Read John 6:1-21
While attending seminary in the early 2000s I was a student pastor at a United Methodist church in Dayton, Ohio. Each day I would take a particular downtown exit to and from work. The on and off ramp was a perfect place for homeless folks to beg for charity or work in exchange for a meal. Although the faces of the poor would change occasionally from day to day, there was one guy I happened to strike up a friendship with. He told me his name was Bob, and I usually had a few dollars for him and some chit-chat ready for the minute or so it took the light to change. I felt sorry for Bob, because he sincerely seemed to need help. When I would tell him the places he could go for food and shelter, he already knew exactly where to go. But after a day or so he was back begging in the same spot.
One particular day it was raining hard as I drove up to the light at the entrance ramp. Bob was standing there on the corner, soaking wet and holding up his sign for money. I decided to give him my umbrella, figuring it would at least keep him dry on rainy days. Bob thanked me and the light changed to green. I drove off feeling good about fulfilling my Good Samaritan deed for the day. The next day it was raining again on my way home, and there was Bob again on the corner, soaking wet and no umbrella in sight. I pulled up next to him and cracked my window a bit. “Bob” I called out, “Where’s the umbrella I gave you yesterday?” “Oh, I don’t know,” he replied. “I guess it’s with all the other umbrella’s people have given me.” “Well, why don’t you use it when it rains?” I asked, with a little tinge of anger in my voice. “I don’t need an umbrella,” he called back. “I need money.” At that moment the light turned green, and the horns started honking behind me. Fuming, I drove through the light and onto the highway. “That’s the last time he gets any charity from me,” I fumed to myself. It’s funny how you can feel when the kindness you give to someone isn’t received the way you think it should, or gets discarded like the umbrella I had given Bob. But after all, Bob wasn’t holding a sign that said, “Will work for an umbrella.” Bob needed something else, and I didn’t give it to him.
And our text today teaches a similar lesson. In the gospel of John we read this famous story about Jesus feeding five thousand people all at once. It is the only miracle story recorded in all four gospels. Most folks think it’s important because of what happened to those five loaves of bread and two fish. It truly is an amazing story. But I think it’s important for another reason. For one thing, I am not convinced that God really works this way - miraculously providing food to starving people. If God did, then why isn't God doing so today in a world where so many people are starving every day?
Another thing to think about; the hungry crowd in this story could easily have found food in the surrounding farms and villages, just as the disciples suggested they could. And for another, that's not why they came in the first place. If you remember our biblical story from last week, the crowds gathered because they wanted to hear Jesus preach, not because they were hungry. If we listen to the story from that perspective, we notice that John says, “A huge crowd followed him, attracted by the miracles they had seen him do among the sick.” They came because they knew Jesus was there, healing the sick and teaching good news. They didn’t come for a free lunch. If they needed bread, they could have stayed at home. They traveled all that distance because they needed something more important than bread. The first thing Jesus did was not feed them lunch, but respond to that deeper need within them. He began to teach them many things.
How long did he go on teaching them? So long that it got very late in the day, according to Mark’s version of the story. So long that the disciples had to remind Jesus what time it was. This image of multiplying food is not the only thing for us to see in this story. It is that Jesus saw confused and shepherd-less people. People who needed healing and had lost their way. And what does Jesus do in response to what he sees? He teaches them all day long. Yes, the bread got blessed and the fish too; and no one went away hungry that day. But the question is: what did Jesus really do for the crowd that day? What was the real hunger that got fed?
We get hungry for more than food and thirsty for more than drink. Our souls get hungry and thirsty; and when that happens our soul has a way of getting our attention. Emptiness. Depression. Disillusionment. Powerlessness. Self-centeredness. Unkind criticism. Gossip. Divisiveness. Explosive anger. Paralyzing fear. Yearning for something more. A hunger for something we cannot quite define. Any of these sound familiar? Every day thousands of people from all walks of life line up to see therapists to talk about them. They are painful symptoms that people want to get rid of. And that is exactly what institutional religion often tries to do for people - take away their symptoms. People want the church to fix them up, to wave a magic spell and remove the offending problem. They want everything to fit their own needs. And in our consumerist culture churches often get caught up in trying to keep everyone happy versus proclaiming the gospel.
But what if these symptoms are simply your soul's way of telling you that something might be terribly out of balance? The soul is the deepest, most mysterious part of us. When it doesn't get what it needs, it attempts to make itself heard any way it can, trying to communicate that something is out of balance. The things that bother you the most may just be your soul's way of telling you that something is wrong within. Jesus, the gospels say, paid attention to people's needs. Attention means attending to, offering tender care, being present, teaching, listening. Our symptoms don't need curing as much as they need time, tender care and attention. We need someone to listen to what our soul is trying to say, what it needs, what it is starving for. And there are those who recognize that need, and do something about it. Young men like CJ and Chris who put their wonderful foster and now adopted children’s needs, Sheldon and Chase, above their own. If you are a parent, you already understand this way of feeding your souls by serving your family. If you’re not a parent you understand that serving others feeds your soul with exactly what you are hungry for.
What Jesus provided for the crowd that day was quite amazing. He gave them what they really needed; his undivided attention. Yes he fed them with food, but he fed them something else that they were really hungry for; relationship. Jesus fed the part of people that was the hungriest and most in need. And then he commissioned us to do the same. When people come to us with needs that are overwhelming and critical, we must begin by listening—really listening to each other. I’m trying to do that in our community of faith, but I can’t do it alone. I need you to do it with me. Listen to each other, pray for each other, give each other the attention that you yourself need—and it will come back to you—with enough left over to feed the next person. That’s the kind of power lunch we all need—and that’s the kind of gift that will do miracles in our world.
If I had really cared about homeless Bob, I would have given him more than an umbrella. I would have given him attention—taken time to listen to his soul. The reality is I don’t have the time or energy to do that for every lost soul I meet. And I fail miserably all the time. And I will fail you. I’m only human. And so are you. But we can start by listening to each other, here, in this community of faith. And in that listening we will learn to love, serve and live abundant miracle-working lives that will make a difference.