[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. Nevertheless, here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]
If you’re here on Wednesday nights, you know that there are usually several children here. Some of them are the children of our church families who you are also likely to see on Sunday mornings. But we also, on Wednesday nights, have several of our after school program kids who stay for dinner. They can do this because Mary Royalty, one of our children’s ministry assistants, and Dorothy Jourdan, a high student, agree to stay for the hour in between the time that after school club ends and Wednesday night dinners begin. For that night each week we can feed children dinner, and we can also include our after school kids in our children’s choir rehearsal and provide some Christian formation.
On a Wednesday night this past fall, Carolyn Dorsey was here at our church. She was sharing about the Sadie Sunshine chapter of Crochet for Cancer. She had brought with her a large sample of the items she and her team members around the world make and that she mails to hospitals and patients, and these sample hats and prayer shawls, and prayer squares were displayed creatively on a table near the lectern.
If you’re here early enough on Wednesday night, you also know there’s a bit of a procession when the kids can finally leave the gym and come to the fellowship hall. When there is a special guest with a table display set up, things get exciting pretty quickly. The children race to be the first one to look at the items on display. So on the night of Ms. Dorsey’s visit, at five minutes til six, her table was swarmed by elementary and preschool aged children wanting to look at the bright display of knitted and crocheted items.
One little girl, age nine, looked at the display before her. She’s smart and a good reader, so she began reading some of the descriptions out loud. I listened to her analyze the contents of various bags and read the tag on one of them. Suddenly, her jaw dropped and her smile disappeared. “Wait,” she said. “Kids get cancer?” I let the question hang in the air, until she directed it to me. “Ms. Becky, kids get cancer?” She asked me. So I put my hand on her shoulder and looked her in the eye and I told her some quick version of the answer that yes they do and yes that’s sad and yes we should pray for them and their families….and then in the mix of getting ready for dinner, I hurried to break up an argument about how many cookies constitute one dessert.
A couple of moments later, I looked down to see the nine year-old girl standing beside me, holding out a dollar bill. Confused, I asked her what it was for. “Kids get cancer,” she said. “I don’t want that to happen anymore. Give it to the lady so she can help them.” Now, without letting you into personal family matters I will just mention that to a lot nine year-olds, a dollar is only a fraction of what the tooth fairy brings or a small part of the week’s allowance or the amount they can make by taking out the trash at home…but to my young friend, it was a pretty big chunk of money and not something she would usually be carrying—in fact, she told me it was all the money she had with her. And I will tell you that we took that money to Carolyn and she was grateful for the child’s gift offered so honestly and purely to her work. And I have no doubt Carolyn used that dollar to send a fun hat to a child suffering from a dreadful disease and that our little friend was a partner in bringing some joy to the child who received it.
Today’s gospel reading starts in the middle of a tense moment in the life of Christ. Chapter six starts with the words: “After this…” After what? Well, in chapter five Jesus heals a man—restores health after 38 years of illness—38 years! that’s the length of my entire lifetime. And then, of course it was the Sabbath, so instead of celebrating the restoration of a man who had most likely, and understandably, given up by now that he would ever be healthy again, the religious leaders attacked with questions and accusations. It’s after this, John 5 tells us, that the leaders began to rally for Jesus’ death. Chapter 5 ends with Jesus making his case about his relationship with God and the ministry he was called to do…and then chapter 6 begins with an escape attempt—first across the sea and then up into the mountains.
But the crowd is persistent. They have seen Jesus heal—the sick man in chapter 5, others before him. They want to be with Jesus. And oh, compassionate Jesus realizes that no doubt this devoted, persistent crowd is hungry—they’ve walked around a sea, they’ve walked up into the mountains to be with him. With them, they carried children on their backs and in their arms, and I imagine some carried sick relatives they were hoping Jesus would touch.
Now Jesus is a teacher, and so he asks a question of his students: “Where will we buy bread for these people to eat?”
This is an interesting question. And in it, there is something implied that perhaps the disciples were not expecting. Jesus is implying that it is the disciple’s task—and his task, he says “we”—to provide food for the crowd.
Now notice—Jesus doesn’t ask HOW will we buy bread. He asks WHERE will we buy bread.
Philip however, responds as though Jesus asked HOW. “Jesus have you seen the crowd? We could catch and sell fish for six months and still not have enough money to feed this crowd well.”
Now obviously some conversations are missing here. I imagine that Jesus instructed his disciples to find something for the crowd to eat, as he does in other Gospel accounts of the feeding of the multitudes, sending the disciples on a mission to survey the crowd, perhaps.
Philip comes back with something—“I got a kid with a lunch box! Five barley loaves, two fish.”
