July 9th – Scott Harris – with audio

2 KINGS 4:42-44
JOHN 6:1-15


            “Nothing is so incredible as an answer to an unasked question.”  Reinhold Niebuhr said that.  As Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr was internationally known for his cutting insights into the intricate web of religion, society and politics.  He also knew how to ask the right questions in search of the best answer.

            Speaking of questions and answers, a man once wondered why his niece was returning to college to get a master’s degree in philosophy.  Of his niece he asked: “What can you do with a degree [in philosophy}?  “Well,” she replied, “it will qualify me to pursue questions like, ‘What is existence?’ and ‘What is the essence of a thing?’ and, ‘Do you want fries with that?’”

            When it comes to making big bucks philosophy is not always the ticket.  Money matters.  Not clear thinking. The usefulness of a degree in philosophy to sharpen one’s mind is easily sidetracked in our culture by so much that is simply mindless, inane, and distracting.  Said author Gore Vidal: “I’m told that half the people [in the US] don’t read the newspaper, and half the people don’t vote.  One hopes it’s the same half.” 

Yet let’s join Niebuhr who knew that asking the tough question and getting the right answer is both difficult and uncomfortable—but necessary.  It’s not too clear what prompted Niebuhr to say, “Nothing is so incredible as an answer to an unasked question.”  But hanging around politicians as he did maybe he had in mind most any politician who speaks in ambiguities and answers question via obfuscation.  What good is telling the truth when a lie will get you more? 

Then again, maybe what prompted Niebuhr to say what he did is the exchange recorded in today’s Gospel between Jesus and his disciple, Philip.  In that lesson, Jesus asks: “Where are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?”  Philip’s answer, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  Cutting Philip some slack, his answer seems practical.  Who of us would sacrifice six months pay so that others may eat?

            When we begin this story we know that Jesus has been slowly building up a following so much so that the crowed around Jesus has never been larger.  The opening verse sets that stage: “A large crowd kept following Jesus, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.”  From that height Jesus could look down and see a crowd said to number over 5,000 people.  And this crowd is a hodgepodge of  social castaways.

            Here and elsewhere in Christ’s wanderings he attracted not the successful, not the highly educated, not even attract the up and coming community figures, but Jesus attracted riff-raff, the community cast-offs, the sick, society’s dregs, among whom were some criminals, prostitutes, and the poor. 

That’s where we are today in this story and then this happens: “Jesus went up into the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.  When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?” 

            With this one question Jesus reveals the depth of his compassion.  While the crowd has been gradually building, Jesus is the first one to notice them.  No one else said anything else of the same people as if they were invisible.  How true is that when it comes to seeing the poor and hungry?  For many, they are invisible. Moreover, Jesus’ question reveals His awareness of the people and their dilemma.  They’re hungry.  Didn’t anyone else notice?

            Of the availability of bread to eat Christ asks, “Where is it?” knowing full well that there is an abundance somewhere.  And, Jesus says “we” thus indicating that feeding the hungry takes more than one person.  Jesus asks: “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” Then comes Philip’s incredible answer, which is no answer. Says Philip, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 

            Jesus asks “where” and Philip’s answer makes it sound like Jesus asked “How much?”  Jesus calculates the depth of the people’s hunger, while Philip calculates the crisis in terms of money.  Jesus’ inclusive question implies self-sacrifice on the part of everyone, while Philip’s answer is a bald attempt at self-preservation at no expense to himself.  Jesus offers a strategy to do something, while Philip can only give an excuse to do nothing.

Philip’s answer implies, “Can we afford to feed them?”  Jesus’ question implies, “Can we afford not to?”  Christ sees the people’s hunger as a moral question requiring mercy, while Philip sees it as an economic problem requiring money, thus setting up a clash of two worldviews. 

Philip’s answer has nothing to do with Christ’s question. Incredible.  Instead, it is a carefully crafted answer that dodges the truth, all of which makes Philip sound like a Washington politician whose policies are dictated not by other people’s needs but only by politicians’ obsession with money.  Philip’s answer shows not an inkling of awareness of the human crisis before him.

            Said French philosopher Albert Camus: “(O)n this earth there are pestilences and there are victims and it is up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” Which leads us to ask, “Is Philip, and people like him, a walking pestilence?” 

Speaking of which, the proposed Congressional budget and ongoing plan to gut health care are proof that a selfish attitude like Philip’s is alive and well among Washington politicians.

