5 Loaves of Barley and Two Tiny Fish
Scarcity or Life Abundant?
John 6: 1-21
Homily by Colleen Hartung
July 29, 2018
If you are a bible miracle aficionado then today is your day!! In the first reading from 2 Kings, Elisha commands a servant to feed 100 people with a single sack of food containing “20 loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain”. “Thus says the Most High, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” And that, so the story goes, is what happened. The Gospel reading from John 6 ups the ante. 5000 people plus women and children are feed with only 5 barley loaves and two small fish and to top it all off, Jesus walks on a stormy sea!! Today, the miracle seekers among us have hit the jackpot!! However, if you are like me and you are a skeptic by nature this double whammy is doubly problematic. Actually, I am not so much a skeptic as I am a critical listener who is suspicious of any story or sales pitch that sounds too good to be true. My mother always told me, if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Stories that provide a miraculous easy way out of a difficult problem saving their protagonists and the hearers of the story from the agony of hard choices is crazy making. Simply put, for a hesitating, doubting Thomas like me, they are a copout. Having said all that, it is true that the Gospel According to John is a gospel of signs and wonders. And most likely what the author of this gospel intends is a supernatural solution to the feeding of the 5000 as a sign that demonstrates Jesus’ divine nature. But for today, since you have a hesitating, doubting Thomas for a homilist, I am going to refocus just a bit. To that end, I am going to read a short section from the interpretation of John 6:1-21 in our children’s lectionary.
“It’s getting late,” said Phillip, one of the disciples. “We should tell the people to go home so they can get something to eat.”
“Why don’t you give them something to eat, Philip?” Jesus asked.
There are thousands of people here,’ said Phillip. “We’re way out in the country. There’s no place to buy food. And we don’t have money.”
One of the children in the crowd heard Jesus and his friends talking. “I have something we could eat,” the boy said to Andrew, another one of Jesus’ disciples.
What have you got?” asked Andrew.
“Five loaves of bread,” said the boy. “And two small fish.”
Andrew laughed. “Look at all these people! How many could you feed with five loaves of bread and two tiny fish?”
The boy felt sad. He knew it wasn’t much, but he wanted to share.
“Have the people sit down on the grass,” Jesus said. Then he smiled at the boy. “It’s very kind of you to share your food. Let’s say ‘thank you’ to God. Then we can eat.”
The disciples handed out the food. Everyone ate as much as they wanted. When all the people were full, there was still a lot of food left over.
How did that happen?” the boy asked.
Jesus smiled. “When people are willing to share, there’s always enough…”
This reading of the story raises up the actions of a little child, a little boy, the least of these, who hears Jesus’ question, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” And then offers everything he and his family have to share. It isn’t much but the picture that goes with the story shows that it is a heavy, hard lift for a little boy. (Show the picture). This story as it is written in the children’s lectionary allows us to consider the unexpected potentialities present in the juxtaposition between Andrew’s question, “What are these barley loaves and fish among so many people?” and a little boy’s offering of all he has.
Jesus’ question makes it clear that he intends to provide hospitality in the form of a meal for the 5000 people spread out on the grass before them. And that suggestion throws Phillip and Andrew into a panic. These people have followed Jesus into the wilderness. There is no market just around the corner and even if there was, it bears repeating, “six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little”. They can see the enormous need and expectation reflected in the faces of the 1000s who have followed them into the wilderness because they have seen the signs Jesus was doing for the sick. Reasonably, Phillip and Andrew are focused on the scarcity of resources and this focus on scarcity makes them fearful. And then there is a boy with 5 loaves of barley and two small fish. Only the rich could afford loaves of wheat. This boy’s mother makes their bread from barley. Less nutritious, harder to digest, homelier but along with the two small fish, it is enough. Urged on by his mother or the spontaneous act of a youth? Either way, all this small boy knows is that the people need food and he and his family have some to share. Hard as the choice may be to offer their food, he hears Jesus’ hospitable intentions and he responds affirmatively. This small boy doesn’t think that his offering will feed them all but it is the gift he has to offer and he offers it all. When Jesus lifts this bread and makes it a shared meal, the people recognize the presence of God’s abundance. Fear gives way to hospitality and there is enough.
This is a eucharistic moment. And this story about the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes as told from the perspective of a small boy is the story of the hard choice we are called to make when we come to the table. Do we lean into the hospitable sharing of abundant life that brings the generative, loving presence of Jesus into our midst or do we do the easy thing and hold onto our anxieties and our worst instincts fueled by a fear of scarcity? In fact, we live this eucharistic moment of choice every day of our lives. Do we hospitably, welcome the stranger, the immigrant, the person who doesn’t look like us to our table, into our homes, across our national borders? Or do we make them an enemy and buy into the narrative of scarcity that claims there is never enough. Do we choose an attitude of abundance or an attitude of scarcity when it comes to policy issues like healthcare, education, the environment and so on? In which direction do we lean when it comes to our relationship with our families, our friends, our neighbors, those who differ from us politically? In all these choices, day to day, moment to moment, we can turn away in fear or we can follow a small child’s lead and embrace the eucharistic moment and life’s abundance.
Today we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the profession of Barbara Dannhausen into her life as a Dominican sister. According to the Sinsinawa Dominican Congregation’s website, the Dominican charism is a ministry of preaching and teaching where “each day presents opportunities for spiritual growth and a deepening of self-knowledge that energizes members like Barbara to take an active roll in issues of importance to church and society. In other words, each day presents opportunities to learn from and lean into the abundance of life. And Sister Barbara has done just that, dedicating herself to many things from teaching to serving as assistant to the President of Marian College in Fond du Lac Wisconsin. But looking through the resume of her life, her gifts as an organizer stand out. Because of her ability to see the big picture, identify problems and creating systemic, big-hearted solutions, she has helped many organizations, including the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the Diocese of Madison and the Sinsinawa Dominican Congregation to achieve their important missions of service to the world. That is how we know here at Holy Wisdom Monastery. Along with many people in this room, I watched Barbara help us, the multiple communities of Holy Wisdom Monastery, to chart a way forward into the future by grounding us in an attitude of abundance. Some of you here remember when the Sunday Assembly community gathered back in 2005? 2006? For listening sessions in order to decide how or even if we would make the transition to becoming an ecumenical community. Sister Barbara led these sessions, making sure that there was enough—enough time for each person to be heard. The result was a mission statement and a statement of values that reflected our commitment to hospitality and abundance. Again and again, she has lead various Holy Wisdom Monastery communities and committees through organizational processes – 3 year planning sessions, 5 year planning sessions and so on and so on. And in these interactions, she has modeled abundant patience, abundant time for listening, abundant persistence and abundant hard work. And always, always she has been more than generous with her time and talent.
Congratulations to Sister Barbara for making a promise 60 years ago to live the life abundant and then getting up each and every day to do just that!! Thank you for sharing that life with us. You are a sign and a wonder. May we follow your lead and confirm again at this table and in our everyday lives the possibility – if we make the hard choice – of the miraculous multiplication of fishes and loaves. So what are 5 barley loves and two tiny fish among so many people? What are 60 years of professed life well lived? They are a sign and more than that they are the actual presence of God’s abundance.