Our Scripture today comes from the Gospel of Luke Chapter 9, Verses 10-17. I invite you to follow along as I read. Hear now the Word of God.
10 When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, 11 but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing.
12 Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.”
13 He replied, “You give them something to eat.”
They answered, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.” 14 (About five thousand men were there.)
But he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 The disciples did so, and everyone sat down. 16 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to distribute to the people. 17 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve baskets of broken pieces that were left over.
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
Apart from the incarnation and the resurrection, this is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels. That fact indicates that something in this account really deserves our attention. Take some time to read the various accounts provided in the Gospels. You will be surprised at some of the differences and also astounded at the many similarities.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that John the Baptist had just been beheaded. Jesus was grieving his death, and he needed some time by himself. Another Gospel provides the information that Jesus had sent the disciples out to minister. They had been working extensively in ministry. They returned, reporting everything that had happened. Notice that Jesus and his disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee on this occasion to get away from the crowd. They needed this retreat. They all needed some time away, so they left to go to what is called a solitary place, a remote place, a lonely place.
Seeing Jesus and his disciples traveling across the Sea of Galilee by boat, the people walked to the far shore and waited until the group arrived. Scriptures tell us that Jesus stepped out of the boat and realized that the people were like sheep without a shepherd. Having compassion on them, he taught about the kingdom of God and healed many.
As late afternoon approached, the disciples began to wonder, What type of retreat is this? We were trying to get away from the crowd, but they followed us. We have spent yet another afternoon ministering.
They recommended to Jesus, “Send the crowd away. These people need something to eat and a place to sleep. Send them away.”
Jesus surprised the disciples when he instructed, “You feed them.”
By any stretch of the imagination, feeding that multitude would have been impossible. One account in another Gospel says that one disciple estimated that buying enough food for the crowd would require a half-year’s wages. Given a task that seemed impossible, they responded, “All we have are five loaves and two fish.”
John’s Gospel tells us that a young boy about the age of our Cub Scouts provided the disciples with his lunch. That is all they had to feed the multitude of 5,000 men plus their families. Jesus told the disciples to ask the people to sit in groups of fifty. He took that meager amount of food and blessed it. He broke it and returned it to the disciples so that they could accomplish what he had told them to do, feed the multitude. That blessed food supplied enough for the entire crowd. Afterwards, the disciples gathered the leftovers – twelve baskets full – one for each of the disciples. The number was possibly Jesus’ way of saying, “You see? The multitude had plenty, and this much was left over.”
Have you ever attended a big banquet, like some of those held at Memorial Auditorium? You walk in, find your place, and sit down at a decorated table. Maybe hundreds of people are attending the event. After the greeting and blessing, servers appear out of nowhere, bringing plates of food for the guests to enjoy. My experience is that the plates are served quickly and that everybody begins eating soon thereafter. Most of those guests never give one thought to the people behind the scenes preparing the food. We rarely give thought about how the meal was financed or who prepared it.
I have a feeling that on the day that Jesus performed this miracle, the entire multitude thought that the meal was part of the program. Meals do not just come out of thin air, but I doubt the crowd even knew that a miracle had been performed. The disciples, however, knew. They knew of the meager amount of food available and thought, That is impossible! Then Jesus told them, “You feed them.” Jesus took what they had to offer, blessed it, and multiplied it, enabling his disciples to do what they thought was impossible. They fed the mass and gathered twelve baskets of left-over food. Why would this miracle be the only one recorded in all four Gospels? The disciples knew the feeding was a miracle, and they wanted to be sure that we knew it, too.
Have you ever had a job that you really enjoyed, one that you felt called to do or passionate about doing? Maybe you felt a sense of divine calling. Is it also true that you did not like some aspect of that job? Did something serve as an irritant to you? Even though you probably liked the job as a whole, you may not have wanted to do parts of it.
One part of my job that I do not like is confrontation. I learned a long time ago from my dad and my granddad that sometimes confrontation is necessary. The price paid for not dealing with an issue becomes even more problematic than the result of the confrontation. I do not enjoy disagreement, but I know it is a part of my work.
I anticipate many times that we celebrate together as a church family. I eagerly await Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day. I must say, however, that I do not really look forward to World Hunger Day.
When I started thinking about today’s message, I wondered, How am I going to approach world hunger with a congregation that has now heard me preach on this topic sixteen times? What is new? What is fresh? Can any ground-breaking statement be made? What does God want me to say about this problem?
I find myself feeling like the disciples when they said, “Send them away. This is impossible.” This task of trying to figure out what we can do about world hunger seems impossible. This issue, which comes up every single year on this Sunday, must be confronted. I dare not avoid this topic. Without this day of emphasis, world hunger becomes out-of-sight, out-of-mind. It would be very easy for us to look the other way and ignore the problem.
