I am normally a happy person. However, I do tend to have an active imagination with an anxious disposition. This kind of person is best described as a “worrier.” Normally, it is good for people to worry. It gives them a necessary pause to consider their options before committing to a decision. My problem is this: my worries, if unchecked, can take over and make the decisions of life for me. I am clever and capable of spinning tales of woe and utmost hardship from simple worries until the story takes over and I have to pause and think to really separate fact from fiction. It’s an anxiety tailspin, which can be rather hard to get out of. But I am not alone. These kinds of people have existed forever.
A long time ago, Moses led the Israelites through a desert to their freedom. During those 40 years of wandering there were times of trial and difficulty. In that desert, these people grew hungry and God provided. When the bread of heaven came down upon the fleeing refugees, it wasn’t loaves of bread raining and bonking people on the noggin. We read that it was like hoarfrost on the ground: strangely sweet with a taste of honey in it.
In the mornings, people could gather enough of it up in jars to last through the day. I would imagine that there were all kinds of folks among the Israelites. And all the worriers, the plan-a-headers, the supply counters, and the schemers, the instinctive retailers, the concierges of the caravan, found they could fill a whole lot of jars before the dew was off the ground. Aha! God provides so much more than we could possibly need!
And then they discovered that manna had a shelf-life of one day. Use before sundown, said the fine print. After that it goes bad, it rots, and is wasted. So the only option was to trust the day, to trust the providing of the day, rather than the anxious demons at work among them, seeking to sway them to fear the day, and all the days to come. Trust that God provides what we need when we need it.
On the mountainside of our text in John, when Jesus asked Philip, Where shall we buy bread to feed this crowd, Philip went into an anxiety tail spin: it can’t be done. Andrew also, as he said: There’s a boy here with five barley loaves and two fish. But it’s not enough. I realize that Jesus looked beyond Philip and Andrew’s entirely reasonable responses. We all know that all Jesus saw was a hungry crowd, and that in the face of such need; even reasonable despair is simply not an option. It just isn’t. And when he was told that there was a boy there with a lunch of bread and fish, he took that and began to share it. And the rest? Well, we know how the rest went. No one went away hungry that day[ii]. Jesus said, Begin with that. Trust in God.
At the end of this great thing, they gathered up the fragments (so that nothing will be lost, Jesus told them) and there was so very much. 12 full baskets of fragments. God provides so much more than we could possibly need.
It’s much the same here in today’s gospel text as it was in the wilderness of old, with the manna: the work is to trust the day, which has already sent a generosity of ears to listen, and along with them, a hunger of mouths to feed. Trust the day, full of wonders, words to remember forever, a sea of faces, and now this, the brink of miracle. Trust the day, and do not let anxiety hold sway, because events really do take planning and this event just happened without any planning. Trust the day, because a small boy is holding out five loaves and two fish, a gesture of love and a sign of amazement, showing us the God who does not hand out plans but does offer us love and signs of amazement. Trust that God will provide what we need when we need it.
I mentioned that I am a worrier. I am one who falls prey to anxiety often. But, I am often comforted by the reality that I am not alone in this. Who hasn’t given in to the Demon Anxiety? Anxiety is like an old and familiar pair of shoes, pinchingly painful, but predictable and secure. Moving ahead while doubting oneself, doubting God and certainly Jesus, muttering no good will come of this at each step of the way, seems to be all the faith one can muster sometimes: a pinched spirit.
And yet, of this Gospel story and of the myriad of questions and scepticism and doubts, there is this:
We are not told what became of those 5,000 who feasted on a boy’s lunch that day so long ago.
We don’t know how many of them left that day with a greater sense of possibility and hope than they had ever had before.
We don’t know if in the next meals they shared, whether they experienced a deepened sense of wonder at what can happen in such ordinary moments. And we don’t know whether as they learned to watch for it, they were able to continue to experience the work of God in remarkable ways.
We don’t know, for the written story doesn’t tell us. We DO know, however, that this story is told in one form or another in all four of our Gospel texts, so it must have been life changing for many. And we also DO know that this truth that Jesus met people where they were and gave them what they needed in that moment is central to our understanding of who Jesus was and is and therefore, is also central to who you and I are called to be as we seek to follow him.[iii] The really important thing about Jesus isn’t simply that he fed so many people with only 5 loaves and two fish, but that his actions point us to God and teach us something about God. Jesus is the one who satisfies; God is the one who provides.
