Growing up, I didn’t want for any of the essentials—or even many of the non-essentials—but money was held tightly in our family. Most of my dresses were handmade by my grandmother, and my brother and I were regularly reminded of what our family couldn’t afford.
And still, the sensual pleasures of summer were substantial: the smell of freshly mown grass, the feel of bare feet on linoleum, the scrumptiousness of peach cobbler piping hot from the oven and topped with homemade vanilla ice cream, the joyful cacophony of neighborhood children playing games in the public swimming pool, the thrill of riding our bikes as fast as we could up and down our short city street.
And then one hot and humid afternoon, the most amazing thing happened: The ice cream man and the sno-cone truck appeared on our block at. the. same. time. It was a miracle, an embarrassment of riches! And I was beside myself with excitement.
And in my excitement I made a huge blunder: I ran into the house and, instead of asking my mom if I could have an ice cream or a sno-cone, I asked which treat I could have.
Well, let me tell you: I didn’t get either one. Instead, I got a spanking and a lecture. I don’t remember much about the lecture, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sense of shame I felt not only for wanting something but for expecting I could have it.
And so it is that some of us—maybe even many of us—walk through life feeling that we shouldn’t want things. Maybe we feel that we’re not worthy of them, we don’t deserve them, or there just aren’t enough of them. Maybe because the things we want seem extravagant or, more likely, just not absolutely necessary.
And so we lower our expectations and our horizons. We limit our sense of what is possible. We decide, consciously or unconsciously, that the way things are is the way they’re supposed to be—or, if not the way they’re supposed to be, exactly, the way they have to be. After a while, we get so used to doing without whatever it was we wanted that anything else feels excessive or indulgent.
We settle. And if this goes on long enough, we may even forget how to imagine that things could be any different than they are. When we look around, we see limitations instead of possibilities, the reasons why instead of curiosity as to why not.
This is exactly where Philip is coming from when he responds to Jesus’ trick question about where to get food for 5,000 people. One of the most challenging and, ultimately, dangerous things about Jesus is his tendency to call people out on their scarcity mentality, their resignation to the way things are.
In fact, according to John’s gospel, just before Jesus encountered a multitude of hungry people on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, he had gotten himself into trouble for healing a man in Jerusalem. Jesus got in trouble with the rule keepers for healing the man on the sabbath, but the really interesting thing is that Jesus healed a man who had been lame for 38 years and, apparently, had all but given up.
So Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be made well?”
And what do you know: Instead of saying, “Of course, I do!” the man offered Jesus a string of excuses: “Sir, I don’t have anyone to help me into the healing waters. Sir, when I do have help, someone else gets in the water first. In other words, Jesus, this is just how it is. There’s nothing I can do.”
Ah, but there was something Jesus could do.
“Stand up,” he tells the man, “take your mat and walk. Just do it.”
And at once, the story says, the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
So it’s no surprise that thousands of poor, oppressed peasants have followed Jesus to the Galilee. They have noticed, even if Jesus’ disciples have not, that when Jesus is around, amazing things happen. They have followed Jesus not only because they hope he will do something for them, but also because he has revived in them a sense of possibility, the slimmest hope that maybe things won’t always be the way they are.
And Jesus can hardly wait to fulfill that hope. The gist of the good news is that there is another way, the realm of God, and a different kind of power, the power of love. Jesus can’t wait to show people what God’s love is like.
And so it is with a twinkle in his eye that Jesus asks Philip where to get food for 5,000 people. And, Philip, like so many of us, sees nothing but obstacles. There is just no way, he tells Jesus. It’s a huge logistical problem and, even if we could pull that off, we could never afford to pay for it. Sorry, Jesus—what are you thinking?—but they’ll just have to go without.
(I’m sure Philip’s reasoning doesn’t sound at all familiar to any of us.)
