This weekend’s lectionary gospel text is John 6, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. In light of the text, I thought I’d dust off this (very) old sermon:
At the beginning of the summer, I spent time in Cambodia with a friend, Mark Gunggoll, our mission chair, visiting our church’s mission projects and partners.
Our translator for the week was a young man named Puthi though, whether by mistake or by Freudian slip, Mark kept calling him ‘Booty’ instead.
Puthi translated for me; wherever we went: to churches and mission sites and meetings. He translated for me when I prayed, read scripture, celebrated communion or preached. He did a good job, and whenever I would introduce Mark to people as a professional clown or a pole dancer, Puthi would translate perfectly and with a straight face. As I said, he was a good translator.
Puthi’s a teacher at a Methodist-run mechanics school. He teaches the trade to boys who might otherwise never find work. Puthi’s only a recent graduate of the program and not much older than his students.
One afternoon towards the end of our time there, Puthi was driving Mark and me through the crowded streets of Phnom Penh. And his phone rang. He took the call and then spoke in hushed Khmer while he maneuvered around the thousands of pedestrians and motorcycles in the city streets. I couldn’t understand the language being spoken but I could tell all the same that it sounded urgent.
The call lasted a few minutes after which Puthi closed his phone and, without comment, focused on the road. Mark asked him: ‘Is everything okay?’
‘Yeah…’ he said and then crinkled his eyebrows. He was trying to find the right words, the proper translation. And when he found the right words he told us that his wife, who cooked rice and fish in the market, had called to tell him that she’d lost her job.
He didn’t need to tell us- we already knew- that they couldn’t make it on his pay alone.
Puthi didn’t say anything through three or four intersections.
‘What will you do now?’ I finally asked him.
‘I don’t know’ he said, and he looked up into the rearview mirror at me. And he smiled. It struck me that Puthi didn’t look worried or concerned at all, that ‘what am I going to do?’ hadn’t even occurred to him, that if anyone there in the car was afraid it was Mark and me.
To be honest, seeing his face there in the rearview mirror, I thought he looked naive.
‘He’s just a boy’ I thought.
It’s the only miracle in all four Gospels- the feeding of the multitude. The numbers vary a bit: the feeding of the multitude, the feeding of the five thousand. Matthew and Mark include a second account of four thousand fed. Add in the women and children who would not have been counted according to first century prejudice and, well, it was a lot of people.
All four Gospels describe this scene up on the mountain with Jesus, the disciples and a crowd Jesus just can’t shake.
In all four Gospels the menu is the same: bread and fish. Five and two.
And they all have this action that sounds like communion: Jesus took the loaves, blessed them and gave it to them.
Each Gospel portrays the crowds as all full and satisfied and every gospel includes the leftovers: 12 baskets. 5 loaves + 2 fish + 5,000 plus hungry people. 12 baskets leftover.
But only John- tells of Jesus asking that leading question. “Where shall we ever buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus knew there was no where to run to the store. Jesus must have seen the boy clutching at his parents’ legs with his sack full of bread and fish.
Only John tells of that boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.
In a crowd of 5,000 plus, he’s easy to miss, the boy with the sack lunch. In fact, most scholars writing about John 6 don’t even mention him. And, trust me, scholars have something to say about every other detail in the story.
The five loaves? That’s shorthand for Israel because of the Pentateuch, the five books of the Law that begin the bible.
And the two fish- any guesses? The two fish- say scholars- stand for the two natures of Christ, the human and the divine.
How about the twelve baskets? That’s easy. They symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. So, in other words, this miracle is really a demonstration of how only Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully Man, embodies the scriptures and only he can satisfy Israel’s calling.
The scholarly attention to detail doesn’t stop at what the numbers mean.
For example, scholars can’t help but notice how the story begins with a reference to the sea and a mountaintop and Passover. This is John’s way of saying- they say- that Jesus is greater than Moses and all the prophets and just as Moses led his people to freedom through the sea so too will Jesus deliver his people.
