In the summer of 2019, my family took a trip to California.
My son was running the Napa Valley half marathon and my wife the Napa Valley 5k.
The whole family did a good bit of hiking, too.
One day we decided to hike a fairly tough, but scenic trail that was pretty popular.
The trail ascended a tall slope through woods to an overlook and then descended down a steeper hillside through scrubby bushes.
AJ and Adam only went up to the overlook and then turned back to check out some other local attractions.
Karen, Julz and I kept on going.
The hike turned out to be a bit harder and longer than we anticipated.
It was hotter, too, particularly when we were on our way down which was mostly in the sun.
We realized we had not brought enough water.
But our water shortage was manageable.
The real problem was that we really did not know how far from the trail’s end we were.
When we had emerged from the woods, we knew we were halfway home.
But that was as the crow flies.
The descent turned out to be a series of switchbacks.
We would walk a ways, make a U turn, walk a ways further and realize we had only gone about 20 feet further down the hillside.
This went on for a while.
We could not see the end of the trail.
We were getting tired, frustrated and really wanted the hike to be over.
And we started to get really thirsty.
Not because we were getting dehydrated, but because we didn’t know when we would get to a water source.
When would this end?
As an old Boy Scout, I knew there were ways to find water when necessary.
But those ways were not going to work for us.
But we did have another way.
We called AJ on my cell phone and asked him to bring us water.
He would come from the end of the trail and would meet us.
Not long after that, we saw AJ coming up the trail toward us.
Our spirits soured.
AJ was coming to lead us home and he was carrying several large bottles of water.
We were saved!
It was like a religious experience.
We drank all the water and then finished the hike.
Later, we celebrated the fact we hiked the entire trail despite the difficulties, uncertainty and anxiety.
I might be making this adventure a bit more dramatic that is really was, but I thought of our hike when I read our scripture reading this week.
It’s about providing for people who are in need.
We were thirsty.
The people in today’s scripture needed something else.
Let’s see what it says.
John 6: 1-14
6After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
Before I begin, I want to point out that this story appears in all four gospels.
In fact, there are two such stories in Mark’s gospel.
That tells me that we need to pay attention to these events.
They illustrate an important lesson from, and about, Jesus.
We all know the story generally.
Jesus feeds the 5,000 folks who have been following him around with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.
But if we dig a bit deeper, we see a bit more of what Jesus might have been trying to teach his disciples and the people following him – like us.
First, the background.
Jesus is preaching and teaching and healing in Galilee.
Jesus has gone viral.
He has become, in today’s jargon, an influencer.
He has many followers.
At least 5,000 are literally following him around.
One day Jesus asks Phillip where the disciples might find bread to feed all these people.
This is a test of Philip, according to John, because Jesus already knew what was going to happen.
Jesus had a lesson to teach about the Kingdom of God.
Phillip basically says, “Even if there was such a place to get that much food nearby, we don’t have enough money to buy it.”
I have this vision of Jesus smiling.
Phillip could only think of one way to feed the people.
Buy food and hand it out.
That would not work here, though.
Too many people, no food available, not enough money.
But Jesus knew of a different way.
Take what was available and make it work.
He tells the people, sit in groups and watch what happens.
A boy comes forward with two fish and five loaves.
He is willing to share.
Low and behold, loaves and fish turn into enough food to feed all the people – with some left over.
People have argued over the years about what happened.
Was it a miraculous replication of loaves and fishes?
Or was it a viral act of sharing of what was available?
I don’t know that it makes a difference.
The result was the same.
The food shared by boy fed all the people.
So, what was the lesson?
Remember that these people were following Jesus because he was offering signs that he was from God.
They were looking for more signs.
They wanted to be convinced that following Jesus was a way to experience God’s presence.
So, Jesus gave them one.
His lesson was that following Jesus would provide what the people wanted – a sign.
But following Jesus would also fill their need for an experience of God’s presence.
Which might have brought to mind the words of the Psalmist to them.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
What were they hungry for?
Goodness and mercy.
And right in the middle is the most important promise.
For God is with you.
God with you.
The folks there were hungry for that.
And Jesus fed it to them.
And Jesus feeds it to us, too.
Jesus is teaching us that he is indeed with us.
Even in darkest valleys.
Even in the presence of enemies.
And so, we need to follow him.
He will take us into the Kingdom of God.
Those following Jesus in out text got the message pretty clearly.
The people recognized him as a prophet.
They had a religious experience.
But not just because Jesus gave them food.
Because Jesus gave them hope that he would lead them into God’s Kingdom.
So, what does his have to do with us here at JMPC?
How do we reach people who are looking for a sign that Jesus is from God?
In our scripture reading, Jesus had a crowd of people following him.
All he had to do was shout out orders and use some divine intervention.
What can we do?
Well, there are no crowds here, or at any other church, for that matter.
We are emerging from a year and a half of quarantine.
People are still skittish about gathering in groups.
But they are gathering with us.
In the time where people could not come to this sanctuary because it was closed, we used a new way to talk about Jesus and his leadership.
Streaming on the internet.
I remember back on March 16, 2020, when Session decided to close the church.
Matt, Carolyn and I scratched our heads wondering how we were going to lead you all in worship.
We, like Philip, had no solution to the problem.
Then Toni Sulkowski said, “Why not stream from an iPhone?”
It was like calling AJ and telling him to bring water.
It was like Jesus deciding to perform a miracle.
A new way to get something done.
And that is what we did.
We proclaimed the word to you all here, and you all out there, over the internet.
In our new way, we started to gather a new following.
People who had never been to JMPC started worshiping with us.
When I read today’s scripture, I started to think about you folks out there online.
What are you looking for?
What do you need?
And then I realized that, like the rest of us, you need hope.
You need a word or two, and maybe a sign, from Jesus.
You need to know that whatever is going on in your lives, God, Jesus, is with you, forever.
Keep streaming us and we will keep telling you that.