But then another disciple—who actually agrees with Philip but wants to play along with Jesus’ crazy notion—says, Well, there is a boy here who has five loaves and two fish. And, then, as if to make his point plain, Andrew adds, But clearly that is not enough to feed 5,000 people.
But Jesus absolutely loves proving not-enough thinking wrong.
And you know what happens next: After taking the bread and giving thanks for it, Jesus starts passing it around. Same thing with the fish.
And 5,000 people ate as much as they wanted.
As much as they wanted. Five thousand people.
And after everyone has eaten as much as they wanted, Jesus tells the disciples to gather up the left overs, the fragments, so that nothing would be lost, because in the realm of God every little thing has value, because even the smallest things, when put together with love and faith, add up to a lot. And the leftovers fill twelve baskets, which is to say: They had more left over than they started with.
Now, you’ve heard this story before—because it’s an important one. So important that it is the only so-called miracle story that’s in each of the four gospels. It’s so important because we are forever needing to be reminded that there is more than enough to go around—more than enough food, more than enough respect, more than enough housing and health care, more than enough justice, and more than enough love. It’s really important because we need to be reminded that God deems us worthy of all this and more and, beyond that, God longs to bless us with it.
The most common lesson that arises from this story has something to do with giving and sharing: that everyone will have more than enough when we all share from what little we have.
That is true, and that is an important message, but I want to suggest this morning that Jesus is trying to teach us so much more than that. We progressive Christians are fond of saying that following Jesus is less about what we believe than how we live. And yet Jesus also cares about how we think, about how we see the world, and how we sometimes let the unfairness and injustice of the world beat us down. He wants to heal us of our not-enough, not-now thinking. He wants to open our hearts to all that is possible, by God’s love and grace.
And there may be nothing more fundamental, life-changing, and world-changing than that. So much of the world, so much of our lives are built on not-enough thinking. So many of our problems grow out of our innate fear of not having enough.
In government and politics, we see it all the time. Some will say there is plenty of money available for war or for a tax cut for the uber-rich, for example, but that providing housing for the poor, student debt forgiveness, or universal health care is just way too expensive. Some want to close the door to immigrants, because they are afraid that if we let others in there won’t be enough for us.
(And if you think I’m being too political in my application of the lesson, please let me draw your attention to some of the “coded” language in John’s telling of the story. He mentions that the Sea of Galilee is also called the Sea of Tiberius, which is the Roman name. In other words: This is a story about something that happened to people living under the thumb of Caesar, their land occupied by Roman soldiers and rulers. Note also the reference to Passover, which is the Jewish festival of liberation. What is Jesus about, what is the feeding of the 5,000 about, if it is not about liberation?)
Among the things from which we need to be liberated is our fear. It is our fear, even more than our racism or hatred or greed, that binds us, separates us, and limits us. It is our fear—that there isn’t enough, or that we’ll lose more than we gain—that keeps us from taking bold action for all kinds of justice: economic, racial, climate. It is our “this is just how it is” thinking that prevents our lives from being so much more, as much as God wants them to be.
But notice also the tenderness in Jesus’ teaching. There is no shaming. Because Jesus understands who we are, Jesus knows that one of the most common and basic questions we ask with the choices and actions of our lives is Will there be enough? Can things be different? Is there reason for hope.
And what Jesus wants us to know—more than doctrine, more than stewardship, more than security and predictability—is that in God there is enough. There is enough—and more than enough.
Because when we know that, all things are possible. When we know that, we are liberated from our fears and empowered to do great things. When we know that we are healed and freed up to love one another.
This is why the apostle Paul’s prayer for us and for all is that we might be strengthened in our inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ might dwell in our hearts so that we are rooted and grounded in him. Our prayer is that we might have the power to understand what is incomprehensible: the immeasurable breadth and length and height and depth of God’s more-than-enough love. That we might trust that God is able to accomplish far more than we can ask or even imagine.
Thanks be to God.
Loaves and fishes, ice cream, and sno-cones for everyone!