A few weeks ago, your Vestry engaged in a calendaring session – looking at the 2021-2022 calendar and deciding what events, programs, and services we want to offer. This year’s calendaring session was a bit easier than last year’s, even though there is still some lingering lack of clarity about how much resumption of “normal” activities we should plan. The most immediate concern was about our annual backpack and school supply drive. We had not heard from our partner church with whom we have coordinated for years to support a local low-income-earning neighborhood. We were not sure how we would coordinate assignments anyway since many people are still watching church from home, and not coming in for activities, and we were just not sure what people’s inertia would be like. So, we hemmed and hawed and eventually landed on the idea of using Vacation Bible School as a forum for collecting backpack supplies for a different, smaller agency that could use our help. The thought was we could at least help on a smaller scale with the outside help of Vacation Bible School attendees.
Then this week, the flood gates opened. Our partnering church called and wants to do backpacks again for our immediate neighbors in need. Suddenly there was a loaded silence among our community engagement leaders: eyes widened as we processed the predicament. We have certainly had support of the backpack ministry in the past and managed to cover the needs for our neighbors. But, managing to collect supplies and backpacks for two communities? Could we even accomplish that? And what about our current COVID fog? Half of our traditional donors are not attending in-person worship on Sundays. We certainly cannot use Sundays as our main recruitment center. Who is going to call all our previous donors and coordinate assignments? Are people still going to be willing to give? What if they aren’t? Should we check the Community Engagement budget and the Rector’s Discretionary fund? And if we use those funds, who will procure the supplies with the redirected funds? The panic was palpable. Obviously, we want to support both efforts. But we are not even sure we can.
Jesus creates a similar panic in our gospel lesson today when he asks the disciples where they can buy bread for the approximately five thousand people who have been following Jesus. Phillip pipes up first, explaining they would need six months of salary to buy that kind of bread – and even then, each person would only get a little. Andrew starts to get creative by noticing a boy in the crowd has five barley loaves and two fishes. But then he realizes how ridiculous the numbers sound: how could five barley loaves and a couple of fish feed five thousand people. Any outside-the-box thinking is immediately squashed as the disciples go silent with panic. They are not unconcerned with the crowd but come on! They do not have the kind of cash necessary to feed that many mouths. And they are all for creative problem solving, but even this kid’s food won’t feed more than a few families. Jesus is asking for the impossible.
Whether we are talking about bread or backpacks, our gut reactions to extraordinary requests are often rooted in a theology of scarcity.[i] Now I know how that sounds: weighing the methods and means of an effort is not about scarcity; weighing the methods and means is good stewardship. We have limited resources. The need out in the world is astronomical. If we try to help everyone, we will not get very far. Besides, giving out bread or backpacks is just piecemeal work – that kind of work is about feeding people, not teaching them how to fish. And we are not just worried about money: we must be realistic about the amount of labor to accomplish tasks. What others call a theology of scarcity seems like judicious stewardship to us.
Unfortunately, Jesus has never been big on realistic, measured stewardship. Where we see scarcity, Jesus sees abundance. First, the text tells us there is much grass on which the people can sit – a detail unique to John’s gospel.[ii] Second, unlike in the three other gospels, in John’s gospel, Jesus does not have the disciples do the work. Jesus distributes the bread himself. As Karoline Lewis notes, Jesus knows “Life cannot be abundant if it is not grounded in intimacy and relationship and security….Not only is Jesus the source of abundant life, but it is being in relationship with him that is also the source.”[iii] Third, John’s gospel is all about abundance – and the disciples have already seen this witness. They saw the theology of abundance from Jesus chapters before at a wedding in Cana – where Jesus did not just produce wine, but he produced barrels of wine – and not just any wine, but the best wine. Even before that miracle in Cana, John’s gospel tells us that Jesus is the Word made flesh, from whom we experience grace upon grace. And later, Jesus will tell the disciples about how the Father’s house has abundant dwelling places, and how Jesus himself will go ahead of them to prepare a place for them in that abundant place.[iv] And just in case the disciples are not sure about the validity of such a theology of abundance after seeing twelve baskets of leftovers, later in our reading today, when the disciples are terrified in a boat on rocky waters, Jesus calmly says, “It is I, do not be afraid.” But the actual Greek translation is not just “It is I,” but “It is I AM.”[v] As in, all that you have seen, all the abundance you have witnessed is of God, of Yahweh, of the great I AM.
The good news is that Jesus does not ask us to make abundance in the world. In fact, as Debie Thomas explains, “Jesus’s feeding miracles are his self-revelations. He gives bread because he is Bread. He makes possible the gathering of the body so that we might become his body, the church.”[vi] Our invitation is to do just that. Whether we participate in the theology of abundance by adding some school supplies to our shopping list, whether we start looking for abundance when our gut instinct is to wisely worry about scare resources, or whether we participate in Jesus’ abundance by saying “yes,” to whatever new scary adventure Jesus invites us into, the miracles of Jesus are not just something to marvel at from a distance. Our invitation is to become Jesus’ body, knowing full well that Jesus will give the bread because he is Bread. Amen.
[i] H. Stephen Shoemaker, “Bread and Miracles,” Christian Century, July 5-12, 2000, vol. 117, no. 20, 715.
[ii] Karoline Lewis, John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 83.
[iii] Lewis, 83.
[iv] Charles Hoffman, “More than Enough,” Christian Century, July 25, 2006, vol. 123, no. 15, 18.
[v] Lewis, 85.
[vi] Debie Thomas, “The Miracle of Gathering,” July 18, 2021, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2944 on July 22, 2021.