When they were satisfied, Jesus told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So, they gathered them up and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” (John 6:12-14)
We’re dealing with a very special story here today. The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle story recorded in all four gospels. Nobody leaves it out! In fact, Matthew and Mark tell the story twice – once as the feeding of the 5000 and once as the feeding of the 4000. Obviously, this is a central story in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Why? Why is the feeding of the multitude such an important thing? There are more dramatic miracle stories than this one – walking on water is pretty amazing! Raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead is no small feat. Healing a man blind from birth is also rather significant but the story is only found in one gospel. So why does this feeding story get top billing? I think John’s gospel spells it out best for us:
In John’s gospel Jesus is very deliberate in all his actions... he does nothing spur of the moment. He’s on a timetable... he has a goal ‒ he’s making people aware that he is the Son of God, the Christ, sent to save the world. (“God so loved the world that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”)
So, John’s gospel does not focus on Jesus as teacher or healer or even miracle-worker, but as the revelation of God. To see and know Jesus is to see and know God because Jesus comes from God. And isn’t that the greatest hunger of all humanity? Phillip says: “Show us the Father and we’ll be satisfied.” We all want that ‒ to see and experience God in our lives. And John offers it in his gospel ‒ the experience of God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see God at work in the things he says and the miracles he performs... only John doesn’t call them miracles... he calls them “signs” because they point to the identity of Jesus as the Son of God come to save us.
John records seven “signs” in his gospel – the first is turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, and the last is raising Lazarus from the dead near Jerusalem. In-between we have the sign (not miracle) of Jesus feeding the multitude with five loaves of bread and two fish.
The story begins with Jesus getting into a boat and crossing the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. A large crowd followed him there, however, because of his reputation for healing the sick. When Jesus saw the crowd coming he said to Phillip: “Where shall we buy bread to feed this crowd?” Phillip shrugged saying, “Six months wages wouldn’t buy enough bread to give everyone a mouthful!” Andrew said, “There’s a lad here with five barley loaves and a couple fish... but what is that among so many?” But that was enough hope for Jesus to act upon. He asked the disciples to have the people be seated, he took the loaves and fish, said a blessing over them, and then had the disciples distribute them. The people ate and were satisfied and there was more than enough for everyone... indeed they gathered up 12 baskets of leftovers! And people saw the sign and their eyes were opened and they said: “This is the One... this is the prophet who is to come into the world.”
Why is this story so important? It’s important because it’s more than a miracle story ‒ a miracle story has significance for 5000 people but as a sign it has significance for every man, woman and child on the face of the earth. It points to the profound truth that God is our provider... God gives us food and drink to sustain our bodies. And even when there doesn’t seem to be enough to go around, God is still our provider, who can turn scarcity into abundance!
I can’t think of a more liberating message for us to hear and to believe than this one. Because we live in a culture that promotes the fear of scarcity:
There isn’t enough for everyone.
There’s not enough to go around.
At this price, they won’t last long!
Get yours before they’re gone.
No rainchecks, when they’re gone, they’re gone!
We live in an age that perpetuates the fear of scarcity and what it does is make people reluctant to be generous. We hang on, horde, preserve, save for a rainy day... because there isn’t enough to go around! It’s a complaint often directed at those who have lived through the dirty thirties:
“She never throws anything out, you know, even saves twist ties! But what can you expect, she lived through the 30’s.” Truth is, of course, lots of people who lived through the 30’s are extremely generous and giving... and there are lots of people born since then who are so tight they squeak! It’s not the 30’s that make people that way, it’s your theology... it’s what you believe!
So, what is it you believe? Do you believe God is your provider... do you believe the words you recite when you say the 23rd psalm? “The Lord is my shepherd... I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters.” Or, do you believe what our culture is preaching ‒ that there isn’t enough to go around... supply can’t meet demand, you’d better grab what you can while the getting is good, or you’ll be sorry. What you believe determines your level of generosity to others, to your church, to God.