The crowd gets pretty excited after Jesus does this miraculous thing. They’ve seen him heal people, actual sick and dying people, and they’ve heard him speak and teach in a way that they haven’t heard yet. Clearly, this man is a prophet of some kind. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. And they got fed, and blessed. However, the people misunderstand the implications of the sign they have seen. He’s a wonder worker! No—he’s a prophet! Wait—he’s a king! There is an incredible desire to make Jesus a king because he is showing himself to be quite the problem-solver. And this is what they need – someone to solve all their problems. They want to make Jesus an earthly, political ruler, a king – which, I might add, is the false charge for which Jesus is later executed. And they want to do it by their own force – which is contrary to the power of God’s love. There is such a tendency—in biblical times and today—to fashion Jesus into the choose-your-own-messiah. So Jesus quietly takes his leave and heads up to the mountain to pray.
And the sun starts to set and it gets dark. The disciples get into the boat even though Jesus hasn’t returned yet. No disciple is dispatched to see if he’s all right or perhaps waiting in line for the bathroom. Nobody takes a quick look around the car to make sure everyone’s in before heading out of the gas station parking lot. Off they go to Capernaum. The disciples are alone three miles out on the lake in a boat. The winds are up. The water is rough. They see Jesus walking on the water. They are SCARED. And then verse 21 says, “Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.” It’s interesting that the minute they wanted to take Jesus into the boat, they actually got where they had intended. Jesus, seeing the fear in his disciples on the sea, loved them and gave them the peace of his presence.
Heaven, Jesus said once, is like a woman who kneads yeast into three barrels of flour, so there will be more than enough. Now, I’ve made bread many different ways. I’ve accounted for humidity and elevation, and time of day, and age of yeast. I’ve also been in countless kitchens – church supper kitchens, family kitchens, my own kitchen – heck, I work in a restaurant kitchen – where feasts that produced enough leftovers that would later engorge refrigerators were being made by cooks who kept up a steady stream of dire predictions that the food would run out. I have yet to meet that person who happily yeasts up three barrels of flour without a single self-flagellating remark that the bread probably won’t rise or the hungry won’t show up or the food will run out because the hungry WILL show up.
All of these stories are little rafts of trust. These stories are ships of providence. Scripture that is full of images and promises of God’s providing, abiding love, promising to feed us with abundance, to be with us in the storm. And we can trust that God will provide. This week, Christ is walking on water to meet the disciples in the moment of their chaos in the wind and the dark. Christ meets us all in the mess of our day, in the midst of the worries and the wondering and the scolding kids and the noise and the things left undone. Christ is with us as we worry, speaking peace. And Christ is feeding the people, showing them that the resources are there with them, just as He is there with them. Christ is blessing the world in surprising ways, feeding us all. These are good stories, good fragments, to hold onto.
Collecting the fragments seems to be the way for reminding us of the miracles, the abundance, the more-than-enough that, for that day, quelling the anxious Demon in the disciples. Nothing lost is, after all, nothing unnoticed. It is not necessarily something saved. What power of the Holy Spirit pervades the bread and these stories, moves into us; we who have straggled in from God-knows-where; we, a collection of fragments of humanity; we, fed to become the Bread that feeds the world. This power of Spirit does not remain behind, in shelved bread, but travels out in us, where it is not lost. Lost is what it would indeed be, if it were possible to shelve it, mete it out, label and date it, or come back later for seconds.
So, I encourage you to take heart. Stand stronger against the well of despair and the overwhelming power of anxiety, and move forward in trust. Open yourselves to believe and trust that God’s actions in the world are actions of love. God’s hope for the world is that we take up the fragments and move out into the world in actions of love. This is a love that surpasses all knowledge; a love that feeds hungry crowds; a love that turns no one away; a love that lifts us up and supports us; a love that heals both the smallest and the largest wounds. “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
Today’s image is modified and borrowed from Julia Munroe, from All Sparked Up, who makes some of the prettiest bread I have ever seen.