Loaves and Fishes

Mark 6:34-44
February 16, 2020   
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

It is late.  The disciples are tired. More than tired – they are bone weary from sitting on the hill listening to Jesus teach the same material they have heard 100 times.  Though the sun is sliding down the western sky, the heat remains stifling and they long for some quiet shade where they can fill their hungry stomachs, lay back, and think about nothing for a few hours.  The twelve have spent the last few days traveling from village to village trying to convey the gospel and bring comfort and anointing to the many sick.  It was an exhausting week; there were so many in need.  So many problems.  So many hands grasping at them for attention.  Seeing the disciples’ weariness, Jesus had brought them to this place to rest but the crowds followed and Jesus wouldn’t turn them away, saying to the disciples, “I’ll just have a few words with them; it won’t take long.” 

Peter squints at the setting sun.  That was five hours ago.  At first, Peter had listened as carefully as always, and an hour or two ago, he even had some interesting insight that he was going to share with Andrew when the crowd was gone but the crowd has lingered asking more and more questions of Jesus and Peter has long since forgotten what it was that struck him.  It is so rare that he feels understanding within his reach that he is frustrated that his momentary enlightenment is now gone but the heat and the crowd and his fatigue and his hunger have turned his brain to mush.  He glances around at the other eleven and sees the weariness in their eyes as well but Jesus seems determined to keep the crowd here until the stars blaze in the heavens.  Well, thinks Peter, someone must save Jesus from himself, or at least save us from collapse, so he creaks to his feet, stamps his legs awake, and limps over to Jesus. 

“May I speak to you for a moment?” Peter whispers.  The other disciples, anticipating Peter’s intentions, shuffle over to join him.

“It’s getting late,” Peter says.  “These people will need to leave now if they want to get home while it’s still light enough to make dinner.”  The other disciples nod encouragement.

Jesus shakes his head and Peter realizes that Jesus is not fully engaged in the conversation.  His mind is still on his teaching. 

“Why don’t you just give them something to eat?” Jesus says, then turns toward the crowd again as if the matter is settled.

“We don’t have the money to buy supper for 5000 people,” Peter protests, wondering if it would be impolite to remind Jesus that it was he who took Peter away from his fishing nets and a regular income.

“Well, what do you have?” Jesus persists. 

Peter wants to cry out, “Nothing! I have nothing, Jesus.  I have tracked around the country for days.  I have held sick children in my arms and tried to comfort wailing widows and tried to teach what I barely understand myself.  And today I have sat on this hard hill in the blistering sun all day grappling with your teaching until my brain and my body are numb.  There is just nothing left in me,” but instead he says, “Well, I think we have five loaves of bread and two fish, hardly enough for the thirteen of us, let alone this crowd.”

Jesus says, “It will do,” and leaves the disciples wondering how such a tiny amount will fill so many.

Some people spend a lot of energy trying to explain the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 saying things like, “Perhaps the five loaves were like Subway’s giant subs, or the two fish were 100 pound sea sturgeons” though imagining the disciples traipsing about Galilee with gigantic sea sturgeons slung over their backs is a bit ridiculous. (1)  These creative explanations, however, miss the point of the story.  The numbers that are reported here — the paltry number of fish and loaves, barely enough to feed thirteen hungry men, and the crowd of 5000, the size of the population of the entire city of Jerusalem when David was king —  are not just ‘small’ and ‘big.’  The amount of food available versus the size of the crowd is the difference between insignificant and overwhelming; between Lilliputian and gigantic; between microscopic and astronomic!  The numbers are so out of line with possibility that they are not meant to be explained but they are to be heard as a promise to empty people.  The gospel tells us that when we have only a little left to us – when we have less than a little —  when we are bone weary with trying, ground to the floor by life, when our knees are sagging and our hands are drooping, when our hearts are empty, our minds numb, and our spirits shriveled, God’s grace will be sufficient.  God’s grace will be more than sufficient; at the end of the day, there will be love left over. 

Often when we read this story of the feeding of the 5000, we imagine ourselves to be one of those people in the crowd that day, and this is often how preachers preach this passage as if the gospel is promising us that we who sit at the feet of Jesus will be filled by his Word.  That, of course, is not a bad message to take home but I think that the gospel of Mark intended us not to see ourselves as members of the crowd that day but to see ourselves in those exhausted grumpy disciples.  After all, for the crowd, there is nothing miraculous that’s happened: they spent the day listening to a lot of preaching followed by coffee hour.  For all they know, the disciples ran to the local market to pick up food while Jesus was talking.  It is only the disciples who were aware of the meager offering they began with; it is only the disciples who doubted and argued with Jesus that they had too little and the needs were too great; it is the disciples who wanted in their weariness to send the crowds away so that the twelve could rest.  When we read this story, we are to see ourselves in those exhausted men.  We are to think of the discouragement we feel when we wonder whether anything we say or anything we do can make a difference in the world.  We are to see ourselves as the ones holding such a small offering in our hands while looking at at the endless hunger before us.  We are the disciples, feeling like we have less than a little.  When we are bone weary with the effort and just want to shut our windows and doors and send the world away because what do we possibly have to give that can make any difference, into this despair and heavy weariness, the gospel says, “God promises that God’s grace is sufficient; God’s grace will be more than sufficient.  At the end of the day, there will even be love left over.”

