Reading “Loaves and Fishes,” by Denis Letourneau Paul
Once upon a time, in a desert land by a far away sea, there was a teacher named Yeshua. He was an ordinary man, of ordinary beginnings, born of a carpenter, and a teenage mother, but somehow, against all odds, he became well-known for his teaching. Maybe it was because as he reached adulthood, he decided that, rather than seeking fortune, and would seek wisdom.
Nobody really knows what he did during the years between his teens and that period of life we now call the end of his early adulthood. He was 33 years old at the time, which was pretty old 2,000 years ago, and some believe he’d spent fifteen to twenty years traveling the world, learning from great teachers, like Buddhist Rinpoches and Hindu yogis.
Yeshua had been teaching for a while, and was developing quite a following. His students – his disciples – had been out on their own teaching others what he had taught them. People would flock to hear his insights.
Now, he wasn’t a didactic teacher. He didn’t lecture. He wasn’t known as a great researcher. He was a storyteller. He was so good at telling stories in the vernacular of his time and place that he could make a clear point with very few words. Yeshua was so in tune with what was going on his little corner of the world, that he could use the images and symbols of that time and place to tell the kind of story that would bring the world to life for the simple folk who heard him, people who for the most part never traveled further than they could walk in one day. His stories, though short, dripped with metaphor and meaning and conveyed the wisdom of the ages.
One spring, Yeshua and his students gathered after being apart for a while. He had been telling stories for days as the crowd of listeners grew bigger and bigger, and he was tired.
After a while, Yeshua said to his disciples, “Let’s get away from here. Let’s get in a boat and go across the water to the dessert, so we can rest, away from this crowd.” So in the morning, they all headed across the water, leaving as quietly as they could.
Well, somehow word got out where they were going, so by the time they ever reached land on the other side, a crowd of people was already gathered. It was almost 2,000 years before the Beatles…but it was kind of like when John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Everyone was screaming and grabbing, dying to get near this guy who had become a superstar almost overnight.
This was still kind of new thing for Yeshua, this phenomenon of being swarmed by mobs of fans, so he got caught up in the frenzy, forgot about his intention to rest, and sat down to teach. After a few hours in the hot sun, he was hungry, and he could tell by the restlessness in the crowd that they were hungry too.
One of the students, Andrew, said, “Yeshua, why don’t you send people away, so they can eat? They can go out to villages or houses nearby to buy food.”
Times were very different then. People didn’t walk around the streets eating, going from burger joint to ice cream shop as they went about their business. There were no popcorn or pizza vendors in the desert. Usually, people brought food with them, and the most common foods of the day for traveling were dried fish and loaves of hard, dry bread made of barley, items that wouldn’t spoil or get crushed.
But Yeshua had another idea.
He turned to a different student, Phillip, and said “Let’s feed everyone ourselves. Where can we get some bread?”
Phillip suppressed a laugh. “Even if we had enough money to buy food for everyone, there probably isn’t enough bread to buy. It’s late in the day, and there have to be five thousand people here.”
It didn’t matter, because Yeshua already knew what to do. He knew that a lot of people hadn’t brought anything with them. In their rush to meet him on the shore where he and his students landed, they had forgotten to bring anything. But he also knew that a lot of people had brought food, even if they weren’t willing to share.
So, he turned to all of his students and instructed them to go into the crowd and gather all of the food that people would share. Now these students, they were newbies. They were terrible at asking for what they needed. They had just proved that in the preceding weeks, going out into villages in pairs. Some people gave them food and drink and beds for a night or two, but most people, nearly everyone, turned them away. After scouring the crowd, they returned only with what one boy was willing to give them: five barley loaves and two dried fish.
Yeshua had the students sit everyone in groups of fifty to hundred, which they were willing to do, as they watched Yeshua break all of the bread and all of the fishes into pieces and put them in baskets.
They were curious.
When Yeshua was done, and everyone was seated, he started passing the baskets. The gathered were very, very slow at passing the baskets of food, but after a while, everyone had eaten. In fact, they were stuffed.
As he watched, Yeshua became curious, so he asked everyone present to pass the baskets to collect all the remaining food. The frenzy started again in the crowd. Everyone grew giddy with excitement as they watched the baskets pass again, this time getting fuller and fuller as they moved from hand to hand past everyone.
“This is indeed a prophet among us! He is meant to be our leader!”
Jesus smiled. He knew the crowd wanted more from him. They wanted to carry him off, and prevent him from continuing his work. But he had more to do, so he and his disciples quickly got into their boat and headed back to where they came from, the mass of people on the shore crying and waving goodbye.
Personal Reflection by Rose Bouch
My call to service as a Unitarian Universalist is greatly influenced by my Roman Catholic upbringing. In graduate school at Case Western Reserve University I participated in the Catholic campus ministry to the poor by serving a community meal to guests at St. Aloysius Church in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood. Although I was no longer attending Mass, a call of service to the poor was a value that I still held dear. It is also a value that I bring to East Shore through my participation in our Community Meal at Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Euclid.
