The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
The Barrel - Home Page | Sermon Resources | Sermon Illustrations

Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2000-2001


Making Do With What We Have
John 6:1-21

Profound Simplicity

In his commentary on the gospel of John, a New Testament scholar compared it to a pool of water in which both a child could wade and an elephant could swim.[1] The description is very appropriate for the book contains truth so simple that a child could understand and mysteries so complex that they have baffled scholars throughout history. The beginning reader may pick up this book and immediately draw wonderful insights about God from it, while a scholar may spend a lifetime plumbing the depths of its message. 
The truths we glean from this book will also depend upon the circumstances in our life. A young person will read the book and gain different insights than an older person. A husband may read it differently than his wife. A successful career woman will focus on different elements of the story than a teenage mother who is living on food stamps. 

That is a real problem in how we read Scripture. We become so consumed with our immediate needs that we either focus on a few elements of the story that directly speak to our circumstances or twist the story to address our personal needs. We seldom stop to consider how another person may read the passage, or how their understanding of the message may impact our perspective.

Such was the case as I began to prepare my sermon this week. I reviewed the commentaries and took some rather sketchy notes. When a passage is this familiar, I tend to shorten my preparation time. Next, I reviewed a couple of magazines that provide ideas for sermons. I then began to write. The theme of the sermon was going to be on how Jesus took a few things that were offered to him and transformed them into a miracle. My hope would have been to encourage you to look beyond the limitations of your immediate surroundings and see how God can work miracles even from our meager resources. It would have been a good message but it reflected a rather narrow field of vision. 

Cruelty or Hope

By happenstance, I surfed over to a web page written by a theologian in Australia to glean some additional insight. He usually takes a totally different approach to the text, so he serves to challenge and sometimes expand my perspective. His thoughts on this passage were very convicting. He writes:
For many who are sensitive to world poverty and disaster the images of multiplying food or walking on water are painfully unreal, almost cruel fantasy.[2]

In response to his words, I directed my browser to World Vision’s web page and read the story of Adut Bol. She is a 10-year old girl living in southern Sudan. She has known little but war and famine in her short life. In 1996, she saw her father killed in battle near her home village of Kuac Thii. Later that year, she had to flee the village with her mother and six brothers. Displaced by war and living in the midst of famine, how do you think Adut Bol would read this morning’s Scripture lessons?[3]

Is it cruel to read this portion of Scripture to her? Ironically, those who are living in Third World poverty have the least difficulty believing in the miraculous component of this story. They accept the text at face value with a trusting and unquestioning faith. They hold fast to the promise that just as Jesus supplied bread for 5000, and Elisha supplied meals for a hundred, God will again, literally take their meager stores of food and multiple them to feed their village. And if you talk with enough missionaries, eventually you will hear a story of a modern day miracle. It will be as exciting and seemingly unbelievable as today’s stories but it, nevertheless, took place according to the eyewitness accounts. The critic may refute the supernatural element or attempt to provide a plausible explaination but the reality of the miraculous occurrence is undeniable. However, the issue is not how Adut Bol reads this morning’s lessons but how you and I read them in light of the tragic circumstances of children like Adut Bol.

Will we spend all our time denying that such miracles could taken place? Will we spiritualized the message and privatize its application in a way that limits the social and economic dimension of the story? Will we walk out of the sanctuary in a huff, mumbling that we did not come to church to hear about politics? Will we personalize the message of the feeding of the 5000 in such a way that it only addressers our immediate needs? 

That is what the people of Israel wanted. They did not come to Jesus to learn about world poverty. They did not run all the way around the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee to hear him tell them that they should simplify their lifestyle so that they could feed the hungry. They wanted him to heal their sick bodies. They wanted to him to give sight to their blind eyes. They wanted him to restore strength to their crippled legs. Jesus had created an alternative to Blue Cross and the people were lining up for medical attention.

Lessons of the Hungry

He may have already anticipated what he was about to do when he saw the people but instead of responding immediately, he walked up the mountainside and sat down. William Willimon writes, “Even a dedicated do-gooder like Jesus needs a break, a temporary respite from meeting people's needs.”[4] Eventually Jesus turns to Phillip and asks the disciple a question about the cost of feeding so many people. By his words and deeds, Jesus tells us several things about the life of discipleship.
First, he tests not only Phillip but every disciple. Have you learned to trust God? Have you learned to look beyond the material world to rely on the power of God to transform and create?

