You know, there are a lot of things to which I feel called on this earth.
I feel called to be a pastor, called to be your pastor, called to be a parent and a spouse, called to work for peace and justice. However, called to feed crowds of people is not one of them.
I so admire all those people who work with youth groups and plan meal after meal. Or those of you who cook for YAH and claim that you actually enjoy it. I mean, I can follow a recipe, but the shopping and the planning and timing of everything is stressful for me, which is why when I’m in the kitchen, I’m always about two seconds away from total disaster. If given the choice, I will almost always choose washing dishes over cooking.
That’s why this story of Jesus feeding the 5000 makes me really nervous. Five thousand hungry people!? I wouldn’t even know where–or how–to start. I’m with Philip: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” The task before them is utterly daunting, if not impossible. Um, is there no catering company for hire?
As it turns out, there is a catering company. It’s called J.C. Catering, or, Jesus Christ Catering, where Jesus feeds people. However, this is no ordinary catering company. This company can feed thousands with almost nothing. How does it work? Well, to answer that question, you’ll have to imagine yourself as part of that crowd on the seashore long ago.
You’re one of thousands who have come to see about this man you’ve heard of who performs miracle after miracle and heals the sick with a single touch. The crowd has gathered and is not showing any signs of dispersing. You’re determined to stay and to wait for this man Jesus to say something or to do something, but now it’s about suppertime and your stomach is starting to growl.
You hear some rumblings around you, people talking about how they’re getting kind of hungry. Then you see the man Jesus whisper to his friend. His friend looks across the crowd for a minute, as if he were looking for something in particular. Then his eyes land on a little boy next to you. You turn to look at this boy. He’s carrying a small basket with five loaves of bread and two fish, presumably because he’s just gone grocery shopping for his mother. The man starts walking toward the boy. “No way,” you think.
There is no way that man is going to take that food from that little boy so that they can eat.
You’re expecting the little boy to put up a fight to run with that food, but he hands it over. The man Jesus holds it up, says some kind of prayer and then does something surprising. He doesn’t eat it himself, but starts the pass the basket through the crowd. The first few people break off a little piece of bread and eat it. But when the food in the basket starts to dwindle, you notice that people start digging in their own bags and baskets and replacing the food in the basket with their own. Some people start passing their whole baskets. There’s a buzz in the crowd as people pass the baskets and eat, or eat and pass. Before you know it, you’ve both eaten your fill and shared your own basket. The little boy next to you has done the same. The baskets start making third and fourth rounds until everyone has eaten and there’s a lot left over.
There’s good reason to believe that the real miracle of the feeding of the 5000 is not that five loaves and two fish were able to feed a crowd that large, but that Jesus opened people’s hearts. But not only that–in order to open their hearts they had to trust him. In other gospels, Jesus talks about the importance of becoming like children. Children both trust and depend on their caregivers, which is why the little boy could give what he had. He knew Jesus would take care of him. When the crowd the faith of the little boy, they no longer felt the need to hold on so tightly to what they thought was “theirs.” Instead, they could follow the example of that little boy and trust that there would be enough.
It’s not just the task of feeding a large crowd of people that leads to the tight grip of scarcity. The feeling of inadequacy is all too familiar. We never have, or never are, “enough”–not financially, not in our careers, not in our families or other personal relationships. Or, in the church, we don’t have enough resources to combat racism as we’d like or to support Merry Oaks as we’d like. There are never enough volunteers to do all that we think is important. The demands placed upon us, both personally and congregationally, are simply too much.
But Jesus calls us to live this miracle again–to empty our pockets of what we do have in order to realize: we really do have enough, and if we combine our gifts and forces with one another, we’ll have some left over.
Four years ago the congregation I served over in Myers Park opened a soup kitchen. As I was doing some of the prep work for it, I realized I needed three things: hungry people, volunteers, including cooks (Remember? I don’t cook!), and, of course, food. I was told–correctly so–that you can run a soup kitchen with no budget, and since we had no budget, that’s what I was determined to do. The way you run a soup kitchen with no budget is by donations–and specifically donations from grocery stores. Lots of stores do this–they’ll allow organizations like soup kitchens and food pantries to pick up–for free–food that is expiring or that doesn’t quite look pretty enough to place on a shelf for sale.
The day before the soup kitchen opened, I was nervous. I went to a local grocery store and pulled around back to its loading dock. I packed my car full of day-old bread, sandwiches, pizzas, salad, produce, and milk among other things and lugged it all back to the church. Would it be enough?
On the opening day, twenty-six hungry people came to eat. We served a simple meal of salad, sandwiches, and chicken soup. It wasn’t fancy, by any means, but twenty-six people got to eat lunch that day who may not have otherwise been able to. And you know what? There were baskets of bread leftover.
Today, that soup kitchen feeds well over one hundred people every week and still with no budget. It happens because people’s hearts have been opened and because when Jesus caters a meal, there’s always enough.
The question Jesus asked Philip that day is the same question Jesus asks us: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus already knew what he was going to do when he asked Philip the question.
He was going to feed them. And Jesus is going to feed hungry people today. Can we open our hearts, entrusting our resources to him, confident that he will also feed us?