Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
If you haven’t yet noticed, I love preaching stories. Sometime down the road I’ll have to tackle some poetry, maybe a Psalm, or, heaven forbid, Leviticus! If you didn’t laugh at that joke, you should try reading Leviticus. You won’t get very far, trust me. But I love stories, mostly because stories define the way we see ourselves in the world. Our lives are lived in narrative. And so I was very excited when I opened up the lectionary a few weeks ago, flipped through the different texts, and discovered that this particular story was a part of today’s reading. Because this story was apparently so important to early Christians that they recorded it not once, not twice, not even four times, but six times throughout the four main Gospels. It is recorded in every Gospel, and in two Gospels, it is recorded twice. Now, each version of this story, the feeding of the multitudes, is slightly different – in some cases, the crowds number four thousand, in some cases five, and in our text today, even more than that – but the basic core of the story is the same. There is a great crowd; they have come to hear Jesus, and it has been a long day, and they are hungry. But, rather than send them on their way to buy their own food, Jesus instead multiplies the food that he and his disciples have until everyone has had their fill.
This is what we call a miracle. Now, reading this story, I got to thinking – and I honestly believe that God put this idea in my head, because I had never thought about it before preparing for this message – what would we do if we suddenly had the power that Jesus has in this story? First, he heals all the sick people in the crowd, which is kind of the sideline miracle, the opening miracle, if you will, to the main miracle he performs later on, which was to feed well over five thousand people until each and every last one of them was full with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Oh, and by the way, there were leftovers. Twelve baskets full – it sounds like there was more left over than what they started out with! What would we do if we had that kind of power?
What would you do if, all of the sudden, you discovered the cure for cancer, or you discovered a new renewable energy source? What would be the first thing that pops into your head? I recently started watching this show called “The 4400” on Netflix. The show is about 4400 people who are taken out of their place in history, given special powers, and then returned to the world all at the same time. And one of the episodes is about a man who basically has the power to make people instantly skinny. And what do you think is the first thing he does when he finds out about this? He tries to sell it. He signs a $40 million contract with a company that wants to package and market his special ability for a sizeable profit. Now, it may just be a TV show, but that’s not really all that surprising, is it? Because it seems that anytime we discover or create something new, the knee-jerk response is to think: I have something everyone wants or needs, and so first I need to patent it so that other people can’t “steal” my work, and then I can sell it, and I can make myself a place in the world. And so it really isn’t hard for me to imagine, that if Jesus had done this today, it wouldn’t be long before we started seeing the billboards – “Miracle Fish Sandwich – $9.99” now available at your local McDonalds. Yea, it’s that expensive because it’s got Jesus in it! You laugh but you can bet that restaurant chains and pharmaceutical companies would be chomping at the bit to make this miracle-working Jesus character a part of their business. That’s the kind of mentality we have in our society. How can I use what I have, the resources and the abilities and the people available to me, to make my life better?
On the surface, this mentality doesn’t sound so bad. Everyone has an equal chance to get ahead because everyone is allowed to use what they have. I like to imagine an apple orchard, where everyone has their own apple tree, and they can choose to eat their own apples, which they picked, or they can trade them with the folks next door in the blueberry patch. In this scenario, everyone has an equal opportunity. The problem with this mentality, though, is that some of us have more resources than others. See, some of us got to the apple orchard first, picked all the apples, and then decided it was our right to sell them to everyone else who later wandered into the orchard – including, perhaps, the world’s greatest apple-picker. Indeed it seems that everything we do reflects a first-come, first-served mentality. If I thought of it first; if I got to it first; if I had it first; if I was sitting there first; it’s mine, isn’t it?
But if you look back at the story… Jesus doesn’t charge a dime for the miracle food. Jesus doesn’t regard the food as his because he has the ability to create it. Neither do the disciples, having primary access to the source of the food, behave as though the food is theirs to give or sell as they wish. Now, I should back up a bit, because some of you will have noticed that before they start passing out the fish and the bread, the disciples cling to the old way of thinking. They tell Jesus that the crowd is hungry, and they should be sent on their way into the towns to buy food for themselves; meanwhile, the disciples had their five loaves and two fish – they were set. But it is easier for the disciples, who have, to advocate for a position where everyone has to fend for themselves. Now, when Jesus confronts them with the command, saying “No! You give them something to eat!” – the disciples’ reply shows why they clung to the old mentality in the first place. It is the same reason we also continue to cling to this first-come, first-served mentality. “There isn’t enough,” they say. They are operating from the assumption of scarcity, that there aren’t enough resources to go around. But Jesus turns that assumption on its head and says, “No, in fact, God is not a God of scarcity; God is a God of abundance, and if you could just get out of that assumption for a second, and believe that what I freely give to you is more than enough to fill and to satisfy everyone, then maybe, just maybe, no one would have to go hungry.”