And then he adds a sentence that tells us that rather than being just plain hopeful, he was feeling a bit skeptical—“but what are they among so many people?”
And then you know how the miracle goes—the people sit down (in other gospels we’re told that they were organized a bit), Jesus gives thanks, breaks the bread and the fish, and people ate as much as they wanted to eat with twelve baskets of leftovers to spare.
All because Jesus is the worker of miracles…and because a boy shared his lunch.
Now, I want to talk about this little boy. The other gospels do not mention him and I am not really sure why because it seems like an interesting part of the story, at least to me, but I might be biased since I tend to find most children to be mostly interesting most of the time.
This boy, mentioned here in John 6, helps us remember 3 really important things about offering our gifts in ministry as we are called to partner with Jesus.
First, the child present here was generous with what he had to offer. It had been a long day, he had taken a long walk, and he was no doubt as hungry as the rest of the crowd. Sure, you might believe that he was coerced into offering his food to the task at hand, but I know children and I know that they are often eager and trusting with their gifts, so I believe he offered his lunch with open hands and a willing heart, much like my little friend offered her dollar to Carolyn’s ministry.
In our human condition, especially as we get older and more cynical, we are much more likely to clench our fists and hold onto whatever good gifts we have—for fear of what? That there really isn’t enough to go around? That if we let it go, it might benefit the wrong person? That it might not be appreciated or valued in the hands of another?
But in the face of our fears and unwilling hearts, Scripture tells us a different story. In James, we read that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Psalm 24 reminds us that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it! In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul reminds us that we’ve been given a trust and the opportunity to be faithful with what we’ve been given. Nothing we have actually belongs to us—it all is God’s anyway. You can’t take it with you, you can’t even secure most of it completely—ask anyone whose home has burned down or who has lost money on a sure thing investment. Every good thing we have comes from God and we are entrusted with it. To take God’s generosity and hoard it for ourselves is not what we are called to do. Be shrewd and careful, yes; be good stewards, yes; but hold onto it for selfish gain? Never our calling as disciples.
Second, the child saw value in what he had to offer. Not only did he offer his lunch with generosity, but he offered it with childlike faith that it was a useful gift. There were, no doubt, some adults in the crowd who had pieces of food in their bags…but it’s a child who offers up his lunch. As adults, whether we are among the crowd or among the disciples, we tend to downplay our own gifts and potential offerings. Too little, too small, too tarnished, too mediocre, etc. We look at the size of the problem and we make the determination that what we have is not enough…or not good enough. Not this child! This child saw his lunch as a viable solution—otherwise, he wouldn’t have offered it. Where others saw scarcity, the boy saw the potential for abundance. The beautiful thing about children is that they believe that their dollar…or their lunch…or whatever gift they are holding out matters and is worthy.
In the Church and in our lives, we often doubt the goodness of the gifts we have to offer. We’re more like Andrew who wonders how the boy’s lunch could possibly be valuable to Jesus in the face of such a perceived shortage. The need is too great…I don’t have enough…what I have isn’t very good…these are all the things that we’ve learned to tell ourselves.
But what if we were to have faith like a child? What if we trusted that in Jesus’ hands, our gifts would be enough? Or that us + Jesus is always bigger than any problem faced?
Here’s a third thing to notice here: Jesus found a partner in the little boy. Because the little boy was generous to share, and because the boy believed he had something to offer Jesus and the crowd, Jesus called him into ministry. It strikes me that if we look in Scripture, we would be hard-pressed to find any instances of God not partnering with people. From Noah to Abraham to Moses to the judges and the prophets and even some of the kings…to Mary, John the Baptist…
And this little boy! If Jesus had wanted to, he could have called down bread from heaven—I believe that he could have. But not only did he invite the disciples into partnership in addressing the crowd’s hunger, but he used the gift of bread and fish, offered by small hands, to feed the multitude.
And Church—we are called into partnership with Jesus as well. Jesus is still asking “where are we going to get bread to feed these people?”or “from where will the resources come so clean water can become the norm in the developing world?”or “who will carry and share the gospel to the ends of the earth?” or even “who will love this one neighbor no one is loving?”
Well…I’m convinced that these resources are found among the Body of Christ. We each have God-given gifts. We are blessed to overflowing—so many resources and abilities and creative solutions and talents are present in this room…and in the Church worldwide.
May we open our hands in generosity, refusing to hoard the gifts of God…may we boldly offer what we have been given, refusing to believe that it’s not enough…and may we recognize the opportunities we have around us to share in ministry with Jesus, the one who can always make a way in hard or impossible situations thanks be to God!