YOU Give Them Something to Eat
Rev. Leanne Walt
I remember the day I arrived at the orphanage. It was a typical Sri Lankan afternoon – upwards of 90 degrees and my trishaw, which are those funny-looking three-wheeled little vehicles that taxi people around in Asia, had dropped me at the foot of a hill in the very center of the city. The trishaw couldn’t have made it up the dirt path on the hill that led to the orphanage, so I walked up the hillside carrying most of my belongings on my back.
This was the day that I moved out of the house where I had been living for the past four months and into a Christian orphanage for girls. A place called Evelyn Nurseries, where I would stay for 6 weeks.
Barbara, the woman who ran the Nurseries, along with several other girls who lived there, greeted me as I came up the winding road leading to the house. “Akki! Akki!,” “Sister! Sister!” they shouted and waved.
That night after evening worship, Barbara explained to me that she would wake me up at 4:00 to help with the morning chores. “Great!” I responded in my enthusiasm. I’d help with morning chores – super! Well, 4:00 in the morning came quickly, as it tends to do, and sure enough there was a knock on my door. I gathered my tired, foggy head enough to get out of bed, threw on the nearest items of clothes I could find, and headed out my door to be met with what reminded me of the Oompa-Loompas working in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory, there were girls and young women everywhere buzzing around the hallways and the yard and the kitchen. Though they were working away, they were not making fudge or gum balls; they were sweeping, dusting, making beds, washing and drying clothes, cleaning potatoes, cooking rice. As I struggled to keep my eyes open, I saw these little creatures singing, dancing, and laughing as they worked. Well, those early mornings came one after the other until the very last day I spent at the Nurseries and I’ sure they have continued every day in the years since I left.
In the afternoons, during my stay at the Nurseries, I would sit with Barbara and have tea overlooking Kandy Lake in the middle of the city. Barbara had been married to a wealthy businessman who passed away about 20 years ago. After his death she became very involved in her church and then through certain people who came into her life, she was led to the Nurseries.
She shared with me how from month to month; it was a struggle to provide for the seventy-five girls and young women under her care at the Nurseries. But she said that no matter how bleak it seemed, God always provided. It was in the worst months, when it was simply impossible to buy enough rice to feed everyone at the orphanage with the money that they did have, when she would receive an anonymous donation that would get them through several months to come. When she was telling me about these uncertain times, she would always say something like: “And then, God just goes right ahead again and makes something out of what I thought was nothing.”
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There’s this great cartoon about Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 that a member of a church I served several years ago gave to me after we had talked about this miracle story in Bible Study. The cartoon depicts two winged, haloed angels wearing chefs’ hats, surrounded by clouds. The one baker-angel exclaims to the other baker-angel, “He needs 5,000 loaves of bread and he needs them now!”
The reason why this cartoon works is the same reason why I love the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000: because of the story’s ambiguity. We know that there are five loaves of bread and two fish involved. We know that there are the twelve disciples and a crowd of 5,000 people involved. We know that Jesus is involved. And we know that all who were present ate and that all who were present were satisfied. And we know that there were even some leftovers.
But we don’t know if it is the five loaves of bread that Jesus miraculously multiplies into enough loaves to feed more than 5,000 people; if he calls on jolly Oompa-Loompa-like angels up in heaven to busily bake enough bread for the multitudes. Or,if it is the selfish hearts of the people in the crowd that Jesus transforms so that they are compelled to share the little that they do have with one another. The story simply does not tell us which it is. We are left to reach our own conclusions about what exactly Jesus is transforming – the loaves of bread or the hearts of each person in the crowd. We are left to reach our own conclusions about which would be the greater miracle.
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It had been a long day of healing and so as it was nearing dusk, the disciples agreed that it was time for Jesus to bid farewell to the thousands of people who had come to bear witness to his miracles. After all, they did not have anything other than five loaves of bread and two measly fish to offer this great mass of people. They simply did not have the necessary resources to adequately feed so many.
So the disciples say to Jesus, “Jesus, it’s getting late, let’s wrap it up for the day. Send these people into the surrounding villages so that they can buy themselves something to eat.”
And who can blame the disciples for, quite reasonably, thinking that the people who had gathered to see Jesus could go home for dinner. Why should it be their responsibility to feed these people? They hardly had enough food to feed themselves. Besides, hadn’t these people thought ahead enough to pack a lunch, to bring food along to eat while they were in this deserted area?
Jesus listens to and hears the reasonable sentiments of the disciples. But he does not do as they ask. He does not send the people away.
“You give them something to eat,” he answers the disciples. When all they see are limitations, Jesus urges them toward possibility. When all they see is scarcity, Jesus moves them toward abundance. When all they see is what they do not have, Jesus reminds them of what they do have.
They have a God who just so happens to specialize in making something out of nothing. We have a God who created out of nothing: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:1-2). We have a God who breathes life into the nothingness of dry bones (Ez. 37). We have a God who put life into the nothingness of Sarah’s womb (Gen 18). We have a God who, in this morning’s lesson from Isaiah, instructs those who “have no money,” to “come, and eat!” God does not say, “You who have enough money, come and eat” No, God invites those who have nothing, to come and be fed.
God does the feeding, but the resources are human.
In those times when the Nurseries have nothing more than five loaves and two fish to last the whole month through, God has continued to feed the Nurseries through human resources. The donations that the people offer to the women at the Nurseries, just like the bread that the disciples offer, are used and magnified by God. More than that, when the girls and women at the Nurseries give of themselves out of nothing, when they come together during those oh so early morning chores in song and laughter, then the work of God is revealed. They know what kind of God they have. A God of abundance and possibility. A God who revels in making great things out of what we would consider to be nothing at all.
This Lent God has given us, First Congregational Church, a remarkable opportunity to serve as instruments for and living witnesses to the miraculous work of Jesus Christ right here in our community through working with Outreach New England. Because the same need for food assistance exists right here in our community as it does across the globe in Sri Lanka or India or Mozambique or Nigeria or Nicaragua. It exists in cities and towns, urban and suburban neighborhoods throughout Massachusetts and New England. It exists not only among the homeless but in many households as well. In our own Norfolk County alone 18,000 children are food insecure (that’s 12% of all children in Norfolk County), which means they lack access to enough food to meet their basic needs. Which means they go to bed hungry, they worry they will run out of food, and they often don’t know where their next meal will come from.
The crowds have gathered and they are waiting for the miracle of Jesus to work through us – right here, right now. We can ask Jesus to send them away or we can answer Jesus’ call: “You give them something to eat.”
If everyone in New England who has enough food gave $13.75 to Outreach Kid’s Care and packaged meals for 22 minutes every year, all those in New England who don’t have enough could eat. Per person per day, that’s 4 cents and 4 seconds of effort.
Our challenge over these six weeks of lent is to raise enough money to purchase and then package 5,000 meals that will be distributed at Interfaith Social Services in Quincy and the Community Food Pantry here in Braintree. The total we need to raise is $1,250. Is this a lot of money? Yes. But, we can do this.
Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 is told so many times and in so many places throughout the gospels because all too often we forget the abundance and generosity of our God. We too often forget that our gifts, our donations, our assistance – however small – have power that we can never fully see; that we can achieve the impossible; that we can feed the multitudes; that we can satisfy hunger.