This past September, on the anniversary of 9/11, theaters in the US showed a Canadian documentary called, “You Are Here – A Come From Away Story.”  The film told the story of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland and the miracle that happened there on September 11th, 2001.  If you remember, immediately after the terrorist attack, the United States closed its airspace and hundreds of flights destined for America were forced to land in Canada.  Because planes from Europe to America often fly over Newfoundland, 38 jets carrying 6,500 passengers were forced to land in the town of Gander.  The population of Gander is only 9,000, which means that within less than a day, the town’s population almost doubled.  The people of Gander had to scramble to find housing and food for these sudden guests, many of whom were Americans devastated by news of the attacks and frightened for families at home.  The emotional and physical needs of the airline passengers could have overwhelmed the town but instead, the town went to work.  

“People pulled blankets from their own beds to bring down to the shelter they had set up,” one person remembered.  They set up phone banks for the stranded passengers; they brought in newspapers so they could read of what was happening in their homes so far away; they opened the school’s computer lab and helped people get online to contact relatives; they fed them, housed them, clothed them, entertained them, and cared for them for four days.  And during those four days, that small town served their stranded guests 386,000 meals.  Talk about loaves and fishes.

If on September 10th, 2001 someone had told the people of Gander, Newfoundland, “You will need to feed 6500 extra people tomorrow,” they would have been as full of doubt as the disciples had been facing the crowds before Jesus, but on September 11th, as plane after plane landed in their small town carrying heartbroken, frightened, homesick passengers, the people found that there was grace sufficient for the task.  As one resident said:  “They needed food, they needed clothing, they needed shelter, but most of all, they needed love…..We showed them that human kindness will outdo hatred any day.”

It is easy to get discouraged with the state of the world, especially when the news has become a constant flow of division and ugliness.  It is easy to look at the small offering in our hands and wonder how we could possibly feed the crowds of hungry people before our eyes, but the gospel tells us to trust that God’s grace will be sufficient; that when we place our small efforts of love into God’s hands, it will not only be enough but that there will be love left over.  I am reminded of the truth of that promise every week in this church.  Maybe we aren’t feeding 5000 people on one day; but if we totaled up the number of people who have been served at the community kitchen by volunteers from this church over the years, and who have received Christmas boxes from our congregation, and who had their weekly food needs met at the food pantry, I’m sure the numbers would be gi-normous!  Over the years, members of this congregation have helped Habitat for Humanity build houses for the working poor; we have cared for the sick and dying at Hart House, we have supported financial grants to poor women trying to better their lives, we have helped build wells in Haiti, on Navaho lands, and now in Puerto Rico.  Last week, the Elders began work on organizing what we hope will be a nationwide letter writing campaign to free Sophie’s husband who is a political prisoner in China, and before the Elders adjourned, we voted to provide financial support to an LGBTQ+ group of students to show them they are not alone.  And when I stand up here during prayer concerns and ask for help meeting the pastoral needs of a member of this congregation, I know I can count on an immediate response.  The generosity of this congregation’s time and resources is unflagging.  

The Union University Church is a small church.  In fact, if you compare us to those churches you see in the news with the stadium seating and parking lots the size of football fields, we are miniscule.  I mean, we are soooooo tiny, what business do we have thinking that we can do anything of consequence?  And yet, week after week, you people never act as if we are a small church.  You act as if you believe that we can change the world; as if you believe that the small efforts of our hands can make an enormous difference in the world; as if you believe that God’s grace is sufficient, and that there will even be love left over at the end of the day. I don’t need to preach to you the story of the feeding of the 5000 because this church preaches it week after week, year after year, in the love that you insist on sharing with one another and with the world.  

And so this is the sermon that I have to give you today:  when the news feels overwhelming, and you begin to doubt whether anything you do can make a difference, remember that you are a member of a congregation that acts bigger than its britches.  You are a member of a congregation that refuses to think of ourselves as small and inconsequential.  You are the member of a church that holds on to the audacious promise of the gospel that together — together as the body of Christ — we can show a suffering world that human kindness will outdo hatred any day, and that God’s grace will be sufficient; more than sufficient.  There will love left over for all of us.

We have believed in it and we will continue to believe in it.  We will continue to insist that these small loaves and fishes can feed a hungry world.

1. It’s also quite unlikely that the disciples would have had sea sturgeon since they are are not freshwater.  The most common fish found in the Sea of Galilee at that time would have been tilapia, carp, and sardines, none of which exceed more than 5-6 lbs.