"Sharing Has Never Been Easy"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 27, 2003

Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-15

     Our Gospel lesson this morning features the episode during Jesus' ministry when 5,000 people ate lunch together.  Personally, I have always enjoyed tinkering with the meaning of this story to the chagrin of people who accept that Jesus actually duplicated thousands of loaves of bread and thousands of salt dried fish from the donation of a young boy.      

     Might there be a deeper meaning to this story if we examine it more closely?  Of course!  One of the marvelous qualities about the Bible is that we can always understand God's Word in different ways.  When we meet with strong resistance to a particular understanding of Biblical passages, more than likely it has nothing to do with the Scriptures themselves but with a specific interpretation that has dominated our theology and beliefs for centuries.  

     There was a greater miracle taking place than creating thousands of loaves and fish out of thin air, a miracle that would have done nothing but feed those in attendance and draw attention to Jesus as a magician. Such an attention getting device would have gone against the meaning and purpose of Jesus' ministry.   

     The greater miracle was getting 5,000 people to share with each other.  The way Jesus did this was ingenious.  He illustrated to the assembled throng by borrowing from the innocence of a child who had not yet learned that there are alternatives to generosity. 

     First of all, what was the child doing with five loaves and two fish?  The answer is very simple.  In those days Jews never traveled a day's journey without taking along a sufficient supply of food and drink.  This was the common practice for everyone. Sharing, however, was not. Try to imagine the drama that was about to take place. 

     Jesus said to Philip, "Where can we buy enough food to feed all these people?"  Philip got out his calculator.  Rather than answering Jesus' question, he went right to the dollar amount. He said, "You have to be kidding!  To buy enough bread for this number of people it would cost us about 200 silver coins or about six months’ wages!" 

     Hearing this, Andrew steps forward and says, "There is a boy here who has five loaves of barley and two fish.  But they will certainly not be enough to feed all these people."  This may have been the understatement of the century, but was it?           

     We can almost witness what was going to happen next in our mind's eye.  Jesus asks the disciples to have the large crowd sit down on the grass.  He tells all those assembled something like this, "There is a young boy here with five loaves and two fish that he has offered to share with us for lunch."  Jesus' lifts up his voice in prayer thanking God for the boy's generosity and for the food which they are about to eat.  The deed is done.  The seed has been sown. 

     Are we any different today?  Perhaps not.  We have to imagine that among the listeners were lots of people who were extremely generous, kind and open to sharing.  Many of us are this way.  Most of us enjoy being helpful and sharing what we have, but the process of giving and receiving is  still a challenging one to negotiate.

     For example, it may not dawn on us to say to someone sitting next to us, "Would you like to share half of my sandwich?  I brought a lot of food today."  This is awkward, particularly when far too many of us find it difficult to receive.  Most of us would say, "Thank you so much, but I'm fine."  We are not fine!  We are hungry around meal time and we would give our eye teeth to have half that sandwich, but we do not want to communicate that we came to some event unprepared. 

     We had a situation a year or so ago when everyone in a particular family was sick.  A call came to that family.  The caller said, "Is there anything you need?  Can we go to the store for you?  How can we help?"  The response was, "We're fine, but thanks for asking." That answer did not satisfy the caller.  What he did was wonderful.  He made a gigantic pot of chicken stew, took it to the house, put it on their front porch, rang the door bell and left when the front door opened.  The family with all its ill members had no choice but to receive.    

     Most of us are like that family.  We do not want anyone to go out of their way for us.  Most of us are really fine in the long run, but the experience of gratitude is incredible when the chicken soup comes anyway.  Our problem is that we are not enthusiastic about asking others for help, and many of us are not good receivers.  In fact, most of us need help in this arena.   

     Jesus organized the generous energy of that crowd, and they shared.  In fact, as the story indicates, there were twelve baskets full of pieces left over.  This is the miracle, and it corresponds directly to the message that Jesus spoke throughout his ministry.  When we give, the world around us smiles in gratitude and there is abundance. 

     When I was attending seminary, the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. captured the imagination of many of us.  Part of the amazing story of this church was how challenging it was for people to become  members.  They had to take courses, lots of courses, in fact, years of course work.  As I recall, people joined in stages, e.g., being an associate member and finally a full member after "graduation." 

     The church required tremendous commitment from people.  No one desiring to be a part of that fellowship was allowed to sit on the fence and only receive their weekly shot in the arm on Sunday mornings.  They had to be in mission.  They had to be involved. The church in those days had 87 full-members but they had a budget of a million and a half dollars.  Go figure how they did that. 

     One day a gentleman came to class to talk about the church from a layperson's perspective.  He indicated that his salary was $150,000 a year.  Remember, this was back in the late 60s.  He said that he did not need that much money to live,  so he gave $100,000 to the Church of the Savior. The spirit of his sharing this information was humble and gracious.  He was grateful that he had come to know and trust God on the deepest of levels.  Of course, when we experience that, our generosity shows in more ways than monetary. 

     What Gordon Cosby did as the pastor of that church was give people permission to share together who they were in whatever form they assumed.  Once they became informed about the nature of God, their own identity came into sharper focus.  Gordon asked all the people to say more than, "Amen" and that was demonstrated over and over again for years by that congregation. 

