John 6: 1-14
(holds up a piece of bread) Looks good, doesn’t it? There’s not a lot to it, actually. Flour, oil, salt, water. But you throw it all together and bake it and voila – you’ve got yourself some pretty good bread (takes a bite).
And to think – I was one of the 5000 fed by Jesus from five loaves of this! I was just one face in the crowd that day, one of many, many faces. We were all there because we’d heard that he would be there. But it was different things about him that led us to make the trek into the wilderness. Some were seeking wholeness and healing. Others were just curious. Me? A little bit of both, I guess.
To be honest, I wasn’t all that sure about Jesus at the beginning. Now please understand– I’m a religious person. I believe in God; have all my life. But God, for me at least, has always been a distant admirer of sorts. Creator watching over Creation with something more than passing interest but less than hands-on interaction. I just couldn’t see God really wanting to get all that involved in the messiness of human life. Certainly mine!
But I went anyway – because again, curious. And maybe deep inside, hoping for something more.
It was great being out there in the wilderness, back to nature, ya know? The crowd was huge, like some big party. I almost forgot what we were there for, and then around midday I finally saw him. In the distance, he was teaching or talking or something. And that’s the way I preferred it – far enough away to see him but not close enough to get involved.
Except Jesus apparently had other plans, because it wasn’t too long before he began making his way over to where I was. And as he got closer I noticed something I hadn’t picked up on before – he wasn’t just talking at people. He was doing a fair bit of listening as well. People were asking him all kinds of things; throwing stuff at him right and left; and he listened to every one of them and answered them. It may not have been the answer they were looking for. But he gave of himself so freely and authentically – that’s the first thing I noticed.
The second thing I noticed was that he spoke with authority. And by that I don’t mean that he was lecturing people or being condescending or anything like that. What I mean is that he spoke with conviction, with passion, in an approachable kind of way. And the more he spoke and shared his wisdom to the 5000 of us, the more I felt as if he was speaking just to me. Imagine that – all these thousands of people, and I’m feeling like it’s a one-on-one.
There was one other thing I noticed about him, but what it was exactly I couldn’t quite figure out. It was kind of hard to explain. Something in his eyes, his words, the way he treated and interacted with everyone – it was there. It jumped out at me, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it.
I was still trying to find the words for it, when suddenly it occurred to me that the sun was beginning to set over the other side of the hill. Which meant it was around early evening, I figured. Where did the time go? I became aware of something else too – the rumbling in my stomach. Reminded me that I hadn’t eaten all day – and now, with the day slipping away, I was actually getting pretty hungry. And from the looks of it, most everyone around me was as well.
I’m guessing that Jesus started to pick up on this. I was close enough to hear him talking with his disciples, and he pulled them together and asked, in all seriousness, So where around here can we get some bread for these people? They all just looked at him like he was crazy. One of them said, Uh, Jesus, that’s a super idea, but six months wages couldn’t buy enough bread for everyone!
There was some more crosstalk and people talking about the problem, most everyone agreeing that there was nothing they could do about it. Jesus did not look impressed, like he was waiting for the right response and hadn’t heard it yet. He asked again: Where can we get bread for these people? Nothing. I had halfway decided to cut my losses and head home – all this talk about bread was making me hungrier than I already was.
And then another disciple – Andrew, I found out later – Andrew stepped up and somewhat sheepishly said, Hey guys, there’s this boy I saw in the crowd, somewhere over that way. Said he brought five loaves of bread and two fish with him today. Maybe we can do something with that?
And that’s when Jesus’ eyes lit up! Like he finally heard what he had wanted to hear, what he needed to hear. And he went into action. He told his disciples to get the crowd all sitting down. It took awhile for everyone to get situated – I’m sure people was like, what’s going on? But eventually there we were, all 5000 of us, sitting down like Jesus asked. And he stood there, holding the bread and fish that the boy had brought him. He said a prayer – what he prayed for exactly, I don’t know, but it was clear that he talked to God in the same manner he’d been talking to us. Talking, but listening. Speaking with authority. Believing what he said.
And that’s when it happened.
And I know you know what I’m talking about. I know because you’ve read or heard about it countless times. All four of your gospels talk about it. If you’ve ever watched one of those “Jesus movies,” the feeding of the 5000 is always in there. It’s interesting in those movies, how the director typically depicts the miracle happening. You don’t see any flashing lights or magician’s fog; there’s no waving of a magic wand or anything like that.
Which is good, because “how” isn’t really the point. It never is. You don’t wonder how a miracle happens. You just give thanks that it does.
