Matthew 14:13-21, “All We Have is Enough,” Gospel Lesson for July 31, 2011
The old Beatles’ song, “Eleanor Rigby,” has a haunting refrain that says, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” I don’t know where they come from, but I know to whom they come – the church. They come hungering for physical and spiritual food. Frederick Beuchner says it’s not the presence of God that keeps us coming back to church every week, but the absence, the hunger. And the needs of all the lonely people can feel overwhelming.
Someone once said that being in ministry is like being in a tank of piranhas; no one wants much of us, but everyone wants a little piece. And often we feel empty and inadequate, barely able to keep our own souls and bodies together. How can we feed all those lonely people?
Many years ago when I was a youth minister in a large suburban congregation I was working at the church on a Sunday afternoon making last minute preparations for two youth group meetings that evening. Dressed in the typical youth minister uniform of blue jeans and sweatshirt, running late and feeling harried, I looked more like the church custodian than one of its pastors. Having no time for any interruptions, I was dismayed to look up and see a man walk into the church office. From the way he was groomed and dressed I knew he was probably homeless and looking for food or shelter or some kind of assistance. When he asked if the pastor was around I immediately rationalized that he really meant “was the Sr. Minister around,” and without missing a beat I said, “No, I haven’t seen him.” That stranger went away, still hungry, and 25 years later I am still living with the regret of not responding to his hunger.
Sometimes we feel like the disciples out there in a lonely place with Jesus and a crowd of hungry people. Jesus and his weary band of disciples had tried to get away from it all for some badly needed R & R, only to find there was no place to hide from all the lonely people. The disciples were probably frightened, having just heard that John the Baptist had been brutally beheaded by King Herod. They needed time to grieve and regroup. But even in those pre-Twitter days, people heard where Jesus was and their hunger drew them to him. He, of course, had compassion on them and could not send them away. He knew that when those hungering and thirsting for righteousness come knocking on our door, if we don’t feed them, they’ll stop off for junk food somewhere else on their way home from church.
You know who they are, the unemployed or underemployed, the sick and lame, the lonely, the broken-hearted, those suffering from doubts and fears and addictions, the abused, the single parents, confused teens and young adults, the elderly, those without health care. There must be 5000 of them!! We can’t possibly feed them all. Let’s send them off to McDonalds or Taco Bell, Jesus, so they can find something for themselves to eat. “No,” Jesus says to the disciples and to us, “You give them something to eat.” “What,” we moan in disbelief. “You don’t understand, Jesus. We only have 5 loaves and two fish!”
John Westerhoff tells the story in his book Will Our Children Have Faith? of a young couple in a Roman Catholic church who desperately wanted to have children but seemed doomed to remain childless. It wasn’t that they weren’t trying. And when the normal reproductive process didn’t work they consulted the best medical practitioners they could find. Still no baby. Through several years of frustration and disappointment after disappointment the couple leaned heavily on the spiritual and moral support of their local priest, Father John, who prayed with and for them, comforted and consoled them. Then one day when they thought all hope was gone a miracle happened and the young woman conceived. She gave birth to a beautiful healthy boy and they named him John in honor of their priest. Father John was thrilled to baptize little Johnny and enjoyed watching him grow into an inquisitive toddler.
When Johnny was almost two years old he was out in the front yard with his mother early one beautiful summer morning. They were laughing and playing with a ball when their black lab chased the ball into the neighbor’s yard. The mother went after the run-away puppy, momentarily taking her eyes off her son. Johnny toddled after a butterfly and ended up in the driveway just as his father came rushing out of the house late for work. Dad, not seeing Johnny behind the car, jumped behind the wheel and backed over Johnny, killing him instantly.
Father John rushed to the house as soon as heard of the tragedy. When he got there he found the young couple devastated and in shock sitting on their bed holding each other. The priest was speechless. He could not muster any words that seemed anything more than pious platitudes or clichés; so he just sat on the edge of the bed and cried with them.
The funeral for Johnny was one of the hardest things Father John had ever done in 20 years of ministry. A few days after the funeral he went by the family’s home to see how they were doing. He was filled with dread and regret as he rang their doorbell because he had been so inadequate in addressing their unimaginable grief. Much to his surprise the young wife greeted him with open arms and thanked him profusely for what he had done for them. “But I didn’t do anything,” Father John protested. “I couldn’t think of anything to say. I just sat and cried.”
“I know,” she said. “You gave us all that you had, and it was enough.”
The disciples want to send the crowds away because they have so little to offer them, just 5 loaves and 2 fish. Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” Notice what happens next. When the disciples tell Jesus what resources they have, he simply says, “Bring them here to me.”
God doesn’t ask us to give more than we have. That would be unfair, and we do not serve an unjust God. God simply asks us to give ALL that we have. Jesus gave us his all and asks the same of us in return. And when we do, it’s enough. God doesn’t ask those of us who can’t carry a tune in a bucket to sing solos in church, but we are asked to fully use the talents we have been blessed with, to share the resources we have with those who have less. And when we entrust what we have, all that we have, to God, it is blessed and multiplied; and all those lonely people are fed. And not only are they fed, they are all filled. And not only are they all filled, there are enough left-overs to feed the next bunch of hungry, lonely pilgrims that are already coming down the road.
When we feel overwhelmed and inadequate to respond to all the lonely people, remember these two things: Jesus doesn’t call us and then go on sabbatical. He is with us always, even to the end of the age. He is always there to take our meager gifts and transform them into an overflowing cup of living water. And most importantly, if we respond in faith and entrust God with all that we have, I promise you in Christ’s name, our five loaves and two fish will always be more than enough.