The Barrel

The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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Year B - Sunday of the Year

John 6:1-21

One More Drop


A barbed wire barrier surrounded the relief compound to protect the relief workers. The thousands of desperate Ethiopians compared to the limited supply of food and medicine required it. People from across the famine stricken African nation had walked to the compound hoping to receive some form of aid. They were malnourished, dehydrated and suffered from dysentery, malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis. With limited supplies, the relief workers could only help a fraction of the people who were standing outside the fence. Dozens died overnight just outside the compound's perimeter.

A doctor invited US Congressman Tony Hall to join him on his morning rounds. The doctor had a grim task. He had to wade through the mass of people looking for a half a dozen children who were most likely to survive the several stages of recovery from starvation. Most of the others would die within a few days. While they walked, people grabbed at their hands and tugged at their pant legs begging for help. Parents would hold up their children and thrust them into their arms. The Congressman fished into his pocket for his sunglasses and put them over his eyes, not to protect his eyes but to hide his tears.1

If Jesus were to stand before us today, would he ask the same question he asked Phillip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people?” to test us about our faith or to gauge our compassion and generosity? Would he be asking us “Do you believe that I can meet the needs of all these people?” or would be asking “Are you willing to use the resources you possess to meet the needs that are before you?” Either question challenges us to look beyond ourselves to the needs of others. This is something that we are not accustom to doing. Most of us attend a Sunday morning worship service hoping to hear a word of encouragement or inspiration that helps us make it through the next week. We long for a song or prayer to touch our hearts and give us an inner peace. We are hoping to receive some kernel of guidance from the preacher's many words. But today's lesson confronts more than it comforts. It inflicts more than it inspires. It is not about how Jesus fulfills that familiar petition: “Give us this day our daily bread.” It is about how Jesus interacts with the needs of humanity and what he expects of his disciples.

His Compassion for the Multitude

The first lesson we glean from this passage is Jesus' attitude toward the people's physical needs. While John does not specifically use the word compassion in the passage, the emotion seems evident. The gospel writers use the word in several other passages to describe how Jesus was affected by the physical needs of people.

Early in his ministry, a man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees to make him clean. Filled with compassion, Jesus touched the man and healed him (Mk1:41). Later, while Jesus was leaving the city of Jericho, two blind men were sitting along the roadside. Hearing that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us.” Jesus once again had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately, sight returned to both men (Mt 20:29-34). In his introduction to this story, Matthew notes that Jesus, seeing the hurt and pain of the people, had compassion on them and healed the sick. A few days later, Jesus specifically told his disciples that he has compassion for the people because they have been with him for three days without food. He then feeds 4000.

Jesus does not look upon the human condition with an aloof detachment. God became man to struggle with the frustrations of human frailty and to share the pain of human suffering. This required his active participation in the human condition. It required him to experience social and political turmoil. It necessitated his exposure to people suffering from the lack of food, disease, political oppression and exploitation.

In a recent news story on PBS Radio, a reporter was describing a very tight senatorial race. Between his commentary, sound bits from the campaign trail could be heard in the background--the opening and closing of the door, cheerful hellos, the exchange of pleasantries between the candidates and the local people. These sounds conveyed to the listening audience that the political candidates were touching base with the grass root voters to hear their concerns and to listen to the opinions of the voting public. Jesus did not wait for an election year to enter into our human condition. From his birth to his death, the Son of God felt the suffering of his people.

However, his form of compassion is not as prevalent an emotion as we would like to assume. We may feel a sense of shock, or pity when we see pictures that depict the suffering in Africa or the Middle East but that is decidedly different from the gut wrenching emotion that Jesus felt. Neil Kinnock, the head of England's Labor Party during the 80's and 90's once said in a speech before the House of Commons:

Compassion is not a sloppy, sentimental feeling for people who are underprivileged or sick … it is an absolutely practical belief that, regardless of a person’s background, ability, or ability to pay, he should be provided with the best that society has to offer.2

Young people go on mission trips for many different reasons. Some will do anything to get away from home for a week; others like the thrill of adventure or the promise of a theme park or white water rafting. Many will even say that they are going to help others. During their first few days they will share with deep emotion their sympathy for people who live in poverty. However, careful observation of their actions will detect when a change takes place; when their feelings move from sentimental pity to heart-felt compassion. Sometimes this conversion requires more than one mission trip. Sometimes it never happens but when it does the change is profound. The teen suddenly grasps with a completely different perspective the suffering of the people they are serving and his responsibility to help. Suddenly the teen wants to help everyone. She does not want to leave the site. He feels uncomfortable leaving because they know that they could do one more thing to help.