And all I know is that those five loaves of bread and two fish just kept getting passed around and passed around and passed around; and as much as I tried to keep track of the original five and two, I couldn’t. People were just grabbing at them, and it slowly began to dawn on them that something strange was happening, something miraculous. Which made them grab at them all the more. Not in a panicked way. Excited! The energy, it just shot through the crowd.
And everyone got bread. Everyone got fish. 5000 fed in full, and baskets of leftovers. All from five loaves of bread and two fish.
You want to know if I think this was a miracle. Of course it was! An amazing miracle! But it was something more than a miracle. It was a sign. Miracles happen around us most every day. But a sign – a miracle that wants to tell us something – now that’s special. What happened out in the wilderness that day was a sign – a sign that shed a little light on who Jesus was for me and the other 4,999 people. Even for you!
And oddly enough, it’s another one of those gospel writers that speaks to it best. In the gospel of Mark, right before Jesus feeds them, we are told that Jesus did something else. The writer is quoted as saying “Jesus saw this great crowd and had compassion on them.”
That’s it – He had compassion on them.
That word “compassion” is a great word. The first part, c-o-m, comes from Latin and means “with.” So compassion literally means “with passion.” We find the Greek word for “compassion” used in lots of Jesus’ parables – describing what the Samaritan feels when he happens upon the mugged man lying on the road, or what the Father feels as he sees his younger, prodigal son making his way home.
It’s kind of a hard word to pin down, compassion. It’s not pity, but it’s more than simple affection or liking someone. It’s even more than love. It’s love in action. A love that transcends the moment, but a love that is also very much in the moment. A love that doesn’t ask for anything in return; other than to keep on loving. A love that enables a man to look out over thousands of hungry people on a hot day in the wilderness, holding five loaves of bread in one hand and two fish in the other, and says, I want to do this.
I actually like the way one of your famed writers, Frederick Buechner, describes compassion:
Compassion is the knowledge
that there can never really be any peace and joy for me
until there is peace and joy finally for you.
What I saw that day was more than a whole bunch of people getting fed. I saw compassion. I saw someone who understood that the peace and joy he sought for himself would only come when he worked for the peace and joy of others first.
Imagine with me for a moment how different your world would be if your chose to live in this kind of compassion. How different everything would be if people put the peace and joy of others before their own – or, more correctly, lived into the reality that the only true path to peace and joy is to work diligently and intentionally to assure the peace and joy of other brothers and sisters.
Brothers and sisters in this church and surrounding neighborhoods, as well as brothers and sisters in neighborhoods we’ve never set foot in.
Brothers and sisters in this country, as well as brothers and sisters in and from other countries.
Brothers and sisters who think like us, look like us, agree with us; as well as brothers and sisters who think differently, look differently, believe differently.
Brothers and sisters near and far. Working for their peace and joy, and in doing so finding our own.
Compassion. That’s what I’d seen in Jesus’ eyes the very first time I saw him in the wilderness. That thing I couldn’t quite lay my finger on. It was compassion. That’s what compelled him to give food to eat. That’s what he felt as he made the blind man see and healed the lame. That’s what was stirring in him as he talked and listened, all day long, to as many people as time allowed. Compassion for me, for everyone. Compassion for the world.
And you know what the crazy thing is? Even after all that, even after this story we know so well, I still don’t think we fully get it. Because if we ever realized, just for a moment, how much Jesus loves us; if we ever could wrap our heads around the sheer magnitude of our brothers and sisters, I have to think we’d be living our lives differently. I think we wouldn’t worry and fret over things that aren’t all that important. I think we’d take time to enjoy life more and not run around so much.
I definitely think we’d be treating each other differently, guided not by our fears but by our love. Because we all have a need to be loved, unconditionally; and here is God in human form, feeding us in so many ways and telling us through his words and actions just how beloved we really are. Don’t you think we’d live our lives differently if we were able to catch just a glimpse of Jesus’ compassion for us? Don’t you think we’d be living that compassion as well?
Because this miracle is not a one-off, no. This doesn’t begin and end with Jesus’ compassionate act. This is Jesus saying, I’m feeding you now so you can feed the world forever. I’m taking your five loaves and two fish, and showing you that what you have is enough for everyone. More than enough! So don’t keep it to yourself. My compassion for you, Jesus says, fulfills its greatest hope when you choose to share it with others.
And to think, it all started with one of these (hold up the piece of bread). Let me ask you this, brothers and sisters – where do you find the compassion of Jesus starting for you?
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Beyond Words: Daily Readings In The ABCs Of Faith by Frederick Buechner (HarperOne: 2004), 65.