Scriptures: Ephesians 3:14-21 John 6:1-21
LET US PRAY: Gracious, still-speaking God: Open our ears to hear Your Holy Word; open our hearts and minds that we might accept and live out Your message for our lives each day. Amen.
Retreat. The act of going backward or withdrawing. A period of seclusion or solitude. And, each of us can name our own favorite spot … a place where we can focus our energies on our inner life and reconnect with God. When I think of retreat, I think about sitting out on my back deck in the early evening … or sitting by the ocean in the early morning … or Sunday evening picnics atLakeGalena. I remember one memorable Women’s Retreat at the Rickets Glen home of a colleague. The cabin was rustic; the lake was beautiful in the early dawn … but, what we didn’t know was that this woman’s husband and son were huntersAND the cabin was filled with the results of their many hunting expeditions … each stuffed and mounted heads on the wall!
Retreat. Scripture tells us the other side of the Sea of Galileebecame a special place of retreat for Jesus. From what I have read of Holy Landgeography, it was not filled with the lushness of rainforests or flowered mountain slope where someone can renew their life in the surrounding overabundance. Jesus’ place of retreat was more like the Nevadadesert ~ a barren, empty landscape, where you can see and tend to the life within, in order to see and tend to the life around you. And, sometimes we need this type of retreat. Especially when life overwhelms us and we need to separate ourselves from the busy-ness all around. To such a bare wilderness, Jesus withdrew. Retreated. As we sometimes do as individuals; as we, hopefully, can do on occasion as church. When there’s too much to do, and too few left to do it. Or we’re not sure which corner to turn or who’ll be with us when we do. Retreat. “And a multitude followed Him because they saw the signs which He did on those who were diseased.”
However, even the most perfectly planned retreat can unravel. In our private places at home: the phone has a way of ringing; the children have this thing about needing to be parented once in a while; our spouse counts on a meal gracing the table or a yard being maintained. ANDeven when you pack the bags or backpacks and go on vacation: money throws its nasty tantrum of running out; or the boss has this irritating expectation of your coming home to earn that paid leave. Reality interrupts.
It certainly interrupted Jesus when the multitudes came. AND reality can certainly interrupt the church. Just when we think sanctuary enfolds us, there’s a noise outside the window. Maybe somebody’s mowing a lawn when we’re trying to hear the organ. Or maybe kids are playing too loud when our members are trying to arrive at some decision. Or maybe the mournful cries from Palestinian refugees or bereaved families in Colorado drift through the window when we’re trying to concentrate on how much God blesses our community. Unless we have made our stained glass retreats too airtight for the breath of God to penetrate, reality entices us back to the world: a world we more than occasionally lament for its waywardness … forgetting it is also the very world that God so loved. Retreat gives way to reality.
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.
I have great sympathy for Philip. Jesus told the disciples once before to carry no more than what they needed for their journey. So they likely carried very little with them on this particular day. But now, thousands of hungry people stream around this small band of disciples and Jesus. And, Jesus is asking him where to find the enough food to feed these people? One might imagine Philip rolling his eyes and muttering something about, why can’t He make up His mind?!
I can sympathize with Philip, because I think the church is always getting asked this question. Where are we going to find the resources to … Just think of some of the problems we face today!! Where are we going to find the resources to support a youth pastor … OR catch up on office technology needs … OR revitalize our outreach to youth and young families … OR underwrite mission with more than whatever we’ve got left over after all the local bills get paid. Where and how can we ever do what needs to be done, when there are fewer of us and more to do?
And then we come back to today’s reading in John’s Gospel. Jesus has a way of being perpetually misunderstood. When all the resources are added up in response to His inquiry, there are 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. Divide that by 5,000 and you’ve got some very thin sliced bread. Philip, the pragmatist ~ and let’s face it: the church cannot live without pragmatists ~ sums up the matter pretty well: Six months’ wages wouldn’t buy enough food for each of them to get a little. And who’s got six months’ wages as spare change, much less a bakery that’s going to have that much stock on hand after-hours?
