The late Dr. Fred Craddock tells about being called back to Oklahoma for a funeral while he was in Atlanta. The man who died had been a good friend in the little church he served there. It had been years but they were good friends. The voice on the phone said, ‘Ray wanted you to come and have his funeral, if you could?” Fred said, “I’ll come.” So Fred went, and after the funeral and the meal, it was just the family. Kathryn was there. She was the oldest daughter. When Fred served that church, she was thirteen years old. Fred said, “I remembered her when I left, and she was the worst thirteen year old I had ever seen—noisy, in and out, pushing, shoving, breaking things, never stayed in the room, never paid attention. When I left there, I could have said, ‘If there is one person that doesn’t know a thing I’ve said in the time I was here, it would be Kathryn.’” Kathryn was now an executive with the Telephone Company. She and her dad were real close. Fred said to Kathryn, “I’m sorry, it’s such a tough time.” She said, “It is tough. When Mother called and said Dad had died of a heart attack, I was just scrambling for something. Then I remembered a sermon you preached on the meaning of the Lord’s supper.” Fred said, “Kathryn, you’re kidding.” And she went on to tell him something he had said in the sermon that helped her when she needed it most. Who knows? Who knows when an encouraging word, an act of kindness, a gift of time or personal attention will have an impact? Who knows when some word or deed or service on behalf of another will make a difference in their lives?
In our story a large crowd has been following Jesus and apparently they haven’t eaten in some time. Jesus points this out to his disciples and raises the question about how they might feed this great multitude. Philip seems overwhelmed by the need – and the need is great: “Six months wages could not buy enough food for each one just to get a little,” he says. But Philip doesn’t yet realize what God can do with just a little.
Andrew chimes in next: “There is a boy here who has five barely loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Now, Andrew can be understood in a couple of ways. We could read Andrew’s question the same way we read Philip’s answer. The need seems too overwhelming to even consider. There is a boy here who has five loaves and two fish, but what is that in light of our enormous need. That’s one way to hear Andrew. Another way, though, is to read in Andrew’s response a more hopeful, positive possibility. Maybe he is saying: Well, the need is great. It’s huge. But we do have something. We have a little. Can we imagine Andrew looking at Jesus as he says this with a faint sense of hope and possible expectation of what Jesus might be able to with the little boy’s little bit of bread and fish? Maybe that’s stretching it. I suspect Andrew is just as overwhelmed at the need before them as Philip.
Jesus has the crowd of people, whom John says numbers about five thousand, sit in groups on the grass. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks to God for it, and then distributes it to the multitude. He does the same with the fish. When all is said and done, the people eat their fill, and the disciples gather up twelve baskets full of leftovers. Perhaps a basket for each of the twelve disciples to press home the point of what God is able to do with our little.
The writer of this story wants us, the readers, to clearly understand that this story is a “sign.” All the works of healing and the unusual feats of Jesus, which we call “miracles” such as Jesus walking on the water and here in the multiplying of the bread and fish – all of these things this Gospel writer calls “signs.” They are signs because they point beyond themselves to something else. The whole point of a sign story is to teach us something about what God wills and wants for our world and for our lives. Whether a story actually occurred historically is for all practical purposes irrelevant. The pressing question is. What is this a “sign” of?
My take on it, is that the point here is that God, the cosmic Christ, the Holy Spirit, our heavenly Father and Mother (use whatever image for God you like), the living Christ is able to take what little we give away to others and bless it to the good of others beyond our expectations. God is able to take that merciful deed of caring, that kind, encouraging word, that gift of money or personal time and attention, and put it to great use in making a difference in people’s lives.
John makes it clear that this is a sign of the kingdom of God, a sign of God’s will and way in the world. John says, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This indeed is the prophet who is come into the world.’” From the perspective of John’s Gospel this is a sign of what God wants to do and can do with our little.
Alan Bean is the executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that, among other things, is committed to building a moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. At one time he pastored in the Texas Panhandle community of Tulia, Texas.
On the morning of July 23, 1999, 47 alleged drug kingpins were arrested on the poor side of Tulia and charged with selling little baggies of powdered cocaine to a single undercover agent by the name of Tom Coleman. Coleman had no evidence to corroborate his stories, but on the basis of his testimony alone local juries handed down the stiffest sentences allowed by law. One young man received six 99-year sentences, to be served consecutively.
Then they learned that Tom Coleman had been arrested on theft charges in the middle of this 18 month undercover operation. And before taking the Tulia job, he had worked as a deputy in another West Texas town, leaving in the dead of the night owing local merchants $10,000. Bean called another West Texas sheriff who hired Coleman even further back. He said, “If I had people in jail on that man’s uncorroborated word, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”
Well, Alan and his wife Nancy were at a crossroads. They could pretend nothing happened and get on with their lives. They could say to themselves, “What little we can do can’t possible make a difference.” Or they could offer up what they could. They decided to do what they could do.
