Last Sunday, about 25 of our high school students and roughly the same number of adults piled into several cars and the church bus and headed to Garrett County, Maryland to spend a week in mission.
This came on the heels of two middle school mission trips: one in Winchester, Virginia, and the other in Romney, West Virginia. I don’t have an exact count, but we are talking about roughly 100 students and adult volunteers from this congregation who have shared God’s love this summer by digging postholes, pouring concrete, building decks and wheel chair ramps, hanging siding, rebuilding a roof, and painting. They used gallons and gallons of stain and paint, and hammered thousands of nails.
I’ve been on a number of youth mission trips over the past 15 years—nine during the four years that Hannah Godfrey and I have teamed up to lead our youth ministry. But Hannah has been on three mission trips each summer for the past four years for a total of 12. That’s probably enough to vest in a pension, or at least to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Short-Term Missions.
And if Hannah has earned a BA in Short-Term Missions, I seem to be working on a certificate in preaching on difficult passages of Scripture.
In the past couple of months, I’ve had the opportunity to preach on:
· The Trinity. Of course that’s easy to explain.
· And the account in Matthew of Jesus saying that he came not to bring peace, but with a sword—to set man against father and daughter against mother.
· And then a couple of weeks ago, about the parable of the wheat and the tares. Which didn’t seem like such a heavy lift until I got to the part where Jesus explained that the parable meant that he was going to throw everything that causes sin—and all those who do evil—into a blazing furnace, where there would be weeping and grinding of teeth.
I found myself wondering whether this was some sort of hazing for recently-appointed clergy. And I couldn’t wait for Pastor Teer to arrive, hoping that it would take a little pressure off me.
So you can imagine my relief when I realized that the Gospel reading for this week is the story of Jesus feeding the multitude.
It’s a familiar story. Indeed, it is the only miracle that is described in all four Gospels.
When 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?”
Philip replied, “Six month’s wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
Now John assures us that Jesus was testing Philip. Because Jesus knew what he—Jesus—was about to do.
Then one of the disciples, Andrew, said, “There’s a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”
This story always reminds me of chaperoning a field trip when our son, Reid, was in grade school. The kids posed for a picture in front of the Capitol and then visited a couple of museums on the Mall.
Everyone brought a brown bag lunch, and at noon we sat in the shade of a tree and enjoyed a picnic. Some of the kids, including Reid, wolfed down their lunch as fast as possible so they could play a game of tag.
While they were playing, a man who was clearly down on his luck approached their teacher and me and asked if we had any leftover food. Reid had only finished about half his lunch, so I offered what he hadn’t eaten. We came up with an apple and juice box as well.
A few minutes later, Reid returned and wanted to know what happened to his lunch. He was pretty unhappy with me until I was able to finish explaining that I had given his food to someone who was having a hard time getting enough to eat.
I’m telling you this because I often think of this story from the perspective of the boy with five loaves and two fish.
Try to imagine what it would be like to be a young girl or boy as part of a crowd of 5,000 families listening to an itinerant preacher. And a couple of strangers try to explain to you that they want your lunch. “But don’t worry,” they say. “There will be more than enough food to go around.”
I don’t know about you, but I marvel at the young boy’s faith and generosity.
One boy. Five barley loaves. Two fish. And a crowd of 5,000.
Fortunately for me, there is no math in seminary. Because math is hardly my strong suit. But it seems to me, there are at least two ways to think about five loaves and two fish.
One is the way that Andrew thought about them. “What are they among so many people?” In other words, what difference can such a small portion make with so many mouths to feed?
There are times in all of our lives when we think in terms of scarcity. We think we don’t have enough time. We don’t get enough sleep. We don’t get enough exercise. We don’t have enough self-discipline. We don’t have enough energy. We don’t have enough stuff. We don’t have enough room for our stuff. We don’t have enough disposable income. We don’t have enough saved for retirement.
At times, it seems like there just isn’t enough.
So perhaps it isn’t surprising that we sometimes wonder whether one person can really make a difference. From the perspective of 5,000 grumbling tummies, five loaves and two fish doesn’t seem like a lot of food.
But what about looking at this from the perspective of the boy? When I packed Reid’s lunch for that field trip, I packed a sandwich, a bag of chips, a piece of fruit and a juice box. And he had enough food for us to share with a hungry stranger.
From the perspective of one boy, five loaves and two fish might seem like quite a feast. It is altogether likely that he had enough food to share.
So perhaps what happened along the Sea of Galilee was that Jesus performed a miracle. As someone with faith in the Resurrection, I don’t doubt that Jesus performed miracles when he walked among us.
But perhaps there was already more than enough food among the 5,000 for everyone to have plenty to eat. Enough to eat and 12 baskets of bread to spare.
Perhaps Jesus wasn’t testing his disciples’ faith in miracles. Perhaps he was testing their faith in God’s abundance. Perhaps he was testing their ability to see that there was more than enough food for everyone. Perhaps he was challenging them to challenge others to share.
Well, which is it? Is this a story about a miracle or is it a story about sharing the fruits of creation and the fruits of our labor with each other?
I would hope that we could embrace both possibilities.
These 2,000-year-old stories that we read in the Gospels still resonate because they are so rich with possibilities.
I began by telling you about our youth mission trips. I would imagine that some of our students—and to be honest some of the adults as well—approached these trips with some anxiety.
· Some of the middle school students had never spent a week away from home.
· Some of the youth had never swung a hammer.
· Some of the adults had never been in ministry with youth before.
· And I can think of at least one 63-year-old, part-time associate pastor who had never hauled a trailer behind the 15-passenger church bus through the mountains of Western Maryland.
At times, each of us felt a little like the boy who was asked to share his five loaves and two fish. And we may have felt a little like Andrew who wondered what difference such a small amount of food could make in feeding a multitude.
And God’s reply to that little boy and to Andrew and to each of us during our week in mission was that our gifts are more than enough.
Each of us—every one of us here this morning—has at least five loaves and two fish to share with the world. Because this is Northern Virginia, we have our fair share of lawyers and lobbyists and trade association executives among us. We have public servants—teachers and people who work in the federal agencies.
Perhaps more importantly, we have people with gifts for music, cooking, landscaping, carpentry, bookkeeping, graphic arts, computer technology.
And people who seem to know when someone needs a gentle pat on the arm. People with gifts for listening—quietly and patiently. People who are willing to risk saying the wrong thing because they want to help.
Five loaves. Two fish. And a world in great need. Each of us has more than enough to share.