When a Little is Enough

african loaves and fishes

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 29, at First Church Simsbury, Connecticut.

John 6:1-15

Some of you know that fifteen to twenty years ago I led a ministry to homeless people who lived in a beach park in Hawaii. This ministry had a couple key components. We hosted a weekly worship service in the park, after which we would serve a bagged meal of a sandwich, chips, fruit and a sweet of some kind. And, a couple times a week, I would walk through the park visiting with the people who slept and passed their days there. These two aspects of the ministry, the worship service followed by a simple meal, and the visitation with people felt very different to me.

In the worship and meal service, I and my fellow church members clearly felt like the helpers. In addition to the spiritual food we offered through worship, we literally fed hungry people. We were generously sharing the plentiful resources of our church by providing people a bologna sandwich, Doritos, an apple, and a rice crispy treat. I don’t make light of this act of charity in the least. The homeless people were extremely grateful, and it felt good knowing that this small investment of time and money could meet a real need and alleviate suffering, at least for a moment.

But walking around the park visiting with people offered a very different experience. When I saw someone I knew, I would greet them by name, and sit down on the bench, or on the grass, next to them. In addition to meaningful one-on-one conversations, from time to time something else would happen in these encounters; one of the homeless people would offer to share their food with me, especially if they were in mid-bite when I walked up. Mike Lee once passed me a bag of dried squid that he was eating from. I have observed that well-fed people like myself often react to such offers by saying, “Oh, no thank you, I’m not hungry,” or, “You keep that, you need it more than I do.” But over time, I learned the power of breaking bread with someone who offers to share, not out of plenty, but from want. I graciously accepted Mike’s offer of the cuttlefish.

On another occasion, I came across to two wonderful men I knew, Cliff and Corbin, who were right in the middle of preparing a meal over a fire. Cliff and Corbin would joke that they were grumpy old men, but they were anything but. Though they had both suffered terrible hurt that led in one way or another to their homelessness, they always greeted me with a smile and an invitation to sit down and visit. Corbin was a skilled guitar player, and if I caught him at the right moment he would serenade me with beautiful Hawaiian music.

I asked what they were cooking and they said, stew, by which they meant a combination of every item they had recently received from a nearby food pantry: a couple kinds of soup, kidney and garbanzo beans, tuna fish, and Kraft macaroni and cheese, all stirred together in the same pot, and served with lots of hot sauce. Here too, I thanked them, and accepted their offer of a little stew.

Two very different experiences. Both valuable in their way. Using the wealth of the church to feed hungry people, and accepting an offer to share a small bite of food from those who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.

I thought of Mike Lee, and Cliff and Corbin, when I read this familiar story of “Jesus” feeding the 5000.

First, let’s make sure we know what the story really says. Sometimes we have heard popular stories like this so many times, we think we know them, but we may miss key details or make false assumptions.

Having watched Jesus heal many, a large crowd has followed him across the Sea of Galilee and now gathers around Jesus and the disciples on a mountain side. The writer tells us that the Passover is near, which might be significant to the story. So let’s tuck that tidbit away.

Observing the hungry crowd, Jesus asks the disciple Philip where they could buy bread to feed all these people. Philip responds, saying that even if there was a place to buy bread (and there isn’t), he would have to work more than six months to earn the money necessary to buy enough bread. These are familiar challenges to ministry, right? How do we do it? How much will it cost?

Then Andrew says this, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” This is so interesting to me. The boy would have surely been carrying this small amount of food in a bag in order to feed himself during his day’s journey. How does Andrew know, not only that the boy has food, but exactly what the boy is carrying and how much? Maybe the boy offered his meager lunch to Andrew to help relieve the hunger of the crowd.

Jesus directs the disciples to have everyone sit down in the grass, gives thanks, then distributes the boy’s bread and fish to the crowd. Everyone ate as much as they wanted, and were satisfied. And there was enough left over to fill twelve baskets.

So, who feeds the 5,000? Jesus, or the boy?

I described two stories about sharing food in the homeless ministry I led. The one, about feeding hungry people with a modest investment of time and money from the church. The other, about homeless people offering to share the little bit of food they had with me.

