Jay’s sermon from July 26 on bread in the wilderness and the ELCA Youth Gathering

John 6:1-21

1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. 16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

A thought occurred to me as I was driving the church van back the 700 miles from Detroit to Minneapolis last week following the ELCA Youth Gathering. It was a question, really: What are we going to do with these kids?

Let me be clear: that question was not borne out of any kind of exasperation by their behavior during the week. Not at all. While others might wonder, “What’s the matter with kids today?” my question, to the contrary, is what are we going to do with the kindness, thoughtfulness, good energy, and faith possessed by the youth of today? And further, how do we hang on to the experience of last week and sustain it into the future?

As I said to the Church Council on Monday evening, if you are ever feeling cynical or discouraged about current affairs of the world, then I recommend you spend a week with 30,000 Lutheran youth. You will be filled with hope.

And you don’t have to be Lutheran to see the treasure that they are. Detroit newspapers last week described our mob of Gathering participants as friendly, humble, hard-working, enthusiastic, and joyful.  Detroit saw their willingness to pitch in and work. Even though each group had just one service day, together they cleared 3200 vacant lots of debris, boarded up 319 vacant homes, distributed 1,425 backpacks, painted 1,847 mural boards, installed 36 urban gardens, built 99 picnic tables, filled 26 dumpsters, and served 600 distinct neighborhoods. Oh, and they also provided 1 million diapers to be shared with Detroit families.

It’s astonishing—this abundance of service. And still, it is only one part of the story. Detroit witnessed thousands of youth who enjoyed both learning about each other and also learning about the city in which they gathered. And we did learn. We learned that there is life in abundance in that city. We learned that there is life in Christ’s church.

This was a unique week: filled with faith and hope and joy. So my question is what now are we going to do with these kids? What will the church do with these youth so that they will continue to experience faith, hope, and joy through their participation in the church?

It is this question that I bring most of all to my reading of the Gospel passage this week. So as I read through John chapter 6, I found that my attention kept returning to that boy. Did you notice that small role in today’s drama? While this “feeding of the multitude” story is one of the few that occurs in all four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—only John’s story includes the boy. John writes that when the disciples were wondering about how in the world they could ever possibly feed the crowd of people who came to see Jesus, Andrew found a boy who had packed a lunch of five loaves and two fish. Now, in pointing it out, the disciples also asked an appropriate question: “But what are they among so many people?” It was nothing more than a truly meager amount of food for such a large crowd. When I’ve read this story before, I’ve taken it to mean that Jesus can do so much with so little. Give Jesus the meager talent and faith you have and watch him multiply it. That may be part of the message. But this week, probably because of my experience in Detroit, I got to wondering, “What was that boy doing with so much food?” Sure, it may not be sufficient to feed 5,000, but it’s a huge amount of food for just one boy to carry.

I suppose it’s possible that the five loaves and two fish were meant for the child’s whole family and that he was serving as a kind of pack mule for them. It’s just odd that there is no mention of his family in the Gospel. Or, it could be that he had foolishly spent his week’s allowance at the convenience store when the crowd stopped for a restroom break a few miles back. That kind of thing does happen, I can say. But then again, maybe this youth’s appearance in John’s Gospel is meant most of all as a reminder to us that the abundance of God’s grace may often be found in the last place we are likely to look. The abundance of grace may surprise us.

How often are we like the disciples who become overwhelmed by the need and assume it is all up to us and forget to expect God’s grace? Jesus didn’t lose sight of that. While others worried about scarcity, he imagined abundance. While others expected death, he envisioned life. And at the end of the day, all were fed with as much as they wanted, and leftovers were collected for later.

I don’t know how literally to take this story. Did the fish and loaves really keep multiplying again and again as they were distributed? Or rather, were people simply moved by the generosity of the boy to share more and more of what they had with them whenever the baskets were passed in their direction? I find that explanation attractive. But before we completely explain away the miracle, we need to recognize that no matter how it happened, God was at work in that crowd before anyone noticed it. There was abundance already, even when everyone assumed scarcity.

So this week, reading about the feeding of the 5,000 with the ELCA Youth Gathering fresh in my memory, one thing I have decided that the question, “What are we going to do with the youth of this church?” is the wrong question for us to ask. The main point of this passage, as I take it, is that God is the one who sustains us for life—especially in places of wilderness, especially in times of storms, whenever the way forward is uncertain or accompanied by fear. So if the church of Christ now finds itself in a place of uncertainty about what to do with its young people, then the question for us to ask in faith is “what is God already now doing among the youth?” Even more, what is God doing for and through all of us, regardless of our age? We can trust that God is with us right now as our shepherd through the wilderness and as bread of life to sustain and renew us. We are not just the ones with the responsibility of feeding others. Sure, we have something to offer. But before everything else, we are all—young and old—children of God, equally dependent upon God’s nourishing grace. We all need God’s generosity, justice, and forgiveness in a world where such things seem so scarce. It’s been said before that there is not a single person—not old or young, not rich or poor, not gay or straight, not conservative or liberal–not anyone who does not hunger for God’s liberating love.* And God promises to meet us in our hunger, regardless of what we do or don’t do.

I am convinced that what the youth need of the church is what we all need: a place to acknowledge that we are at once amazingly and abundantly gifted and also completely dependent upon God’s grace. We need that kind of church—together.

So let’s ask ourselves some new questions. Instead of starting with, “What should we do?” let’s start with, How is God feeding you? What hungers do you need God to satisfy for you, for your neighbor? When has God surprised you by giving you what you need before you even knew you needed it? How is God nudging you beyond your wants and needs? When has God come to meet you in a time of fear or uncertainty?

When Jesus took that boy’s loaves, gave thanks and gave them to be distributed among the multitude, it was much more than just a miracle with bread.  It was a glimpse into the deep love of God that will never abandon us and yet always seems to surprise us.


*I was grateful to hear Walter Brueggeman’s sermon for the Festival of Homiletics in May, 2014, at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. In his sermon he described quite concisely his understanding of the gospel, the treasure of the Church. That treasure that we hold in clay jars, he said, is:

forgiveness in order to start again in a society that never forgives and keeps score forever;

generosity that overwhelms our lack in a society based in scarcity and getting more for ourselves;

hospitality that welcomes us in a society that is inhospitable to all but our own kind;

justice that protects the vulnerable in a social system that is deathly in its injustice.

“It is the old, old story,” he said, “of God’s self-giving graciousness to us and to all creatures. That is the treasure!…This is the truth about the treasure: there is not any single person—not old or young, not rich or poor, not gay or straight, not conservative or liberal–not anyone who does not eagerly hope for the news of God’s reconciling, liberating love. Not one!”