Posted by: owizblog | July 26, 2015

Catering Problems: Sermon, UCB, 26 July 2015

2 Kings 4:42-44

John 6:1-21


Two stories this morning which many people find cause them problems. The Feeding of the Five Thousand, and Jesus walking on the water.

There are lots of jokes, especially about the latter. There’s the one about the Priest, the Minister and the – well, it could be anyone, really – out for a walk at the lochside. They reach the head of the loch, but it’s all brambly, the path has gone, and the Minister says “Ach, I’m not pushing through all that!” and walks across the placid surface of the loch to the other side. “Same here!” says his friend the Priest, and follows suit. “Much impressed, the third chap shouts “Wait for me!” and promptly disappears with a splash, only to re-emerge from the water soggy and dripping. The Minister looks back, and then says to the Priest “I feel a bit bad that we didn’t tell him about the stepping-stones…”

It’s the way I tell ‘em. (And file Frank Carson’s catchphrase away for a moment, too. We’ll use it later…)

Jokes like that remind us that people find these stories difficult. Perhaps we do too. John’s Gospel, in its difference from Matthew, Mark and Luke, can help us here.

It’s the way he tells ‘em…

But first, to segue from Frank Carson to Max Bygraves: “I wanna’ tell you a little story…”

catered Buffet


A long time ago, Carolyn and I were hosting one of those important little family events which bring people together in a way they’ll remember for years and years – in fact for the rest of their lives. When we did the sums, we realized that there would be twenty-eight of us, all coming back to our house after having been out all morning together. We decided that the sensible thing would be to get in the caterers.

As it was early summer, we asked them to do a buffet for us. We talked over the menu with them, gave them the key to the house the day before, and entrusted everything to their expertise. And off we went on the big morning, and gave not a thought to the meal to follow until we all arrived back at our house, all twenty-eight of us, and Carolyn and I let everyone in, and brought them into the dining room – and our hearts sank. What the caterers left looked absolutely delicious, and was all there, every dish, every kind of buffet item we’d ordered – but we were sure it was barely enough for five.

But here everyone was, and they were all ravenous – so we smiled, summoned them to the pile of plates on the table, and bade them tuck in…

And they ate, and they ate, and they ate. And so did we. And then we all ate some more.

And then we had a lovely afternoon with our family and close friends, and we had some more of what was left over for a light tea…

Those caterers knew their stuff after all…


That’s really all our Old Testament story is, this morning:

A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe corn, along with some ears of new corn. ‘Give it to the people to eat,’ Elisha said. ‘How can I set this before a hundred men? ’ his servant asked.

Which was exactly our question, over a quarter of a century ago. “How can we offer this to twenty-eight hungry people…?”

And Elisha says “Just do it!””

But Elisha answered, ‘Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the Lord says: “They will eat and have some left over.”’ Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the Lord.

And that’s basically it. There’s no more to the story of Elisha’s catered event than that. It didn’t look enough. But it was.

Oh – and God was in it, and the adequacy, the abundance, the real satisfaction, was the substantiation of that. God was in it.

Well, when Carolyn and I walked into our dining room, and saw how compact the meal left for us was, there were several silent prayers, I can assure you! But everyone remembers that day as a day full of God.


A strange thing happens when you come to the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand through the story of a hundred people being fed from a small pack of food from the caterer from Baal-Shalishah. The things that we often think are the salient, important features of it, suddenly shrink in importance, and other things, different themes, come to prominence.

“It’s the way I tell ‘em!” said Frank Carson. And the way we tell ‘em profoundly affects the meaning of the stories we tell. It’s so easy to hear the story of the loaves and the fishes in terms of the things that “big it up”: five thousand people! Twelve baskets of crumbs! So when Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus “looked up to heaven”, and John’s Gospel tells us that he “gave thanks,” we tend to imagine wide, grand gestures in the televangelist mode, which you’d have been able to see from the back of a crowd of thousands.

And we forget that we’re thinking of the man who said that “[W]hen you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men…”

And we forget, too, that the heart of this story is a sotto voce conversation among Jesus and the disciples… “They are hungry; you’ll have to send them home…” “Well, why don’t you feed them?” “You’re mad! Anyway, the shops are shut…” “OK, what have we got…” “Well, there’s a six-pack of rolls, with one of them eaten, and a couple of preserved fish…”

It’s very like the whispered conversation between Carolyn and me when we got into our dining-room just before everybody else, and saw how neat the assemblage of bowls and foil-covered trays looked on our dining room table. “There’s never going to be enough here!” “And they’re famished!” “What are we going to do…?”

If we come to the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand through the story of the small catering-pack from Baal-Shalishah that fed a hundred, what strikes us isn’t the huge scale of a miracle conceived and presented as George Lucas or Steven Spielberg would. What strikes us is the intimacy at the heart of it.

And that’s just enhanced by the detail that John adds to the tradition he’s inherited. Because only John adds this:

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up: ‘Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?’

None of the other Gospels – the three “Synoptic Gospels”, Mark, and Matthew and Luke who depend on him – mention the wee boy, lost among the five thousand men, and, by the way, the women and other children who aren’t reckoned in the count of people there, according to both Matthew and Luke. The disciples nearly overlook him. Andrew spots him, and John hints that Andrew may also have spotted a possibility. This is all very small scale and personal.

And it brings us back to the bottom line about this story. However much we inflate it in the telling – and it is indeed, so often, “the way we tell ‘em…” this is a story of a group of people, a small and very unpromising quantity of food, of faith, and pitching in, and seeing how far this little goes – and of discovering that it goes more than all the way.

Oh – and it’s a story of discovering God in this.

And that’s it.

