2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:8-13; John 6:1-21
If someone were to ask you what it feels like to be hungry, how would you answer? Perhaps you would begin by describing what a hunger pang is like, how your stomach feels as if it is tied in knots. You might explain that when hungry, your blood sugar drops and you get a headache or are prone to be shaky, mentally dull and lacking of energy. You could speak about how embarrassing it is when your stomach begins to growl, usually at an awkward time, like during the silences during the Prayers of the People, eliciting a polite smile from your neighbor. All of us here today know what it feels like to be hungry because it is a common experience. No matter who you are or your station in life, your body needs food regularly in order to function properly.
Now what would you say if that same person asked you what it looks like to be hungry? Look at your neighbor, do they look hungry and if so, how can you tell? I have to admit when I reflected on this question, I cheated and googled the question: “what does hunger look like,” then clicked the images icon and what I saw was alarming. There was a picture of African children with distant eyes looking at a camera while holding empty bowls. Another showed a group of what appeared to be Indian women and children with their hands extended towards someone handing out food, their faces drawn with a look of desperation. Another was a black and white photograph from the Great Depression in this country showing men, women, and children looking deflated, waiting in a long line at a soup kitchen hoping to get a meal. Perhaps none of us here present are experiencing, or have ever experienced hunger of this magnitude, certainly not I. But I suspect it all begins with that one hunger pang, the body’s natural indication of need. Hunger is an indication of need, and it is automatic.
What most struck me about our gospel lesson this morning was Jesus reaction to seeing the crowd. The gospel writer of John says that when Jesus looks up and sees a large crowd coming toward him he turns to Philip without hesitation and asks, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” We’re not given a description of their appearance, but Jesus clearly recognizes their hunger. The crowd gathers around them and Jesus’ instinct is to feed them.
Philip explains to Jesus that they simply do not have the resources to feed a crowd this size. I can certainly identify with Philip’s helplessness. I’ve never walked through Harvard Square without seeing at least three or four people holding cardboard signs asking for some sort of assistance and wishing I could buy them all some food. But the gospel writer says that Jesus asks Philip this question to test him. Jesus is not naïve. He knows that feeding this crowd is not humanly possible. Andrew walks up, as if almost on cue, and does something that seems laughable even to us. He escorts a young boy who happens to have five barley loaves and two fish, as if that could make any difference. I wonder if this is a show of faith on Andrew’s part or if the little boy in his innocence simply offers his lunch in an attempt to help. John doesn’t tell us.
But then an amazing thing happens. Jesus makes them sit down and he takes the boy’s loaves and fish, and after expressing thanks, gives them to the disciples to distribute to the crowd, as much as they wanted. The writer of John’s gospel says that when the crowd was satisfied, he told his disciples to gather up the leftovers. It is interesting to note that the Greek word used for ‘satisfied’ was chortazesthai which actually means glutted, sated, fed to repletion.[i] Not only were their bellies full, but there were twelve baskets of food leftover. What an incredible story!
The feeding of the five thousand is one of the most iconic stories in the gospels. It is the only miracle that is recorded in all four gospel accounts.[ii] However, when I say that this story iconic, it’s not because of its popularity but rather that it is multi-dimensional. You may know that an icon is an image used in prayer usually portraying a figure from the Bible, a saint, or even a scene from scripture. But even more, an icon is a doorway into a greater mystery. This story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is iconic because it points to something deeper than just an amazing feat. How can this story lead us deeper into prayer? Let me suggest two ways.
First, this story illuminates our common experience of hunger which is to say shared sense of need. John says that the news of Jesus teaching and healing had spread throughout the region and that he was being sought out. People were coming to him because they had a need that was too much for them to handle and the news they were receiving about Jesus was igniting hope that he could do for them what they could not do for themselves. If you’ve ever studied the 12 Suggested Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous you’ll note that the first 3 steps speak to this. Step one says: We admitted we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable. Step two continues: We came to believe that a power greater than our selves could restore us to sanity. And step three: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.[iii] How is it that you have come to be here in this chapel in the presence of both friends in strangers? Most likely, it because of your need; your need for community, your need for a word of good news, your need of nourishment. You’re hungry. It is no accident that the focal point of this space is a table. The Psalmist writes: The Lord is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works. Jesus recognizes your hunger, and he is inviting you to sit down to a feast.
Second, I think this story can help us recognize the hunger in those around us. It is interesting that in the other three gospel accounts Jesus is teaching the crowds and the disciples tell him that it’s getting late and that he should probably send them away so that they can buy something to eat for themselves. But Jesus gives a startling rebuke. He says, “You give them something to eat!” When they fail to understand Jesus takes the barley loaves and fishes and feeds the multitude. In William Barclay’s commentary on this passage he offers a possible explanation that the crowd that gathered around Jesus were most likely pilgrims on their way to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. Pilgrims would most likely not be without proper provisions for the journey. Yet in the moment no one was willing to share what they had in fear of not having enough sustenance for the remainder of the trip.[iv] When Jesus accepts the meager of rations of the little boy, it serves as an example that if we all share, even just a little, then everyone will be fed with some left over for the journey. In our own experience this could be buying a sandwich for one person, being an advocate for those who are in need as a volunteer, or perhaps with our vote at the ballot box, or even something as simple as offering an encouraging word to someone who is lost on the way. None of what we have is really ours, it is all a gift from the one who fashioned us from the clay and gave us breath. To horde our gifts for ourselves means that someone else may go without. There is enough for everyone to be fed, but we must share knowing that Jesus is God Emmanuel: God with us, and his provision for today will be enough.
In a moment we will all offer thanks for the gifts that God has bestowed on us and offer it to be blessed and distributed to all here present. We will all be satisfied and you can be assured there will be some left over for the journey. Amen.
[i] Barclay, WIlliam. The Gospel of John. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956. Print.
[ii] Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10-17
[iii] Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous. 4th ed. N.p.: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2009. How It Works. The Big Book Online. Alcoholics Anonymous. Web. 27 June 2015.
[iv] Barclay, WIlliam. The Gospel of John. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956. Print.
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