So the disciples start distributing the food. And, wouldn’t you know it? Everyone ate, and everyone ate until they were full. And there were still leftovers. It was not a scarcity problem, at all. Did you know that the current world population is estimated to be somewhere around 7.2 billion people, and that there is enough food being produced in the world to feed every single one of them, with leftovers? It’s true; you can look it up. And yet, roughly 842 million people – that’s about one out of every eight people in the world – are currently estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger.* Think about that for a second. There is enough food in the world to feed every single one of those people until they are full. They problem is not scarcity. The problem is distribution. Unlike the story in our Scripture reading this morning, the abundance of food is not getting passed around to all of the people until they have eaten their fill. And lest you think that this is an out there problem, beyond the veil, the sad truth is that one in four children in North Carolina are food insecure. In fact, as of two years ago, Winston-Salem was ranked as the third hungriest metropolitan area in the United States. Now, this church knows that, and this church does an amazing job at combatting this hunger epidemic here in our city. I am proud to be a part of this church and the work that it is doing. But I think it’s important to start asking why people are going hungry in the first place. And I think the answer is that we, collectively, as a species, have ignored Jesus’ teachings, both in what he said and, in this case, in what he did. Because, despite the plethora of hymns and worship songs that claim otherwise, the cross was not the sole reason for Jesus’ existence. Jesus did other stuff besides die on a cross and rise from the dead. Yes, that is extremely important to us, as Christians, but it means nothing if we forget that during his life Jesus taught us a better way to live with each other. We don’t say Jesus is the Son of God because he died on a cross and was resurrected. Anyone can die on a cross; and there are multiple examples of miracles in the New Testament where someone was raised from the dead. We say Jesus is God because there is something profoundly Godlike about the way he lived, and the way he taught us to live.
While it seems that most of us have either ignored or completely forgotten this, I have to say I was rather pleasantly shocked to discover about two months ago that there are people here in the United States – CEOs, even – who still believe that the things God gives to us are not meant to be hoarded but rather shared with everyone; that the “first-come, first-served” mentality actually makes for an incredibly damaging way to go about life. On June 12th of this year, Tesla Motors’ CEO Elon Musk announced that they “will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use [their] technology,” effectively saying that anyone who wants to use their technology to create better, more sustainable, no-emission cars may do so free of charge and without threat of lawsuit. The corporate world was shocked by this decision, and there was even an article that came out a few days later calling the patent release “good for humanity, but bad for business.” I mean, who in their right mind would give up ownership of a technology they developed, when that technology stands to make them millions? Perhaps the company was merely following the example of its namesake, Nikola Tesla, who believed in the radical idea that technology is something to be used for the betterment of humankind, not for personal profit. Perhaps they had stumbled onto a new way of thinking, which is not really new. It is the same way of thinking held by many African tribes, especially in the Southern Africa region. My cousin, who is with us this morning, spent a year in South Africa, and can probably explain it a little better than I can, but this way of thinking is called Ubuntu, and it essentially means, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” And I just love the story that goes with it; it’s been circulating around the internet, and I’m not sure whether it’s true or not, but it really doesn’t matter to getting the point across. It goes like this:
An anthropologist studying the habits and customs of an African tribe found himself surrounded by children most days. So he decided to play a little game with them. He managed to get candy from the nearest town and put it all in a decorated basket at the foot of a tree.
Then he called the children and suggested they play the game. The game was that when the anthropologist said “now”, the children had to run to the tree, and the first one to get there could have all the candy to him/herself.
So the children all lined up waiting for the signal. And when the anthropologist said “now”, all of the children took each other by the hand and ran together towards the tree. They all arrived at the same time, divided up the candy, sat down, and began to happily munch away.
The anthropologist went over to them and asked why they had all run together when any one of them could have had the candy all to themselves.
The children responded: “Ubuntu. How could any one of us be happy if all the others were sad?”
How can any one of us be happy if all the others are sad? How many of our children are growing up with such an understanding of the world? How many of us operate in our everyday lives according to this principle? Because, make no mistake folks, this philosophy, Ubuntu, is the exact same philosophy demonstrated by Jesus and the disciples in our story today. This is no first-come, first-served religion we follow, my friends. Jesus doesn’t say “Only give those who can afford it something to eat.” Jesus doesn’t say “Only give to those who look, think, smell, and act like us.” Jesus doesn’t even say “Give only the ones who are most hungry something to eat; the others have just eaten and can make it until tomorrow.” No, Jesus says, “You give THEM something to eat,” as in, “ALL of them.” Because if we are truly followers of Jesus, we are not followers of a religion that justifies and builds up the individual. If we are truly followers of Jesus, then we are deeply invested in a way of living that seeks to bring all of God’s creation into community with one another, and into harmony with God. In this, all come; and all are served. Amen.