Over the course of the 5 years we have been serving this meal I have interacted with many guests, but two people in particular strike a chord with me and I look forward to seeing them each time we serve. They are an elderly woman and her adult daughter with Down Syndrome. They have shared that it is difficult for them to afford eating out. Also, as they age, mobility has become an issue for the mother, however, they live in close proximity to the church where our meal is served. They always look forward to the meal that East Shore prepares and serves because they have an opportunity to join with others and share a pleasant meal and conversation. Most times they eat alone, just the two of them and long for the company of others with which to share a meal and friendly conversation. I smile when they arrive at each meal, exchange a friendly hello with the volunteers and they sit down together, taking out their neatly folded fabric napkins and real silverware from home with which to eat their meal. This gesture is symbol to me of a connection as part of something larger than themselves. For one meal, they are members of a larger family made up of others hungry for nourishment and human connection.
There is no real budget for the Community Meal and I completely depend upon the generosity of church members and friends, both in terms of food donations and person power to prepare, serve and clean up. Do I ever really know who is helping? Do I know how the supplies are going to be paid for? How many guests will come? Will there be a snowstorm and no one will come? Will there be twice as many guests as we expected? The answer to all these questions is often unknown and I confess that I used to be a nervous wreck with worry at each meal. How will this work? How will this turn out? But does the meal always turn out well? Yes, it does! I have come to realize that with faith and hard work, it will all work out.
Sermon “Feeding the Multitude,” Rev Denis
I love the Bible story of feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fishes. Typical of the parables told by the man who would come to be known in the United States as Jesus of Nazareth it’s a little short on facts and details. Left out of the story is all of the background information you would need for it to make sense to us now in the way that it made sense to the audience of its time. As I told it, I added that background information, which we know from the work of historians.
The story is one of the few that is told four times in the Christian Bible, the book that is often called the New Testament. All four gospels tell the same story, with the same basic structure and facts: the men were in a desert, they needed rest but a crowd showed up. Jesus had compassion for them, and they fed a lot of people from five loaves and two fishes.
Now, if we all witnessed the same thing happening, each of us would tell the story a little differently, focusing on different facts, based on our own experiences, vantage points, and even prejudices. And none of the gospel writers were present: they were just writing down stories that had been repeated verbally over the decades.
Matthew tells the basics of the story, and gives us no other facts. Luke tells us the people numbered 5,000, and that Jesus suggested buying food for everyone. Mark lets us know that would be impossible, naming an incredibly small amount of money. He also describes dividing people into groups of 50 to 100. John gives us the most information: Phillip and Andrew were the disciples who helped Jesus assess the situation and plan the meal; there was a boy willing to share his bread and fish; and the people were so amazed, they declared Jesus their king.
“Why is this story so important all four gospels tell it?” you might ask. It sets the tone for the meteoric rise of Jesus and the suddenness of his acceptance among the Jews in a land occupied by the Romans. He understood the people and their culture, their yearning to be free from Rome’s domination. He spoke their language, and told them stories about their culture, taking the old tales of the Hebrew Bible and expanding on them, breathing into them new life. He recognized that they had reached the major goal of the Bible, to be unified as one people with one identity, and he gave them a new purpose: To rise above the letter of the law and really care for one another and all of humanity. Jesus could get people to do things they didn’t want to do, like share their food. Mark and John both hinted to that in their stories of the feeding of the multitude.
Pearl Buck, I think, tells the story best. Her book The Story Bible, published in 1971, is full of amalgams. She did what most people do when they read the bible: she cross referenced, and made one, more complete story out of the bits and pieces. Her methodology has its problems, but, hey, it’s what folks have done with the Bible ever since it was codified.
What I find funny is that despite the importance of the story, Thomas Jefferson, a Unitarian, left it out of his book The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, the book that would come to be known as The Jefferson Bible. He didn’t like miracles. I picture him sitting on the floor of his office, at the dawn of the 19th century, cutting his bible into pieces, with the lion’s share of it in the trash. His is a very slim volume.
But nowhere in the text of any of the four gospels is the word miracle used, in any translation I’ve read. Buck tells the story well, but one of the best explanations, I think, appears in the 2004 film Millions, written by Frank Boyce and directed by Danny Boyle. A little boy, Damien, is obsessed with saints, convinced his mother is among them. She’s just died, and people have referred to her as “poor, sainted Maureen.”
Damien is visited by Saints. You’re never quite sure if they’re real or they’re in his imagination, but they teach him. One night, St Francis appears, and explains the miracle of the fishes and loaves. Most people had food with them. They wouldn’t have shared with those who had none, but Jesus got them to. When the baskets came to them, they would break up their bread and fish, keep what they needed and give the rest away. That was the miracle, that Jesus got strangers to share with each other, and the people of the time understood that. That’s why they wanted him to be their leader.
A lot of Boyce’s information came from biblical scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. They and about 150 others are part of the Jesus Seminar, which over the last 30 years has used the tools of cultural anthropology and archaeology – as well as primary and secondary sources of historical evidence – to better understand the man named Yeshua, the man who came to be known as Jesus.
The Jesus Seminar set out to ask all the questions that any decent researcher or investigator would ask, questions often overlooked by those of blind faith. Questions like: Who was he? Where did he come from and where did he go? What did he do and what did he say? What were people saying about him at the time? How were his words and actions recorded at the time?
What about other gospels that never made it into the accepted cannon? And what do we know about how people lived then?
That little English Christmas movie from 10 years ago explained the story of the fishes and loaves, and I don’t think it’s odd to lift it up as an appropriate text for making a point. Jesus used the tales of the popular culture of his time to form a new narrative. And we have a history here at East Shore of making movie lore part of the story of who we are.
If you’ve been here a while, you now what I mean.
“If we build it, they will come.”
That saying is based on a line, repeated frequently in the 1989 film Field of Dreams, written and directed by Phil Robinson, based on a story by W.P. Kinsella. The character of Ray, played by Kevin Costner, hears a voice in his cornfield. Over the course of a few months, the voice tells him three things: If you build it he will come. Ease his pain. Go the distance.
Ray doesn’t know what any of it means at first, but he figures it out, and does what the voice says. He plows under his corn and builds a baseball park, complete with lights and a little set of bleachers. He seeks out an old hippy literary hero, and does what he has to do to finally encounter the ghost of his father.
And that’s the miracle. He confronts the memory of the man he has resented for decades, and finally heals himself, and that healing is so powerful, it draws others toward him.
Ray does something crazy, even though he doesn’t know why. He builds the ballpark, and for a long time nobody comes. He does it, thinking it’s a selfless job, in service to something. He’s healed by the act of doing, putting his own concerns aside for a while and simply being present to something he loves, paying attention to something larger than himself.
Over the last few weeks, a lot of people have told me that this facility was build 15 years ago with an attitude that “If we build it, they will come.” The sanctuary, the parking lot and the grounds are so much larger than we’ve needed because the people who put the most resources into their construction were sure of one thing: an inclusive message with the power to transform lives. They thought it was a message that would draw in more and more people over time, and they wanted to make room for that.
After hearing “If we build it, they will come,” so many times, I had to watch Field of Dreams for the first time last week. I’m no baseball fan, and the movie is 25 years old, and yet, I was choking back tears, it was so appealing, so universal.
Maybe that’s the miracle of pop culture, in the stories that get told now, by the prophets we call movie directors. They get us to suspend our disbelief, to put aside our need to be right, to be clever, and just believe a simple tale. They get us to recognize the truth in the story. Not the facts, but the universal truths that are self-evident but easy to forget in the rush of everyday life. The lessons of fairy tales. Parables.
Maybe Ray’s story is an indicator of what we are called to do. To be present to needs we don’t understand. To fill a need that we didn’t even know existed. To follow a calling that on the surface makes no sense. To have faith in each other enough to continue to just show up.
You built this place, with the idea that people would come, and membership would expand to fill the space. So far that hasn’t happened, as people have come and gone. Maybe it’s time to focus on the next steps: Ease his pain. Go the distance.
The next steps have begun, and they include miracles like the loaves and fishes. The story Rose told about feeding the hungry is the story of a miracle. Strangers who would otherwise never meet are connected through a meal. Nobody knows what will happen or how it will happen, but it always happens. Everyone leaves satisfied.
Rose’s story is a reminder that we already have what we need, right here, right now. It’s already being asked of us, and in quiet ways, people are standing up and filling needs. I keep hearing about individuals and families seeing needs and meeting them. Things like paying for parties and programs. Installing new amenities around the building. Buying food. Cleaning beaches.
Among us, people are rising in generosity, to do what needs to get done in this place and in the wider community, but much of it goes unseen. It goes unseen because this place operates like a family, where each person fills his or her role quietly, without need for fanfare. So, everything happens quietly, almost secretly.
I’m reminded about the kind of miracle that happens in the city of San Francisco, a miracle I’ve witnessed firsthand. Glide Memorial Church serves 6,000 meals a day, 7 days a week, free of charge, to anyone who is hungry. It’s so impressive, so legendary, that people come in buses to see it happen, from as far away as Asia and Europe. It’s a huge organization, with a huge budget and a huge staff of employees and volunteers. It has a simple mission of feeding people, something every family does every day, but it doesn’t operate like a family. It operates like an institution. And that’s what makes the miracle possible.
What would it take to make a miracle like that in our own lives? What would it take for us to experience that kind of expansion, that kind of impact on each other and the world? I hear over and over again of the incredible energy it took to build East Shore, to create it 60 years ago from scratch, to acquire the first building, and to move to this site. There was energy, energy that still exists, waiting to be used.
But to bear witness to a miracle, we have to tap into that energy. To be present to needs we don’t understand. To fill a need that we don’t even know exists. To follow a calling that on the surface makes no sense. To have faith in each other enough to continue to just show up. To create peace and justice in the world. To do for each other what Jesus did for the five thousand people: encourage generosity, and willingness to be part of a miracle.
I hope you will be part of that miracle that we can be.