To tell you the truth, I completely understand Philip’s response in this week’s story of the feeding of the crowd of 5000. It is a mountain of hunger standing before him, after all. And it’s not as though any one of Jesus’ close followers had with them the resources to begin to touch that unending need.
Oh yes, I understand him, even though I’ve never stood before a crowd of 5,000 hungry people. In fact, all it takes is one to send me down a path where hope seems scarce. At least this is what I experienced last week.
I was at the church. Our executive committee would be meeting in the late afternoon. The plan was that when we were finished with our business we should have time to grab a bite to eat before returning for evening ministry team meetings.
Now normally our outside doors are locked at 4 p.m. when our administrative assistant leaves for the day. We decided to leave them open that Tuesday afternoon since our leaders would need to be getting in. It was almost 4:30. I was in my office gathering up files and papers when I glanced up to see a stranger talking to our council president. Instinct borne of experience told me that he was probably looking for the pastor, so I made my way out to where they were standing.
It took but a glance to take in the situation. Our guest’s jeans were in tatters. He had new stitches across his forehead. There were dark smudges under his eyes. He smelled of alcohol. I took a deep breath, introduced myself, and asked how I could help him. He told me he needed to talk — that his life was a wreck.
Now I had four people waiting to meet with me in the next room. Yes, they would have waited, but I had no idea how long this would take. So I asked if he could come back at around 6 as I figured I would have a window of time then. He told me he would. When I stepped into our meeting, I told the group that I would be grateful if someone else would remain in the building should he return. No, I wasn’t really afraid, but one never knows.
At about 6:15, he pulled up on his bike. We made our way back to my office. When I asked for his name, he told me it was Karl. He told me he had stopped at the Methodist church first, for that was where he had been baptized. He offered this with tears in his eyes. Only late in the afternoon as it was, their doors were locked. He had made his way across to our Catholic neighbors, but could find no entrance there either. Our doors just happened to be open. From there he launched into a tale of horror and woe for which I could see no happy ending.
Now one’s first thought might be that Karl was looking for a handout. He was not. He only wanted to talk. Specifically, he was begging me as someone representing God to tell him where his life was headed.
Since he admitted to a drinking problem, I asked about support from AA — whether he had a sponsor. It was clear that meetings hadn’t been part of his regular routine of late. I asked him about family, and that didn’t offer much either. I’m not sure I offered much else in terms of wisdom, although I spoke to him of the tenacious promise of God’s love for him. Honestly, from there I was at a loss and so I have to say I was especially grateful that a while back someone had handed me a pile of gift cards to McDonald’s for times such as this. And so finally I asked him if he had eaten that day. He said he had not. And I gave him $20 of those cards and told him to go get himself something to eat. And again, he started to cry. He thanked me and as he went on his way, I told him the door was open should he want to stop back. I haven’t seen him since.
Now it would appear that not much changed for Karl last Tuesday. He still would have court dates in front of him. His wife would still have left him, his siblings disowned him, his driver’s license revoked. He would not wake up to a job to go to on Wednesday morning. Not much would have changed. Except maybe some small part of his hunger was satisfied — and I hope not just physical hunger, but the hunger we all experience to be treated with dignity and kindness.
And yet, even though I had the means to physically feed him, I find I still feel an awful lot like Philip pointing out the obvious truth to Jesus that it takes a whole lot to make a difference to such a mountain of need. Situations like these always leave me feeling a little hopeless. As though nothing I can offer will ever be enough and that even what I have to give won’t start to satiate the profound needs of people in this world. Not even when they show up one at a time. Oh, yes, I know something of the despair which fed Philip’s response in the story before us now.
And so I look again to Jesus. And I realize that he looked beyond Philip’s entirely reasonable response. I remember 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 the rest. No one went away hungry that day.
It surely would have made more sense to tell those people they were on their own for their next meal, just as perhaps it would have made more sense to lock my door against Karl or the likes of him with his profound, unending need. Indeed, just like with Karl, this crowd of 5,000 would be hungry again before they knew it. A miraculous meal on a hillside wouldn’t change that. And that only spoke to their physical hunger. One can only imagine the other needs which were multiplied by 5,000 and more that day.
And yet there is this:
- We are not told, are we, 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 story doesn’t tell us. We DO know, however, that this story is told in one form or another in all four Gospels, so it must have been life changing for many. And so we 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.
No, it doesn’t seem like much:
- Five barley loaves and a couple of fish,
- A handful of gift cards to McDonald’s,
- Fifteen minutes of listening deeply to a stranger in need.
It doesn’t seem like much, but in the end, it may be everything. We may never know. But the fact that you and I often don’t know what comes next, doesn’t mean it didn’t make a difference. And just that possibility can turn despair into hope again.
- Who do you relate to in this story? Philip? Andrew? The boy? Someone in the crowd? How does where you enter the story impact your understanding of the meaning of Jesus feeding the 5,000?
- Have you ever felt Philip’s despair? What did you do then? How was that despair turned around, or was it?
- Why do you think this story is told in all four Gospels? Beyond what I offered above, what do we hear about Jesus in this particular miracle story? Does what we hear about Jesus inform who and how and what you and I are to be as well? Why or why not?