|2 Kings 4:42-44|
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Proper 12, Year B
“I’m just not being fed.” That is the sentence that all priests dread hearing from their flock. I remember saying it myself once, as I left a parish in which I had not found my place as a lay person. Now that I look back on it, my life was probably so chaotic and unhappy at the time that I would have had trouble finding what I needed in any church. But back then, I blamed the parish, writing it off as a spiritual desert in which there was no proper food to be found--not for my soul, anyway.
I’m not surprised that the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 is the only one of Jesus’ miracles to find its way into all four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell some version of it. Being fed by God is one of our deepest universal human desires. To be fed is to be filled, to lose the sense of senselessness that plagues us, to be satisfied, to be loved, to be “enough.” We even hear echoes of God’s power to feed us in today’s Hebrew Scriptures, as God empowers Elisha to feed hundreds with a sack of grain, and the psalmist exults: “God, you open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.”
It’s not hard for us to see how the metaphor of food speaks to the spiritual hunger that gnaws at the heart of every human being. We miss out if we merely “ooh and ah” over the miraculous story of a few loaves of bread and a few fish satisfying a crowd of thousands. The Gospel writers want us to reflect, instead, on our deep and universal hunger for God and the ways in which Jesus gives us the spiritual food for which we long. In John’s account, for example, the emphasis on the crowds being seated on green grass (despite the lack of truly green grass on those brown hills of Palestine) is meant to draw us straight to the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures… He restores my soul.” Jesus is doing more than feeding the crowds in this story: He is restoring their souls. Furthermore, the explicit use of the liturgical actions found in our most ancient Eucharistic prayers (Jesus taking the loaves, giving thanks, and giving them to the disciples) is meant to refer us to the Eucharist, the meal at which Jesus still appears and feeds our souls today.
The interesting thing in John’s version of this feeding story is that he focuses on the reactions of the disciples, especially Philip and Andrew. John portrays Jesus as always in control of the situation, but poor Philip and Andrew are clearly unprepared and clueless. Jesus uses the mess in which they find themselves in order to teach them a vivid lesson about ministry. Perhaps it is also a lesson for us, in our quest to feed others and to be fed by God?
Jesus first asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” As one who usually sees the glass half-empty myself, I can smile knowingly at Philip’s cynical—yet probably quite realistic—answer to Jesus’ query. Even if they had the unimaginably huge sum of 6 months’ wages, mumbles Philip, it would still not be enough money to buy food to feed all of the hungry people. Like many of us in our ministries, Philip gives up quickly in a crisis. It is easy to shrug our shoulders helplessly before the immensity of the problems that engulf our communities.
Then Andrew speaks up, this time at least with an attempt at a solution. He has found a boy with some bread and two fish. He points the boy out to Jesus as a source of food … then, embarrassed at his own naivete, he quickly adds: “But what is this bit of food among so many people.” After all, who likes to look simple and impractical? How often have you fearfully offered a response during a brainstorming session, adding a quiet, “but this is probably a dumb idea …” in order to avoid potential criticism?
Jesus does not respond to either disciple’s discouragement, however. Note that he also doesn’t give them a pep talk or a sermon. He doesn’t use words at all. In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets before him, he responds with a sign. He shows them the power and presence of God—a presence that they have not been seeing or reckoning with. What’s surprising in Jesus’ sign is that it does not involve producing a sumptuous feast with a wave of his hand. If Jesus is God, why doesn’t he whip up the celestial banquet of fine wines and rich marrow that we read about at funerals from the book of Isaiah? Strangely, Jesus feeds his people with barley loaves and salted sardines.
John explicitly tells us that the five small loaves that the young boy carries are made of barley, the cheapest grain available at the time and the normal food of animals and poor folks. It is rough, dry bread—an ordinary meal at best. The two small salted fish might add some moisture and flavor to the bread but are barely sufficient for one boy’s daily meal. In feeding a crowd of 5000 with one boy’s dry barley bread and sardines, Jesus opens the disciples’ eyes—and ours—to God’s action and presence in the most unexpected of places. While the disciples are looking for Jesus to conjure piles of silver with which they could purchase a feast, God is waiting to fill them up with a peasant boy’s lunch.
There is an icon of the Virgin Mary called, “The Virgin of the Sign.” In this icon a small image of Jesus waits encircled within Mary’s body. It shows us that Jesus is often hidden, silently praying, within the Church, within us, and within the most unlikely places in our world. Rowan Williams points out that the Church doesn’t necessarily draw its strength from its leaders or their pious prayers but from the prayer and experience of those it least values in its public life. Moreover, he adds that it is perhaps those rejected and ignored parts of ourselves that are the places in which Christ can appear. We expect God to work in the parts of ourselves that are on the right track, the parts that are prepared, the parts that always have enough of whatever is needed for the tasks at hand. We fret when we can’t seem to access this perfection. But by God’s Grace, God has prepared nourishment and restoration for our souls deep within simple, common things—deep within our own imperfections, too.
The disciples had to learn to see God in coarse bread before they could either feed or be fed. As we look around the world, panicked and unprepared, can we too see the strange God hidden in the ordinary? Hidden in the people and places that we so easily overlook? Outside of our walls and beyond the boundaries of propriety? Part and parcel of our own most hated flaws? Within the heavy silences of what seems like unanswered prayer?
When I was a postulant for Holy Orders, always coming to my bishop with worries and obstacles, real or imagined, he would shake his head laughing and say, “Anne, you sure are a mess, but somehow God is working through you!” Isn’t that the same for all of us? Look at little St. Thomas this past week, a small group of volunteers feeding 14 energetic children from Zachary Taylor Elementary School with food for stomach, mind, and soul—and at the same time being fed by God with the blessings that spring from self-giving love. I remember when Carolyn Warnick and I sat in my office four years ago and thought about doing a summer “reading camp,” wondering how we would pull it off with a handful of retirees, no experience with this kind of thing, and no funding. Like Phillip and Andrew, we looked around at our surroundings and shook our heads with worry. But Carolyn and her team took the barley bread that they had and handed it to Jesus—and he blessed it, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it back—and it was enough.
Are you being fed in this parish? Are you being fed in your lives? Jesus doesn’t want any of us to go hungry. I pray that we will be able to see Jesus in the barley bread on our table, and that we may be brave enough to point out that bread to Jesus, and in his Name, to take it, to give thanks for it, and to do the unexpected with it—even to do that for which we are not, and will never be, prepared.