As I said, John’s Gospel thrives on misunderstanding. When Jesus asked Philip where to find dinner, everybody started scampering around … turning over stones and raiding the picnic baskets of little boys. But nobody, it seemed, remembered the point of retreats ~ which is where this story began, and what is implicit in Jesus’ question. Retreats are, 1st of all, for looking deep inside ourselves, and, then, for looking outside with new eyes. In this case, retreat is about discovering and reconnecting with the One who later in this chapter will call Himself the Bread of Life. And for good reason, too. Lo and behold: all are fed!
And, how are they fed? I’m familiar with the explanations used in books and films. The sight of one boy sharing what he had suddenly shames others into sharing lunches selfishly tucked under robes, until those on the clean-up crew fill 12 baskets with the scraps. In the church, everybody knows there’s always more than you can eat at potluck suppers. And that would be a good story … a story with a worthwhile moral about sharing … but it isn’t this story. I believe that the clue to the true essence of this story comes in what John reveals about Jesus after His question to Philip … “for Jesus Himself knew what He was going to do.” The act of feeding this crowd is not about a boy’s generous contribution, nor a crowd’s belated sharing of what they had. The story, in fact, points to Jesus as the one who has the power to take their meager offerings and to then fill the crowd’s hunger.
Now I understand this is told as a miracle story. In fact, it is the only miracle story recorded in all 4 Gospels, which should tell us something about how important the early church viewed this story. But I also like to read it as a parable.
I see this story as a parable about the church … a parable that asks us: Where exactly do we look for the resources that will meet the needs set before us? The disciples, led by Philip, did the natural and pragmatic thing in this story. Their willingness to go out into the crowd and add up everything they found represents one important level of faith: namely, do an inventory and see what we have on hand. FOR the apostles: what they found, and what they brought to the table, was an unsettling scarcity. But through the power of God in Christ, the scarcity somehow, and unexplainedly, sufficed.
When I look at the church today, I see this story being replayed every day. The multitudes still come: seeking food for empty stomachs or spirits … seeking shelter from abuses and oppressors … seeking clothing that shelters the body from the elements or the heart from hatreds … seeking justice from injustices in the around ~ and, sometimes, even within the church. When you compare the needs that the world brings and the needs we all have, TO the resources at the disposal of everyday churches … we’re talking about an extraordinary imbalance. We’re talking about 5,000 standing and waiting in line, while we scratch up 5 loaves of day-old bread and a couple of pan-sized trout. That is, if all you count is the stuff you can see and taste and measure and hold.
But the church is more that the sum total of its parts … it is more than simply pooling together whatever we’ve got. The church IS the Body of Christ. And when the power of Christ works through us, even the new math can’t keep up with the multiplication and division and addition that will be at work. The church is where 5 loaves divided by 5,000 leaves more than what you started with. Where 1 faith multiplied by 12 disciples, according to the book of Acts, produces a force strong enough to turn this world turned upside down. Where the work of one congregation located in a small town of 4,600 people can make a difference in the entire world. Where 1 Christian life can impact generations to come, simply by choosing to live faithfully in her or his time.
AND: Where do we find the unseen resources to do such things, to be such people? In Jesus Christ. Who dwells … of all the most unlikely and unexpected of places … among and within us. You. Me. And, ALL of Us together.
Can you imagine that ~ more importantly, can you trust that? THAT, to me, is the ongoing miracle of this story. To see that what we have, and who we are, IS sufficient to meet the needs (notice I didn’t say WANTS) that come our way, or that come from within, so long as we remain rooted in the power of Christ. So long as we take the time to discover the One who is able to feed us and heal us and save us. And to acknowledge that Christ is able to do such things through the likes of each of us, so long as we never forget to look for the Bread of Life … who is sufficient for our genuine needs.