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Apparently, we cannot hear this story enough, this feeding of more than 5,000 people with what appeared to be nothing more than five loaves of bread and two fish. It is the only so-called miracle story that appears in each of the four gospels, and one version of it or another makes regular, sometimes repeat appearances in the assigned scripture readings for Sunday worship
So just what is it about this story that bears repeating? What message (or messages, plural) are so important that, apparently, we cannot hear them enough? What does this story tell us about who Jesus is, who we are, and how we are to live together?
That some people look at the world’s needs and see the potential for community and loving action, while others see only problems?
That our own needs and imperfections, as well the needs of an unjust and broken world, can be gateways to compassion, transformation, healing, grace, and what had previously seemed impossible?
That the fundamental human fear of not having or being enough is age-old and universal?
That, even when it seems there is nowhere near enough, when we bless what we have, when our eyes and hearts are opened to the abundance of what we have, and when we all share what we have, there is enough for everyone?
That all we need is right here?
That a little faith, blessing, and community can move us from fear to love and from scarcity to more than enough?
That it is God’s great desire, and our holy responsibility, to see that all are fed?
That our lives in God, our lives together, are meant to be one huge potluck, a never-ending shared feast?
That we are all in this together?
All of that makes sense to me. Each and every message is one I need to hear again and again and again.
And yet, precisely because we hear the story so often, we can fail to recognize how radical those messages are. We can stop hearing the story’s deep and life-giving truths. Precisely because we think we know the story so well, we can give it short shrift. We can reduce it to little more than insider church lingo; talking about “loaves and fishes” whenever we’re relieved that there ended up being enough food at the potluck. We can become so familiar with the story’s major themes (even if we haven’t quite managed to let their truths change how we live), that we fail to catch some of the nuances in the text.
And so it is that today I want to focus on one of the overlooked aspects of this story: That moment when—after Jesus felt compassion for the people, after the disciples saw a disaster in the making and tried to get Jesus to send the people away, after a boy came forward with five barley loaves and two fish, after Jesus had the people sit down, and then took the loaves and blessed them, and passed the loaves and fishes around and through the crowd, after everyone had eaten as much as they wanted and all were satisfied—the meal was over.
“Gather up the fragments left over,” Jesus told the disciples, “so that nothing may be lost.”
Gather up the fragments.
And so the disciples went out again, meandering through the crowd. When they came back with the leftovers, the pieces filled 12 baskets. Which is to say: The people ended up with more than they had started with. Even after everyone had eaten all they wanted, there were leftovers. Not only was there enough food for everyone; there was more than enough
None of the gospel accounts tells us what Jesus did with the leftovers, which makes me wonder if the collection had less to do with avoiding waste than with making a point:
See? There is enough.
See? There is still more.
See? You have nothing to fear.
See? God is able to do far more than we can ask or imagine.
See? Abundance abounds.
This holy object lesson makes me wonder about the fragments of my life. It makes me wonder about the fragments of your lives and the fragments of our life together.
What would it mean to gather them up? How would we even do that? Once gathered, what would our lives’ leftovers add up to? Might we be as surprised and amazed as the 5,000 people who ate lunch so long ago on the shores of the Sea of Galilee? Might we see blessings and abundance we had previously overlooked? Might the collection of our fragments bring us to our knees in gratitude?
We know how to package up leftovers from a meal. We know what it is to put them into containers, stash them in the freezer and save them for later, pack them in tomorrow’s lunch, use them as the basis for a completely different dish, or send them home with grateful dinner guests. We know what it is, especially if we are the lucky dinner guests, to dig into those leftovers and be blessed with both good food and sweet memories of the time we spent at table with family and friends. Those leftovers fill our stomachs and our hearts.
But how do we collect the fragments of our lives? Where do we begin, and how do we proceed?
What are the fragments of our lives?
They might be failures big and small. Losses large and long. Dreams that were set aside. Projects that were left unfinished. Journeys that were abandoned mid-course. Fragments could be hurts that haven’t healed and hopes that haven’t been realized. Plans that were put on hold. Fragments can be relationships that need tending, grudges that need giving up, and wrongs that need forgiving. The fragments of our lives might be experiences that need remembering, stories that need telling, lessons that need sharing, dots that need connecting.
When we see ourselves and the fragments of our lives through the eyes of Jesus, we feel compassion. We see dignity and divinity. We see hope, potential, and the promise of abundance. We can be like the child who offers what little he has to Jesus, giving our all even when it feels insignificant.
We can look again at our gifts, we can gather up our fragments in hope, we can reconsider our lives knowing that God can do a lot with just a little.
The one thing each fragment has in common with all the others, the way the fragments of your life are like the fragments of my life is that they have the capacity to feed us. Like the leftovers from last night’s supper, they might go bad if we forget about them. But if we take the time to gather them up, if we attend to them, who knows what kind of feast they might produce? Who knows how they might bless us, our dear ones, and people we’ve never met.
“Gather up the fragments left over,” Jesus said, “so that nothing may be lost.”
So that nothing may be lost.
The story gives us an idea of how many leftovers there were—12 baskets full—but it doesn’t tell us what the disciples did with them. I like to think that at least some of the baskets were sent back into the crowd, so that the poorest among the people could take something for their journey home. I like to think that the disciples kept a basket and took it into the boat with them, and the fragments gave them strength in the storm. I like to think that every one of the 5,000 people there that day never forgot that meal of a lifetime, and that its blessings stayed with them long after the aftertaste had faded and the calories had been burned off.
I like to think that the fragments of our lives have gifts yet to give. I like to think that when we are hungry, when our hearts are filled with longing, that when we feel too tired to go on, that when we are sure the storm will overtake us, that we will find sustenance and strength in the fragments. I like to think that they will remind us that nothing in our lives—neither the deepest pains nor the greatest fears—need be lost. That if we gather them up and tend to them we will find a feast and that we will give thanks to the Holy Host who packaged them up for us and sent us out into the night with a hug and a kiss.
May it be so.