I’ve done a little thinking about hunger. It started when I went to Waco for Church Under the Bridge. (Which, incidentally, has a website: http://www.churchunderthebridge.org/)
We took about 17 teenagers who shopped, cooked and served a meal for about 150 homeless folks. I learned some things about cooking for homeless people… like making sure we offered something they could take with them to eat later in the day, something that didn’t have to be refrigerated, and offering something healthy and sweet like fruit. We took what looked like a massive amount of hot food to the church, which is, quite literally, under the high bridge formed by Interstate 35 as it connects with south 4th and 5th streets. The bridge makes a perfect canopy, a kind of cathedral, although a different kind of cathedral.
The kids opened up what they had cooked and started dishing it out: breakfast burritos kept so warm that steam rose when people opened the aluminum foil, hot beans, sandwiches, cookies and fruit. We had quite a spread and I was feeling pretty good. But then the line formed and people started putting the food on plates. Two burritos, a sandwich, a spoon of beans, a brownie and a banana filled most of the plates I began to worry that we would run out. Each time I looked out at the line of people it didn’t seem to get any shorter. But I also noticed that there was still a layer of food in our coolers. As fast as the food disappeared, it seemed to me that it magically reappeared. Finally, the line ended and there was still food. We encouraged everyone to come back for seconds and there was still food. The food was multiplying right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t see it actually growing but the accountant in me was counting people, subtracting burritos on plates and counting burritos left in the cooler and none of it added up. Somehow the limited amount of food we prepared was holding out. At the end, when the last people had come through for seconds, when folks had gone to sit down and prepare for worship, there was still food left. I couldn’t believe it.
But then I remembered that Jesus had fed 5,000 people on five loaves of bread and two fish. Actually, there were over 5,000 people but they didn’t count the women and children back in those days. I never paid much attention to that tiny detail. If you estimate the number of women and children the number increases dramatically. Check it out in Matthew 14.
I always marveled at this feat. Then one year I was assigned to tell the story to the children of the church. I thought I would be cute and use real bread and real fish. The five loaves of bread would be easy but the fish stumped me for a while. I had a hard time figuring out where to get fish that we could eat without starting a little campfire right there in the chancel of the sanctuary. I finally hit on sardines. I spent the rest of the day patting myself on the back for being so brilliant. No refrigeration was needed for this small and snacky type of real fish. I forgot kids don’t like sardines.
They were horrified by this slimy, shiny and smelly bit of fish I had presented them. As we passed the sardines and bread around I watched the first couple of kids take miniscule bits of the sardines. As the plate was passed around some who took a tiny piece tasted it and put it back on the plate. After watching the others, the rest simply refused any of the fish at all. I was so startled by this that I forgot for a second where I was and blurted out “So, that’s how he did it!”
How else could Jesus feed so many people with so few resources unless he multiplied the food? Maybe…. could it be? What if ….maybe there was another way?…what if Jesus didn’t multiply the food? What if he satisfied their hunger?
It doesn’t really change the story. The point of the story is not how Jesus did it but the idea that he did the impossible; he accomplished a huge job with limited resources. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t think Jesus could have multiplied the food into any number he wished. I still believe Jesus could have made it rain purple poodles if he took a notion. But if he satisfied their hunger, it would have the same result, wouldn’t it?
Anyone who has ever been in a twelve-step program or who understands the concept knows that the issue is hunger of some sort. It doesn’t matter if it’s an AA group, or Overeaters Anonymous, or Sex Addicts or gambling or shopping, most addictions are basically an overpowering hunger for something. And the programs working with these addictions all know that it takes something even more powerful to overcome the addiction. It takes faith in a higher power.
When I was in Guatemala this summer studying Mayan Spirituality under Antonio Otzoy, he said that his greatest teacher was his grandfather. His grandfather taught him many things. He taught Antonio the arrangement of the stars so well he could navigate his way home no matter where he was. One of the stories Antonio told us started out with the observation that the Mayan people do not generally eat much in the morning.
Food has always been scarce for the Mayan people so they have learned to temper their hunger. They take their time upon waking and never hurry. When it finally came time for Antonio’s grandfather to eat his first meal of the day, he would only have a cup of hot water. I could imagine the care and ceremony it took as Antonio described the making of this cup of hot water. Then, before drinking, he said his grandfather would pray over the cup. Antonio said that in the prayer something astonishing happened: the hot water became something more. And they could go for hours strengthened by that water.
The water became something more through prayer. The loaves and fish became something more. Maybe our burritos became something more.