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August 2, 2020
I’m not a big Saturday Night Live fan, but I used to watch it every now and then, and usually ended up wondering where the laughs were. That said, sometimes some of their characters would remain indelibly stuck in my brain like an earworm — that is one of those annoying songs that you don’t even like but which somehow keep playing over and over in your head.
One of those annoying characters was Stuart Smalley, who was played by comedian Al Franken in his pre-Senate days. Stuart Smalley’s life was a mess, so he has joined in a number self-help groups like Overeaters Anonymous & Children of Alcoholic Parents.
He also hosts a TV show called “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley,” which includes the catch phrase, “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” I suppose the humor in the character — such as it was — lay in the distance between his strong affirmations of self-worth and the reality of his utter lack of any real sense of his own value.
You may wonder what any of that has to do with our gospel lesson today. To get the answer to that, you have to strip away whatever you may feel about the level of humor in Saturday Night Live and whatever you may feel about the literary and political career of Al Franken and focus solely on the character of Stuart Smalley.
Then you’re left holding the many facets of a fictional individual who is deeply flawed, but is clinging desperately to a belief that the latest self-help strategies can assist him to pull out of the downward spiral of his life and transform him into the person of his dreams.
When you catch a glimpse of that naive and innocent belief, then you can also catch a glimpse of the motivations of the little boy I consider the hero of our Bible story. He’s the one who heard Jesus telling the disciples to feed this vast crowd and he generously offers his sack lunch in the innocent belief that it could make a difference in filling that monstrous need. And thanks to Jesus, it did.
All four gospels carry a version of this story, but the interesting thing to me is that only John mentions the source of the five loaves and two fish that Jesus used to feed that large crowd. Perhaps the others didn’t know that detail of the story, but to me, the simple and pure faith of that little boy was the foundation of Jesus’ miracle.
Maybe that’s why Jesus says in another circumstance, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Perhaps that’s because the simple, trusting faith of that little boy is awe-inspiring. Clearly, when his faith is placed in Jesus, that faith is well-placed.
One of my favorite biblical commentators is the Scottish theologian and author William Barclay, who died in 1978. He produced a popular series of commentaries which discussed every book in the New Testament. Those books are distinguished by their light, literate style and by the way in which Barclay explains difficult subjects in a very easy-to-understand manner.
I recommend his commentaries whole-heartedly — with one excep-tion. For whatever reason, Barclay couldn’t bring himself to believe in miracles. So whenever a miracle appears in the scriptures, Barclay offers an ingenious and plausible explanation of how that particular event could have happened without breaking any natural laws.
In the case of this story — the feeding of the 5,000 — Barclay suggests that the crowds of Jesus’ day were eminently practical people. He believes that they would never have followed Jesus and the disciples out into the desert without having made some kind of provision for themselves.
That is, he believes that all the families and individuals had packed some food and water for themselves, knowing that they would likely be out in the desert for a while. And yet, because they had only enough for themselves, he says they all kept their supplies carefully hidden for fear that if someone saw what they had and they were forced to share, there wouldn’t be enough to go round. And yet, when Jesus showed the crowd the generosity of the little boy who was willing to share his lunch, it inspired a spirit of generosity in the crowd that more than met the needs of everyone.
If Barclay is correct, it is something of a natural miracle that demonstrated both the power of generous acts to inspire others and the power of synergy, when large groups work together for the common good.
For those very reasons, I really like Barclay’s interpretation. But having said that, I’m personally convinced that there was a genuine miracle of multiplication involved in this story. If that weren’t the case, I don’t think that the story would have had the impact it has demonstrated over the centuries.
For example, if you go to Israel today, the tour guides will show you a church at Tabgha, which is built on the site where tradition says the multiplication of the loaves and fish occurred. There’s a famous mosaic on the floor under the altar of that chapel that shows the two fish on either side of a basket with some rolls inside.
It’s a design that’s repeated on the cup and platen we have used in our communion services ever since my second trip to Israel in 1999. It seems to me that that is a good symbol of communion and, beyond that, of the Christian faith as a whole.
Just as the tiny portions we receive in communion remind us that God’s grace — even in the smallest of amounts — is more than sufficient for our needs, so our faith — even in the feeblest of forms — is more than sufficient for God to use to bring about an impact far greater than any of us could imagine.
