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Some stories need to be told again and again and again.
Have you ever noticed that in yourself? You have a story that you tell, and you tell it over and over, sometimes to a new audience, sometimes to the same trusted friend, sometimes to the person who knows you and loves you best in the world. I do that. Some of us love to tell the story of how we met “the one.” We tell it again and again, until it takes on the quality of an incantation… it becomes a poem, a song, our own personal love song. Some of us need to tell the story of heartbreak again and again… to share the details, the dreadful things that were seen, or said, or done. Do we need to be sure people see our pain? Do we hope telling and re-telling of our pain will purge it? Some of us need to tell our stories again and again. We just need to.
When a pastor preaches from a lectionary—that’s a set of prescribed scripture readings—over a long period of time, they will inevitably come across the same passages every three or four years. And whenever I am offered an opportunity to preach this story, I inevitably gravitate to it. That’s because I believe it is absolutely foundational for our faith. It goes to the heart of who Jesus is. It goes to the heart of who we are as his people. Some stories need to be told again and again and again, and this is one of them.
Jesus feeds a multitude of people. Here’s how much this story needs to be told: It needs to be told so much, the four gospels tell it six times.[i]
The shape of the story is always, essentially, the same, but some of the details are strikingly different. In every account, Jesus has been speaking to the people, sharing the good news with them. As a result, the people are following him, even when he is trying to get away, to get some rest. In almost every account, Jesus has been healing the people, laying hands on them and curing them. And at some point, Jesus looks at the people, and looks at his disciples, and says something to the effect of, “How are we going to feed these people?”
In most versions of the story, the disciples become a little combative here. And… I can completely imagine why. Everyone’s tired. Everyone’s hungry. They start to talk to Jesus about money. They start to make the case that this is, well, kind of crazy thinking. There’s no way they can feed all these people. In our passage, Philip comes at it from your typical money-manager’s perspective.[ii] He talks about wages, and he doesn’t say it out loud, but surely every one of those twelve closest disciples has got to be thinking something like, we have no wages, we have actually left our jobs behind to follow and learn from you, Jesus.
This next part is found only in the telling of the story by John, only in the version we are reading today. Andrew speaks up. He’s Simon Peter’s younger brother, and maybe being the youngest gives you an eye to notice the young. “There is a boy here,” he says, “who has five barley loaves and two fish.” There is a young person in their midst with some food! And it appears he is ready to share it. But no sooner has Andrew shared this hopeful news than he lapses into worry, right along with Philip. It can’t possibly be enough.
But then, Jesus performs the miracle. Jesus takes the loaves, and when he has given thanks, he distributes them to those who were seated; he does the same with the fish, as much as they wanted (John 6:11). This wasn’t one of those “family hold back” moments, when everybody has a little less so that everybody can have, at least, some. This was a miracle of abundance, of people being eating until they were satisfied. This was a miracle.
John would call it a “sign.” For some of us, signs like this, scattered through the gospels like well, breadcrumbs, convince us, lead us to deep conviction, root us in our faith. For others, though, miracles are not convincing. They are seen as the products of another time, a pre-modern way of seeing the world. In many instanced, miracles simply do not convince the 21st century mind. On the contrary: for some, miracles in the Bible actually “repel” belief. Instead of encouraging faith, they convince some readers that Christianity is hopelessly stuck in a kind of magical thinking. They become the stuff of jokes.[iii]
But some stories need to be told, again and again. When a congregation and a pastor are in it together, for the long haul, sometimes the pastor finds herself reaching for a beloved story to share because it still has riches to reveal to us, it still has depths to plumb. I’m going to do that now.
In the prologue to her book, Take This Bread, Sara Miles writes:
One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I'd led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.
Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I'd scorned and work I'd never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer but actual food—indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized that what I'd been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.
And so I did. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I had experienced.[iv]
There are miracles. Sometimes they look like bread and fish for thousands of hungry, hurting people, conjured out of thin air. Sometimes they look like a change of heart so profound they alter the course of first one life, then another, and another, and another, until, again, bread for thousands, bread for the world, bread of life.
After the meal has been eaten, Jesus turns to his disciples again and says, Let’s not anything go to waste, now. I’m paraphrasing. What he actually said was, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” And when they did this, those twelve disciples collected twelve baskets of barley bread fragments, left over from the original offering of five loaves. There are two things going on here. First, we are witnessing the astonishing volume of food, not that was consumed, but that was left after everyone was full. But, second, Jesus is telling the disciples: Be not afraid. You have fear of giving away your money, your bread, yourself. But in God’s economy, look: Nothing is lost, not one crumb. No one is lost… not even you. There’s enough, not only for all those hungry people, but for you, too. There’s enough, not only for you, but for all those hungry people, too. Nothing is to be lost. No one is to be lost.
The circle of mutual hospitality turns hosts into guests and guests into hosts. We don’t know exactly how Jesus fed all those people, by which I mean: the mechanics of the miracle—which was, surely, a miracle, no matter how you look at it. We can believe it was a sign from God that God was with Jesus, powerfully. We can believe it was a miracle of mutual hospitality, that touched the people who received it in such a way that they went on to feed one another any way they could. We can believe it was a miracle simply because, of all stories, this one—about an itinerant Palestinian preacher and healer who turned a field of green grass into a foretaste of the heavenly banquet—this story has been told, throughout the millennia, and will be told, again, and again, and again. That, too, is the miracle.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Matthew 14:13-21; Matthew 15:29-37; Mark 6:30-44; Mark 8:1-9; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-14.
[ii] Karen Marie Yust, “John 6:1-21, Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After Pentecost, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 284.
[iii] Douglas John Hall, “John 6:1-21, Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, op. cit., 284, 286.
[iv] Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2007), xiii.