work, she takes off the patch, pulls the pack of cigarettes out of the glove compartment, and lights up… That’s how it goes through the week… Till she quits again next Monday…” (The man and his friends were smiling and laughing a little as he told the story but…) Overhearing, I found myself thinking, ‘Oh my Lord. That sounds like me… Preaching the gospel of giving-it-all-to-Jesus every Sunday. Then Monday mornings hoping the phone won’t ring …with anybody needing any giving-it-all-to Jesus from me… (And…)

Maybe most of us are addicted to a certain kind of comfort zone… A little like a smoker who wants to quit but can’t…   Because I don’t think it’s a matter of not wanting to do more for God for most of us. I think it’s a matter of not being able to break out of patterns that have a life of their own. And what we need… probably more than a scolding — though a little scolding can help a little sometimes — but what we need most, I believe, is an approach to Christian faith for Christians like me, who believe, but are struggling to walk the walk… A stronger and more regular program of mutual support and accountability in which we’re reminded every day — of Who we serve — And how very much our gracious God is able to do — with the little we have — when we give it to Him. We need our wake up music every day to remind us —

When we all love one another, this whole world will all be fed — with only two little fishes — and five loaves of bread…”

Thanks be to God. Amen.