John 6:1-15 Common English Bible (CEB)  Feeding of the five thousand

After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberias Sea). A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.

Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.

Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary[a] worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.”

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”

10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. 11 Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. 12 When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten.

14 When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” 15 Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain.

This is the word of God for us the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Healing Hands: Feed the World

Today is the last week of this Healing Hands sermon series.  And during this series, we have heard about some of the miracles that Jesus accomplished during his life on earth bringing healing and life and hope into situations that are without life and without hope.  We’ve also learned that Jesus gave his disciples the authority and power of God to go out into the world to do exactly the same thing – that they were (and we are) sent out as apostles to heal the sick, cast out demons and to encourage people to change their hearts and lives and live a life of abundance with God.  And because of this, the name of Jesus and the healing nature of God in him became well-known throughout the world and crowds followed him.

In today’s scripture we see this miracle of feeding thousands of people when just a few loaves of bread and a few fish are available.  We have three characters interacting with Jesus in the story of the feeding of the five thousand: the two disciples – Philip and Andrew and the young boy with the fishes and loaves.  You may identify with one or two of them.  The disciple Philip was local to this area, so he would have local information about how Jesus could feed all these people.  So Jesus asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed all these people?”  Now Jesus already knew how he was going to solve this huge problem, and he was just testing Philip – I think he was testing not just his faith, but his creative problem-solving skills.  Jesus was seeing whether Philip would consider the power of Jesus in his attempt to figure this out.  And Philip kind of ignores the question of “where” will we get food and skips to the “how” we are going to get food.  And he had a rather hopeless attitude saying, “It would cost more than half a year’s salary for all these people to even have just a little bit.”  I can just see Philip getting out his calculator and running the numbers, and saying – yep – there is NO WAY we can feed all these people.

But Andrew, who was known for bringing others to Christ, brought a young boy to Christ.  And he pointed out to Jesus that at least the young boy had five barley loaves and two fish.  Now I learned that bread made from barley was considered bread for the animals or for the very poor – bread from wheat was much better.  So the boy’s offering was very meager, even for a couple of people.  But at least Andrew was a little more hopeful – he at least offered an idea!  And the young boy did at least offer his only food for the good of the people.  And as the gospel tells us, Jesus had everyone sit down.  Jesus gave thanks for the bread and the fish, and he miraculously fed thousands of people, even having baskets of leftovers afterward.

You see, when we offer what we have for God’s purposes, God can use it, and God can multiply it and amazing miracles of abundance can occur.  But, our human response to problems that arise in our lives and in our church too, is first – how can we handle this problem.  And after struggling to do things on my own for decades, I’ve come to realize that the answer to this question that we ask ourselves on almost a daily basis, is that we cannot handle our problems.  We cannot handle our problems all alone, anyway – at least from what I’ve discovered it’s not the best way.

We cannot handle our personal tragedies alone, and we cannot go out as apostles for the mission of God without the authority and power that God wants to share with us.  We cannot make disciples of Christ alone.  We can try.  We might even be successful temporarily.  We might be able to feed a few people.  But when we try to go it on our own, we miss out on the abundance found in Christ Jesus.  When we fail to trust in Jesus,

—we miss out on the basketfuls of leftovers after the meal,

-we miss out on the best wine from the wedding at Cana,

-we miss out on the presence of the Son of God during a wind storm,

-we miss out on the best of things – the overflowing abundance that God has in mind for our lives.  We miss the billions of stars in the skies, and the seeds in the sunflowers, and the grains of sand on the beach, and the uncountable leaves on the trees.  And sometimes we miss out on the biggest surprises and blessings of our lives when we try to live without the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

It’s easy to miss out on the miracles around us because the problems seem so large.  Just like Phillip it’s hard for us to imagine how this is going to work out – we don’t figure the healing hands of Jesus into the equation, and we assume that we could never feed so many people when we have so little.  Sometimes the problems appear so big —that we forget that God is bigger.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about 815 million people of the 7.6 billion people in the world, or 10.7%, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2016. Almost all the hungry people live in lower-middle-income countries. (But) there are 11 million people undernourished in developed countries.  Children are the most visible victims of undernutrition. It is estimated that undernutrition is a cause of 3.1 million child deaths annually or 45 percent of all child deaths in 2011 (UNICEF, World Health Organization [WHO], & The World Bank, 2018). Undernutrition magnifies the effect of every disease, including measles and malaria.

That is a big problem – 815 million people are hungry in our world.  It would seem that we couldn’t help with such a big problem.  It’s hard for us to imagine that we could make a difference in the world when we see such desperate need.

In the state of Arkansas there are about 200,000 children who are food insecure.  That means that each day they are uncertain where their next meal will come from.  That number works out to ¼ of the kids in Arkansas facing hunger.  In response to this problem, the Arkansas Conference of the UMC created the 200,000 Reasons initiative wherein every church in the state is encouraged to help in some way to alleviate childhood hunger.  I want to share with you a couple of stories of how people in Arkansas have sought to feed families in their communities.