I would suggest that Philp had the first model of ministry in mind. Where will we buy the bread? How much will it cost? While Andrew had an experience of the second model of ministry when a little boy shared everything he had with Jesus, the disciples, and 5,000 hungry people.

There is nothing wrong with the first model of ministry, providing for immediate needs, in fact it is biblical. In the 25th Chapter of Matthew, Jesus says, “I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”  But the second model of ministry, represented by the boy’s gift of five barley loaves and two small fish, is transforming, it’s miraculous!

This is where we find the Passover theme of liberation expressed. The crowd came to Jesus hoping to be fed, and the disciples were all too ready to, like Moses, assume the role of rescuers. Instead, a little boy said, we have all we need right here. Jesus held up the boy’s offering for everyone to see and gave thanks. And it was enough. They were set free from their hunger.

Did the bread and fish miraculously multiply? Maybe. Or, inspired by the boy’s example, did everyone in the crowd look in their satchel to discover they had a little bit of food to share? Maybe. Or, because everyone saw that the boy gave all he had, the one bite each person received was eternally satisfying. Yes, yes, and yes.

Mike Lee’s offer of dried squid was enough. Cliff and Corbin’s invitation to share their stew was enough. Five loaves and two fish were enough.

I saw both models of ministry in action on my recent trip to Uganda.

We visited a clinic that we helped found there over ten years ago. I say, helped found, because the real founder was a Ugandan woman, Faith Mulira. Faith provided the “how,” and First Church helped respond to the “how much.”

While there, we used a small amount of church funds, about $100, to provide porridge to a nearby school. This gift was warmly appreciated by the children who happily posed for pictures with us in front of the enormous bags of cornmeal and sugar. How and how much, that’s the Philip model of ministry.

But before we left Uganda, my fellow traveler Heather Duncan and I had a transforming experience in response to the bread and fish model of ministry. I should preface this story by saying that while in Uganda, out of an abundance of concern for our sensitive American stomachs, we ate breakfast and dinner at the hotel, and generally skipped lunch when we were out visiting the clinic and the surrounding area. As a result, we had not tasted any Ugandan, or even African food…until the Thursday before we left.

On that Thursday, the clinic director, an extraordinarily gifted and capable woman named Roselyn, purchased her lunch from a woman who lived down the street from the clinic. Kept warm and served in small, stacked aluminum pans, the meal consisted of a few chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce, and side dishes of sweet potato, matoke (a starchy mashed banana), nakati (a local green), and pumpkin. Roselyn offered to share the lunch with me and Heather. Heather gratefully accepted the offer, while I responded, “Oh no thank you, I couldn’t, that’s your lunch.” But as I saw Heather accept a small plate, I realized I was missing out and changed my “no thank you” to “yes please.” We each got a small morsel of delicious meat, and just a little bite of each of the side dishes, not much more than a taste of each. But I can tell you that it was the most satisfying meal Heather or I had during our whole trip. I can also tell you, that though an experienced professional, Roselyn supports herself and her two children on a monthly income that probably couldn’t pay for Sunday brunch at Abigail’s. Like the boy in this morning’s story, Roselyn shared not from abundance, but from scarcity. The result was transforming, miraculous! And we were satisfied.

At First Church we are experts at the first model of ministry, the how and how much when apportioning resources out of our abundance. But we still have a lot to learn from the example of the boy with the five loaves and two fish, from Mike Lee and his dried squid, from Cliff and Corbin with their stew, and from Roselyn’s generous sharing of her lunch.

On September 21st we will begin serving a monthly community supper. This is a great idea, initiated by Sara Batchelder and a group of enthusiastic volunteers from the church. We invite, not only the hungry and those on fixed budgets, but anyone who wants a break from making dinner to come to Palmer Hall on the third Friday of the month for a delicious meal prepared and served with love by our volunteers.

On its surface, the community meal seems like a great example of the Philip model of ministry, but I know there will be opportunities for transformation in the sharing that will surely take place around the table. Come serve, come eat, and come expecting miracles!

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