Loaves and fishes.
Every once in a while, if you are paying close enough attention, you will see the stories of Holy Scripture written directly into your life. I’m sure it happens more often than we ever notice, our egos and our agendas normally crowding out any chance at recognizing the many ways the Holy Spirit swoops down to draw us into God’s story. Yet that is precisely what I found happening to me last week while I was with thirty-six members of the Epiphany Youth group and chaperones at the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans. Our denomination of the Lutheran Church, the ELCA, holds national youth gatherings every three years, and typically when I attend these huge events I am so busy and tired and sleepy and hungry that I can’t stop and enjoy those moments of the Holy Spirit and see my life through the prism of Scripture. But last week it happened at least once (that I’m aware of), and the story that I found my life momentarily mirroring is this very account from John’s gospel where Jesus feeds the multitude, the story of the loaves and fishes.
The day was Friday, the third day of the Gathering. Friday was our “easy” day when we didn’t have to be anywhere at any specific time. Many other youth groups had planned something exotic and expensive and very touristy to do on their easy day. Some had paid high-dollar for swamp boat tours, while others had paid premium prices to go to a museum or the aquarium. Already close to the squeaking point on our budget, we had not scheduled any of that, and, to their credit, there was no grumbling from our youth.
What we had left open, however, was the possibility to visit an Epiphany member out in the St. Bernard Parish in the Arabi section of greater New Orleans. Joe Wall is a New Orleans native and is currently restoring an old home there that has been in his family for four generations. It had sustained some damage in Hurricane Katrina, but was now in its final stages of refurbishment. Before we actually left for New Orleans, Joe had figured out the youth Gathering was going to coincide with his own visit to check on his property, and he invited us out to see a real historical New Orleans home. He also wanted to take us to lunch at a littlesandwich shop/food mart down the street that supposedly sells some of the best oyster and shrimp po-boys in the entire city.
So this little expedition is what we decided to do on our “easy day.” It was nothing too fancy or elaborate, yet it exposed us to something interesting and authentically “New Orleans” outside of the downtown bubble we had been in. In terms of the Scripture story, you might say we had travelled to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.
Joe was a gracious and wonderful host. When we showed up at his house, the bottom had fallen out of the sky and we were looking like drowned rats but he didn’t hesitate to welcome us right in and show us around. We also took in a few of the sights of the humble but very tidy neighborhood right along the levee that holds back the Mississippi, including the remains of the oldest plantation house in the city. Joe was, however, a little taken aback by the size of our group. I don’t know how many he expected, but he seemed a little concerned that the little sandwich shop might not be able to handle thirty-seven people. In fact, he was concerned enough to call the shop ahead of time and ask them if they—get this—had enough French bread on hand to make that many po-boys. I had seen the place as we’d driven in. Hand-painted sign, pay-at-the-cash-register kind of place…to call it a “restaurant” was a bit of a stretch. In fact, it calls itself a food store. Suffice it to say that because it was so far off the beaten path, and especially because we were arriving after the lunch rush, that shop might not have but a few, say 5, loaves on hand. I was a little worried where we’d get food for our entire group if this option didn’t pan out. But the owner told Joe on the phone, “We’ll make it work.”
So we trudged down the street in the rain, literally crowded ourselves into this little food mart, and all of us—well, just about all of us—ordered po-boys. We took up every seat in the place. The kitchen help fired up the fryer again full-speed, and the waitress and the young bus boy, who couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 years old, both worked diligently to make sure everyone was comfortable. But just before the food began to come out, someone requested that I say a prayer. The whole place stopped talking, and the employees paused in their tasks. Suddenly I realized that I was praying for the whole establishment, which is something I’ve never done before. I’ve prayed in restaurants before, for a table or two of people here or there, but never for an entire eating establishment. So I gave thanks. Then the food was delivered and, as you guessed, it was absolutely delicious. There was more than enough for all, and I’m pretty sure I saw some people leaving with doggie bags.
