“Your Five Barley Loaves”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Sunday, July 29, 2018
I once gave a children’s homily about Jesus multiplying the fish and loaves. To capture their attention, I bought a large loaf of French bread and the biggest fish that I could buy. The children were listening, and everything was going well until I turned while holding the large fish wrapped in wax paper and it flew across the room and landed on the lap of a horrified five-year-old girl. I retrieved the fish, but she was covered with scores of thumbnail-sized fish scales. She looked like a cross between the Little Mermaid and Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” Till this day, I’m sure that she has a fear of fish and dislikes hearing about Jesus’ great miracle.
But it’s the only miracle told in all four gospels. In fact, it is the only story about Jesus’ ministry before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem told by all four evangelists. It’s an important story for Jesus and an important story for the Church and an important story for us because it reveals something about the divine economy, the way God meant the world to work. It’s a story of Jesus offering an inclusive meal in the wilderness, not in a church, but in an open place where even women, who could never wander in public, could join an unruly crowd and be fed.
The first lesson that it teaches us can be easily overlooked. Jesus left King Herod’s side of the Sea of Galilee and went to “the other side” of the lake. He had just healed the son of a royal officer and it was a good time to move to the other side of the lake in case the miracle attracted Herod’s attention. So, Jesus crossed to the Gentile side of the lake. Jewish fishermen faced their boats north and cast their nets to the left side of the boat because it was the Jewish side, the kosher side. The right side was the Gentiles’ side. No Jew would cast his nets in that direction. But Jesus went to the other side. He also traveled to Samaria, Tyre and Sidon, places where Jews would never go. He traveled to the other side.
You and I are living in a day and age where people are becoming fearful of “the other side.” We are becoming more tribal, more secluded and more divided. Preacher Frank Wade notes,
We are becoming a nation of hyphenated Americans; African-Americans, Asian-
Americans, European-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans. We are further
balkanized into communities: the gay community, the Jewish community, the
academic community, and the artistic community. We are then polarized into rights groups organized on the basis of gender, victimization or undergraduate status.
Our politicians fear to work with the other side. We are divided by Red and Blue States, Christians and Muslims, the US vs. Russia or North Korea or Iran, those who own guns and those who don’t, people who are pro-life or pro-choice, and the list goes on. We need leaders and citizens who can engage, respect, listen to, learn from and assist the other side, uniting rather than dividing.
In his Wednesday column in The New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote,
Research shows that, increasingly, Americans on one side of the political divide
don’t just disagree with those on the other. They see them as threats to the country’s
well-being. Their anger at the opposing party and its leaders is more pervasive…
And their unbalanced information diets and narrow ideological enclaves insulate
them from its reasoning. Forget I’m O.K., you’re O.K. This is: I have problems,
So, when Jesus crossed to the other side he took a big risk and truly led. The location of the miracle was significant as was the timing. It occurred during the Passover, during the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, when Jews celebrate God providing manna from heaven after they had fled Egypt. Many Jews were traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate. They saw Jesus and followed him. Others who had been with Jesus on the Jewish side of the lake and saw the disciples depart by boat knew where Jesus was going. They followed on foot for nine miles. Many were sick. Some were sad. Others were lonely. Each of them hungered for something significant.
Jesus might have told them to get lost, but instead he had compassion on them. The Greek word for compassion literally means to have your gut wrenched. Jesus had compassion on them, and he did something to alleviate their need – not just their spiritual needs but their physical needs.
True, some people may have followed Jesus because they wanted to see more signs and miracles. They were looking externally at things. But Jesus was striving to help them look internally at themselves, at each other and at what God could do among them. The disciples told Jesus, “It’s getting late.” Let’s call it a day. Time to build a campfire, pitch a tent and cook dinner. Send the crowd away to find food and shelter. But Jesus wanted to keep everyone together.
So, Jesus offered a test question because he saw more than the crowd. He saw their need. But the only food to be found were five barley loaves and two fish that belonged to a small boy. Barley was the cheapest of all bread. Barley was the bread of the very poor. Barley was the bread offering that a woman who committed adultery had to offer. Barley was a scorned offering. But nothing more could be found than five barley loaves and a few sardines.
