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By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
Every time I hear the story of the feeding of the five thousand, I am reminded of reading of a man packing a shipment of food for the poor people of Appalachia. He was separating beans from powdered milk, and canned vegetables from canned meats. Reaching into a box filled with various cans, he pulled out a little brown paper sack. Apparently one of the pupils had brought something different from the items on the suggested list. Out of the paper bag fell a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, and a cookie. Crayoned in large letters was a little girl’s name, ‘Christy — Room 104.’ She had given up her lunch for some hungry person.” (1)
Christy sounds like a neat little girl (she has a wonderful name – same as my wife). I suspect that young lad who offered the five loaves and two fish was a pretty neat youngster too… willing to give up his meal as he did.
There is much to talk about in this text – the story is the only miracle to be recorded in all four gospels, so the writers must have thought it tremendously important. We could discuss miracles in general. We could talk about why such crowds would want to traipse around the countryside after Jesus. We could talk about Jesus’ compassion – willing to give up his much-needed quiet time after the murder of his cousin John. We could talk about our role in God’s work – Jesus gave the food to the disciples who then distributed it to the crowd (“Go, thou, and do likewise.”) Or we could simply focus on the generosity and unselfishness of that one little boy of whom we read in St. John’s account (6:1-13). There are any number of sermons here. What I would rather focus on this morning is the menu, and precisely how little there was. Five loaves and two fish. Not enough. (2) Not for hungry people.
Listen again to the disciples: “Lord, it is late; send the crowds away to get some supper.”
Jesus says, “Naw, they can stay; YOU feed them.”
“What? Lord, we have nothing here but five loaves and two fish. And that is not enough for anything!”
Lord, we have nothing here but five loaves and two fish. Lord, we have nothing here but five loaves and two fish. That is the response of the ages when people feel overwhelmed by the world around them.
It is the response of the parent worried about her child. The child has so many peers who exert so much pressure and is with those peers at school and at play far more than he is with the parent. So many influences so many temptations to face… Parents hungry for answers ask “What are we to do? “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
It is the response of the small business owner in the face of a changing economy. How can he compete with the big chain store that has just opened, one that advertises “Twenty thousand items under one roof?” He is hungry for answers about how he can keep the little family-owned store open? After all, he doesn’t have 20,000 ANYTHING; he has “nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
It is the response of the employee whose boss who makes life miserable and never has a good word for anyone. In fact, there are things going on around the office that just ought not to be. “Business ethics” has become an oxymoron. Should you blow the whistle? Feel free…if you do not want the job anymore. Does the word “downsize” strike a familiar note? What then? Good jobs are scarce out there – the bills keep coming in and the kids still have college to be paid for. A worker hungry for the chance to do the right thing says, “Nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
It is the response of the spouse who is desperately trying to make a go of a troubled marriage, and who grows weary of being the only partner working at the relationship. No, it is not as bad as Prince Charles and Lady Di. He is still around…some. But not enough. And when he IS there, his mind is somewhere else. Hungry for a rekindling of the passion, she is left with saying sadly, “There is nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
It is the response of the youngster who finds life on campus so demanding that he or she no longer knows how to cope. I was intrigued by a letter to Ann Landers from an adolescent in response to one sent by someone who lived through the Depression and had described how hard it was to be a teenager in the 1930’s. (3) The message was that kids today have an easy time of it compared to teens in his day. Listen to the young respondent:
“Let me ask your generation a few questions: Are your parents divorced? Almost every one of my friends comes from a broken home.
Were you thinking about suicide when you were 12?
Did you have an ulcer when you were 16?
Did your best friend lose her virginity to a guy she went out with twice?
You may have had to worry about VD, but did you have to worry about AIDS?
Did your classmates carry guns and knives?
How many kids in your class came to school regularly drunk, stoned, or high on drugs?
Did any of your friends have their brains fried from using PCP?
What percentage of your graduating class also graduated from a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center?
Did you school have armed security guards in the halls?
Did you ever live in a neighborhood where the sound of gunfire at night was “normal”?
You talk a lot about being dirt poor and having no money. Since when does money mean happiness? The kids at school who have the expensive cars and designer clothes are the most miserable.
When I am your age, I won’t do much looking back, I’ll just thank God that I survived.
Hmm. What is a youngster to do these days? “Lord, we have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” Perhaps not even that. Our diet might be the one the Psalmist complained of: “my tears have been my food day and night” (Ps. 42:3). It might be the response any of us offer when life seems overwhelming and we just KNOW our resources are not enough to deal with it. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” What are we to do?