     One of the roles St. Matthew's plays in our lives is that we are invited to listen as the spirit of Jesus Christ touches our hearts with the message of giving without counting the cost.  We give because this is who we are.  In fact, not to give prevents our growth in key areas of our spiritual lives.  Most of us give in ways that we cannot remember.    

     As we experience the adult years, our memories frequently take us back in time as we recall so many others who helped mold and shape our lives. It could have been a Sunday School teacher, our folks or perhaps a mentor who saw promise and took us under their wing as our Boy or Girl Scout leader.  Someone took time to tell us that our life mattered.  When we learn how to give, this is what we automatically communicate to others. 

     Most of us do not seek validation and support directly from one another, but secretly most of us want our lives to matter.  The experience is incredible when someone takes the time to braille us with their kind and affirming words and presence.  No one would ever contemplate suicide if they understood how much their lives mattered.  

     The miracle is that all of us can do this. We are all capable of this.  Jesus stands at the front of our class and says, "Go ahead.  It's okay to tell someone that they matter.  It is okay to share your food.  It's okay to give away some of your money.  It's okay to become involved in our community of faith and to encourage others to do the same." 

     What is so interesting about the feeding of the 5,000 is the role played by that little boy.   We can almost see the lad hearing the concern of Jesus, "Where can we buy enough food to feed all these people?"  This boy understood that the market place was miles from where they were.  He stepped forward and said to Andrew, "I have some food.  Would you like to have it?"  

     Jesus seized the moment, and before anyone was aware of what happened, the child provided the role model that inspired the masses.  Jesus allowed the young boy to join the ranks of the widow who gave her last two copper coins to the Temple treasury.  These and others have become permanent behavioral and spiritual benchmarks in the growing list of role models in our faith history.

     We may wonder what happened to the people who were present that day.  They had just experienced the miracle of everyone sharing.  It must have been like a United Methodist pot luck supper where the quantity of food appears to grow and grow.  We do not know how many of them learned the new talent of spontaneous sharing with strangers.  Perhaps lessons are learned exactly the way Jesus illustrated with his parable of the sower. 

     Jesus' message does not have the same impact on everyone. Some of us get it and immediately grow to great stature in our understanding.  But the information stays in our memory.   When heat from the unexpected comes, we wither as a plant on a hot summer's day.  Some of us really enjoy learning and yet we become choked by the thorns of the strain and stress of everyday living.  Others of us are nurtured; we grow together in the soil of the faith community and we bear much fruit.    

     Last week we heard the missionary reports from our young people.  What we listened to were life molding experiences. St. Matthew's organized a group of 29 people and gave them the opportunity to share what they had with others in a remote area of southern Virginia.  This moment in time had the potential to become a very intense experience.  Kids bond with each other and with those they were serving.  Now think about this.  What will happen to this group and their ASP experience as the days, weeks and months pass? What will happen when other life events come and beckon them to travel this glittering road of opportunity or this path to salvation

     Learning to share is one of the most energy producing activities we can experience.   This happens because we are giving ourselves away in some form of our choosing. We cannot isolate it to one week or one event.  When it becomes a daily activity, the results many of us heard about last week can be spread over a life-time.  We quickly discover our identity, we cease worrying about tomorrow, we collect an enormous number of intimate friends and we find peace because our lives are making a difference.  When we make the world a better place to live, it dawns on us that we matter.  

     If you want to believe that Jesus literally duplicated thousands of fish and loaves, that is perfectly fine.  His deed fed the crowd for a single meal.  However, Jesus' ministry was about something much greater than feeding people's bodies bread and fish. When Jesus said, "The person who eats the bread that I give will never hunger again", he was not talking about a product made of dough.  He was talking about a way of life. When we follow him, what he taught becomes real within our experience.  When we learn to let go of the things we value, sharing inspires joy in us and feeds everyone around us.  


    Loving and always faithful God, our lives remain crowded with activities requiring a decision.  We confess that there are moments when the best alternatives are not always clear.  We struggle with how best to love.  Our emotions are often mixed on whether we should hold on and persevere or let go.  We pray for a different place to stand, so that the more painful elements of our lives may be more fully understood.  Lead us to be more trusting in your love of us.  As our lives unfold, may our confidence remain steadfast while we face the unexpected.  Heal our perceptions so that our burdens may become light.  May living your Will produce more enthusiasm and understanding.  Amen.


    Loving God, this morning as our faith community gathers, we come with grateful minds and hearts for all the sensitivities, talents and abilities that you placed within us when we were born.  Far too often we concentrate on all the qualities that make us failures to ourselves. There are so many attitudes we have cultivated that seem impossible to perfect, and we find ourselves dwelling more on regret than we do expressing gratitude. 

    Help us to focus on and nurture our little successes.  May we remember the time we smiled instead of the times we could have and did not.  May we remember the patience we chose while listening to someone who needed to talk instead of the moments when patience was hard to sustain.  May we consciously work on the words we use so that we communicate affirmation and support rather than judgment.  May we cease insisting on the perfection of others as we increasingly become aware how you accept us just as we are.   

    Lead us, O God, to remember that each of us influences the biographies of other lives, and that sometimes entire cultures are changed because of one of us who tried to make your love visible in some new way.  May we learn that everything from our identity to your Kingdom grows as a result of our giving more to life than what we received.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .