Karen Marie Yust imagines what this Scripture passage might look like if it were in one of our congregations today. Given our penchant for committees, process, and Roberts Rules of Order, it might not look all that different.
Philip would clearly be the chair of the finance department. “Buy bread for all these people? How on earth? Do you know what our monthly giving patterns look like? How do you expect to feed any of them? And you want to feed ALL of them?” He had clearly already anticipated the problem, because his first answer seems calculated: “Six months wages would not be enough for this many people!” It was like he had already counted the number, estimated the cost, and prepared the spreadsheet.
Next to chime in would be Andrew and the missions committee. “I agree that this is an important need. But there are just too many important needs. We have a few loaves and a few fish. But what are they among so many people?” says Andrew. Clearly he knew that missions resources only go so far, never outweighing the need.
The preacher and the worship committees are too busy to answer. After all, according to the passage, they know that Passover is around the corner! There are liturgical vestments to change, four sermons to write, eight services to get ready for, and someone has to cut those little parts out of the Passover lilies so they don’t smell so bad!
Finally, the facilities committee is fine and dandy until Jesus asks 5,000 people to sit down on the grass. That’s when they lose it. “What is that going to do to our landscaping? Five thousand people on the grass all day long? We are going to have to aerate and overseed all of this, just to see anything green by next Spring!”
Hopefully we can make fun of ourselves a little and see that perhaps we would be more like the disciples than we would like to admit.
But this morning’s passage from the lectionary actually makes for a pretty good illustration in the midst of our summer worship series Building the Body. Throughout the summer, we are talking about our own spiritual gifts: what they are, how to use them, and each of us as individuals use our gifts for the good of the body. In our congregation, and in the Church universal.
Let’s take a deeper look at the passage from this perspective, asking how it is that it teaches how to build the body together as a congregation, and how that body becomes able to care for the needs that surround them. It seems to me that there are five elements of our spiritual giftedness work that is echoed in this passage.
The first is the work of identification of resources. It is Andrew who takes responsibility for this task. We don’t know why it is that he has found this young boy and his loaves and fishes. But what a blessing that he has! Someone has to take stock of what resources are available and what could possibly be done with them.
That’s exactly what we are doing together as a congregation during our combined Sunday school time. We have been working our way through a spiritual gifts inventory and resource known as “The 3 Colors of Ministry.” It is actually a resource that several groups in the church have used in the past, and now it has been a great conversation starter for this very purpose: identification of gifts. What are our individual loaves and fishes? What are our resources? Each of us start with a certain set of gifts from God, and like Andrew and the little boy with his sack lunch, we have to figure out what those are first.
One of the reasons I like this version of the old standard spiritual gift list is that it is more practical. Instead of just offering the dozen or so gifts that Paul lists in his letters, it takes the whole of Scripture and asks “how have God’s people used their talents and gifts in a myriad of ways throughout the generations?” And that question helps us ask the next one, “and what are my talents and gifts and how I can use them as well?”
So, quick commercial: if you have not been through the book, or have and would like a refresher, come during Sunday school next hour. We have had a great response and have run out of books, but have ordered more and can get them to you right away. But you can show up to this session and still have something to gain, even without a book. Again, the purpose of this study is to identify our resources. What are my gifts?
So, step one: identify your gifts.
Step two. Offer your gifts.
Scripture tells us that everyone is gifted in one way or another, but not everyone offers those gifts up to be used. Again, what if the boy had just shrugged and kept his fish and loaves to himself. What if he had squirreled them away so that he could eat and no one else could? What if Andrew had laughed at the boy for not having enough? If he had said, “Eh, we don’t have enough to go around…put it back in the sack.” At so many points in the story, it could have gone all wrong.
Likewise, so many of us fail to offer our gifts. How many times I have heard someone tell me, “I don’t have any gifts.” I try not to be this blunt in my sermons, but you are absolutely wrong. Please don’t ever think that God just decided to skip you when he was handing out gifts.
I imagine the little girl who once sang a wrong note in elementary school choir and gets made fun of. In response, she decides to sing quieter the next time. And then even quieter the next. Until she has completely hidden her gift. Maybe we are not all opera stars in hiding, but maybe we are keeping some gift hidden when we should be offering it. Take it out of the knapsack and tell Jesus, “it may not be much, but it is yours.” And watch what happens next. Offer your gifts.
The third step in our spiritual gift process is to give thanks. Many times, I have heard people hesitate to talk about their gifts because they think it sounds like bragging. If I tell people I am a good teacher, or piano player, or writer, they are going to call me arrogant and send me on my way. And we all know that person who never lets a moment pass by for them to tell us about their gifts or talents!