The problems of hunger across the world and in our state are big ones, but there are so many ways we can help.  Currently 62% of Arkansas churches are engaged in some way with helping to feed the world.  This church is one of those who are actively engaged in helping to feed kids in our neighborhoods.  During the school year, you all bring food for the backpack program that sends home food with kids each week.  And we will start back up with that the first Sunday of September.  But this summer, we did something new.  The community, including this church, gave money to provide food during the summer for families who might need a little help with their food budgets.  Think about what the summer is like for families – they are used to receiving breakfast and lunch at school, and all of a sudden their budget has to stretch to feed the kids three meals a day!  And so many of you all stepped up to contribute funds to purchase food, and we partnered with River Valley Food 4 kids, and all summer long families have come to pick up food.  They’ve received meat, fruits and vegetables as well as canned and packaged goods like cereal.  You all have given money, you have picked up food and hauled it from Russellville, you have shown up to pack the food, and you have distributed the food to the families.  You have even connected with the families with a fun craft project to take home each week.  This has been a truly amazing project. The way that you all have given your money and your time and your energy has made a real difference in these family’s lives.  We have two more weeks to go, but our average is about 50 kids per week being served amounting to 385 instances that you have helped feed families, mostly from the Atkins and Hector communities.

But actually, this is about more than feeding people’s bellies, because I’ve watched you all make new friends and connect with old ones, and show the love of God in Christ Jesus by building relationships with the families that we have met this summer — by simply offering a kind word and sharing the love, joy and hope of your faith.

I have to share with you something that has been going on almost every Tuesday.  No matter how many families show up or how much food we get, we have always had some food left.  And it never fails that at some point on Tuesday afternoon after the food distribution is over, a person or family in need randomly wanders into the church – that is, they are not a family that is signed up to receive food.  And I say the family is in need to mean there are lots of needs.  In fact, sometimes the need is overwhelming.  It is not just a need for food.  One week a family with two young boys came in, and because of some unfortunate events they were living in their car.  Could we help solve all these issues?  Could we help them find jobs and housing and overcome all their problems?  No.  But because there were cars at the church, they stopped in.  And because we had stepped up to participate in the summer feeding program we had extra food to share.  And because we had just had VBS, there were hot dogs in the fridge; and because Jackie had brought a cake to share, there were leftovers.  We had air conditioning so they could cool off; we had toys so that the kids could play.  We shared a meal, we had food to send with them, and maybe most importantly we listened and encouraged them when they were feeling pretty hopeless.  Perhaps, we played a small part in sharing God’s love with a stressed out family that day.

Just this past week, as I was leaving the church I came face to face with a woman walking down the sidewalk.  I thought she must have been one of the families coming late to pick up food, and I invited her in.  She immediately told me she wasn’t hungry, but she needed to talk to someone, and we spent a long time talking about all the problems she was having.  I learned that she was living at the baseball park, and the reason she wasn’t hungry was because she hadn’t been eating, and I guess her stomach had given up on telling her about the hunger.  Have you ever gotten so hungry that you no longer felt hunger?

As she described her many serious issues to me….she asked me why God hated her.

And she talked about a life full of despair from the time she was 8 years old, and she said that God must really hate her to give her such a terrible life.

Did I solve all her problems?

No, I did not.  But because we put ourselves out there as a church, taking a risk to serve the community by at least doing one thing – by providing a little bit of food, I could at least send her with some food for her belly.  And while some kind of relief for her physical hunger might be what drew her into the church that day, the food for her soul is what God really wanted her to get.  Because you see, I firmly believe that God put her directly in my path that day – because she admitted to me that she wouldn’t have come into the church if we hadn’t almost run into each other on the sidewalk.  But God wanted to speak hope into her life.  And God gave her a cool place to rest for a few minutes, a listening ear, a box of food.  And more than anything God wanted her to hear that God loves her.  That God does not hate her, that God loves her in an overwhelming way even in the depths of her misery.  And so we cried out to Jesus for healing – for food and shelter and for safety.

Can we heal all the desperation that exists in the world?

Can we feed the 815 million people in the world who are hungry?  Can we feed the 200,000 kids in Arkansas who are hungry?

No, not by ourselves — but God can.  God can feed all the hungry bellies and more important than that – God can feed our hungry souls.

But the really crazy part about God, is that God wants us to be a part of these miracles.  Remember — Jesus sends us out as apostles.  We are sent out on a mission for God.  We are given the power and authority of this miraculous God to heal people, to resist evil and to show people that there is a different way to live!

And that is the conclusion of this sermon series – we are sent out to be the healing hands of Jesus.  We are apostles sent out to be the healing hand of God.  So may we give our meager offerings for those who have no idea how beloved by God they truly are.  In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Closing prayer of consecration to say together:

Take my life and let it be…Use me for love and service in ways that matter.  Take my gifts and take my days…Use them to create miracles and signs of love.  Take our lives and let us be useful…through the power of your Spirit flowing through our gifts and our days.  Amen.