What a great story. The only miracle that appears in all four gospels, I’d be surprised if it hasn’t made its way into nearly every children’s Bible ever published and every Jesus movie ever made, too. A huge crowd of people, all of them hungry after a long day out in the middle of the wilderness, without a grocery store or a fast food place in sight. The disciples gently remind Jesus he needs to wrap up the day’s teaching and healing while there’s still time to get everyone home for dinner. Jesus disagrees, throwing them a curveball with the words: “You give them something to eat.”
Now I don’t care how much catering experience you may have, five thousand people is a lot of mouths to feed. The disciples only have five loaves of bread and two fish, “unless,” they say, “we are to go and buy food for all these people.” (Luke 9:13) But of course they only say this for rhetorical effect; everyone knows they can’t accomplish such a feat.
Not to worry, though. Jesus has a plan. “Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” And everyone sits down. Then Jesus takes the loaves and fish, looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks them, and gives them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And suddenly it turns out there is plenty of food to feed everyone present, with plenty of leftovers too – twelve baskets of bread pieces in all.
I’ve heard it said that the miracle that day wasn’t that Jesus created ample bread and fish for thousands from such a small amount, but that once someone shared his food with the group, others too were inspired to share. In John’s account of this same miracle, it’s a young boy who shares those first loaves and fish with the disciples. (John 6: 9) The argument is that his example inspired others to pull out the food they actually had brought along with them as well. In other words, it only appeared that there was a food crisis. Once everyone shared, it turned out there was already more than enough to go around.
Though I have to say, if supernatural goings-on in the gospels make us nervous, we’ve got bigger issues to contend with than Jesus creating food for a multitude where there was no food before. By Luke chapter 9, Jesus has been busily casting out demons and healing all sorts of physical infirmities, not to mention that he entered the scene back in Luke 1 and 2 as the Son of God himself, born to a virgin and announced by angels. It seems to me that reading through the gospel of Luke requires a degree of openness to the miraculous, a willingness at least to consider the angel’s promise to Mary back in chapter 1 that “nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)
But whatever it is that actually happened out there among the five thousand in the wilderness that evening, it’s the dialogue in the middle of the story that really caught my attention this week. First the disciples say to Jesus: “Send the crowd away” to get provisions “for we are here in a deserted place.” (Luke 9:12) Jesus responds, “You give them something to eat.” (9:13) The disciples, no doubt looking like deer caught in the headlights at this point, recover from their shock to the point where they can fill Jesus in on the inventory: “We have no more than five loaves and two fish.” It’s not enough, Jesus. There’s no way it’s enough.
But notice the simplicity of what Jesus says next: “Make them sit down in groups.” Ah, now that we can do. And carrying baskets, and passing out pieces of bread and fish, and cleaning up after the meal, that we can do, too. Thanks, Jesus. We’re on it.
“You give them something to eat,” says Jesus to the group of disciples gathered here this morning, too. And there’s so much we simply can’t do about hunger in our world. We pray for God to intervene because it’s all so overwhelming. 5,000 mouths to feed? Try 842 million hungry people around the globe right now, according to the World Food Program. It’s easy to be paralyzed into inaction. Jesus, every morsel of food in our kitchens, every penny in each of our pockets, every dollar in each of our bank accounts simply isn’t enough to solve a crisis of this magnitude! What do you mean, “you give them something to eat?”
How do you imagine Jesus would reply?
Something from nothing? That’s God’s department. Scarcity to abundance? God’s got that part covered, too. The fact is, “there is enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life.” Where I need your help is with distribution. Receiving God’s abundance and sharing it with others – that’s your job. So everyone pick up a basket, and get to work…
“You give them something to eat.” The Emergency Feeding Program of King County has their work cut out for them, serving an average of 1800 clients each month. Meanwhile, many of our neighbors around Magnolia and Queen Anne have more than enough money and food to spare, and are happy to add a few additional cans and boxes of food to their weekly grocery run. So what began with a small group of church volunteers down at our local QFC turned, with God’s help, into a whole van full of food headed over to the food bank. And remember that this same story was unfolding at grocery stories all over the city yesterday, with plenty of other groups participating in the Mayor’s Day of Concern for the Hungry as well.
“You give them something to eat.” We also cannot feed every homeless person in Seattle, but this congregation certainly knows how to put on a feast once a month for the homeless guests at Operation Nightwatch.
“You give them something to eat.” So we host benefit concerts for the Ballard Food Bank, and designate offerings from our ecumenical worship services to the women and children of Mary’s Place, and many of us contribute food and funds, clothing and coats, time and talent to other organizations working to address issues like hunger and homelessness as well.
It may have been hard for those first disciples to see that God had provided ample resources for all five thousand people gathered before them, but surely we can notice the abundance all around us today. Our church is situated in an affluent neighborhood in a prosperous city in one of the richest countries in the world. We don’t actually need to work a miracle here; miracles are God’s department. We do, however, need to shift our thinking from a worldview of scarcity – “we have no more than five loaves and two fish” – to a worldview of abundance – “thank you, God, for these five loaves and two fish;” we can’t wait to see what wonders you can work with them!
Alyce McKenzie puts it this way: “Jesus' words "You give them something to eat," are “a daily dare. He's saying "I dare you to take me at my word. And see what happens.” Today’s gospel story may begin with an awful lot of hungry people sitting around in the wilderness. But remember that “the scene [ends] with the disciples moving through the crowds, lugging twelve baskets full of leftovers. That's the mental image we ought to keep before us whenever we stand in the shoes of the disciples in this passage—which is [of course] every day.”
Something from nothing? That’s God’s department. Scarcity into abundance? God’s got that covered too.
By feeding five thousand people that day in the wilderness, Jesus shows us he can be grocery supplier, chef, and dinner host all rolled into one. We disciples are in a sense merely the wait staff, asked to deliver food, from the One who is busily providing it all the time, to the hungry mouths and bellies that need it.
“You give them something to eat.”
We don’t need to solve the problem of hungry multitudes on our own. But if each one of us will pick up a basket and lend Jesus a hand, trusting in God’s abundance instead of worrying so much about the scarcity of our resources, we might just get to witness a miracle.
 World Food Programme, http://www.wfp.org/hunger/faqs.
 David Lose, “Pentecost 8A: The Real Miracles of the Story” on davidlose.net, July 28, 2014.
 Alyce McKenzie, “You Want Us to Do What?” in Edgy Exegesis www.patheos.com