Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Surprise! -- a sermon on the loaves and fishes

Rev. Teri Peterson
John 6.1-15
19 July 2015, Pentecost 2-1 (We Follow By Grace)

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.  A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

There are a lot of stories—novels, tv shows, movies, even commercials—that include a scene where someone brings home unexpected guests. Usually there’s a wife or mother who then needs to whip up something to feed all these extra people, with no notice, and without looking flustered. Surprise! You’re hosting a dinner party for 5,000 people, in just a few minutes!

I can imagine Philip’s face when Jesus springs this on him. Or rather, I don’t have to imagine, because I’ve seen it. I’m pretty sure I’ve made the face too. You know the one: the one where you don’t have what you need to pull this off, and the gap between what you have and what you need is so large as to be paralyzing.

It only takes a glance at the news to have this feeling. We live in a world where people are being killed for the color of their skin or the religion they practice or the uniform they wear. We live in a world where 25,000 children die every day from hunger-related causes. We live in a world where violence is seen as the solution rather than the problem. We live in a world where the CEO of a major company can say on camera that water is not a human right. It’s a world of fear, darkness, and scarcity, and somehow we have set up a game that only a few people can win while most lose. And any change in who is winning must be resisted, because there are only so many winning spots to go around.

No wonder the gospel sounds ridiculous. How can it possibly be true that God is love? How can it be that God’s love is for everyone? How can we follow Jesus’ command to love our enemies when we are busy hating our neighbors? What does it even mean to walk in the footsteps of a crucified Lord in a world that only values airbrushed beauty and big bank accounts? How on earth are we supposed to be makers of peace when violence stalks our schools, our churches, our neighborhoods? We have that face Philip is making when Jesus asks him where to get lunch for 5000 people. How can we possibly do anything about any of this?

While we and Philip look at each other with panic-filled eyes, Andrew passes a note from the back of the class. There’s a kid here who remembered his lunch! One child, with one little lunchbox, against the 25,000 children who die every day of hunger. One child, in the midst of 5,000 people. One child who opens his lunchbox and says “hey! I have a sandwich! Anyone want some?”

And one adult who takes him seriously and brings him to Jesus.

That’s two more surprises, bringing us to three so far, in just a couple of sentences. As if a child who remembered their lunch wasn’t shocking enough, he’s also willing to share it! And then there’s the really big surprise: the adults take the child seriously.

Often we seat kids at the children’s table, or sequester them in a back room. While we don’t usually say anymore that they should be seen and not heard, our actions may suggest it’s what we really prefer. We say it’s good for them, despite the evidence dating back to biblical times that intergenerational community is best for everyone, kids included. The truth is it’s convenient for us as adults. If we segregate by age, then we don’t have to take them seriously until they’re old enough to matter.

But when is that, exactly? At what point do we begin to trust people younger than ourselves? What developmental stage does someone have to reach before we believe they have something important to say? How old does someone have to be before they can have a seat at the table and be a real participant?

Andrew may have been just a teenager himself. Perhaps that’s why he could see the child who raised his hand and offered up the seeds of a miracle. If we were looking at a crowd of 5,000, would we have seen the one child? Would we have listened to him while we were in the midst of our panicked debate about what to do about this crisis?

Andrew brings the child to Jesus, and Jesus gives thanks for what he has offered, and it becomes an abundance so great that it probably took the disciples hours to box up the leftovers.

I’ve often wondered what it is that would make this child volunteer his lunch. I know a lot of people really like fish tacos, after all, so I’m surprised every time I read about this boy giving up his. But there’s something that spurs him to share, to be generous in ways that don’t occur to the vast majority of people there.

I’m sure at least some of the reason is that kids actually do take to heart the lessons we teach them in kindergarten: to take turns and share their toys, their snacks, their stories. And they do—much better than those of us who seem to believe we have grown out of that lesson.

But that can’t be all. I mean, there were 5000 people there. Why would this child summon up the bravery to march right up to Jesus and offer to share his lunch, in front of all those people?

The only thing I can think is that he’s seen Jesus before.

Maybe he saw Jesus heal someone in his family. Maybe he was even healed himself.

Maybe he heard Jesus teach somewhere else and he, unlike most adults, believed what Jesus said, and put it into action.

Maybe he heard his parents talking about Jesus when they thought he wasn’t listening.

Whatever it was, the boy must have heard or seen or experienced something—something that made him want to make an offering. In response to what God had done, this child brought what he had and gave it over to be used for the good of the whole community. He didn’t look at his lunch and decide how much he could spare. He didn’t look at the crowd and decide who deserved it. He looked at God’s grace, and gave what he thought that was worth.

This is speculation, of course. But it wouldn’t be the only time such a thing had happened. Jesus encountered many people who, in response to what God had done for them, wanted to give something representing their gratitude. He even said at one point that the person who has been forgiven is also generous—for when they experience love, they want to give; while the person who has been forgiven little only loves a little.

So maybe this young boy had already been fed by Jesus some other time—either with stories, or by healing, or at another one of the many dinner parties that seemed to happen around Jesus. And because he’d been fed, he wanted to feed others.

The prophet Isaiah wrote that “a little child shall lead them”—and we usually apply that to the baby Jesus at Christmas time. But it applies here too. While Philip is busy looking at all the reasons the problem can’t be solved, a kid is offering his gratitude and an adult both sees and hears him. And so the crowd is fed and the surprised disciples are packing up the boxes of leftovers. And a little child shall lead them.

What would happen if, instead of looking at all the need, we started by looking at what God has done? If we first considered how we have been fed, would we see the abundance that allows us to feed others? If we begin by looking at how we have been blessed, we might just find that we too are able to put into practice those kingdom kindergarten lessons.

May it be so. Amen.

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