But identifying and offering our gifts is not the same as bragging. It can be done in a very humble and God-glorifying way. Watch what Jesus does when the boy brings his loaves and fishes. The first thing he does is give thanks. He acknowledges God as the perfect giver of all good gifts. Before he is able to do amazing and miraculous things with the offering of this boy, he acknowledges that it is God and God’s power that makes the amazing happen.
The fourth step in our story, and in our process of using our gifts is equally important: share with others. The next thing that Jesus does in the story is to distribute the food.
Now, this is where the story gets a little unclear. All of a sudden, without literal description of how it happened, all of this food shows up. Recently, Pope Francis got in a bit of hot water because of his interpretation of this passage. He claimed, as many have before him, that the miracle of the story is that when the 5,000+ people saw the generosity of that boy, all of them pulled out their own knapsacks and their own food and shared with everyone around them. A lot of people really dislike this interpretation, claiming that it means that Jesus’ power is somehow lessened. That only a supernatural miracle could be in play.
Personally, if you think that that would not be a miracle, I would ask you to do something for me. The next time that you go to Kaufman Stadium, I want you to get all of those people to share their food in the same way. There are plenty of pretzels and hot dogs and cotton candy to go around. Just get them to start passing their food around, and share with everyone. Tell me that that would not be a miracle!
That said, I believe that the author of John 6 truly believed that something more supernatural was at work. That this was a supernatural act and one of the signs of Jesus’ power and authority. Yet, at some level, our response is the same, regardless of the interpretation. Someone offers what they have (whether it is one boy or 5,000 plus people) and it is shared with others, and it turns into a miracle of mind-blowing generosity. That’s the lesson about our own gifts that I want to focus on. When we use our gifts, are we using them for the good of others? Again, our series title is “Building the Body.” Are we using these gifts for the good of the church, the good of our community, the good of our neighbor and not just ourselves? Are we acting like this boy, or are we hoarding our gifts instead?
Finally, there is a fifth and final step that John 6 shows us about our use of our spiritual gifts: conservation. There are actually two examples of conservation at the end of this story. The most obvious is the conservation of the leftovers. After the event, twelve baskets of food are leftover, and all of that food is gathered together by the disciples.
But there is another example of conservation that parallels the first. After this amazing event takes place, watch what Jesus does. Right after this, he easily could have used this momentum to seize power for himself. The people even try to do that, attempting to “seize him to make him king.” But what does he do instead? He goes up in the hills by himself to pray. He conserves himself; he stewards himself; he cares for himself. And in the process, has the strength and wisdom to preach and teach and perform miracles another day.
These examples of stewardship and conservation are critical to the ways that we understand our giftedness. Yet another reason that people don’t want to share their spiritual gifts is that, frankly, it sounds like too much work! They have a family to keep up with, a house to keep clean, visits to the grandkids, heavy responsibilities at work. They know that the church needs help getting things done, and honestly, it is better to hide one’s gifts than to get used and abused by the church. A truthfully, some folks have been asked to do too much, and yet others have been guilt-tripped into doing things that they aren’t really gifted at doing. But I think that most people who get burned out on work in the church, are doing it because a) they fail to know what their gifts truly are and stick with them (in other words, they let people seize them and make them into something they are not) or b) they do not take care of themselves, spending enough time in prayer in the hills (or whatever their self-care looks like).
The needs will continue to be great. But if we fail to care for ourselves, we will simply be unable to address those needs, and we will burn out on the way.
A healthy spiritual gift model calls for:
a) Honest identification of gifts
b) Generous offering of gifts
c) A humble heart of gratitude for our giftedness
d) A willingness to share with others
e) And a lifestyle of self care, learning to say “no” to the wrong things, so that we can say “yes” to the right things.
And even though I poked fun at us as a congregation, I think that each of the people named in this story actually have a pretty important role to play in the church.
Philip and the finance committee ask important questions. Andrew and the missions committee have seen enough to know that there have to be priorities. If we were simply led by our hearts and gave everything we had to everyone, we would soon find ourselves bankrupt and unable to give anyone anything! We would have given our missions budget out by the second week in January!
Yet, perhaps this story reminds the spreadsheet-lovers among us that God can do miraculous things, beyond even what we can figure on a financial report. Jesus’ response to Phillip and Andrew is also important. Instead of answering them, colluding with them in their scarcity, Jesus calls them to a more expansive view of what God was all about. Which is a helpful reminder for us as well.
The worship committee, facilities committee, spiritual formation committee, our Sunday school teachers, our generous financial givers, our volunteers of all shapes and sizes. Each of them has responded with faith and commitment, and has chosen to let God use those gifts in miraculous ways.
Today, I invite you to look inside your knapsack. Look at what mom packed you for the journey. And when the times comes to use, it, be ready. And just watch what happens next!