Commentators even take note of the type of bread with which Jesus feeds the multitude: barley. Barley, according to commentators, ripened earlier than wheat, making it cheap and readily available. In other words, it was bread for the poor. It was bread of the poor. That this is the bread Jesus feeds the crowds says everything about what sort of Messiah he’s determined to be- who he identities with and who he’s come to fill with Good News.
When biblical commentators turn to John 6, they leave no interpretive stone unturned. No detail is extraneous. Everything means something.
Except the boy. No one bothers to mention the boy. Not one of the biblical scholars bother to notice the boy standing there near Andrew, the boy with his five and his two.
Puthi’s small-framed and he looked every bit like a boy behind the wheel of the pickup.
After navigating the chaotic city streets, Puthi pulled into a bank parking lot. The bank, which looked new and clean and upscale, appeared misplaced amidst the crumbling buildings, make-shift alley shelters and barefoot children that surrounded it.
Mark went inside to use the ATM. I told Puthi that Mark needed the cash to pay off his Cambodian informants, and Puthi nodded his head, straight-faced, and said ‘Ah.’
I got out of the truck to cool off and stretch my legs. I leaned against the front, passenger window and talked with Puthi.
He pointed to the decrepit building to the right of the bank and he told me that what went on inside there was exactly what I would’ve guessed.
‘Life is hard here’ he said. And I couldn’t tell whether he was talking about himself or just the city in general.
‘Will you and your wife be able to get by without her job?’ I asked him.
And he laughed and said ‘No.’ And then he looked down at his lap and he smiled a childlike smile- like something had just occurred to him.
I cocked my head and looked at him, clearly puzzled.
‘I don’t have much,’ he said, ‘I’m just grateful God can use what I do have.’
He’d translated for me all week: prayers, scripture, sermons. But that was as close to a Word from the Lord as I had heard that whole time.
John in his Gospel tends to include details.
At the wedding at Cana, the water jugs that were about to become casks of wine? John says there were 6 of them, and they each held 20-30 gallons.
John likes details.
When Jesus was about to summon Lazarus from the tomb. His sister Martha told Jesus: ‘He’s been dead for days. He’s going to stink.’
And when the Risen Christ was cooking breakfast for the disciples who were fishing early one morning. John records that they were about 100 yards off shore. And the catch of fish that morning that strained the nets? 153, John writes.
John likes details.
So when the little boy provides the food that Jesus uses to feed the multitudes, we ought to at least notice him. We ought to see him standing there with his five and his two.
The fact is-
You can puzzle all you want about the symbolism behind the 12 and the 5 and the 2. But that boy- that’s us in the story. He’s you and me.
It doesn’t matter if your bank account is almost empty or if you feel spiritually bankrupt.
It doesn’t matter if you’re out of work or just out of energy.
It doesn’t matter if you have too many other worries in front of you or if all your good years are behind you.
It doesn’t matter how many questions you have or how much faith you don’t have.
It doesn’t matter if all you can see in your life is what’s missing from it.
It doesn’t matter if all you have is 5 and 2.
It doesn’t matter.
Because Jesus can take what we have to offer and multiply it.
That boy is us. He’s you and me.
Because- as half-baked as it sounds- Jesus takes what we have to offer, our smallest acts of mercy and compassion, and he multiplies it to further the Kingdom of God.
Because even our most awkward attempts at devotion can be magnified by the grace of God.
Because all of us- we’re ordained at our baptism to the priesthood of all believers. Every last one of us has both the joy and the responsibility, the privilege and the burden of sharing in the ministry of Jesus.
And whatever you have to offer is enough.
Even if it’s little more than 5 and 2.
I had to retell this story for the children at Vacation Bible School back in June. I used brownies instead of barley loaves.
And after I finished the story one of the kids said to me: ‘It’s hard to believe Jesus could feed all those people with just five brownies and 2 fish.’
I just smiled and nodded, and I said:
‘Kid, it’s harder to believe Jesus can take what I have and make a miracle out of it.’
That’s Puthi in the middle. And that’s me on the left, sweating like a child molester as ‘Cambodia’ is actually Khmer for ‘Hot as Hell.’