July 29th – 9th Sunday after Pentecost

During this year, ever since the first Sunday of Advent, we have been focusing on the Gospel of Mark, and we will be going back to it in September. But, for the next five weeks, we will be dealing with John’s Gospel, but only with chapter six – the one which deals with the Bread of Life. This is probably the only time that we will get to study one chapter in such detail, so be prepared for it. I may also deal with some of the other readings, but the focus for the next five weeks will be the Bread of Life – how important it is to us, and how we can best claim and use it.
We have heard many times that each of the Gospels has a particular audience and a particular message. Each one is set in its own literary world, each with its own assumptions, purposes, and strategies. The one we have been reading since November of last year – the Gospel of Mark – is the speedy one, the one in which Jesus seems to be rushing towards the Cross. It is as though Mark wants to share just enough to convince us that Jesus is the Son of God before getting right down to business – the business of love and redemption.
John’s Gospel is different from the others. It is not one of the synoptic Gospels, which means that it really doesn’t tell as much of a story as the others do. In the part we read today, there are two miracles. The walking on water miracle is referred to in three of the Gospels – Luke makes no mention of it. But the feeding of the multitude is found in all four, albeit in a slightly different format. But for today, we are concentrating on John’s version. Now, we could take a lot of time and talk about how this blessing and breaking of bread foreshadows Communion, which it no doubt does, but somehow, I don’t think that this is all that John meant us to do. If he had, I don’t think that he would have paired it with Jesus’ walking on water. You see, both of these stories emphasize the power of the Son of God, and that seems to me to be what John wants to share with us – his knowledge of the power of Jesus Christ.
I have heard people try to rationalize the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, using various explanations. Some people suggested that, when the boy offered his food, it inspired other people to offer theirs, so that there was more than enough to feed everyone. But, I think that, if this had happened, it would have been recorded somewhere, and it isn’t. As well, people who offer this as a rationalization of what happened miss the point that John is making about God at work in our midst, God’s amazing power to completely “transform human expectations”; instead, we modern, self-sufficient types think it’s up to us humans to handle things, to help ourselves. Some people suggested that there was already plenty of food to go around, that Jesus was expecting this. Expecting to need to feed 5000 people? I don’t think so! Even the kitchen in the Kirk Hall would be hard-pressed to do something like that!
One of the professors at McGill while I was there – Douglas John Hall – thinks we’re focusing on the wrong thing when we concentrate on explaining the miracles of multiplying loaves or walking on the sea, when the more remarkable miracle is the hope that Jesus inspired in the masses who followed him, by his undoubtedly compelling presence and his awesome deeds. Hall suggests that Jesus’ powerful presence and deep compassion for their suffering and need might explain the ability of “ordinary, insecure and timid persons…to walk where they feared to walk before.” Again this week, I was struck by the way that the readings lately seem to connect with the theme of this year’s General Assembly – On The Edge. With God’s help, we can venture beyond the edge; we can do great things. In his commentary on this text, Hall urges us to not to focus so much on these miraculous incidents that we miss “the wonder of divine grace that permeates the whole of life.” He laments the skepticism of our age that seeks to provide rational explanations for everything and loses “the capacity to wonder” at “the extraordinary within the ordinary” of our everyday lives.
We see some of this in what Andrew said: Here is a boy five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many? How often do we look at what we’ve got and see only “not enough” to be worthwhile? We, in our abundant society, live as though we have a culture of scarcity. I found a story which illustrates our attitude, even though it does not take place in any place familiar to us, and I would like to share it here. It reminds me of the story of the fisherman and his wife, but it seems to fit today’s readings even better. It is an old Japanese story – a fable actually – about Tasuku – a stonecutter.
Tasuku was a poor man who cut blocks of stone from the foot of a mountain. One day he saw a well-dressed prince parade by. Tasuku envied the prince and wished that he could have that kind of wealth. The Great Spirit heard Tasuku, and he was made a prince.
Tasuku was happy with his silk clothes and his powerful armies until he saw the sun wilt the flowers in his royal garden. He wished for such power as the sun had, and his wish was granted. He became the sun, with power to parch fields and humble people with thirst.
Tasuku was happy to be the sun until a cloud covered him and obscured his powerful heat. With that, he had another wish, and the Spirit complied. Thereafter Tasuku was a cloud with the power to ravage the land with floods and storms.
Tasuku was happy until he saw the mountain remain in spite of his storm. So Tasuku demanded to be the mountain. The Spirit obeyed.
Tasuku became the mountain and was more powerful than the prince, the sun, or the cloud. And he was happy until he felt a chisel chipping at his feet. It was a stonecutter working away – cutting blocks to sell to make his daily living.
Just think about this – even though Tasaku was given everything he wanted, none of it really made him happy for an extended period of time. Instead of recognizing that true happiness comes from accepting what we have, he kept hankering for more. Just like Andrew in the Gospel, he felt that what he had was too little. And now I ask you, how many of us are like this? How many of us are unable to find satisfaction for more than a few minutes at a time? And yet, it is there for us – within our grasp.
