This miracle of the loaves and fishes is the only miracle story that makes it into all four of the Gospels. We have four Gospels in the Bible – each told by a different community – each with their stories of how they experienced Jesus. Three of them (Matthew, Mark and Luke) share a common pool of stories – but they often tell those differently, and they add their own community’s distinct experiences. John has its own stories and is different enough from the other three that it often stands on its own.
But all four of the Gospels tell some version of how Jesus miraculously fed thousands of people with just a few loaves and a couple fish. John devotes a whole chapter to the story. Two of the gospels tell the story twice –it’s told as the feeding of 4,000, and then again as the feeding of 5,000. The story – or some version of it – appears a total of 6 times in the 4 gospels. It’s an important story of an important experience – Do you remember that time we were with Jesus – out in the wilderness – and there was more than enough – everyone was fed, and everyone was filled?
It was miraculous.
Biblical scholar Eugene Boring points out that one of the fascinating things about the Gospels is that they include both miraculous AND non-miraculous traditions about Jesus. There are these moments, with Jesus, when folks experience things that are beyond their comprehension – a glimpse of the power and love and compassion of God, embodied in Jesus – healing; feeding 5,000; life when we thought the world was nothing but death. And, we also see Jesus – rather ordinary and non-miraculous – walking around like us – deeply and fully human – finite and limited – in a world that is hard. Jesus, grieving at death; Jesus, resisting temptation; Jesus, raging at oppression; Jesus, dying on a cross.
Both glimpses are true – Jesus fully human – and Jesus embodying the power of God. Both are true here in this story.
Jesus staggers into this morning’s Scripture – fully human and fully hurting. In the verses that precede this story in Matthew, John the Baptist has just been executed. Herod has thrown a different kind of feast than we see on this day after, and as part of the entertainment at Herod’s feast, the King and his court have beheaded John the Baptist. When word reaches Jesus, he tries to escape to a deserted place – maybe he is grieving, maybe he’s exhausted. (Howard Thurman says – Jesus stands with those whose backs are up against the wall. Maybe here, Jesus’s back is up against the wall.) There’s been no miracle today. John the Baptist has been executed. As this story begins, it’s been a non-miraculous day: The Empire has won the day, yet again.
And so, as Jae Won Lee describes it, Jesus heads away from Empire – out into this “alternative place” – out into the wilderness – and the crowds follow him. (Jesus just can’t catch a break.) And what they find there – with Jesus – away from the violent world of Empire – is compassion. The day after the Empire has won again, Jesus heals their sick – (the Greek is closer to “Jesus heals their weak.”) The most vulnerable in their midst are made whole. One after another. Throughout the day. Compassion, upon compassion, upon compassion. All day long.
And as the day starts to draw to a close, Jesus’ disciples come to him, and suggest that it’s time to send the crowd away – let’s call it a day, Jesus, it’s late, we’ve/you’ve worked hard, send them back to the villages to get something to eat.
And Jesus’ response: It’s still compassion. Jesus doesn’t send the crowd away. He says to his disciples, “They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat.” (Now at the end of the story – we’ll learn that by “them” Jesus is talking about more than 5,000 people – “You give them (5,000 people) something to eat.”) Not unreasonably, the disciples say – “Uh. There are a lot of people here – and we have nothing but five loaves and two fish.”
And here’s what happens next: Jesus says, “Bring me what you have.” And they do. Five loaves, two fish. Jesus looks to heaven, and he prays. Jesus breaks the bread, and blesses it, and gives it to the disciples. They put it in baskets, and start to walk through the crowd. And everyone eats. And everyone is filled. This crowd of more than 5,000. And the disciples – after everyone has eaten – the 12 of them – bring back 12 baskets –each basket overflowing with bread that was left over after everyone had had their fill.
The day after yet another non-miraculous day when the Empire has won again, what they remembered is that they were all together with Jesus – and the vulnerable among them were made strong, and everyone was fed.
