Today’s Gospel story of the feeding of the five thousand is well known to many of us. Actually, it’s one of a select few stories that appear in some variation in all four of the Gospels. Yet this morning’s version from the Gospel of John is noteworthy for a couple of reasons.
First, in John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, a little boy from the crowd is the one that provides the two fish and the five barley loaves. Jesus goes ahead and blesses and breaks the bread and the fish in order to feed all the people, the same way he does in the other Gospels. On this occasion though, unlike in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, neither Jesus nor the disciples provide the initial bread and fish.
Second, Jesus says something to his disciples in John’s version of the story that he doesn’t say in the other three Gospels. In the twelfth verse of today’s Scripture lesson Jesus gave his disciples specific instructions after the crowd finished eating. “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” The disciples heeded Jesus’s directive and they gathered up twelve baskets full of fragments. Twelve full baskets of leftovers that actually amounted to more nourishment than was originally provided by the little boy…
Typically when we read the story of the feeding of the five thousand or hear a sermon about the story, the listener or the preacher tend to focus on one obvious question the story raises. “How could this thing have happened?” The idea that fives loaves of bread and two fish could be distributed among five thousand people such that everyone ate their fill and there was a huge pile of leftovers in the end. The story defies logical explanation.
As a result, a listener or a preacher will usually wind up zeroing in on one of two theories. Either Jesus did something miraculous as he blessed and broke the loaves which caused the bread and fish to multiply a thousand fold. Or Jesus and the disciples encouraged people in the crowd to share whatever bread and fish they already had in their possession, and through that sharing there was more than enough for everyone to be satisfied.
This morning, however, I want to raise up an entirely different question in the story. In John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, why was Jesus so concerned with gathering up the fragments of bread and fish? What’s the point of gathering up all those scraps anyway?
If you’re out at a restaurant, fragments are the things that are still on the side of the plate when the server comes around at the end of the meal. Whatever you were too full to eat during the meal but there’s not enough to box it up and take it home. In a restaurant, none of that food is ever saved. If you’re at home, fragments of food wind up in the disposal or in the trash at the end of a meal because it’s not worth the time or the effort to save them. Fragments are crumbs and morsels and tidbits that are useless and unwanted.
But a long time ago, after five thousand people ate their own portion of bread and fish, Jesus specifically ordered his disciples to gather up all the fragments. According to Jesus no fragment, whether large or small, was to be thrown away. Every fragment was to be collected and put into a basket. And in the end, there was more total food in the fragments than there was food before the meal started.
So why was Jesus concerned about the scraps? The conclusion I draw is that Jesus knew something about fragments you and I don’t often realize. When we gather up the fragments of our lives and allow nothing to be lost, we may actually find we have more than we started with…not less. God gathers together all the broken, fragmented pieces in our lives and uses them for a bigger and better purpose than you and I could ever have imagined.
Think about the fragments in your own life. If you’ve been through a separation or a divorce, you know something about fragmented relationships and the fragments in your own heart and spirit. If you’ve lost a job, you know from experience about fragmented identity and self-esteem. If you’ve lost someone you loved through death, grief causes brokenness and fragmentation. If you are a survivor of abuse, you’ve endured the fragmentation caused by betrayal and loss of trust…
Most of us, I imagine, would just as soon lose track of some of the fragments of our lives, if possible. The places where we are most broken. The places where our dreams remain unrealized and our hopes have been dashed and our failures weigh heavily. All those bits and pieces of life that break each of us in some way or another are the fragments we’d rather forget about. How often are we temped to ignore those painful fragments…trying to shed them so that we can get on with our lives?
But Jesus directs us instead to “gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” In the eyes of Jesus, our personal and collective fragments are crucial pieces of who we are. And they are designed to be kept rather than discarded.
Gathering up the fragments of our lives isn’t an easy task. Looking carefully at the bleak and dusty places in our lives, examining the brokenness, and sifting through the pain. Dredging up feelings of inadequacy and guilt, trying to reconcile things we are ashamed of and memories we wish never occurred. It’s hard and grueling work.
But if you and I can pull together the fragments in our lives…every single one…and offer them up to God as a form of confession, then we will come to the awareness once again that God loves us and God accepts us in spite of our fragmentation.
I invite you, then, to use this time of Lent to gather up the fragments in your life, without losing any of them. Take some time to review your own fragments and remember those fragments. Perhaps even relive those fragments in some way. And then when you are done, turn those fragments over to God so that you can push forward in your life less burdened.
A couple more quick thoughts before I finish. Lest you think gathering up the fragments of your life is solely an individual pursuit during the Lenten season, bear in mind this morning’s story from the Gospel of John. It took all of the disciples dispersed among the crowd of five thousand to pick up the leftovers. Working side by side, the disciples engaged in a communal effort.
As members of the church, we are not called to be alone or to act alone. Yes, we come together here at Wapping to worship God and to serve Christ and to be a community of love. But in order to do that effectively, each one of us brings our own peculiar fragments to this place, where we combine our fragments to produce an overflowing basket of nourishment for a world that is broken in so many ways.
By the same token, bear the idea of fragments in mind as we move closer to the end of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week. One major reason why Jesus was so invested in fragments relates to everything Jesus experienced in the final events of his life. The betrayal, the abuse, the scorn and mockery. Culminating in the cross which is the ultimate brokenness and fragmentation.
Yet when Easter came, God picked up all the pieces of a crucified Jesus that human beings tried to break apart. And God lifted up a Risen Christ from the grave to become a Savior whose love was far greater than the sum of all the broken pieces added together.
Finally, bear the notion of fragments in mind as we take our place in a few moments around the communion table. Listen carefully to the words in the communion liturgy. Through the broken bread, we participate in the new life Christ offers us through the resurrection. Fragmentation and redemption are closely connected. In our brokenness, Jesus Christ promises to make us whole again.
Come then with your own fragments. Come and offer them to God so that God can bless you in all your brokenness. And come and offer them with your sisters and brothers so that our baskets will overflow and God’s love will be abundant among us and beyond us. Amen.