Feeding of the Five Thousand-John 6:1-21
When Lewis and Clark travelled across the continental United States from 1804-1806 they were the first people of European descent to see much of the country. At one point on their journey they were lost for 11 days without food in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho. It was only mid-September 1805 but the mountains were already covered in snow and they lost their way. After 11 days they finally stumbled out of the mountains half-dead. They were taken in by a village of Nez Perce who welcomed them and fed them as much food as they could eat. The problem was that the men hadn’t eaten in so long that their bodies reacted strongly when they feasted and they got incredibly sick. They all recovered eventually but going from extreme lack to an overabundance of food was quite a shock to their bodies.
The Gospel lesson we just read is the famous miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. And this miracle is also an experience of extreme lack becoming overabundance. The feeding of the 5,000 is actually the only miracle that appears in all four Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (besides the resurrection of Jesus, of course). In John’s telling of the story there’s a young boy who offers Jesus five loaves of barley bread and two fish. Barley was the bread of the poor, so it’s clear this boy was poor himself and yet shared his meal with Jesus and the disciples. And it is in his willingness to share out of his scarce resources that Jesus then increases his gift exponentially and feeds 5,000 people with 12 baskets full of bread left over!
We can learn a lot from this boy and Jesus’ response to him. We may not live a life of scarcity like they did, but we still have the same human urge to hang on to our resources and hesitancy to give away what we perceive as ours. Even if we have a full kitchen and a healthy bank account, there’s still that nagging sense of fear that keeps us from giving away freely. And sometimes the more we have, the harder it is to give away. This human tendency to hold onto our resources comes from a very real psychological need to make sure we and our loved ones are taken care of. It’s not evil in itself, but when left unchecked, this instinct gives rise to all kinds of greed, gluttony, and selfishness. Such sin, which resides in all of us, finds its extreme when we live in a world where billionaires have enough money to fly into outer space, but our society doesn’t have the courage or decency to combine our resources to end world hunger.
We may not get physically sick from our man-made overabundance like Lewis and Clark and their crew did when they ate their fill in the Nez Perce village. But not sharing our overabundance does make us spiritually sick.
We see this in our culture of overabundance. In the reality that, not just 5,000 people, but millions of people, don’t have enough to eat. If the global community made sharing food and resources with our fellow human beings our highest priority, we would not only end world hunger but everyone could live in relative comfort too. However, as the Food Aid Foundation states, “In a world where we produce enough food to feed everyone, 821 million people—one in nine—still go to bed on an empty stomach each night.” The UN stated it would take $30 billion per year to end world hunger. And it is estimated this would become permanent and no longer need funding after 10-15 years. Some estimates suggest that if every person in all first world countries donated just $33 per year we would meet this goal. Others point out that $30 billion is only a fraction, about 3 or 4%, of what the United States spends on military defense each year.
So what does it say that we spend so much on war and defense, but are hesitant to put our resources toward ending hunger and poverty? It seems to reflect on a large scale what each of individually must confront on a small, personal scale. It demonstrates our sinful human nature on the societal level.
Part of the spiritual journey which Jesus calls us to is to grow beyond this instinct to protect our resources; and instead to cultivate generosity in our daily lives. Like the boy in this story, Jesus invites us to offer our gifts to his ministry. One way to cultivate compassion and generosity is to monitor your own mind and recognize the fear and anxiety we have around giving away too much and not having enough left for ourselves. A practice of humble introspection can go long way in the road to becoming more Christ-like in our giving freely to those in need. We can make it a spiritual practice to trust God to direct our giving, to prayerfully ask the Spirit to guide our commitments, and to challenge us to grow beyond our comfort zone.
What is it that Jesus may be asking you to share so that he can multiply it for the sake of others? Might it be food, money, clothing, time, energy? It’s something to think about. I’ve seen this congregation does have a gift for generosity. Since I’ve started my ministry here I’ve witnessed you all generously respond to the “Close the Gap” campaign and then to the mortgage capital campaign. You kept giving faithfully during the pandemic. And every year we give away thousands from the Endowment to charitable causes. It’s evident that the Spirit is at work in your generosity.
We know what God can do when we give away our five loaves of barley. God multiplies it and God provides. It may not always be as dramatic as Jesus’ miracle of feeding of the 5,000. But we know that God promises to provide our daily bread and to make Thy kingdom come—to make this world a place where all are fed, where no one goes hungry, and where all people have community, quality of life, and wholeness. God is creating new hearts in us, transforming anxiety and selfishness into generosity and compassion, and calling us to be a part of the kingdom, the change God is initiating in the world. Scripture tells us that in Christ God has reconciled the world to Himself and is making all things new. And we get to be participants in this ministry of reconciliation, we are the Body of Christ and we get to be God’s hands and feet in the world.
And so we do the inner work to cultivate compassionate and generous hearts. And we do the outer work to feed the hungry, serve the poor, and change the lives of our neighbors in need. Sometimes we are called to personal introspection or greater financial commitment. Other times we may be called to organize and advocate for those who are starving and challenge world governments to ensure that all are fed. The Christian life is about both the inner spiritual journey and the outer journey of justice and service. And with Jesus’ life and ministry as our model and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we feed the hungry, transform hearts, and change the world. May God inspire us and make it so. Amen.