Now I know it’s the pragmatists will have the most trouble with this text, because their tendency is to consider only the bottom line. What’s the bottom line – how much money do we have in the bank? Somebody says: “We need a new organ for the Chapel” and the pragmatists say, “We don’t have the money – end of story.” But that’s not the way Jesus works. Jesus looks first at the need, not the bottom line. Jesus sees the need of the hungry multitude before him and asks how we are going to feed them. Phillip gives him the bottom line: “It would take a half a year’s salary to feed this crowd.” Jesus says, “What have we got to work with?” Andrew says, “Not much ‒ there’s a boy here willing to offer his lunch ‒ 5 loaves and 2 fish.” It isn’t much, but on the faith and generosity of that boy, Jesus works a miracle that fills the needs of many. That’s the way it works in God’s Kingdom – look at the need first, not the bottom line.
I sometimes hear people say things like: Pastor, when I win the lottery, I am going to write the church the biggest check to the church you’ve ever seen. I’ve already decided... when my winnings come in the church is going to be on the top of the list to benefit. And I just smile. Oh, people can be so generous with another people’s money! But God wants to know what you’re doing with the resources he gives you now! What are you willing to share for the sake of the Lord’s mission and ministry now? It might not be a million dollars... in fact, it might not seem like much at all – just a few loaves and fish – but will God take that gift in the faith with which it is offered and will multiply it to accomplish his purposes. Just show God a little faith – the size of a mustard seed and watch what God can do with that.
You know the small group that founded this church didn’t have a lot of money to get it started. They were all just starting out in life, mortgages, small families to feed and clothe, but they felt God calling them to found a new church here on the corner of Hiden and Madison. So, they got together in the Mahler’s living room for a meeting and decided to build. They needed a down payment to get started so some of them took out second mortgages on their homes and that is what they used to start Hidenwood back in 1954. And just look at what God has done to bless that commitment! Look at the long and vibrant ministry we’ve had with our preschool, consider the many the children and youth we have welcomed here for Sunday school and youth group, and vacation bible school, look at the ongoing success of our scouting programs, all the groups that call Hidenwood their home... consider all the people far and wide we’ve touched through the mission and ministry of this congregation! God took the offering of those few founding members and blessed it for his purposes and look at the legacy! Scarcity becomes abundance all because a small group of people listened to God’s call and gave what they could towards that goal.
About 18 months ago, Ellen DeGeneres featured a woman on her show who had stopped to help a homeless woman in Chicago one winter’s night. Kelly McGuire had gone to Chicago with her husband for a night of entertainment. Afterwards at a restaurant she took off some of her outer wear because she was hot and put it in a plastic bag. On the way back to the car, she passed by a homeless woman crouched on the ground trying to stay warm. Kelly crossed the street but could go no further. She was being drawn back to that homeless woman who looked about the same age as Kelly. So, she went back to talk to the lady and told her she wanted her to have her bag of clothes to help her stay warm. Then on an impulse she took off her winter boots and gave those to the lady, too. When she got up to leave the lady said, “You need something to wear on your own feet – here, take my boots!” So, she gave Kelly her own boots to wear home which providentially happened to be the same size as hers – size 8.5.
Somehow Ellen heard about this act of kindness and invited Kelly onto her show to share it. Ellen commended her for her generosity saying, “We need this sort of kindness in our country right now.” Ellen then gave Kelly a pair of boots and inside one of them was $10, 000. She was told to give $1000 to each of ten friends and have them show acts of kindness with it. She encouraged her viewers to do similar acts of kindness themselves.
But that’s not the end of it! In October of last year, Ellen sponsored a new program on the show called 1 Million Acts of Good. It encouraged people across America to engage in acts of goodness in their neighborhood and beyond and to share those acts with Ellen. For the past eight months Ellen has been highlighting many of these acts on her show as inspiration to others to do the same. So, what began as one person’s act of kindness has spread nationwide, and even though the program finished in May, the acts of goodness continue. You never know what can happen when you step out in faith
God calls us individually and collectively to be his church... to share the gospel in word and deed with others. People still hunger to know God today. It is still the principle hunger of humankind... so we need to proclaim God and show them God’s love. And whatever it is you do in the name of God, know that God will bless your gift and the loaves will be multiplied for God’s purposes. That’s just how God works. Scarcity becomes abundant.
To quote a verse of Fred Kahn’s hymn “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ” (which is far more than a communion hymn)
Jesus calls us in, sends us out
Bearing fruit in a world of doubt,
Gives us love to tell, bread to share:
God Immanuel ev'rywhere!
Jesus lives again,
Earth can breathe again,
Pass the word around: