Sermon, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (July 29, 2018)

This week, my mind wondered back to a road trip I took years ago, from Raleigh, NC, to Santa Fe, NM, and San Antonio, TX. I had never been in this part of the country before, and I was looking forward to our 6,000-mile tour. The car is stuffed with all the things you need on a road trip, when you are gone for two weeks. Clothes for every occasion – shorts for the day time, plenty of shirts, a sweater for cold desert nights, a pair of jeans, some nice slacks and a sports coat because you never know when things might get formal, and so on. Of course, luggage is never complete without a good book or two .. or three. In addition, the CD player has been loaded with some good tunes, the GPS has been plugged in, and a snack bag has been stuffed with Coke, M&Ms, Pringles, beef jerky, chocolate chip cookies, and some decoy apples, so you can at least pretendthat you are snacking healthy. We are well prepared.

I can see similar preparations going on when Jesus, the apostles, and their followers prepare for their road trip. In the Gospel according to Mark we have been reading, we have seen Jesus retreating to a remote place after Herod’s execution of John the Baptist, however, everybody still keeps following him, leaving the disciples to wonder how they are going to feed the crowd. The Gospel of John, we read today, paints a very different picture. In chapter five, we see Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem at the occasion of a festival. He heals a crippled man at the bath of Betsaida and he teaches people about his identity as the Son of God and the Son of Men – truly the Son can do nothing but through the Father; who listens to what I say and believes in the one who sent me, has eternal life. After this teaching Jesus goes to the Sea of Galilee. This large fresh water lake is 33 miles around and already in Jesus’ time, there would have been settlements, villages, and cities all around the lake, because fresh water is so important in an otherwise dry country. 

Today, the Lake of Tiberias is a comfortable day trip which can be booked at just about any Jerusalem hotel. But for Jesus, it would have meant a 70+ mile hike, taking several days. Tradition teaches us that the initial destination at the sea is a place called Heptapegon, or the place of the Seven Springs. There was no city here that we know of, but the grasses mentioned in the gospel indicate that it was fertile ground. Furthermore, the hot water springs of Heptapegon produce algae, attracting many fish to this part of the Sea of Galilee, and making it thus a popular destination for fishermen, already in Jesus’ time. A church dedicated to the feeding of the five thousand was established here around the year 350. This lush place would have been a great place to stop on a road trip from Jerusalem to Capernaum to enjoy a meal with a few friends, or five thousand.

But for now, let me return to my own road trip for a moment. A day of driving is coming to an end and we stop somewhere in Oklahoma. Time to fill up the car with gas and get something to eat. By this time, all good intentions are out of the window and we settle for McDonald’s. As I walk back to the car at the gas station, a man comes up and starts to talk. He explains how he has lost his job and that he is traveling to Texas where a friend has arranged a new job. He has got everything he owns in the car, but he has had to use his gas money to repair the car after it broke down on his journey down. 

And there it is, the anticipated question… Can you give me some money for gas? I think we have all been there one time or another, at a gas station, grocery store, street corner, at the doors of the church. A stranger walks up and asks for help. You have been put on the spot and a thousand thoughts run through your mind. Do I trust the story I am hearing? Could this possible be true? Does this person look honest? If I give money, will it be used for what the stranger says he or she needs, or will it be used for other things – drugs, alcohol? Can I help in another way? What if this person was somebody I knew? What if it was me? What should I do?
I think similar thoughts must have gone through Philip’s mind when Jesus asks him to buy bread to feed the multitude that has gathered around them. Where am I going to find a store that has enough bread to feed five thousand people? How do we get it here? Why should we feed them, we didn’t ask them to come? If word gets out that we are distributing free food, tomorrow, we will have fifty thousand people banging at the door asking for handouts. This cannot be right. 

In an effort to talk some sense back into Jesus, Philip decides to use the strongest argument he can think of – money. Even if we spend six months’ wages, we will not have enough food to feed this many people. (John 6:7) This should surely convince Jesus.

But is this really the question that Jesus is asking? The gospel writer gives us a hint – Jesus wants to test the disciples (John 6:6) – but they do not know that. Telling Jesus that spending this much money on feeding an anonymous crowd is not “responsible financial stewardship” is clearly not the right answer. But what is? I think the answer lies in the fact that all this is taking place right before Passover. Passover is the Jewish festival commemorating God’s liberation of the people from bondage in Egypt. It is always celebrated in the spring, and spring officially started when barley was ripe. It is thus not a coincidence that the boy in the story has barley loaves – they are the sign that the season of Passover is about to begin. And everybody would have been making preparations for a long two week road trip to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the Temple.

Just like we do not begin a road trip without making sure that we have enough resources for the journey, and back, the multitude of five thousand following Jesus would, most likely, not have done so either. The question becomes, would they be willing to share their resources to the aid of their fellow travelers? At first, the answer seems to be no. Only five loaves and two fish are offered up for the benefit of the group at large.  But God’s power of creation at work through the Son is not limited to just those things we are willing to share.  It is the Christian claim, that in our faith, God moves people beyond their limitations, and restrictions. The celebration of God’s liberating involvement in the lives of God’s people is not just an event of the past, but it happens here and now through Jesus, the Son, feeding the multitude. Jesus personifies the power of Easter. All of creation is lifted up to its full potential. The fertile grassy fields at the shores of the Sea of Galilee yield a harvest, the sea itself brings forth a multitude of fish, and, perhaps, even the people who journeyed along are starting to share their resources, so all eat – abundantly. 

The Christian call to share resources is not easy. It is here that the second half of the reading comes in. Despite the best intentions, the feeding of the multitude had not gone as planned (John 6:14-15). The people mistakenly recognize in Jesus the prophet Elisha who, following the book of Kings, also had fed miraculously a large group of a hungry people with just a few barley loaves, and still had left over. Wanting to crown Jesus as their king, Jesus flees from the crowd, and the apostles are left alone to complete their road trip on their own. This time, the destination is Capernaum and the fastest mode of transportation is a boat. I do not know if they were still on a high after witnessing the miraculous feeding, or if they were feeling down that things had gone so wrong at the end, forcing Jesus to flee. Either way, the strong wind and rough sea must have given them something else to focus on. It is at this low time that Jesus appears again, similar to the resurrection appearances after the crucifixion, and reassures his followers to not be afraid, and that he will be there.

So, if you still have a road trip ahead of you this summer, a day trip, a long journey, or at countless other occasions, know that you too may be called upon to share your resources. No one can say what the right response will look like. That truly is up to you and me – and it will look differently each time. The only assurance we have, is, as we earnestly try to figure it out, that the God of our faith, will be there to guide our discernment.