(2 Kings 4:42-44, Psalm 145:10-18, Ephesians 3:14-21)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/-FKTxxghrrQ)
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10Jesus 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. 11Then 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. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When 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.”
15When 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. 16When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
In his book entitled, For Youth Talks, Wayne Rice tells a story about a little boy who lived far out in the country in the late 1800s. He had reached the age of twelve and had never in all his life seen a circus. You can imagine his excitement when one day a poster went up at school announcing that on the next Saturday a traveling circus was coming to a nearby town. He ran home with the glad news and the question, “Daddy, can I go?” Although the family was poor, the father sensed how important this was to the lad. “If you do your Saturday chores ahead of time,” he said, “I’ll see to it that you have the money to go.”‘ Come Saturday morning, the chores were done and the little boy stood by the breakfast table, dressed in his Sunday best. His father reached down into the pocket of his overalls and pulled out a dollar bill–the most money the little boy had owned at one time in all his life. The father cautioned him to be careful and then sent him on his way to town.
The boy was so excited that his feet hardly seemed to touch the ground all the way to town. As he neared the outskirts of the town, he noticed people lining the streets. He worked his way through the crowd until he could see what was happening. Lo and behold, it was the approaching spectacle of a circus parade! The parade was the grandest thing this lad had ever seen. Caged animals snarled as they passed, bands beat their rhythms and sounded shining horns, midgets performed acrobatics while flags and ribbons swirled overhead. Finally, after everything had passed where he was standing, the traditional circus clown, with floppy shoes, baggy pants, and a brightly painted face, brought up the rear. As the clown passed by, the little boy reached into his pocket and took out that precious dollar bill. Handing the money to the clown, the boy turned around and went home. What had happened? The boy thought he had seen the circus when he had only seen the parade!
That boy is like the crowd that gathered on the mountainside by the Sea of Galilee to witness one of Jesus’ most amazing miracles. It was such an amazing miracle that all four gospel writers included it in their narratives…the only miracle deemed worthy by all four writers to retell. And while there are a number of key differences between the four retellings, the miracle of feeding so many people with so little food stayed the same. Jesus not only fed the multitude but there plenty of food leftover! We’ll return to the leftover food of the miracle but let’s first dwell on the similarity between the poor boy who thought he’d seen the circus and the crowd who thought they’d only seen the greatest of all miracles.
Like the overeager yet unknowing boy, the crowd gathered to see something they’d never seen before. We heard John explain that the crowd of people were following Jesus “because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” By “signs,” John is referring to how Jesus had healed many sick people. They weren’t just sick people seeking out relatively common cures. No, they were people sick with incurable diseases that no doctor could cure. Jesus was healing sicknesses that doctors couldn’t heal! It is no wonder that Jesus’ reputation enticed so many people to seek him out! Jesus was the equivalence of a one-man circus! “Come one, come all, to see the greatest show on earth!” They weren’t coming because they were hungry. They weren’t even coming because they were sick. No, they were coming to see something they’d never seen. And Jesus didn’t fail to impress. Jesus took the little food he had on hand and managed to feed a great number of people with it.
Whenever this miracle gets taught in confirmation class, I ask the students how they think Jesus was able to feed 5000 people with only five loaves and two fish and invariably there are some pretty fantastic ideas. Some students actually believe that they were magical loaves and fish! They had the ability to self-reproduce in the same way that starfish and iguana are able to rebuild lost arms and tails. A person simply pulled off a piece of bread or fish and it grew back within seconds! Yes, that would be truly magic! But then I give an alternate explanation to the students, one that is supported by many commentators throughout the last couple thousand years. Like a magician giving away the secrets of magic, I explain that the miracle relied on the people’s generosity. The people saw the absurdity of Jesus or his disciples passing out the loaves and fish and out of the generosity of their hearts felt inclined to not only take a little but also to give a little. The people supposedly threw their own food into the basket as it passed. The original loaves and fishes compelled people to give until all had received. The minds of the confirmation kids are blown…”Ah-ha!” But then I ask them if knowing the secret makes it any less of a miracle. Is it not a miracle that so many people would be so generous to meet each other’s needs? Isn’t generosity the true miracle in John’s story?!
Well, that explanation provides satisfaction for many confirmation students. But does the story only serve to describe how Jesus manages to tap into our generosity? Is the parading circus all there is to see? We heard in our 1st reading that Jesus wasn’t the first person to use this illustration. A man also came to the prophet Elisha with a little food and was told to feed a large group of people with it. Like Philip and Jesus, the man questions the practicality of Elisha’s request. “How can I set this before a hundred people?” asks the man. Elisha answers by echoing God’s statement, “They shall eat and have some left.” Sure enough, the people ate and there was food left over just like in Jesus’ miracles. Two similar miracles, hundreds of years apart. Again, are they simply illustrating man’s generosity, our generosity? Did David sing out praises of himself and his own generosity? Of course not! As we heard in our psalm, David sang out, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.” No, David sings songs of praise for God’s generosity! Both Elisha’s and Jesus’ miracles channeled God’s generosity! Even if we attribute the miracles to the generosity of the people, it is still God who placed the generosity in them. It is still God who provides the initial food. We have nothing without the generosity of God. Everything we have has been given to us by a generous and merciful God. God graciously gives and we humbly receive.
Our readings for this week teach us that God not only gives generously and mercifully but God also gives abundantly. In both miracles, there is leftover food. We can’t overlook this key aspect of each miracle. God provides the initial food, God gives the people generous hearts, and God gives an abundance of generosity. The people could have given only enough to meet the needs of those present at the gathering. But they don’t—they give more than enough. This is because God gives them more than enough generosity. We worship not only a generous God but also an abundantly generous God. God has more than enough to give and wants to give more than just enough to meet our needs. God is not a God of scarcity. God is a God of abundance! We are called to know this God of abundance. We are called to come to the full circus that is God, not just the parade! The apostle Paul prays that we “may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Anyone can encourage people to be generous with their food. Anyone can cure sicknesses if given the proper training. But Jesus did far more than meeting these physical. Jesus saved us from the powers of sin and death and continues to save us. God is not only generous but is abundantly generous. We are called to not only be generous but to be abundantly generous with each other. This is what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Let us not worry about how so little can feed so many but rather give thanks and witness to such an abundantly generous God. Let us come to the table not just to be fed but…eat and be filled!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.