Feeding With Fragments
In real estate they say that all you really need to know is “location, location, location.” But in this week’s gospel lesson, the disciples discover that the three words they really need to know are “logistics, logistics, logistics.” Listening to Jesus on a hilltop, they are surrounded by 5,000 growling stomachs. What do do? This is worse than the time the Programs Team ran out of coleslaw at the Rally Day Picnic. It’s just about Passover, there’s a hungry crowd, and there’s no Sam’s Club for miles around.
We are very familiar with what Jesus did. He took five loaves and two fish and multiplied them to feed a crowd estimated to be more than 5,000 in number. We dwell on the fives loaves and two fish. We dwell on the 5,000. But we often overlook the leftovers. John tells us that, “When they were satisfied, he told his disciples ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”
Dealing with the leftovers was a logistical concern. We face similar logistical concerns. Food waste is a worldwide problem. In the United States alone, each household throws away about $640 of food annually. Experts estimate that 25 to 40 percent of food that is grown, processed, and transported in the United States is never consumed. In other words, the baskets are full of fragments, even though one in seven Americans is food-insecure.
This Sunday and the next four are the five “bread of life Sundays” in which Jesus uses bread as a sign of the kingdom of God or refers to himself as the “bread of life” or the “bread of the world.” The five-in-a-row “bread Sundays” in our lectionary only come around once ever three years. As a way of highlighting Jesus as the bread of life, our communion bread for each of these five Sundays will come from five different locally sourced eateries here in the Hunters Woods Plaza. Today, the bread of life is an Indian loaf from Pista House, just a hundred yards from our front door. This can be a sign for us that we are the Church in The Shopping Center and we serve the public in the same way the restaurants, sandwich shops, and pizza parlors do. It can also serve as a reminder that food insecurity exists right here in Hunter’s Woods Plaza as witnessed by those who come to our Tuesday outreach lunches are by the way our Fellowship House resident friends are so anxious to take whatever food they can scrounge back to their rooms for consumption later.
The five breads for five Sundays is, in part, a reminder of the ethics surrounding food – and our place in that. Long before Rachel Ray and Bobby Flay took to the Food Network, Jesus was concerned about the ethics surrounding food. In today’s gospel from John, Jesus himself does the feeding … passes out the food. In the other three gospels, the disciples pass out the food. This is John’s way of telling us that not only does Jesus come to feed the world, but he will offer himself as the bread come down from heaven. The banquet of the kingdom is beginning, and the abundance of God’s presence will soon be evident. Jesus provides food, and expects that the disciples, in turn, will be equipped to meet the social and spiritual hunger of the crowd. Nothing shall be lost.
All of this takes place on the eve of the Passover, and that is critical. The bread of the Passover reminds them of liberation from bondage. This food, fed to the 5,000, reminds them of liberation from scarcity. The disciple Philip is unsure of what to do, and Andrew seems almost to scoff at the idea of how a little boy’s lunch could feed a multitude. But Jesus is the host of this banquet, offering bread to those who are hungry. He becomes the spiritual host to all who are lost.
When the disciples went about gathering up the leftovers, they found they had twelve baskets-full. In our throwaway society, twelve baskets of leftovers may seem insignificant – petty fragments not worth counting. But Jesus is concerned that nothing – not even a half-eaten loaf of bread – is to be lost. As one commentator has pointed out, “The collection of the leftovers points to those outside the circle of those who are gathered. It is a reminder that the goods of the earth are not disposable and that those who are strengthened by the Bread of Life have an obligation to alleviate the hunger of those still waiting to be fed.”
Today’s communion bread is called “naan.” Naan is the Persian word for bread. It is used widely throughout Asia. It is a thick flatbread, made with white flour, and leavened with yeast. It is cooked in a tandoor. In India it can be used to scoop other foods or served stuffed with a filling.
Yet, India ranks among the worlds hungriest countries. It ranks 100 among 119 developing countries on the Global Hunger Index – behind even North Korea and Bangladesh. 21% of its children are significantly malnourished.
Worldwide, just about one billion people do not have enough food to eat – 60% of them women, 98% of them living in developing countries. One billion people. Yet, a recent study by McGill university has determined that enough food is grown to feed 10 billion people. Why can’t we just collect the leftovers and feed the one billion people. The answer is complicated. It involves logistics, logistics, logistics. It involves ethics, farming methods, and global warming. The vast bulk of industrially-produced grain crops goes to produce biofuels or it is used as feed in confined animal feedlots so you and I can enjoy a prime stake at Mortons.
But as complicated as the factors are, the underlying fact is that hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity.
There are those of us who, like Philip, cannot see the possibilities or imagine how Jesus will feed the people. Like Andrew, we’re skeptical that the few gifts we gather could somehow make a difference. Yet Jesus does not let failed systems, limited resources, and small imaginations get in his way.
I’m glad that feeding the hungry has emerged as a niche outreach for Christ the Servant. This is what we do. We can’t feed one billion people. But we can feed 17 to 20 of them each week at our Tuesday outreach lunch. We can feed 80 to 100 of them each month at Fellowship House. And we can feed 20 – 25 of them each month at the Homeless Women’s Shelter in D.C. Beyond that we can contribute to Lutheran World Hunger, an agency who turns 100 cents out of every dollar you give into food for the world’s hungry.
“ ‘Gather up the fragments left over,’ Jesus said, ‘so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is come into the world.’
If Jesus can feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish, we can feed one billion people with just the leftovers we have from our own abundance.
Text: John 6:1-21