A few years ago, I participated in a Companions on the Inner Way retreat where this was the central text. The retreat was led by John Bell – a songwriter out of the Iona Community in Scotland There about 20 of his hymns in our hymnal. I was one of the retreat preachers.
For one of the morning sessions, John Bell had us use our imagination to experience this story. He handed out cards – each with a photo of a person on it – they were black-and-white photos – taken in the 1950s – in a Scottish community somewhere – young people, older people, children, students, fisherman, teachers in their classroom – and he asked us to imagine that we were the person pictured on that card. He asked us to imagine that we were each and all headed to a day in a field somewhere to see and hear and experience this Jesus that we’d heard about.
And then he asked some of the questions I asked before Gina read the Scripture. Imagine the day. What do you do when you wake up? What preparations do you have to make? What do you take with you? Who are you going with? How do you get there? What’s it like when you arrive – this crowded field? What’s the weather like? Do you stand? Or sit? What do you see over the course of these hours? What do you hear? Are there any struggles? Any fights in the crowd?
Then, 12 hours later, you’re still there – it’s getting late. Are you tired? Are you hungry? The disciples start passing these baskets around – they’ve got some broken bread – and some fish bits. How does the basket get to you? Who hands it to you? What’s left in it when it gets to you? When the basket comes to you what do you do? To whom do you hand it? What do you do then? What happens next? And so on.
After he guided us through the imaginary day – he then put us into small groups and we shared our experience. Folks really embraced their new persona – and that was funny. A retired business man living the day as a young woman out for a day with her friends. And then he asked us to talk about what happened when the baskets were passed. And some folks talked about the smell of fish, and the bread crumbs. Some said they took just a wee bit of bread so that there might be enough. Some said they didn’t take anything. And then someone said, “When the basket got to me, I realized I’d packed more than enough sandwiches so I threw some in.” And a number of folks nodded. Another person said, “Me too. I put some sandwiches and chips in, but then I say that someone had put apples in the basket so I took one of those, because I’d forgotten to bring any fruit.” And when John Bell asked the whole group what we’d eaten on that imaginary day, it was so much more than bread and fish – apples, and sandwiches (lots of sandwiches), cookies, and cake.
And everyone was fed, and everyone had enough.
So a few days after the retreat, we were back here in San Anselmo. I was hosting John Bell at the seminary for some events he was leading, and I took him to breakfast at Hilda’s. I told him how cool I thought that exercise was – almost miraculous – and he laughed and said in a Scottish brogue I won’t try to replicate, “You know, Scott, it never fails to happen. Every time I lead that story that way people always put food in the basket. In fact, people surprise themselves because there’s more going into the basket than there is coming out.” And everyone has enough. And everyone is fed. And there are lots of sandwiches.
Eugene Boring says that there’s a whole range of ways that folks encounter these miraculous stories in the Gospels. One model is to see them as miracles that happened then and that can happen now. In a moment of need, Jesus provided enough so that thousands could eat, and Jesus still does. No need for any further explanation. A second model is to think of ways that these miracles happened, inspired by Jesus, through human agency. Jesus opened up a way for us to fill the baskets beyond what we thought possible. A third model is to see these as teaching stories – stories that may not have actually happened – or at least not exactly as told – but as teaching stories nonetheless that tell us of how God loves us in Jesus Christ, always with more than enough.
Now, I imagine that in this Zoom space there are folks who right now are thinking of this story through all three of these models. I am a Model 1 and Model 2 kind of guy. I love thinking of Jesus miraculously supplying every need – and in a non-miraculous world – I have experienced, every now and again, a world that was better than I thought possible. Maybe you’ve experienced those moments too.
