The feeding of the five thousand. It’s a familiar story that we know quite well. Jesus is surrounded by a large crowd. It is getting late in the day and people start to get hungry. Everyone looks around confused and unsure of what to do. Jesus decides he wants to feed the people but the disciples say that it will cost too much. Soon enough, it is discovered that one young boy has tucked away in his knapsack, presumably hidden from these hungry mob, 5 loaves of bread and two fish. Which seems like a lot for just one boy to be carrying but the story goes on anyways. This meager amount of food seems like a waste of time if you ask the disciples. It will never be enough. I mean, what’s five loaves and two fish for five thousand hungry people? But then Jesus has everyone sit down, he takes the loaves of bread and the two fish and he turns it into enough food for everyone to eat their fill and, in fact, for their to be plenty of leftovers too. It’s a nice and familiar story.
I don’t know about you, but even though this is a familiar story, anytime a miracle story like this comes up, it always seems to throw me for a loop. My mind takes over and I start asking all sorts of questions. Did that really happen? What’s the truth in this story? Do you ever do that when you hear some of these Bible stories? I often think that there has to be a logical explanation.
So that’s what I do. Often, I try to explain the miracle. Like when Jesus is at the wedding at Cana and all the wine runs out and so Jesus magically turns water into wine so that the party doesn’t need to stop. Sometimes, I wonder if he didn’t just dilute the wine that was there with water, thus seemingly making more wine, or if there were just extra jars underneath the table that no one knew were there.
Or let’s take the five barley loaves and two fish that feed 5,000 people. I mean, did the fish and the bread simply grow back any time someone took a bite out of it, or did Jesus multiply them at the beginning into hundreds of loaves and fishes, dividing them among the people? Or did it happen, as preacher Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, through the people being moved by this child giving over everything he had, that they could feel their hidden food weighing down their pockets and their heavy guilt weighing down their hearts. And so as the baskets were past and the people slipped some of their own bread and fish in, so as to share with everyone. I kind of like that explanation.
The reason I do this…the reason I try to explain miracles, I think, is because of all of the miracles that don’t happen in our lives. If I can logically explain how this supposed miracle happened, then maybe I don’t have to wonder about why other miracles don’t happen.
But then, as I do these mental gymnastics when it comes to trying to explain Jesus’ miracle, I get stuck. And frustrated. And angry. Because suddenly I feel as if my whole life of faith is spent focusing on if and how something in the Bible really happened or not. And the truth is, we can never know. Which makes me wonder – maybe I am missing the point. Maybe the point of the story isn’t whether you believe that it happened or not or whether there is a logical explanation. Maybe the point of the story isn’t worry about whether it happened or not, but what the story itself is trying to say.
In the movie Big Fish, Edward Bloom tells the story about the day his son was born. As the story goes, using a fishing line that was so strong it could hold up a bridge and only his wedding as bait, Edward caught an uncatchable fish on the day his son was born. Over and over again, at any chance he could get, Edward would tell this story, much to his son’s embarrassment. And over time, Will began to hate that story. Because he didn’t believe that story. He knew his father wasn’t telling him the truth and he lost all trust in his father. Over the years, they grew apart and their relationship was strained. But then, many years later, Edward had a stroke. And as Will sat beside his father’s bedside, in walks the very doctor who had delivered Will that day. “You ever hear the story about the day you were born?” he asks? “Yeah, like a thousand times. He caught an uncatchable fish.” “No, I mean the real one,” the doctor replied. “On the day you were born, your mother came in about 3 in the afternoon. Her neighbor drove her because your father was away on business in Wichita. You were born a week early. But there were no complications. It was a perfect delivery. Your father was sorry not to be there…that’s the real story of how you were born. Not very exciting, is it? I supposed if I had to choose between the true version and an elaborate one about a fish and a wedding ring, I might choose the fancier version.” Edward Bloom tells the story that on the day his son was born, he caught an uncatchable fish….using just his wedding ring.
Sometimes, the point of the story isn’t to worry about whether it happened or not, but what the story itself is trying to say.
So here we are today, we have a story about a man named Jesus. A man whom we claim to be the revelation of God for us. And he feeds five thousand hungry people with a meager five loaves and two fish. It’s a story that says, “Jesus is about feeding people who are hungry.” Which to us means God is about feeding people who are hungry. But what I can’t figure out is why Jesus used these five loaves of bread and two fish to feed everyone. I mean, he’s Jesus. Why didn’t he just make bread and fish appear out of thin air? But no. Jesus took this small offering of food, which really amounts to almost nothing when you consider the size of this crowd. It says something that Jesus takes what this young boy has to offer, these puny, insignificant five loaves and two fish and uses them to feed the crowd gathered there.
It says that God can work with the meager offerings of the people of God to do great things for the needs of this world. It says that God can take the puny and insignificant things that we’ve tucked away and kept hidden from those around us and God can use it. It says that when you’ve got almost nothing to give, God can use that.
In fact, if we look back at Scripture, this seems like God favorite way to work in the world. It seems like God’s favorite thing to do is take something that is broken, or worthless, or empty and to use it. I mean, God used the barren and closed woman of Sarah to give birth to Isaac at the old age of 90. God took Moses, a murderer, and used him to lead God’s people out of Egypt. God used a poor peasant carpenter to be the savior of the world by dying on a cross. In our Christian story, God does not conquer the world with power and might, God dies. And then God is resurrected. Which means God will go into the darkest places of the world, the most empty place, the place most void of any hope – the place of death and God will bring about life. If there is one theme in the Scriptures that can feed us it is that God takes not our successes and our gifts, but our weaknesses and our meager places and uses those.
Last week, about 35,000 Lutheran teenagers gathered in New Orleans for the National Youth Gathering. One of the speakers for the gathering was Nadia Bolz-Weber, a pastor out in Denver, CO. Prior to the gathering, there was some concern among parents and clergy about her being a speaker because of her past. You see, Pastor Nadia is a recovering alcoholic, whose past involved drug abuse, promiscuity, lying and stealing. In response, she said, “(Those concerned parents and pastors) are absolutely right. Somebody with my past…should not be allowed to talk to you. But you know what, somebody with my present, who I am now shouldn’t be allowed to talked to you…because I am a flawed person. I should not be allowed to be here talking to you, but you know what…that’s the God we are dealing with people.”
We are often told that our successes and our gifts are what we offer to the world. To get good grades. To work hard. To treat people right. And these are all gifts to the world which God can use. But the God we are dealing with won’t just use your strengths and your gifts, God will also use your broken places and your weaknesses too.
Sometimes I hear people talk about the way things used to be for our churches. Back when the church was packed and the offering plates full. Back when parents didn’t have to make their kids go to church. They wanted to go to church. But maybe this time in the church when things are a little uncertain.. when the pews aren’t full, when we wonder if the offering will pay all the bills…you know, when it seems like there are 5,000 mouths to feed and only 5 loaves of bread and a couple of fish…maybe that’s rich and fertile soil in which God can use us to do great things. Like make promises to a small child at their baptism, which we do today.
And what is so beautiful about baptism is that little Elizabeth doesn’t bring anything up to this font with her. She doesn’t have a resume to show off, or any awards to present, or there is no part in the baptismal rite where we ask if she is a good enough child for God. No. She comes to the font, just as we all do, with nothing. We don’t bring a resume of all the good things we’ve done to the baptismal font. We don’t bring money. We don’t bring anything. It’s like God is asking us, “What do you have to offer me?” And all we can say is “Nothing.” To which God replies, “Fantastic. I can work with that.” AMEN
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Seeds of Heaven, pg. 51