Let’s just look at how this started. Andrew brought a small boy to Jesus, and Jesus took it from there. He did something wonderful and unexpected. By the way, it is interesting to note that John didn’t use the word MIRACLE, rather, he called it a SIGN – a proof, if you will, of Jesus’ power. And he did it because of what the boy offered. What do you offer? Every week, we bring our offerings. Every week, people do things to help – whether it is reading Scripture, taking the children for Sunday School, preparing the coffee and juice for fellowship. To many, these seem like small things, but they aren’t. In Jesus’ hands, they are transformed into amazing things. Ask yourself what you can offer. Can you offer the ability to help a neighbour?
Visit a sick person? Listen to a problem? Bake a cake? Make an apology? Sing a song? Lead a youth group? Whatever you can offer can lead to wonderful things happening, with Christ’s transforming power at work. There are no limits to the possibilities and probabilities when God begins to work his purpose out through us.
This story, of the loaves and fishes, is a story of what can happen when we give what we have. It is a story of amazing multiplication, or exponential multiplication. More than that, it is a story of compassion. Jesus taught the crowd, yes, but it didn’t end there. He knew that they were tired and hungry, and he fed them. His heart went out to them, to the weary and hungry, and his heart goes out to us today. He is concerned with all of our lives, not just the spiritual aspect. Of course, he is with us on Sunday, when we worship together as a community of faith. He is here as we try to understand the word of God. But he is also with us on the other six days. He wants to be involved with our work and our play, with our family and our friends, with our joys and our sorrows, with our needs – for food, for exercise, for relaxation. He wants to be involved with the whole of our life. But he can’t do that unless we bring it to him. This is what Andrew did – he brought the little boy to Jesus, with his seemingly insignificant portions of bread and fish.
I mentioned earlier that the breaking of bread foreshadowed communion – the Lord’s Supper. At the Last Supper, we are told, Jesus took the bread, blessed it, and broke it, saying that it was his body, broken for us. It was broken to supply our needs, broken to bring us wholeness. The breaking of bread also foreshadows the road to Emmaus, the road on which the disciples did not recognize the risen Christ until after he broke bread with them. When we break bread with others, when we share with others, then the compassion of Christ is recognized in us.
On the surface, this story is the story of a kind of picnic – of a crowd being fed while they were listening to Jesus. But, as usual, it is so much more, as it shows us what we can do. We – like many other congregations – are concerned about money. We – like many other congregations – have been hit by what the pundits call a recession. But, unlike people of the world, we have God on our side. We want our church to survive so that it can minister to the suffering and speak a prophetic word in a world that has often wandered from compassion and justice to hoarding and aggressively defensive self-interest. It’s understandable that we worry about shrinking endowments and offerings in the face of rising costs. However, we need to focus not just on the “reasonable,” not just on “basic needs,” but on “multiplying resources,” so that we, too, might experience “a revelation of amazing grace” . There are those words again: grace, and amazing, both of which belong in a discussion of miracles and wonders. Have you ever witnessed such sharing, such wonders, such grace? Generosity itself is a miracle to me, and it expresses a power – God’s power – to completely transform lives. And I don’t mean the lives of those who receive as much as those who give.
You see, one of the ways God responds to our prayers is the way Jesus responded when he saw the crowds who had followed him. He said: Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat? Philip, of course, replied, as no doubt many of us would in the same circumstances: Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite. When we pray – as we do each week – for the needs of the world, God responds by first asking us: What do YOU have? If we think of the abundance many of us have, even in these economically challenging times, can we not trust in God’s generosity, in God’s abundance, to find ways to share with each other? It is time for us to trust in the power of God to multiply our resources, and to recognize that we have enough and more than enough.
Part of the miracle in the Gospel story is not only that Jesus fed the crowd, but that he gathered up the fragments for later use. Too many people turn away from the left-overs, deeming them only worthy for the garbage. But Jesus sees more there. Jesus pays attention to what has been put to one side, and that is what we are called to do. Jan Richardson wrote a poem, called Blessing The Fragments, which I would like you to listen to.
Cup your hands together, and you will see the shape this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel: it cannot help but hold itself open to welcome
what comes.
This blessing knows the secret of the fragments that find their way into its keeping,
the wholeness that may hide in what has been left behind,
the persistence of plenty where there seemed only lack.
Look into the hollows of your hands and ask what wants to be gathered there,
what abundance waits among the scraps that come to you, what feast
will offer itself from the fragments that remain.
In our reading, Jesus will not let go of what is broken and in pieces. Rather, he gathers them up, as a sign of the wholeness that only he can see, as a foretaste of the banquet yet to come. We, in the West, have a vested interest in perpetuating the myth that the limited resources of the world mean that many will starve. The story of Jesus feeding the crowd shows the myth to be a lie. By feeding a crowd with a little boy’s lunch, Jesus demonstrates for us how the simple act of sharing can tap in to the power of God. Ghandi put it best, I think, when he said: We have enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.
Our calling today is to open our hearts, open our doors, open our tables. Invite one and all to join the feast of God’s goodness. And when we are afraid that what we have is too little, we must remember the little boy and offer up what we have, trusting God’s abundance and blessing to make it enough. Thanks be to God.


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