The John Bell experience certainly opens up Model 2 – how Jesus shows us our own capacity in community to provide something when we thought there was nothing – actually, the capacity to create more than enough, when we thought there was nothing. And if in Glory, we find out that it was Model 3 all along – that these were stories that showed us the way, but that didn’t happen exactly like this – well, my understanding of how God loves us in Jesus Christ won’t be changed one bit. These are miraculous stories nonetheless – that continue to transform the world
We say, “Wherever you are on your spiritual journey there is a place for you here.” However you approach these miraculous stories – there’s a place for you here.
However you approach these stories, here’s what really matters: People have told these stories for thousands of years because these stories tell us something true and something that will save our lives. These stories remind us again and again that God is a God of abundance – even when all we see is scarcity and hardship – even on non-miraculous days when it seems like the Empire is winning yet again. This story of five loaves and two fish tells us that God’s love for us is bigger than we ever could imagine. That love is not abstract; it is particular – God loves us, and every person, and every bit of each of us. God longs for our well-being. In a broken world, God longs for our bodies to be healed and whole – and for everyone to have enough.
“Don’t send them away. You give them something to eat.”
These stories embody, as one writer suggests, how Jesus draws us into active participation in all that – into God’s healing and into God’s providing. When the disciples say, “but all we have...,” Jesus invites them to move out into the crowd and to offer the crowd not only bread and fish, but also a glimpse of God’s love, and also to offer themselves, ourselves – to bring what we can, to do what we can – and what we find with Jesus, as Grace Ji-Sun Kim says, is that “We have the means to do more than we think we can for God’s suffering people.”
In just a bit, after worship, we’ll gather for some conversation in breakout groups about how we are Moving Forward Together through pandemic. We are moving through a time that has its full share of non-miraculous days – of days when it feels like the unbridled power of Empire has won again (just turn on the nightly news) – of days when it feels like the pandemics that plague this world – COVID and racism to name but two – have won yet another day. And we’ve been on this journey of discovery together – surprising ourselves as we find capacity to do more than we thought possible. So in these conversations, we’ll talk about the challenges we face, and we’ll also talk about our specific hopes – the specific visions that we have for the better day that we have the capacity to create together. We’ll bring what we can to do what we can.
In those conversations and in this work, I invite each of us to think about what we bring to our shared creative work. When the basket comes round – what do I have to put in? What do you have to put in? What thought or idea or talent or resource or passion or curiosity? As that basket comes round, what do you need out of that basket, and what do you have to share?
We pass that basket and experience this story in this season that has its share of the non-miraculous. But we also experience this story in a week that has touched us deeply with the miraculous – with miraculous insight, and courage, and love as we’ve remembered together and honored the life of Congressman John Lewis In that expansive life, John Lewis sat at segregated lunch counters and in the Freedom Ride buses; he marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; and his well-lived life carried him to that moment just a few weeks ago when he could stand in the midst of Black Lives Matter Plaza just outside the White House, standing defiantly for good against the power of Empire, against the power of White Supremacy. Congressman Lewis brought what he could and did what he could, in what he called Beloved Community, transforming the world as he went.
Just before he died, Congressman Lewis sent a last open letter that the NY Times ran this week. In his last words, he said, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself. Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of this nation by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.” His last word was to tell us to vote – to do what we can.
Our ancient siblings in the faith told this story of the loaves and fishes again and again because they knew what it was to live non-miraculous days – those days when it feels like the world is winning, when it feels like the challenges and the powers that confront us are too big to be undone. They told this story because on that day when the baskets came round they experienced something miraculous. Together, they shared what they had; together, they found what they needed. They did what they could – and they found, in Jesus, that together, they had capacity to create more than enough.
We tell these stories, again and again, over the centuries, and today, because they give us a glimpse of what it is to live a miraculous life.
© 2020 Scott Clark
 See M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 241-51.  Id., p.245.  Jae Won Lee, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 3 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), pp.308-13.  See M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 248-49..  See Herman C. Watejen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976).  See id.  Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Commentary for Lectionary Proper 13, Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Commentary, Year A (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p.344.  See https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/opinion/john-lewis-civil-rights-america.html