I think of the time a reporter asked Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “How do you keep doing this work? Doesn’t it get old? Doesn’t it become exhausting?”
Mother Teresa answered, “The work that I do, I do for Christ.”
Those of us who are Christians must look at the problem of world hunger in the same way. We must do this work for Jesus. He wants us to address this problem. Even when the disciples protested that the task of feeding the multitude was impossible, he directed them, “You feed them.”
About 30,000 people in this world die every day from hunger and hunger-related diseases. Let me see if I can put that number in perspective for you in a way that makes sense. Imagine that we got up this morning and checked our favorite news outlet – internet, television, radio, newspaper – and read the headline that the entire city of Greenwood had died overnight. Then when we get up on Monday morning, we read the headline that the entire city of Anderson had died overnight. The next day on Tuesday, the entire city of Laurens had died overnight. On Wednesday, the entire city of Union had died overnight. Do you think we would begin to worry? The number of people who die every day because of hunger or hunger-related diseases equals the size of one our medium-sized cities. That number is staggering.
Consider these statistics. During the course of this hour-long worship service, 12,000 people in the world will die of hunger. That is about one person every 3.5 seconds. About 500,000,000 people in this world, many of whom are children, live in abject poverty. Approximately 100,000,000 children die in a year’s time from hunger and hunger-related diseases.
This enormous problem affects so much of the world. The World Health Organization estimates that about one-third of the world is well-fed. About one-third of the world is under-fed, and the final one-third is at the point of starvation. In these United States of America, “the land of the free and home of the brave,” about one in every six senior adults has an inadequate diet. One in eight children under the age of twelve goes to bed hungry every single night. So many people are malnourished.
What can we do about this problem? We can approach it in two ways. The easiest way is to hold a canned food drive. Our Scouts, who are leading us in this effort today, have placed barrels in the hallways. Thank goodness for Scouting for Food! Efforts such as this have replenished the shelves at organizations like TOTAL Ministries. Yesterday the Craft Bazaar raised more than $5,000, all to aid in the problem of world hunger.
This old adage has much truth: “Give a man a fish, and he can eat one meal; teach him to fish, and he can eat for a lifetime.” A bag of groceries will hold someone for a while, but the problem of hunger goes far beyond handouts.
Arthur Simon, the young Lutheran pastor who started the organization named Bread for the World, felt so convicted by world hunger that he decided to raise money to combat the problem. Over the course of one year, he raised $9,000,000. Very pleased with those results, he gave that money to a Lutheran organization responsible for distributing food to the hungry. Simon said that a week later, the Congress of the United States voted to remove $9,000,000,000 from aid to third-world countries. He realized that the problem of hunger is not one that can be met with charity. The problem of hunger is a political problem.
Think about how some countries allow food supplies to rot on docks because an unscrupulous dictator uses food as leverage, as a way to manipulate the population of the country. “Keep them hungry, and you can control them,” seems to be their motto.
In the end, the long-term solution must be a political solution. Good-hearted people cannot provide the solution. That is not to say that we cannot help. We can, but we must influence the political structures that can really make a difference.
Consider some of the many organizations that assist in relieving world hunger: America’s Second Harvest, Bread for the World, CARE, Food for the Hungry, National Food-Rescue Network, Freedom from Hunger, Heifer Project International, International Rescue Committee, OXFAM, Children’s Federation, United Nations Children’s Fund, World Emergency Relief, and World Vision. Some of those organizations have very high administrative costs. Much of the dollar given goes for those costs rather than for the purchase and distribution of food. One of the best ways we can respond is by giving through our Baptist Convention, which has a way of distributing food without the high overhead expenses.
How do you feel about the problem of world hunger? In my forty-six years of ministry, I cannot tell that it has changed very much. Hunger has been a problem as long as I can remember. A part of me feels hopeless, helpless, and resigned. We read in Scripture, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9), and “The poor you have with you always” (Matthew 26:11). You can take those passages out of context and make them fit the crisis if you would like, but that is not what those Scriptures mean.
How can we respond? Soon after our granddaughter Caroline was born, Clare and I wanted to take a meal to Kris and Patrice and their family. When Patrice said that they needed some really good vegetables, I thought about Wade’s Restaurant.
I told them, “You call in the order. I’ll pick it up and bring it to your house. Clare and I will eat supper with you so that everyone can have some good vegetables.”
While driving through the Drayton area to reach their home, I saw a man on crutches by the road. He was holding a cardboard sign that read, “Hungry and homeless. Please help. God bless you.”
