A volunteer serves an Elizabeth Inn resident at the Loaves and Fishes kitchen in Marietta, Georgia.
Ask any preacher, and they’ve got a back-pocket feeding of the 5,000 story.
One of my colleagues talks about sharing a pan of fudge around Calumet, and so many people content to have only a taste that over 90 people got to enjoy the same plate of fudge.
Others tell stories of travel, of people who did not know one another coming together to produce a whole meal for all. The stories are everywhere: of sports moms and refugee moms that produce extra snacks out of nowhere, of funerals where a community comes together to feed a family for months, of that one guy who comes to James Taylor every July 4 with enough sangria for all of Tanglewood.
Turns out it’s not just preachers; we all have stories of people who pooled their resources to feed people. You likely have your own.
This week, several of us went to the Neighbors Helping Neighbors food pantry in South Hadley as part of our stewardship program, Sowing and Sharing Faith — we’re learning about all of the programs that we support. Mary Lou gave us a tour, introducing us to the procedures that govern the pantry, where the customers go when they come in, the process they have to go through to get their food, and the community that occurs while a family’s order is being prepared by the food pantry volunteers. The food pantry itself is a feeding of the 5,000 story — this miracle happens two days a week at the Methodist church in the falls, and we are only a part of the many individuals and organizations that keep it going.
We all have a feeding of the 5,000 story — one where pooling our resources with others results in more people getting fed than we ever thought possible.
One of mine comes from my seminary days working in a shelter in suburban Atlanta for people living in homelessness. The Elizabeth Inn’s shelter program included one meal per day for the residents — dinner. We volunteers would check the residents into the shelter, then we would go and eat dinner with them.
The aptly named Loaves and Fishes kitchen was staffed entirely by volunteers — almost always members of local churches. The environment was much less than fancy: the interior had never moved out of the 1960s and probably wasn’t terribly stylish back then. The interior was quite brown, but the atmosphere was warm. I have a lot of wonderful memories in that kitchen, hearing everything from heart wrenching stories to hilarious one-liners. I heard stories of homes lost to fire and harrowing tales of emigrating to the US. I also learned the high value of hot sauce on fried chicken.
I learned that life was difficult for everyone, but to varying degrees and often for very different and competing reasons. Food was multiplied, and so was friendship, in that kitchen that, regardless of what was being served, always smelled of mashed potatoes and fried chicken.
When we first received our tour of the place, I remember my supervisor mentioning that they serve dinner to residents 365 days per year. Typically on Christian holidays as well as at other times, the local synagogues would help out. And on the occasions when a Jewish holiday and a Christian holiday fell at the same time, one particular local mosque was known for taking over the meal.
Like the 5,000, all of those faith groups gathered at one place for one reason: they had heard about a force for good in the world and they wanted to be part of it, and often they found themselves fed as well.
Loaves and Fishes Kitchen, indeed.
One of my favorite frustrations with the average modern church person is still getting hung up, even after so long, on literal interpretations vs. metaphorical ones. As if you can only choose one; as if scientific truth and the truth of ancient wisdom were always diametrically opposed. They are sometimes, sure. We no longer just sacrifice goats to cure diseases; now we know better.
But it’s in the stories in the Bible where this either/or dichotomy breaks down. We get so hung up on whether things literally happened: whether Jonah got swallowed by an actual fish or whether Jesus actually used five loaves of bread and two fish to feed 5,000 people or whether they simply pooled their resources and shared and there was enough for everyone. As if we could prove anything either way.
It doesn’t actually matter, you know.
Because it’s a miracle whenever people — whether one boy or many people in a crowd — share their resources and Jesus’ presence makes it more than enough. I think we miss that sometimes. We miss the miracles right in front of us because we’re banking on magic tricks.
The folks in John do a lot of that. They follow Jesus around, hoping that he’ll do more “signs.” The author of John isn’t impressed with those folks, and neither is Jesus. Focusing on the signs, which to them are some kind of impressive sorcery, they miss the real honest-to-God miracle: they got to meet almighty God in the flesh.
We do that all the time in church and in the Bible.
We look for special effects and we miss the miracles.
We look for a ton of people breaking down our doors one Sunday (when they finally understand that Lutheran theology and liturgy are good for the soul) and we miss the love that already lives right here. Love that spans generations. You have loved one another so long, all the while continuing to accept new members of the family who happen upon our community one Sunday and decide to stay. That’s a miracle.
We look for a giant surplus in our finances so that we won’t have to worry anymore, and we miss the incredible generosity of our congregation. If you haven’t really looked hard at church finances, you might miss it on our budget sheets: you, and we, give at the rate of a church at least three times our size. That’s a miracle.
We look for special effects and we miss miracles. We look for what’s not there and we miss what is there. We miss the realities that point towards hope. Realities that give us everything we need with more left over. And our reality is incredible love and incredible generosity. This is the kind of church that, while it may have an unclear future, has a future.
This is the kind of church that every pastor wants. This is the kind of congregation that those searching for Christianity that does good in the world want to find: somewhere they can find inclusive community and ancient tradition and new life and ways to spread love and people who encourage them to be better humans.
Ask any preacher and they have a pocket feeding of the 5,000 story.
If I’m honest, I’ll have to say that I have a few. The Loaves and Fishes kitchen is one of my favorites, where people come together from all kinds of backgrounds to find nourishment and companionship.
My latest loaves and fishes story, however, is an ongoing one. It’s us. It’s the story of a church where we don’t miss miracles looking for special effects. It’s one where we cherish each other and we cherish God’s presence among us.
In the next five weeks, we’re going to be talking a lot about bread, staple carb in the ancient world as now. Get ready to talk about nourishment and God’s presence among us and getting more than we need. Get ready to talk about miracles. Get ready to cherish each other and God’s presence among us. Get ready to be another feeding of the 5,000 story. Amen.