The reality, of course, is that Jesus really didn’t have to feed the crowd. If he had dismissed them to go back to their own homes to eat, no one would have thought a thing about it. That’s just the way the world works. But Jesus chose to feed them in order to offer them a sign of hope and of God’s blessing on them during a difficult time.
This incident takes place shortly after the execution of John the Baptist by King Herod. That had to be an emotionally raw time for Jesus. He had wanted to get away from the crowds to be alone with his disciples, so he could mourn for his relative and friend in private. Presumably he also wanted to prepare the disciples for the dangers that lay ahead for all of them as well.
Yet the insistent crowd wouldn’t let them get away and so Jesus decides to heal them and, at the end of the day, feed them. In the process, the crowds see that God has remained true to them, supplying all their needs and that evil deeds like those done by King Herod will never have the last word. Perhaps Jesus also found some healing for his grief by serving the needs of others.
The Rev. Joe Parrish tells of a church in the middle of Manhattan were he used to work. That church operated one of the first soup kitchens in New York City and, as a result, it served enormous numbers of hungry people.
At that time, the soap kitchen didn’t have a set director. Instead various members of the church would volunteer to take a turn organizing the program for a given number of days. On one Sunday, the lack of consistent leadership caught up with them.
The woman who was the volunteer director that particular day had set her helpers to work, setting up the tables and chairs, and laying out the table service. When it came time to open, she suddenly realized — to her horror — that no one had been assigned to pick up bread for the meal and it was time to open the doors.
It was too late to send anyone out for bread, so the director did the only thing she could think of — she asked all the volunteers to join hands and pray for a miracle — to pray that bread would somehow be delivered from somewhere for some reason or no reason at all.
Almost exactly as their prayer was ending, the group heard a loud knocking on the door. The volunteers knew that hundreds of hungry people were lined up outside, impatiently waiting for the soup kitchen to open, so they assumed that the knocking was coming from one of their anxious clients.
But it quickly become clear that the knocking was too persistent and too loud to be the clients. So one of the volunteers finally unlocked the door and looked out. It proved to be a group of firemen carrying several large, black plastic bags. When they were invited inside, they opened the bags and showed the soup kitchen workers that the bags were filled with all sorts of bakery items — Danish, French rolls and the like.
In the context of that prayer, it was quite an amazing sight. The soup kitchen volunteers thanked the firemen profusely and went about putting the final touches on the meal. Everyone was fed that morning, and there were enough leftovers to give to the ones who wanted some food to take home for lunch. There was also enough for some who wanted to bring back food for their sick or disabled friends who weren’t able to get to the church for the meal.
After the soup kitchen closed that day, someone went down to the firehouse to thank the firemen again for the food. The firemen said they had no idea what they were talking about. They hadn’t brought any food. So to this day, that Soup Kitchen group says that angels sometimes dress up like firemen!
The truth is that sometimes angels also dress up like teachers or accountants or musicians or retirees or writers or, well, anybody at all. People who would never begin to see themselves in that light because they’re all too aware of how little they think they have to offer. But the point of our story today is that when you offer whatever you have — no matter how big or how small — to God, God will multiply it and put it to good use.
And isn’t that really what God had intended for human life — that we love and serve one another as he loves us?
In a sermon that Rosemary Reuther once heard in a Roman Catholic parish at Northwestern University, the preacher spoke of his experience in Europe during World War II. He recalled a time when his father, who was “thin as a rail,” had gone off into the Dutch countryside to search for food for his family.
Eventually the father returned with many pounds of meat, peas, and potatoes. His mother took the food, and before anyone could say anything, she put aside part of it for their hungry neighbors. She said, “If you don’t share with others, you die.”
Wouldn’t it be amazing if the only reason there aren’t more miracles in this world — like the feeding of the 5,000 with a little boy’s lunch — was because we simply didn’t believe in them — because we didn’t think they were possible?
What if we placed our apparently insignificant skills into Jesus’ hands and watched as he multiplied them and gave them back to the world. Stranger things have happened. Your blessing awaits if you’ll just open your hearts to trust God with your life. Amen.
by Jim McCrea