I thought, I want to help that man, but I need to get this food to my family first. I passed him and delivered the food to my family. Then I got back in my truck with the plate I had bought for myself and drove back to the location where I had seen him. I drove around for a while looking for the man but could not find him. That food had been in my truck at the time I passed the man, but I thought it was more important to carry the food to my family. I did not take the time then to stop and help this fellow. Of course, at other times I have responded immediately. I do not give anyone money, but I do offer food.
That experience reaffirmed that we are to respond to the opportunities when they occur. That man may have been the greatest con-man in the world. I do not know. I do not know who picked him up or who took him somewhere. I do not know what happened to him, and I have never seen him since that night.
I do know this. A member in our church keeps a box of peanut butter crackers in the family car. When someone asks for food, at least a package of crackers is immediately available. I like the idea of having some food on hand. We must respond. We see a comparison between this situation and the one described in today’s Scripture passage.
What is the nature of the problem? Do you realize that enough grain is produced in the world today to provide every person on the face of the earth with the equivalent of two loaves of bread a day? We could feed everyone and still have some leftovers.
How do we use the grain that is produced? Do you enjoy a marbled steak, steak created by grain-feeding the beef? Do you know that it takes the same amount of grain to feed one animal so that we can enjoy a marbled steak as it does to feed an entire family for about five years? Do you know how much grain goes into the production of distilled and fermented beverages, alcoholic beverages? That amount alone would be enough to feed the world. How much grain is used to manufacture ethanol that we add to our gasoline? The problem is not that we do not have enough grain. The problem is distribution, finding a way to make it available. The problem is political in nature.
The disciples here with this throng of hungry people say what we want to say: “Send them away. This is impossible.”
Jesus says, “You feed them. Give me the resources you have. Commit them to me, and I will help you do this.”
What can one church do? What can this church do?
When I left home this morning, my wife was scrambling eggs, grating cheese in the eggs, and pouring milk for two of our grandchildren. They were going to eat a nutritious breakfast fixed by their grandmother, a breakfast of all the food they wanted. When I get home today, the four of us will have a delicious meal of chicken, broccoli, and baby carrots and English peas. I want my grandchildren to be fed, well nourished. You do, too.
Can you imagine what I would do if I had no money to purchase food for my grandchildren? What would I do if the cupboard were bare? I would dumpster-dive if necessary. I would do whatever necessary in order to provide food for my grandchildren. Every child on the face of this earth is a child of God. God cares about whether they are fed. He wants them fed.
Jesus says to us, “My disciples, you feed them.”
We answer, “That’s impossible!”
He replies, “No, it is not impossible. Give me what you have, and I will help you do this.”
This kind of problem demands that we think in terms of the Golden Rule. We must treat others the way we want to be treated. We must treat children as if they were our own grandchildren. We need to look for every opportunity to help. This kind of problem requires the combination of prayer and fasting. We can pray better about this problem if we are fasting. Fasting helps to feel a gnawing in our stomach.
I remember a dear lady who had no family. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, she served the homeless in this town at the Soup Kitchen. She said, “I find meaning in Thanksgiving and Christmas by serving others in this way.”
Jayne McQueen, director of Mobile Meals, shared that contributions had fallen off because of the economy. She said the agency could no longer afford to provide milk to the elderly. All of their nursing services have been curtailed as well.
I asked, “Jayne, how much does it take to feed one person for a year?”
She said, “It takes $100 a month to feed one person.” I suggested a one-on-one program. Give $100 to Mobile Meals to feed one person.
The elderly are not faceless. Some are members of this congregation. I think about my own parents and in-laws in their latter years. They did not receive meals from Mobile Meals, but someone had to prepare food for them.
I have asked that during the coming year our church again participate in the very successful TOTAL Ministry Mobile Pantry. I have also asked that our Missions Committee again lead us in the Feed-the-Hungry project. Last spring our church packaged bags of nutritious rice to be sent to areas in need. That project will be a part of the budget for next year.
Jesus has given us the difficult responsibility of feeding the hungry, a task we do not really like to consider. Our Lord, though, has told us that we must assume this commitment. Hungry people are not just random strangers. They are people whom the Lord Jesus loves. He wants us to do all we can to feed them, physically and spiritually. The day will come when we will stand before the Lord. Do we want Jesus to say, “I was hungry, and you did not feed me”?
I will say, “Lord, when was that?”
He might say, “When I was standing on crutches by the road, you had a meal in your truck. You passed by me.”
Or he say may, “I was hungry, and you fed me.”
We ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry? When did we feed you?”
“Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). He wants us to feed the hungry. We must do it.
This heart for other people comes from Jesus himself. Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior? Have you acknowledged him as the Lord of your life? If you have never accepted Christ, I would invite you to do that today. Some of you have other decisions to make. We invite you to respond.
Kirk H. Neely © October 2012