Of the proposed American Health Care Bill—which is another politically concocted oxymoron—one commentator summed it up in one sentence: “It socks to the poor, and gives a handout to the rich.”  It’s not about health but money.

Not wanting to miss an opportunity to impugn Obama Care, Senator Paul Ryan called the repeal of Obama Care an “act of mercy.”  Mercy?  For whom?  For the rich– not the poor and middle class, not women and children, not the elderly and disabled. There is no mercy for them just heightened pestilence at the hands of the privileged.  Like Philip before him, for Senator Ryan and his supporters it is not a question of mercy but money. When and where will all this end? 

            Then in a stump speech delivered to an adoring crowd in Iowa the day before the new health care bill was introduced, the President praised the work of Gary Cohn, the President’s top economic advisor and former Goldman Sachs executive, as well as praised Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross—two men of immense wealth.  Of them the President said: “In those particular positions of economic advisors (in the government) I don’t want a poor person—does that make sense?” the President asked. 

According to Christ it makes absolutely no sense. It’s representatives of the poor whose voice is not heard in Congress that is part—a large part—of the economic and moral dilemma in our country.  It’s only the likes of Christ and his followers who speak for the poor that the poor have a voice.  “Where are we to but bread so that the people may eat?  Where are we to find housing so that the homeless may be sheltered?  And what of their health?”  Christ asks. 

            As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1939: “Progress is not measured by how much we add to the abundance of those who already have a great deal, but by how much we do for those who have too little.” And what we “do” is not just in the way of material goods—food, money—but recognition, of seeing those in poverty and want as valuable human beings.  Christ makes that clear by what he does next.

Jesus has the disciples request the people to sit down, which in the original biblical Greek uses a word that is difficult to translate into English “To sit down,” means to recline at table as honored guests. 

Then, after taking the five loaves and two fish, and giving thanks, Jesus does the unexpected: instead of telling the people to come forward to get in line to get their food, like a servant serving honored guests at a meal, Christ himself distributes the food to all of them. This is the greater miracle of the story and the miracle we are capable of repeating.  Sound incredible?

Christ acts not disdainfully towards the people, because they are hungry and poor, but by distributing the food to them like a servant Christ affirms the people’s priceless human worth. No wonder the people at the end of the story rally to make Jesus their king. Not just because he fed them. Christ is the first to see them. And attending to them Christ feeds their hunger for someone to recognize that they, too, are God’s beloved children.  Their hunger is for more than food.

            “To love,” writes author Jean Vanier, “is not just to do something for [others] but to reveal to them their own uniqueness, to tell them that they are special and worthy of attention.  We can express this revelation [of love] through our open and gentle presence.”  Which Christ does. He shows them that they are worthy of attention.

            This lesson, which is commonly called “The Feeding of the Five Thousand,” overlooks something just as important.  The last we read of the disciples is that Jesus commands them to go pick up the scraps of food left over from the feast, a task that they themselves were not expecting them to do.  But Jesus tells to do it anyway. 

The episode of the feeding of the five thousand begins with the disciples being empty-handed. The same lesson ends with the disciples having in-hand 12 baskets of leftovers. Not each 12 baskets, but together they have more resources than they ever had.  Surprisingly, the lesson ends without Jesus telling the disciples what to do with the abundance of food as if it’s their responsibility now to figure it out.

This too. The disciples have more than food.  They witnessed firsthand the power of compassion, transforming mercy, humility, and the love of Christ who serves the poor and hungry.

In the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr, the question is this: What will the disciples do not just with the abundance of food that they hold in their hands, but with the example of Christ’s compassion, mercy, humility and love that they are capable of repeating.  What will they do?  Ask, as much as we like, there is no way to answer. But the more pressing question is, what do we do?  What will we do with the resources given to us? 

Despite our accomplishments, our wealth, our family line, the color of our skin, our sexual orientation, our gender, each of us comes here at some point equally empty-handed as well.   Yet, we don’t leave here empty-handed.  WE are fed with the Word and sacred Food of Christ’s very life.  WE also witness something more: WE see the impact of compassion, generosity, mercy, humility, and love that Christ has for us, that Christ gives us and then discovering that we are capable of doing the same for others.  After all, what is the crucifixion and resurrection from the dead, never to die again, but a confirmation of our human worth that God in Christ has for everyone?  How valuable is that?

            The question then is this: What will WE do with all that God in Christ has given and shown us?  What will we do?  In the name of the love and life of the resurrected Christ, is that question so incredible?  If not, what then is our answer?


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