Although from a different gospel and setting within the ministry of Jesus, this week’s reading feels like it continues the theme of compassion from last Sunday. Jesus is compassion. Jesus shows us God is compassion; this Sunday in feeding thousands who are hungry, and meeting the disciples in their fear, and all the abundance of God.
The Gospel readings for the next few Sundays are from this 6th chapter in John, all about bread and its literal and spiritual/metaphorical meaning in Jesus. This week, Jesus is again trying to get away for quiet and rest. But people keep pursuing and finding Jesus and the disciples. Jesus looks at the crowd coming toward him and asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus is compassion. And we heard Philip’s no-nonsense response. “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
Jesus and Philip both see the overwhelming need of the people and their hunger. Jesus asks how they will feed them. Philip tells the practical truth. Six months wages wouldn’t do it.
We know this experience of seeing overwhelming needs and costs. How many are hungry in our community and greater Victoria and how much would it cost to ensure everyone has enough to eat? How many remain homeless in Victoria and elsewhere and how much would it cost to build the necessary safe and affordable housing? How many wildfires are burning across this nation, and how much will it cost to get them under control? How many poorer people of the world are without access to Covid-19 vaccines, and how many vaccines from richer countries like Canada are needed? How many people are oppressed, threatened, violated, dying in many nations and regions of the world, and what is the cost to bring justice and peace? How many continue to be unsafe or dying from drug poisonings in our province and nation, and when and what will it cost to ensure a safe drug supply, harm reduction and proper health care? How many more indigenous children’s remains will be located on the grounds of Canadian Residential Schools, and what will be the cost to locate and identify and properly honour each life as important and grieved by their families and communities, and for all of us to truly live out truth and reconciliation together on these lands? How many Jewish and Muslim neighbours, Black and other people of colour, Trans and other queer folk, new Canadians, experience racism and hatred and prejudice in this country and elsewhere, and what will it cost to change hearts and minds, systems and structures, to create truly multicultural communities of acceptance and celebration of diversity? How many millions of refugees and displaced people seek a safe homeland in their own or a new country, and what will it cost the world to respond to the overwhelming need? How much more will the earth be depleted, habitats destroyed, creatures suffer and be lost, and what will it cost to reverse the destruction of the earth and respond to the climate crisis? These and more are the overwhelming needs we see in the crowds of humanity pressing upon this world, like the crowds that pursued Jesus. Where are we to buy bread to feed so great a hunger? There aren’t enough wages in the world to buy enough bread to satisfy all this human need even a little.
In the story, Andrew, one of Jesus’ disciples, recognizes a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish, but quickly concludes, “But what are they among so many people?” Do you wonder if for a moment Andrew saw something in this small offering of the boy’s food, but then dismissed it? I wonder if it was the boy who saw the need and something in what little he had to offer? And that his small offering was all Jesus needed, God needed, to show compassion for the crowds and feed their hunger. As I said earlier, these words in the gospel of John about bread and hunger, are literal and metaphorical. Barley loaves in the time of Jesus were the bread of those who were poor, without access to wheat. And fish, some suggest, was one of the signs of the Messianic banquet of Jewish apocalyptic writings. Barley loaves and fish, even just a little are enough to see the inbreaking of God’s compassionate dominion into this hungry world. Jesus full of compassion sees it. Maybe the boy and even Andrew if only for a moment, saw it. And we know so well what happens, in a great Holy Communion scene, Jesus has everyone sit down on the grassy mountainside, and takes the loaves and give thanks and distributes the bread among the people and so also the fish and everyone eats as much as they want. And there is even an abundance of leftovers!
What a story of compassion. What a miracle! If only it could be true for the overwhelming hunger and need of every human being and time and tragedy in this world. Do you wonder?
Some of you will know the very beginnings of the Shelbourne Community Kitchen. Beginning as a project of the pastoral intern of this congregation in about 2012, Melissa, who invited members of the surrounding community to meet and discuss poverty in the neighbourhood. The discussions led to assessments of needs and responses, a larger community gathering and the idea of a community kitchen, a place where people struggling with food insecurity could gather and cook and share food and community together. Partnerships between churches and community associations took shape as did a vision for beginning and very small financial commitments. We made an application for a “Creative Missions Initiative” grant to the ELCIC, a first-time opportunity created by the National church out of the Church Extension and Capital Fund. The grant application for what to us was an astounding $100,000 over three years was successful! And we celebrated with a sparkling wine toast in the rotunda of the church. And we began a hiring process and hired Kim as Program Coordinator, a Camosun student in culinary arts who had started a food box program for students to access affordable nutritious food together on campus. And she began work out of the church sacristy, with a pantry program and ideas for beginning cooking classes. More partnerships were formed and eventually a new location was found in a small house on Shelbourne Street, and the kitchen was renovated, and gardens established, and a grand opening filled the house to overflowing. Cooking and gardening and voucher and pantry programs became more established and the number of members, including both participants and volunteers, grew from less than a hundred to hundreds, to now over a thousand, with according to the Kitchen’s 2020 Annual Report, 900 meals prepared and shared together, and 175 meal kits delivered despite Covid restrictions, 37 food skills programs, plus 17 virtual sessions, 451 kilograms of food grown in the gardens and 1300 food plants distributed and 50 new container gardens created; over 15,000 kilograms of food distributed serving 650 adults and 90 children, and over 2,500 food vouchers shared to help feed people who are hungry. And now the Kitchen with 2020 revenues from grants and donations of over $340,000 and expenses in 2020 of just over $253,000, and renovations in its new home in the lower hall of this building almost complete, and the food storage facility below this sanctuary in full operation and a second full time staff person is preparing to further expand its services to create food and community with more who are hungry well into the future.
It is like a story of a child having a few loaves of bread and two fish, “and what are they among so many people?” A beginning. And that is all Jesus in compassion, who comes to the disciples walking on the water in their fear, our compassionate God who desires that all would be fed, needs, for a wonderful miracle of feeding, of saving thousands. And we could recall and share more stories of this congregation and beyond, with their own miracles; stories of refugee sponsorship and supporting newcomers finding a new home and life in Victoria and elsewhere, of truth and reconciliation as indigenous and non indigenous people learning and struggling and working together toward a more hopeful future; supporting global relief and development work through CLWR and the LWF; support for organizations working with those who are homeless and developing our own affordable housing project for elders and students with Luther Court; working at addressing racism and exclusion in ourselves and our communities and dismantling oppressive systems and structures, standing with and supporting Black, Indigenous and other people of colour and queer folks in being fully included, represented, lifted up, heard, thriving, together; responding to the climate crisis and working to “green” our church and community and our lives to preserve and protect God’s creation and all its creature for future generations. All of it beginning with little more than a few loaves and fish, but a beginning in faith, in compassion, in Jesus/God, “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to (God) be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” Like every Sunday, it is just a loaf of bread, and a cup of wine, but we are fed and reminded and inspired by this God’s feeding us, saving us in the Spirit of Christ Jesus, to begin again, and again and see and join in what God is doing to feed and save a hungry and hurting world. With grace and courage, hope and commitment together, let it be so within and among us, and in all our relations. Amen.