Certainly that was the response of the disciples when five thousand men (plus women and children) followed Jesus into the wilderness. “Five thousand-plus.” They had come to listen to Christ’s words, to feel his healing touch, to be near something…someone…special. And now the story says the hour had grown late, it was time for supper, and they were hungry. There was no way to buy food for so large a crowd. It would have taken two hundred denarii to have done so. That was the equivalent of six month’s pay or eight month’s pay (depending upon which commentator you believe) – at any rate, it was a bundle and surely more cash than the disciples ever had on them at one time. Anyway, the Food Lions and the Winn-Judeas were closed, and there were no McDonald’s or Hardee’s in Bethsaida. So Jesus said to the Twelve: “You give them something to eat.”
Hmm. Jesus always seems to be asking more of us than we have to give – as spouses and parents and students and workers and on and on. He calls us to love, even when loving is difficult; to forgive, even when we have been wronged; to stand fast and firm on our principles, even when it means standing alone. And those things are not easy to do. After all, we are not Jesus, our powers are not unlimited, as his were. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
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Fortunately for the Twelve, and for us, the story does not end with Jesus asking the seemingly impossible of the disciples, then wandering off into the desert leaving them stranded. “You give them something to eat,” he said. And the disciples answered, “How? ” We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ Then Jesus said softly: Bring them here to me.’ …He looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. All ate and were filled.” And there were twelve baskets of food left over.”
There is the good news for you moms and dads who find yourselves wondering, “Do I have what it takes to handle these kids today, not to be a GOOD parent, but just one that is adequate?” The answer is no, we do not have what it takes. At best, in the face of overwhelming odds, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” But we have a friend who whispers “Bring them to me.” “Bring them to me – your skills and weaknesses as parents, your strengths and fears, your children and their futures. Bring them to me, and I will make you adequate for the task at hand.”
That is the good news for spouses in troubled marriages faced with tough decisions, and for students who always feel as though they are swimming up stream, and for people of conscience who feel called to take a risky stance on some issue. What is one person, anyway? When accompanied by Jesus, one person can be a majority. Christ says to all: “Bring them to me” – your hopes, your dreams, your convictions. “Bring them to me” – your burdens, your challenges, your responsibilities. For he who took a paltry lunch bag from a little boy and fed the multitude near Bethsaida can do it again, even with the meager resources in OUR lunch bags. When life gets the best of us, perhaps it is often because we focus too much on how little we can do and too little on how much Christ can do.
As you know, Spring has arrived. We cannot tell it by the temperature yet, but the calendar insists. And I am grateful…I think. Yesterday, as I was out and about on regular errands, I saw a most disquieting sight – people mowing lawns. Normally, that would not bother me, but it does right now because my own lawn needs attention.
I do not mind that, but before any attention can be given, I am going to have to do something about our lawnmower. It is dead. My sweet wife, being the committed Christian that she is, believes in resurrection, and she knows that this lawnmower will indeed live again, IF (and this is a big IF) I will lay hands on it and heal it…fix it. This is in spite of the fact that almost eighteen years of living under the same roof with me has taught her incontrovertibly that I am the world’s LEAST handy man.
But she has faith. You see, last year, when the lawnmower decided to get finicky, in a fit of foolish macho prowess, I actually took screwdriver and wrench in hand, took the reemaframer from the hoogiebob, cleaned wheezledoober and everything around it, and actually got it going. I could not tell you exactly what I did if you threatened me. But she is convinced that I can do it again. Faith.
Meanwhile, I am convinced that, after spending several hours trying to get it going, getting incredibly frustrated at my lack of success, hearing words rattle around in my head that are inappropriate for a man of the cloth, I will finally come to her and say through clenched teeth, “Let’s get someone to do this who knows what to do!”
The truth is there is an uncomfortable LOT I cannot do. I cannot repair the lawnmowers that my wife wants fixed. I cannot heal the broken hearts who come to me when life has suddenly come crashing down. I cannot open closed minds or change unfair systems or right the wrongs or love the unlovely all by myself, either. Can you? Instead, my response is often the same as the disciples: “What am I supposed to do, Lord? I have nothing here but five loaves and two fish!”
Hear the Psalmist sing once again:
“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God” (42:5-6a).
What I have, what the Psalmist had, and what you have, what anyone hungry for help has, is the invitation to call on someone who knows what to do. When life seems too big and I feel too small, someone is close who can do what I cannot – someone who can right the wrongs and heal the hurts and love the unlovely and scale the mountains, someone who can take my paltry little handful of loaves and fish and turn them into a feast. However little I may possess in terms of talent or resources, Jesus whispers: “Bring them to me,” and with him, my little becomes a lot.
1. Leslie B. Flynn, Worship (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983) quoted in Bible Illustrator for Windows, (Hiawatha, Iowa: Parsons Technology, 1994)
2. The idea for this sermon and some of the included material comes from Michael Brown, “Dealing with Feelings of Inadequacy,” PEBS, Summer–1993 (pp. 12, 17)
3. Quoted in Bible Illustrator for Windows
Copyright 1996, David E. Leininger. Used by permission.