Now, Jesus saw the huge crowd and he leaned over to Philip. “How are we going to feed all these people?” It was a test. He asked Philip, because Philip came from Bethsaida, a nearby town, and he knew where provisions could be found. Philip was the Accounting Warden for the Jesus Movement. He was cautious and informed Jesus that 200 denarii or six-months’ wages for a worker could provide enough for each person to eat just a little. Only the men were counted back then. Scholars estimate that 15,000 men, women and children were gathered in the crowd.
Then Andrew asked one of the most eliciting questions in the Bible. “What are they among so many?” In other words, how can so little help so many? It is one of the great economic questions. Andrew was practical. He operated from a sense of scarcity. There’s only so much water, so much food, so much shelter. But Jesus had a different view. He believed that God can and would provide. Love triumphs. Jesus believed that scarcity and fear are more mental than real. Jesus looked out and saw plenty, plenty of people, plenty of love and plenty of possibilities.
The disciples could do the math – five loaves, two fish, 5,000 men plus women and children. Then Jesus asked the crowd to sit down. He blessed the loaves and fish and gave them to the disciples to distribute. Did the bread and fish multiply as Jesus was blessing it? Did the miracle occur as the disciples distributed it? Did each person receive a crumb only to see it grow into a full meal? The Bible does not say, but the text notes that there were twelve baskets of leftovers.
There are different interpretations of this miracle. Some note that no one back then would set out on a journey without taking some provisions – some dried fish, pita bread, raisins, grapes or bits of lamb. In other words, everyone had something, but all were holding back for fear that if they shared they might not have enough to satisfy themselves. But after seeing Jesus bless the boy’s lunch and share it, the crowd was inspired to share their own provisions.
Preacher Fred Cradock tells the story about being stranding at an airport during a snowstorm. After waiting for hours, the passengers finally boarded the plane. The stewardess told the disgruntled passengers, “I have some good news and bad news. The good news is that we will soon take off. The bad news is that due to the storm we have no food or beverages.” Everyone groaned. She continued, “But a man in row 14 has a large bag of potato ships and the woman beside him has a big container of iced tea and the gentleman wearing a baseball cap in row 22 has a bag of Oreos and a woman in row 4 has a box of Ritz Crackers and lots of cheddar cheese. So, if you all begin sharing, we will have a wonderful flight.” Craddock said that her announcement transformed that flight from a gathering of individuals into a group of friends who shared, traded stories and spoke about their lives. A group of strangers became a community of friends.
But the danger of interpreting the miracle of the fish and loaves like this is that it reduces Jesus to a divine therapist who uses behavior modification to alter people’s selfishness into generosity. If Jesus is the Son of God, then this story is completely believable. We can trust it. The God who set the planets in motion can multiply a few fish and loaves. You are free to choose what to believe. Both interpretations are meaningful. I believe in miracles, but in a world where there is more than enough to feed the planet but 800 million people go unnourished each day and 42 million Americans are food insecure and Philadelphia is the 10th most food insecure city in the country and 21% of Philadelphians are food insecure, we need to share more of what we have.
The problem with miracles is that they get us off the hook. We want to wait for God to act while we do nothing. But that’s not the nature of a true miracle and that’s not how God works. God almost always invites us to participate. “Pick up your mat and walk.” “Go and be healed.” “You give them something to eat.”
I know that each of you has five barley loaves. Only you know what they are. You may not view it as a lot, but if you take your barley loaves and share them with God, God will multiply them. Our Associate Rector Liz Costello notes that our Second Saturday Sales are like that. She said, “People bring their crumbs and barley loaves and God multiplies them miraculously!”
As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Bring what you have to me; that is where to begin. Remember that there is no such thing as ‘your’ bread or ‘my’ bread; there is only ‘our’ bread, as in ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ However much you have, just bring it to me and believe that it is enough to begin with, enough to get the ball rolling, enough to start a trend. Be the first in the crowd to turn your pockets inside out; be the first on your block to start a miracle.” Amen.