THE MULTIPLICATION OF THANKFUL HEARTS
A year ago this last summer I helped lead a tour to the Holy Land. What a fantastic experience! It is really something to walk the same land that our Lord walked upon this earth. And it puts a whole different light on the Bible stories as you read them, making it so much easier to imagine the places where they take place.
This evening's Gospel story is a good example as Jesus begins to teach them about the Bread of Life after feeding the multitude with five loaves of bread and two fish. There is even a hillside near the north shore of the Sea of Galilee that we visited, that they think might be the kind of place where Jesus performed this miracle. They've built a little chapel there called the Church of the Multiplication.
But there's something else about my trip to the Holy Land that makes me think about this miracle. We arrived in Tel Aviv, beginning our visit along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, where it's relatively pleasant as long as the nice sea breeze is blowing. But once you move inland to the Sea of Galilee, which is really only a lake, not an oceanic sea like the Mediterranean, it's a different story. And one of the biggest surprises to me on the trip was to arrive at the rim of the basin of the Sea of Galilee and see it far below us. The Sea of Galilee is only a few feet above the Dead Sea -- in other words, it's nearly the lowest spot on earth, about 600 feet below sea level. Unlike in the days of Jesus, we were able to easily cover the distance from the Mediterranean to Galilee in several hours, and so the increase in temperature was quite noticeable, around 20 degrees warmer at the Sea of Galilee.
So what does that have to do with our Gospel Lesson this evening? Well, one of the things that our guides kept telling us over and over, even though we were traveling on air conditioned tour buses, is to have water with us at all times. Never leave the hotel unprepared for the hot climate. Now, what would that have been like to travel that region on bare foot, as most people did at the time of Jesus? You can bet they never left their villages without a skin of water. But having walked around that land myself now, there's something else I would bet: that they rarely left their villages without at least a little something to eat, too.
That's part of the reason that it's been meaningful for me to think about this miracle of the feeding of the five thousand in a bit different way. Was there really only five loaves of bread and two fish among the huge multitude that day? Or was that all the food that anyone would admit to, when the disciples polled the crowd to find some food? After traveling that land myself, I find it difficult to imagine that that's all there was. I can't imagine that people, living in that hot, harsh land, would leave their homes and villages so unprepared. Our guides were careful not to let us foreigners leave our hotels unprepared each day. Why would native folks, who knew so well the bitter facts of survival in those days, do so?
Now let me be very clear. I raise these questions not to raise doubt about Jesus being able to multiply fish and loaves for thousands. I have no doubts that Jesus was able to do such miracles. But my experience in the Holy Land underscores for me what I consider to be an even greater miracle on the part of Jesus. If the nature of this miracle was to physically multiply five loaves and two fish into enough to feed thousands, that's fine -- except it doesn't do us much good for us tonight, besides maybe being impressed that Jesus could do such things. It does even less for the children of Afghanistan tonight, and in so many other places in this world, where millions are on the verge of starvation. Jesus' ability to make an abundance out of a scarcity will not do them any good because Jesus is no longer there in person to multiply the their food.
On the other hand, if Jesus' miracle on that day was of a different nature, it could make a big difference to us tonight, and to millions of people all over the world. In the Lesson from John this evening, Jesus himself hints at something much more than literal bread. He came to give us a far more lasting bread from heaven, a bread of life that can truly make a difference even tonight, two thousand years later, and in far-reaching places of this earth.
Here's what I think Jesus means, if we begin by seeing this miracle a bit differently. Let's say that the folks on the hillside that day did leave their homes and villages prepared. Most of them had satchels of food and water. So why only five loaves and two fishes when the disciples went out asking? Simple. Because of fearful, untrusting, ungrateful hearts. It's easy to imagine, isn't it? The disciples come asking for offerings of food, and you think, 'Gee, I have enough for myself and my family here, but what if I get it out in front of this big crowd? It'll be gone in no time flat, that's what! I'd better keep it hidden, and get it our later, after we leave and are alone.' Isn't that easy to imagine happening all over that hillside? So the disciples only come up with five loaves and two fish. In John's Gospel, he even tells us that it was a boy who offered it. That makes sense: a boy wouldn't know better. A boy wouldn't have learned the hard facts of survival yet, where everyone needs to watch out for themselves.
And there was another factor going on, too. Good Jewish people, like most of the people there that day, were kosher. They were careful not to break bread with other people in unclean situations. Eating was a religious activity. You need to be careful not to contaminate yourself by eating with the wrong people, in the wrong situations. It's a bit like all those years in which Christians of different denominations wouldn't share Communion with one another. You have to be careful not to get contaminated. Even now we worry about young children. We don't want their shaky table manners to desecrate our Holy Communion.
So with all these factors of fearful, untrusting, ungrateful hearts, can you see how amazing this miracle really was? Despite what seemed like a gross scarcity, Jesus looked to heaven, gave thanks, and began to give out the meager loaves and fish. Do you see? Jesus' own thankful heart was able to stir up the hearts of those who were there that day, to also open their hearts in thanksgiving. Jesus taught them to have thankful and generous hearts, at least for a few moments. As they opened their own hearts and began to break out their food and share it, too, lo and behold, there was an abundance.
A multiplication of bread and fish is impressive, but isn't a multiplication of thankful hearts an even greater, more far reaching miracle? Do you see? It's one thing to physically multiply bread and fish one or twice two thousand years ago. It's on a wholly different order of things to be able to open stingy human hearts, and not just that day, but today and every day, too. This means something not only to us here this evening, as we open our hearts to this miracle, but it potentially affects those children in Afghanistan, too. Because if the hearts of the American people are opened once again on this Thanksgiving, to be thankful and generous hearts, the abundance of sharing can make a difference across this globe.
Do we need this miracle again tonight? We are only two months hence from events of terror that have changed our lives in this country. We now seem to be officially in a recession. The experts are saying things might not get better for our economy for a while. At church council last night, we began to consider cut-backs in next year's budget with these things in mind, benevolence included. It seems like the prudent thing to do.... And then I'm reminded of the disciples prudent response to Jesus that day: 'Jesus, we only have five loaves and two fish. We can't feed everyone. Send them home.'
Do you see how easy it is to have fearful hearts? To not trust that there is an abundance in this world, if we would only share? What was our response when disaster struck on Sept. 11? Even in the face of such terrible events, weren't you proud of how our hearts opened to one another and we shared? Let's not lose that spirit. For it is the spirit of Jesus working in our midst. It's the spirit of the One who faced the scarcity of five loaves and two fish for thousands with a thankful and trusting heart. It's the spirit of the One who on the night on which he was betrayed, took some bread and gave thanks. He gave thanks! On the night of his death! Why? How? Because he knew and trusted in a heavenly Father who has created an abundance on this earth. He knew and trusted in a God of abundant life who would raise him to new life even in the face of death. Our Lord Jesus Christ lived always with a heart of thanksgiving and generosity, sharing himself to the very last.
As our Risen Lord, he is able to share himself with us still tonight. He is able to open our feeble hearts once again, fearful of scarcity, and help us to trust once again in the God of abundant life. He is here tonight to give us thankful hearts, that we might truly share out of our abundance to those around this world who so sorely are in need of it. Our Lord Jesus Christ is here tonight to work this very same miracle on each of our hearts, that more and more people across this world may share in his bread of life. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, November 21, 2001