In a recent book entitled A New and Right Spirit: Creating an
Authentic Church in a Consumer Culture
, Pastor Rick Barger once asked
some first time visitors to the congregation he serves what it was that
brought them there on a Sunday. The young couple spoke of the abundance
in their lives, their excellent educations and professions, their ability
to send their children to prestigious schools and of an income that
provided many activities for them. They exuded health and happiness. It
was on the whole nearly the perfect life, except for one thing. The
couple sensed that “something was missing” from their lives and they
were seeking a “spiritual community” that would be the “icing on the
cake” of their terrific lives. The pastor then went on to report that
the couple came to church a few more times and then drifted away. Much
as the pastor desired to deepen the conversation it didn’t happen and
there was no clear indication of what did or didn’t happen to the couple
that led them to conclude that no icing on the cake was to be found
there. One thing was clear to the pastor: many folks come to church the
first time in a consumer frame of mind and it is equally true that being
part of a congregation is not at all like joining a health club.

One of the reasons why matters of faith are such a fault line in
conflicts that vary from the enduring conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon and
Israel to what gets taught in a public school classroom about the origin
of human existence is that of a belief that most, if not all, postmodern
people share, of all religious and non-religious stripes. It is the
belief that the religion as we knew and the world it shaped has
disintegrated. This is the apocalyptic news that Christian
fundamentalists have been trumpeting since the early 20th century. When
you add this to the sense that we have that all social, political and
economic norms are also up for grabs you have a very chaotic world in
which consumerism is deeply appealing because it gives us some way of
measuring success in our lives through the stuff we own, the places we
go, the houses we live in, the schools our kids attend, the positions of
authority we have. Yet every clergy person and lay leader I know has had
at least one conversation with a person who outwardly and visibly is a
manifestation of success and inwardly struggles with an abiding
spiritual hunger. Perhaps the rise of fundamentalism in all faith
traditions in its worst manifestations could be attributed in part to
the ease with which it provides almost measurable rules and patterns for
living a successful spiritual life.

We live in a deeply hungry world, literally and spiritually. We enter
the first of five sequential readings from the Gospel of John today that
have at their center the feeding of the multitudes by Jesus. It is a
story of such power and importance that it is found in all of the
gospels. The ministry of Jesus, teaching, healing, preaching and casting
out demons attracted crowds of enthusiastic followers. While there often
aren’t many parallels between first century Palestine and the 21st
century USA in which we live, there are a number of them here. Jesus was
born and raised in a faith community in which all of the usual
religious, social, political and economic norms were disintegrating. His
own religious community was at odds about what it meant to be faithful
to God. Palestine was ruled by an outside power and the poor were even
more impoverished. The crowds who followed Jesus had very little in the
way of a good life, and yet their longing was very like ours. People
were hungry literally and spiritually.

What is so extraordinary about this story is how very ordinary it is.
At the end of a long day of teaching and healing Jesus tells Philip
along with the other disciples in response to their anxious worry about
their presence to feed the crowds. The response is one of those great
realistic answers that we think are the mark of successful people in a
results-oriented culture: there isn’t enough food and there isn’t enough
money to do this. Philip is profoundly aware of the magnitude of the
task that Jesus has put before him. Yet, his inability to see beyond
what he knows and what he can do with limited resources not only makes
him reluctant to act, it becomes its own sort of blindness. So Jesus does
what he always does in the gospels, he shifts the whole way we see
things. Jesus moves from a focus around that great fuel of consumerism,
scarcity, and acts out of a vision of abundance, proceeding to relate to
the crowds as though five loaves and two fish were plenty. He tells
everyone to sit down and he takes the bread of the poor, barley loaves
and the fish, and after giving thanks distributes to everyone who wants
some. Wonder of wonders there are twelve baskets remaining.

Like the crowds we all want to jump into speculation about how Jesus
did that and make him the king of our lives for all of the wrong
reasons. The problem with signs and wonders and our dependence upon them
as we will hear in the next several Sundays is that they lead away from
God and right back to a life in which the values of our success and
expediency dominate. Instead Jesus is showing us God’s great compassion
for the hungering need of the world. Within our most primal urge to eat
is the place where God meets us abundantly. Faith in God is not some
airy-fairy experience or icing on the cake of our lives because God
permeates our ordinary lives at their most tangible and concrete. What
Jesus was doing then and is doing now in this meal that we will soon
share is offering us an opportunity to be shareholders in a life of God
given abundance of what it really takes to live.

In this little morsel of bread we are given today we receive the same
gift that was blessed, broken and offered two thousand years ago. Today
God bestows upon us the possibility to see ourselves as a part of a
whole with so much more in common than not. Today we are given the
capacity to know how much God loves us and in the experience of that
abundant love we are able both to deepen our communion with God and with
one another. We are given the ability to take this essential food to a
world in such desperate need of it. The meal that we share is never a
closed door. It is always food for a journey of discipleship. As Philip
and the disciples failed to see there is no one God can’t use. There is
no one God’s love can’t change. In this feeding Jesus extends a vision
of the world that God imagines and to which we are invited to

Today’s gospel plunges us into a meal that can never be just “the
icing on the cake” of our lives. This is perhaps the most profound
misunderstanding of God at work in the world that we bring to the table
as postmodern people. As theologian Frederick Schmidt notes, persisting
in the belief that faith is one more thing to add to complete our
successful lives as consumers will give us a life without self-giving, a
life without adventure, a life without reflection and most tragically a
life without love and a God without grace. In the horrifying conflicts
that unfold daily in which faith is the agonizing tie that binds an
outcome that can be life-sustaining, rather than life-destroying, is
dependent upon the ability of all of us to claim and be claimed by a God
of abundance and compassion for the true needs of the whole world.

This is why what we are offered today by Jesus is no less than a
complete reorienting of our lives, changing what we see, what we hear,
what we think and know, what we feel, how we love. To paraphrase a
prayer it is “the bread of wisdom to recognize the hand of God in our
lives, the bread of justice to see the hungers around us, the bread of
prayer to recover from our craving for all that is not God, the bread of
gratitude to entrust our lives to the God of mercy, the bread of
discipleship to share our sorrows and our joys.” Take and eat.