Do you feel that sort of compassion for the hungry?

Responding not Discussing

The second lesson we glean from this passage is Jesus' response. After asking Phillip directions to the nearest grocery store, he takes the lunch of a small boy. John is the only author to describe the bread as barley loaves. Barley was the food of the peasants, the poor man. Barley does not make very good bread by itself. It must be mixed with other flours. One Greek writer said that it was food suitable for irrational animals and men in unhappy circumstances.3 But Jesus uses the food of the poor and the powerless. He does not have to rely on the wealthy and prosperous. He uses whatever is offered to him in faith to feed the people. He did not wait for the donations to reach their target level. He acted. He took the loaves and the fish, blessed them and dispersed them.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus told parables that recognized people who responded quickly to the circumstances before them. In the parable of the scandalous steward, Jesus compliments a man who after hearing the news that his master is about to fire him, goes and quickly cancels the debts of people who owe his master money in hopes of winning a friend and new job. The shepherd who loses one of his sheep, is commended because he put aside all other responsibilities until that one lost sheep was found. The man who discovered a great pearl is praised because he responded immediately and sold everything he had to buy the field in which the treasure is buried.

Jesus spent little time with procrastinators. He was looking for people who heard the good news and acted without delay. In his own life, he lived out what he taught. The challenge for modern day disciples is whether we will live out what Jesus taught.

The feeding of the 5000 is a social conservatives dream come true. The disciples did not have to solicit any donations, and not one nickel from the government coffers was spent. From a trickle of five fish and two loaves, the hungry were fed. The disciples only had to pass out the food. Someone else did the hard stuff. That is how a lot of people act when they hear about famines or disasters. They feel great pity and sorrow for the people. They complain that the church or the government should do something but they themselves do little or nothing. Maybe they will write a $25 check or maybe they won't.

Sometimes I have heard people justify their non-response by saying, the problem is so big and complicated, my small donation would not help the situation at all. The hour a month that I could serve at the Hospitality House would only be a drop in the bucket. Someone once told Mother Teresa, “Don't you think that what you do is kind of a drop in the bucket?” She answered, “No, its a drop in the ocean. But if I didn't do it, it would be one less drop.”4

The problems of just the Lakes Area community are so vast that one small church cannot solve all of them. We could not possibly feed all the hungry people in our community all by ourselves. But we can add one more drop to that vast ocean of human need.

Over the years, I have noticed that this church is very good at responding to specific requests for donations to a specific need. You have given generously to the special offerings that are used to feed the hungry. However, we need to step up to the next level in which we become more involved personally with the people. This summer the Elders and the Deacons are researching the needs and social service opportunities in the Lakes community. They are not sure where God is leading just yet. But my hope is that as they are talking to community leaders and will identify specific needs. As they listen to social service providers their heart will be so filled with compassion for the suffering of others that it will inspire them to design one or more outreach ministries in which all of us can participate. My prayer is that once they have settled one of these ministries that you will join them in adding one more drop of water to that vast ocean of need.

1Tony Hall, Changing the Face of Hunger, (Nashville: Wpublishing Group: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2006), 3,4.

2Neil, Kinnock, [Maiden speech, House of Commons, 1970]Collins Quotation Finder. electronic ed. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2000, c1999.

3Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John: Revised, NICNT, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Company, 1995), 304.

4Hall, Changing the Face of Hunger, 45,

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Crossroads Presbyterian Church
1445 Welch Rd
Walled Lake MI 48390

Office - (248) 624-3821