If we concentrate on the scale of the miracle, if we concentrate on numbers – what are we left with? Elisha presided over a feast at which a hundred people were fed, Jesus at an unexpected feast at which five thousand (at least!) were. Is the lesson of all this that Jesus is at least fifty times greater than Elisha?

Isn’t it obvious that that’s no way to understand this story? Isn’t it obvious that however we take it, it’s about having enough, and realizing, as we realize that we have enough, that God is in this?

And that God confronts us in Jesus of Nazareth, and not in a way that overwhelms, but in a way that invites us into the mystery, and always, always, with the call to follow him, and always the demand that we make our own free, open response to him…

Bread, dependence, following, liberation, food for the journey… We sing our next hymn, which, unsurprisingly, is “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah/Pilgrim through this barren land…”


Jesus Walking Water


One of the basic differences between Mark’s Gospel on the one hand, and John’s on the other, is in their ground plan – the basic shape of the story. Mark’s Gospel is about the appearance of a Jesus who’s recognized as the one who is to come by John at his baptism; then he’s recognized as someone by two fishermen, then another two, who have never clapped eyes on him before, and then his disciples and the crowds who accompany him find themselves on a learning-curve with no end-point, as they see and hear the things he does and says. And we are placed on that learning-curve too. We, like his first disciples, are put in the position of asking, constantly, “Who is this?” And like them, we find that there’s no final answer, no pre-prepared [horrible compound word, that, but alas we need it sometimes!] definition that we have to arrive at so that we can tick the box, and be told that we’ve got it right. Healer, teacher, prophet, even Messiah, none of these categories fit.

And we, like they, are left asking “Who is this?”

Which is exactly the question that Mark puts on the disciples’ lips – not in his version of the story you’ve just heard, of Jesus, after the feeding of the Five Thousand, walking on the water, but in the slightly earlier story of Jesus, already in the boat, waking up, and stilling the storm with a word:

“Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”

Nobody, anywhere in John’s Gospel, ever asks “Who is this?”

John’s Gospel starts, not with our learning curve, but with the ultimacy of Jesus, with the encounter with God that is the encounter with Jesus Christ.

Mark uses the two stories of stilling the storm and walking on water as wayposts on the disciples’ journey – and ours – and as points on their learning-curve about Jesus – and ours! John has no interest in anything like that. In fact, John doesn’t have the story of Jesus waking up and stilling the storm with a word at all. If he found it in the tradition he inherited, he dropped it. He had no use for it.

Instead, he takes the story of the walking on the water, and tells it in a different way. With Mark, it’s about the disciples being astonished – astonished that a figure comes over the water to them, and terrified; astonished that it’s Jesus; astonished that when he gets into the boat, the wind drops immediately. It’s about the disciples getting something new, but also failing to get something:

And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

They didn’t “get” what the Feeding of the Five Thousand meant.


With John, it’s different. It’s not about the disciples’ astonishment – that would be to do with them moving on in their understanding of Jesus, moving up a step on the learning-curve. There’s no mention of Mark’s suggestion that they had thought the Jesus coming to them over the water was a ghost.

There’s fear, yes, because they have no idea what’s happening. But Jesus speaks to them, and something happens. They realize it’s him.

Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately…

“Immediately” what?

Immediately, the boat was at the land to which they were going.
Not “the wind fell” or “the storm stopped.” Immediately they were where they had been going all along. As the satnav says, quietly but triumphantly, when it’s successfully navigated the route you asked it to, “You have reached your destination!” They’ve got there.

It’s the people from the day before, the people who were fed with the loaves and the fishes, who don’t get it, not the disciples. The disciples have seen something, in the intimacy of the feeding. The crowd have missed it. They know that there’s something unusual about Jesus’ journey to this side of the lake. They hadn’t expected him to be here before them.

But he’s more interested in what brought them here.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves…”

They didn’t see past the unexpected feast to what it meant. They didn’t see past the half-understood miraculous appearance of food in their hands, passed to them by the people next to them in the crowd. They stuck with the gross crude dauds of bread suddenly there in abundance.

They didn’t ask what it meant.

And there, John’s Gospel offers us the biggest clue of all. We need to ask what it meant.


If we get hung up on the miraculous, on the big numbers, and the spectacular gestures, the five thousand people, the twelve baskets of leftovers, the size of the meal, the size of the doggie-bag, the size of the miracle – we miss the meaning.

It ceases to be a sign that we can look through to see Jesus and understand God better. It becomes our own little production of Industrial Light And Magic. We miss the point.

And the point is this. That here is sufficiency. Here is “enough”. Enough to live on, enough to go on with for today. Enough to trust for tomorrow, too. Here, as Jesus explains it, is the bread of life.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”

And he says it to us, too. Not because we imagine up our own wonderful, Cecil B. DeMille production of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and then believe that it has to have been the way we imagined it, and that it’s only if we believe it happened exactly as we imagined it that we have faith.

That isn’t how these stories of Jesus’ miracles work. They work by having us look, not at them, but through them. They work by offering themselves as signs, pointing us to what Jesus means to us, and what he shows us of God.

Not everybody gets this. No chapter in the Gospels closes in a more complicated way than John chapter 6:

Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”

After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…

Mark’s gospel, we said, is a sort of succession of moments when pennies drop for the disciples, and they get a bit more – and then think they’ve got it all. And they haven’t. And so, too, for us.

In a sense, in John, the penny has dropped from the beginning for the disciples. They’re stuck with this Jesus. Here is the meaning of their being. Where else would they go?

And as long as that penny has dropped for us, it doesn’t matter what problems you might have, with the story that Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fishes, or that he walked to his disciples over a troubled, stormy sea. If that penny has dropped for us, that Jesus is fullness, and life, and presence, and hope – and if we respond to that by trusting – we have faith. Because that’s what faith is. We understand that God is here.

Catering Probs

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