Secondly, he demonstrates his concern for real live, honest to goodness hunger.In Mark, the author tells us that the people are organized in a manner reminiscent of a military campaign—in groups of 100s and 50s. Jesus is portrayed as the shepherd King who is providing for his people. This is more than an image of who Jesus is but also a portrayal of what Jesus wants to do through his disciples. Jesus not only feeds the people so that they will know that he is the true bread from heaven, but he also feeds the hungry because he wants to feed the hungry with bread that fills the belly. 

Third, Jesus action teaches us that the call to discipleship is a call to feed the hungry of the world. That is an easy message to forget. We want God to be more concerned with helping us. We want the words of our Lord to sooth our emotional wounds. We want to hear God tell us that he loves us and that we are doing a good job. We do want to be challenged to greater works of sacrifice. We would prefer that God would solve the problem of world hungry through supernatural means. Phillip’s response grossly underestimates the complexity of the problem today. It would take far more than eight months wages to feed the hungry of our world. It is far beyond our capacity. It would take more time than we have. We do not have enough money. We do not have enough expertise. We do not have enough resources.

The church of Jesus Christ is faced with all these limitations but the reality is that we are sitting on a hillside surrounded by hungry people. In developing countries, four out of 10 children are stunted in their physical growth from malnutrition. On this particular Sunday, sixteen thousand children will die of malnutrition and hunger related causes. In the US, over 12 million children are living in households that are forced to skip meals or eat less to make ends meet.

The reality is that unlike the disciples who did not have the resources to feed 5000 people, the resources are available. World Vision has set Ten Priorities for the next millennium. The second priority is food for everyone. They estimate that would take an annual expenditure of $800 million dollars a year to end world hunger. That may seem like a unreachable sum of money but not when you consider that the world annually spends $780 billion on weapons of war.

While we do not have the resources to feed the hungry of the world, we have our 20 loaves or five small loaves and two fishes. A gift of $60 will provide an orphan with the basic household supplies—blankets, cooking pots and pans, and soap. A donation of $120 covers the cost of providing 10 people with hoes, seeds, and other tools for growing beans, potatoes, and wheat. 

The Lessons Applied

In 1997, Jessica Novak decided to offer her 5 loaves of bread. She was given an assignment to identify a problem somewhere in Africa and figure out a way of helping to solve it. She emailed a friend who was working with World Vision in Rwanda. The friend told her about the suffering of the children who had lost their parents during the genocide of 1994. The oldest children had become head of a household of brothers and sisters but had no means of supporting their siblings. The missionary explained that these children were desperately poor having lost their parents, their homes, and their land. World Vision was trying to obtain goats for these families so they could become more self-sufficient. Jessica decided to help. She organized a project—Kids for Kids, goats for Rwandan Children. The first year her fundraisers netted over $1500. The second year the amount grew to $3500. In 1999, an educational channel did a profile on Kids for Kids. It showed how a tiny project was helping children in Rwanda. Checks began to pour in and by the end of the year over $27,000 had been raised.
Two young boys only had a few loaves of bread. One made do with what he had and offered to the prophet and 100 men were feed. Another made do with what he had and offered them to Jesus and over 5000 people were feed. Jessica only had a few “loaves” of goats but instead of using it as an excuse for not doing anything, she made do with what she had and raised over $30,000 for the children of Rwanda.

How do you read the Scripture lesson this morning? Do you have blinders that limit your field of vision to your own narrow world of aches and pains? Do you only want a gospel that takes care of your own needs? Are you willing to listen to a miracle story that challenges you to works of service and acts of love to a hurting world? Are you willing to make do with what you have and allow God to feed the hungry of world?

[1] Leon Morris, The Gospel of John, NICNT, Gordon D. Fee general editor, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995), 3.
[2] William Loader, Online:
[3]World Vision, “Ten Urgent Issues for children in the new millennium—Issue 2:Foor for everyone” 
[4] William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, “What are you looking for?,” Vol. 28, No. 3.

Send a note to the Pastor

Crossroads Presbyterian Church
1445 Welch Rd
Walled Lake MI 48390