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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

2009-07-26 Feeding of 5000

When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?

It's just one little question. But it's a trick question. It's a trick question because Jesus already knows the answer before he asks it. First rule of lawyers and Children's Sermon leaders: never ask a question unless you already know the answer. Good rule. Jesus knows the answer even before he dramatically combs his beard with his fingers and asks the question so his disciples will overhear.

There are so many ways to ask a question. If you're in the military and your commanding officer asks you a question, he (or she) wants an answer and wants it now. “Where are we going to buy food for all these civilians, Private?” “Sir! Sam's Club, Sir!” If you're in a classroom and your professor asks a question, she (or he) doesn't want a third grade who-raised-their-hand-first response. “Oooh. Pick me!” She wants a carefully considered weighing of options, because there's going to be a 10 page paper on the subject due next Friday.

Not only are there so many ways to ask a question, there are so many more ways to hear the question.

Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat? It's just one little question, but coming from the mouth of Jesus, it's so much more than just the set-up for the feeding of the five thousand. Which I think is how we hear this question, if we hear it or think about it at all. This question is genius because it's so flexible. Depending on how you hear it, depending on your personality, the question probes our own, individual anxieties. Depending on your who you are, the question tickles our perceived expertise. I think in one way or another this is the one, essential question that the church collectively, and each of us individually, wrestle with every single day.

WHERE IN THE WORLD are we going to buy ENOUGH bread for 5000 people to eat?
And HOW in the world are we going to transport it?

If there are no preservatives in it, it can go stale pretty fast, you know. And if it's homemade bread, people are going to want it hot. And buttered. All the grandmas who know how to make enough bread to feed an army start thinking, “Well, if we borrow so-and-so's oven. And if we cook all night for the next two weeks. And if we have enough aluminum foil....” They'll figure it out.

I was looking back at some old sermons on this passage. That's the beauty of growing old. You have a big bucket O' sermons... wrapped in foil and hermetically sealed. Back in the year 2000, Bill White was chairman of the Worship Committee... (you still are chairman of the Worship Committee, aren't you? That's the beauty of saying Yes in the church)... Bill and I were trying to calculate how much fried chicken to buy to take to worship at Cades Cove, back before we moved our summer worship to the Lily Barn. Bill and I are both guys. And we're both engineers. We know nothing about food production or transportation. We didn't let our lack of knowledge stop us, though. We emailed each other back and forth for days, perfecting the chicken-to-Presbyterian ratio. We had 40 people signed up. Roughly 1/3 were female children under the age of 12 who don't like getting their fingers greasy, and would eat less than 0.5 pieces of chicken.

Thank the Lord. Jan, Bill's wife, who does know something about food production and transportation, saved us. She looked at the list and saw 40 had signed up. “Buy enough for 80,” she told us. You know how many people came? 78. There was maybe one bucket and a few rolls left over. Our Lord would have been proud. Of her.

Questions of HOW can devil us. If we can't figure out HOW something's going to be done, we oftentimes won't do it. WHERE are we going to get enough food? HOW are we going to get it to the picnic?

A lot of people can't figure out HOW the stuff in the Bible works. They don't know HOW Jesus did this or did that. They don't know HOW prayer works. So they don't do it. It doesn't make sense, so they don't practice it.

If we all thought like that, nobody would own a microwave. Or a car with electronic transmission. And yet, so many times, when we can't figure out how matters of faith work, we'll give up on them. If we don't know the answer, we don't proceed with the question.

Where are we going to BUY enough bread for all these people? And how are we going to PAY for it?

The Apostle Philip would have made a good economic analyst for CNBC: “Lord, eight month's wages wouldn't buy enough for everyone to have even one little bite.” It's a simple problem of supply and demand. Our funds won't supply that much demand. The cost is too great. We're in a recession. The capital's just not there. We have to cut back on that part of our ministries, Lord. Pot Lucks that big aren't productive. Most of those folks aren't going to join the church, anyway. They're just coming for the food. They'll be over at the Methodist church next month, begging for more food and more help on their light bills. That's the ways those folks operate. It's just not cost-effective for us to keep bailing them out.

This is a tough one. A lot of churches are having this discussion right now. A lot of churches are having to scale back, even outright eliminate some of their ministries. Our Presbytery is having some painful discussions just like this.