They started holding Sunday night meetings in their living room where the children, parents, and loved ones of the sting defendants gathered to sing gospel songs, dance, read letters from prison, and plot strategy. They packaged the story for journalists. They reached out to advocacy groups across the nation. They got in touch with the governor’s office and made repeated trips to Austin to visit with legislators, handing out brochures that read: Moses, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus agree: no one should be convicted on the word of a single witness.
Gradually their efforts were rewarded. Two sisters in New York published a documentary on the story. Two international law firms saw the documentary and signed on to represent the defendants on a pro bono basis. ABC’s 20-20 sent a team to investigate. Even Bill O’Reilly covered the story on Fox.
Then came the backlash. Nancy, Alan’s wife, was shunned at work by her fellow teachers. The brake lines were cut on their automobile. Their phones were tapped. Denominational officials told Alan that he was too radical to recommend to their churches. They were betrayed by friends. You see, sisters and brothers, sometimes even the little that we can offer up to God’s kingdom on earth and give to others can be extremely costly and risky.
After four years of struggle, a judge ruled that Tom Coleman lacked credibility under oath. All charges were dropped, prisoners were released from prison and eventually pardoned by the Governor. Tom Coleman was found guilty on aggravated perjury and the defendants and their lawyers received millions of dollars in reparation payments. A law was passed by the Texas Legislature demanding corroboration for single-witness testimony. The Department of Public Safety replaced unaccountable, and often corrupt, narcotics task forces. God used the little that Alan and Nancy Bean had given when they decided to speak out for truth and defend those charged unjustly. God multiplied it beyond, I suspect, what they ever dreamed. And yet even so, Alan says he and his wife had been so beat up, they found it hard to celebrate. Sometimes, sisters and brothers, we can take a beating for doing what we can do, for giving what we can give, for saying what we can say. Maybe that’s why Jesus sometimes told would-be disciples to count the cost. Because there is a cost. I suppose Jesus was preparing us for that when he pronounced special blessing on those persecuted for justice’s sake.
To be honest with you sisters and brothers, I sometimes wonder if it is worth it? I do. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at the injustice in our world and in our country, and even in my own complicity in it. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at the problems I see all around me. People who lack the resources to live a thriving life. People who are sick without adequate medical care. People who face great suffering due to illness or injustice or circumstances beyond their control. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at my own lack of will and want to do more or be more compassionate. And to be honest, I am just like Philip and Andrew. What are five loaves and two fishes in view of such massive need? It’s discouraging. And it would be easy to go the next step and give in to despair. It takes stories like this one in our Gospel text to remind me that God hasn’t abandoned any of us. That God is present and deeply and intimately active in a world which God loves and cares about. It takes stories like this to remind me that even though we might not be able to see it, God takes the little we bring – of our resources, of our time, of our abilities – and uses it in ways that we can hardly imagine. God can take our service to others, our kindness to others, our helpfulness to others and make it a “sign” of what God wills and wants for our world. And surprisingly God can use it to make a difference in people’s lives.
Sometimes we preachers like to remind our congregations that we are the body of Christ. That we are the arms, the hands, the feet, the voice of Christ in the world. That God uses people like you and me to do God’s will for mercy and justice. And if we don’t do it, God has no other way of getting it done. But we sometimes forget to emphasize that we just never know when and where and how God is going to do something in someone’s life or in some community that seems miraculous. It is, as Paul said, God who is at work in all of us both to will and to do according to God’s plan to bring everything together in Christ. God wants to reconcile all things together in love, and God is at work in each of our lives to that end – to change us and grow us into loving, gracious, more giving and caring persons and communities.
Our text concludes today with some who witnessed this “sign” trying to force Jesus to be king. Perhaps they thought with Jesus in control there would be no more need, no more hunger, no more want. Of course, we can’t force God to do anything and God cannot force us. Our journey with God is always a cooperative venture. It’s about working together. It’s about being in partnership. That is the way it is and always been from the first time life emerged on this planet millions of years ago. God has always worked in cooperation with the creation. And that sisters and brothers, is the only way any problem, from poverty to cancer to corruption in government is going to be solved. Working together with God and with each other is the only way any need will ever be met, whether it’s our personal need for courage and moral strength, or society’s need for a more equitable distribution of resources. Can we give our little and trust that God will bless it to bless others?
Great God in heaven and on earth, give us the will, and help us find a way to partner with you in bringing everyone together in your love. Give us the want and will to give to others and to your cause for their good and your good in the world. If enough of us gave what little we have and are, perhaps this world would look more like what you envision this world to be. Stir our hearts to offer our little so all your “little ones” will be cared for. Compel us, O God, to give away our five loaves and two fishes that the hungry might be fed, that the downtrodden might be lifted up, that the oppressed might be liberated, and that we might all come together in your love. Amen.