There’s a story about a woman who went to a tea room and sat down at a table for two and ordered tea. She didn’t need to order anything else because she had a package of cookies in her purse. The tea shop was crowded that day. A man came in and finding no empty table he sat down opposite her and ordered tea. The woman didn’t think much about it and took out her paper to read. As she did so she reached for a cookie and began to eat. The man opposite her also took one. She sat for a moment, a bit shocked that this stranger would help himself to her cookies, and then she decided to take another. He took one also. She took a third. So did he. While she glared, he reached for the last cookie, smiled and offered her half. She tightened her lips in disgust and told him to eat it all himself. She finished her tea and went to the cash register still angry at the one who had helped himself to what was hers. When she opened her purse to pay her unopened packet of cookies fell onto the counter.
As human beings we can easily forget that all we have, and all that we are, belongs to God. In the church, as in the world, we sometimes forget to whom things belong. This isn’t our church but Christ’s church. And, as Christians we sometimes forget to whom we belong – we belong to Christ and we belong to each other in this church family and in the global family of God. Mother Teresa once said: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Belonging to each other means that we recognize that we are all part of the same family and that we are responsible for each other; we are our brother and sister’s keeper.
The story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, that we heard this morning from the Gospel of John, is a wonderful account of needs being met with generosity, thanksgiving, and openness to creativity and the movement of God’s spirit in gathered community. No one is too small or insignificant to play a part in God’s commonwealth. John tells us that a child, who had no social status in his society, gave what he had and in the abundance of God’s blessing there was more than enough for everyone.
This gospel story reminds us of the resourcefulness of a gathered community; of the mysterious and wondrous nature of God’s presence in all life; of the importance of pausing to give thanks to God; and of Christ’s mandate to share with one another the abundance of God’s love and blessing.
The story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is about more than just “food for the body”. The people who gathered to hear Jesus speak were also looking for “food for the soul”. Jesus’ reputation as a healer, teacher of wisdom, prophet, and holy man, was widespread and people were hungry for words of hope and liberation.
This is a story that was very important to 1st century (C.E.) Christian communities. In fact, it is the only miracle story to appear in all four Gospel accounts. The centrality of communion, in the worship life of the early Christian church, was based not only on Jesus’ last supper with his disciples but also on this extraordinary story of sacred communion in the midst of an ordinary place filled with ordinary people. It’s not surprising that common folk, which comprised the majority of members in the early Christian church, identified with this story of the sharing of life together in community. The usual food taken on a journey by poor folk, was barley loaves and dried fish. Biblical scholars have long known there were two types of communion in the 1st century (C.E.), one involving bread and wine, the other using bread and fish.
John has some common themes that are highlighted throughout his Gospel. One of these themes is that Jesus is the “bread of life”. John emphasizes that for the early Christian community, Jesus was the bread from heaven; the manna in the wilderness referred to in the book of Exodus. In dangerous and trying times for Christians in the 1st century (C.E.), Jesus was the sustenance that gave them strength to continue to live their faith in word and action.
It occurred to me this week, as I was thinking about the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, that the story reflects a theology of abundance. My understanding of a theology of abundance comes largely from the work of theologian, Walter Bruggemann. His theological perspective presupposes that God has provided enough resources for everyone if shared equitably. It is a worldview in which people recognize the abundant blessings of their lives and share with others in a spirit of gratitude and hopefulness, trusting in God’s presence and guidance to see them through the difficult experiences of life. It is what Moses and the Israelites learned in their wilderness wanderings. It is what thousands of Jesus’ followers learned from travelling in his company. It is what we learn every time we set aside our fears, trust in God and share our resources with others. It is a way of life that is based on faith and hope rather than fear and isolationism. It is grounded in love, relationship and faithful community.
We are called as Christians to actively participate in Christ’s ministry – to respond to the situations and challenges of our lives, and our world, with love and compassion, faith and hope. When we do that, when we are rooted and grounded in God’s love and grace, then we can act with love and compassion toward others. When we know, deep within our souls, that we are loved unconditionally we can also know that God’s love and grace extends to everyone whether, or not, we believe they are worthy. That’s what grace is all about: you can’t earn it, or deserve it, God offers it freely to everyone.
Church and society are inextricably linked. Our faith comes from God who is mysterious and transcendent but is at the same time imminent and present in the concerns and struggles of our daily lives. Theologian and author, Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way, “God tells us, ‘Not me but you; not my bread but yours; not sometime or somewhere else but right here and now…Stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one.’ ”
This week, as I’ve been reflecting on the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, I’ve been thinking about the small but important miracles that happen everyday in our lives as individuals and as a community of faith. Whenever we share a smile, a kind word, hospitality of any kind, transportation for someone without a vehicle, a simple meal or in countless other ways, we share in the miracle of God’s commonwealth. In this past year in ministry with you I have witnessed Christ’s presence among us when we break bread together in worship, in the senior’s friendship teas, the United 4 Kids programs, the pastoral care and hospitality offered for grieving families, in study groups, in the many ways we volunteer and support community initiatives such as the Food and Loan Cupboards. In these, and in many other ways we embody our faith-filled caring for the world God so loves. And, in all of this, our souls are fed and our world is enriched by the blessing of God’s abundant love.
With this in mind I’ll close with some words of wisdom from United
Church member and author, Donna Sinclair:
“I’ve sat in the same congregation for many years, and seen some miracles there. An angry, awkward child loved into gentleness by a patient community. A shy adult, who somehow finds the courage to step forward to say a prayer, or sing in the choir. …Over and over, I have seen hearts melted, eyes opened, voices discovered. Normally, serious grownups teach Sunday school and find the spirit of a child. In the fire of candlelight, the phrase of a song, cynical people rediscover mystery and are startled by their tears.
These miracles occur all over this country. They are why the church survives. Jesus is with us. He is talking politics, and breaking bread, and being held, fragile, in the minister’s arms to be baptized. Sometimes we recognize him – more often we don’t. But he is here, alive in those moments when we have courage and tenderness in the face of fear and loss. …
It just takes two or three called disciples, gathered together. And a
journey and a meal shared in hospitality. All the rest is miracle.”
(Emmaus Road, Wood Lake Books, 2003, p.173)
Thanks be to God!