Sometimes, Philip is right. Actually, Philip is right. Eight month's wages probably wouldn't have bought enough bread. Sometimes there isn't enough money to do what we want. Every church needs some Philips and Phyllises, and they're usually on the Finance Committee. They remind us that no one, no church - nobody - should live beyond their means and expect Jesus to pop in every Sunday with an economic bailout.

But questions of HOW MUCH can devil us. We can spend so much time worrying not only about the HOW, but also about the HOW MUCH. We can spend so much time counting beans that we never get around to planting any. Sometimes we calculate all the ministry we can do according to the amount of money we have. We do that as a church, and also personally. I think one of the things this story is saying is that money's not the only thing that makes ministry possible. Just because money's lacking, doesn't mean Jesus has moved away.

HOW MUCH a ministry is going to cost is a factor, but only one factor. And when Jesus is working miracles, part of the miracle is how much he can accomplish with barely any resources at all.

The Sunday after next you'll get to hear about how the Mission Team from this church went to Camp John Knox and did $30,000 worth of renovations with a $7,000 budget. And that's not including the cost of labor. If that's not extending loaves and fishes, I don't know what is.

Where are we going to buy BREAD for these people to eat?

This might be the most important re-emphasis of all. Where are we going to buy enough BREAD for these people to eat?

Remember, this is the Gospel According to John. And John likes symbolic language. John loves symbolic language. So when we read the word BREAD in John, we have to remember that in John, Jesus describes himself, saying, “I am... the BREAD of life.”

This is the trickiest part of Jesus's trick question. If you know John's secret code words, then we know (and the disciples will learn), that when Jesus says, “Bread,” he's not only talking about the bread you eat; he's talking about the Bread of Life. He's talking about himself.

Philip and the disciples look out at the crowd and they see 5000 people with growling tummies. Jesus looks out at the crowd and – while he may also see the 5000 hungry people – when Jesus looks out he sees much more. He sees 5000 people, he sees 500,000 people, he sees a world of people hungering, aching not just for daily bread, but for the Bread of Life. The bread that nothing can spoil, or wither, or waste. When Jesus looks out, he sees people just like us. He sees us. He sees you and me. He sees people who are trying to figure their way out of their problems. He sees people who are trying to buy their way out of their problems. He sees people who have given up getting out of their problems. When Jesus looks out, he sees people like you and like me, who hunger and thirst for life. Who hunger and thirst for meaning. Who hunger and thirst for relief from their troubles and confidence that their life has a purpose.

So when Jesus asks, “Where are we going to buy bread for these people to eat?” he's not worrying about logistics. He's not trying to MapQuest the closest food bank. He's not calling his broker. He's not cutting open his mattress to find the money he stuffed inside it last December.

When Jesus asks where they're going to buy bread, he knows. He knows he'll take whatever they can scrimp up and make it sufficient. But more: he also knows he IS the bread the people really need.

I was driving back from Memphis yesterday, and I was listening to mountain radio ministers. I love those guys. One of them had a sermon titled, “Jeeeeesus Is The Answer-ah.” And listening to him, I wouldn't want to argue. But Jesus is sometimes also the question. And a question can be asked and can be heard a number of different ways.

What a question about bread means to you might mean something different tomorrow. And it might mean something else to the person next to you. The thing we sometimes forget is that Jesus could have  skipped over the questions and gone straight to the answers. I am the Bread of Life; Here's enough for 5000 people. Thanks for coming, drive safely on your way home. Jesus could have skipped over the part that makes us wonder what he means; but he didn't. He didn't say, “Philip, you big dummy. I'm not talking about wages.” He could have, but he didn't. He let Philip think for a while. He let Philip expose his own anxieties and perceived expertise, and thus his own hunger.

The next time you get anxious about a job that's too big for you, ask yourself what spiritual hunger your anxiety is exposing. The next time you step up to demonstrate your expertise, ask yourself what spiritual hunger you're trying to fill.

You might be right to be anxious. You might be wise in your expertise. But beneath both is a need, a thirst, a hunger for something that's missing in your life. What is that?

Whatever it is, that's the bread you're really hungry for.

And where are you going to buy the bread that satisfies that longing?