So, there you have it: life mirroring Scripture. Loaves and fishes. French bread loaves and shellfishes. Jesus said, “Make the people sit down—“we’ll make it work.” So they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; also the fish, as much as they wanted.”
A miracle—a sign of God’s presence—happened to us in that little food mart that day. I’m not saying that the kitchen staff somehow miraculously transformed 5 loaves of French bread into thirty-eight po-boys, but we did experience a hospitality and and a feeding of our souls that went far beyond what I think any of us expected. In reflecting upon our trip as a whole, many of the youth lifted up the day we spent at Joe’s house and in the Arabi Food Store and Café as one of the highlights of the trip. It was a humbling reminder to me that wholesome learning experiences do not always come with a high price of an admission ticket or with elaborate planning. A component of grace, they just come, and often without warning.
When Jesus Christ is present in the breaking of bread and the sharing of gifts, any ordinary situation can become a feast of heaven. And in this occurrence of life mirroring Scripture, Joe, the other adult leaders, and I all served, if only for a few moments, as the worried disciples who wondered whether any feast could take place at all, especially with so many hungry people and in a place with such an apparent shortage of resources. The youth and the workers at Arabi Food store, however, supplied the firm if not quiet faith that God was indeed going to provide everything we’d need: the po-boys, for sure, but also the sustenance of an experience where relationships were formed and gifts were blessed, from the bread in the kitchen right down to the labor of the bus boy.
The question is: how many instances like this will need to happen before we realize that this is how our God operates, that God does not function on an economy of scarcity? How many times will our lives need to mirror the stories of Scripture before it finally dawns on us that God’s grace permeates even the ordinary Arabi Food Store experiences of life? How many occurrences of God’s surprising grace will it take to convince us that Jesus is often quietly at the middle of everything, blessing our meager gifts and our inexpensive easy days and then multiplying God’s goodness so that there is enough for all.
The sign that those disciples experienced that day beside the Sea of Galilee was designed to prove just that: that Jesus is God’s amazing grace and that he is given for the life of the world. This kind of thing is what he does, not just for our bellies and our bodies, but for our souls as well. Our lives will be far more with him than without him. And as we feast on his word in Scripture, as we gather weekly with other people who are hungry for a word of hope and comfort, as we take our place at this feast each week, Jesus Christ shows up and promises, against all odds, that he will be enough, that his own body will be blessed and, on the cross, broken for the life of the world.
A further challenge involves not just seeing that this is how Jesus Christ graciously interrupts the normal flow of human existence to provide enough for all, but to then model that ourselves as his disciples. God calls us to be the bus boys and the waitresses, the cooks and bread bakers who see our lives transformed by Jesus’ power and then go out to see where loaves are broken and blessed for the life of the world. Strengthened time and again by the experiences like the youth had in New Orleans, or the volunteers at Vacation Bible School, or even by our worship here, we become able to see the scope of our lives written into Scriptures story where people meet Jesus daily and join in his mission, where see the death of Good Friday give way to the news of Easter morning.
Our call to pull up a seat and be fed turns into a call to go gather the leftovers and be prepared to feed the world. One of the speakers we heard at the Superdome, Shane Claiborne, said that we often look at all the injustice and suffering and inequality in the world and often say, “God, why don’t you do something about all this?” And God says, “I did. I made you.”
And when we doubt whether our meager lives, our meager gifts and talents, our meager faith are enough to be broken and blessed for Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes, then perhaps we should arrange a trip with Joe to Arabi Food Store and Café in St. Bernard Parish for a refresher course, Or, better yet…no need to go anywhere at all. We can simply grab a seat and arrange ourselves here at the Lord’s Table, where there is always plenty for all, the body and blood of our crucified and risen Lord, the bread of life.
And, by the by, see every moment of our lives—life, death, and life again—written into the story of God.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.