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Gathering the Fragments

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

August 26, 2018
John 6:1-15

A Reading from the Gospel of John

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When 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?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus 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. Then 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. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When 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.’

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.


I need to confess something about my refrigerator. I suspect I’m not alone in this confession — I suspect I’ll get some nods of recognition when I come out and say it, but nonetheless I say it with a bit of fear and trembling. On any given day, my refrigerator has stuff in it that I don’t entirely know what to do with. I mean, sure, there’s milk and cheese and orange juice and seltzer and lunch meat and five kinds of mustard. But there’s also some miscellaneous. Right now there’s some pita bread, individual pieces wrapped in aluminum foil, remnants of takeout from a few nights ago. There’s a Tupperware with a few stray egg whites in it, just waiting around for some occasion. There are scraps of leftovers from at least four different meals, all begging to be combined into some kind of Food Network challenge. Invariably there’s half of a thing of some kind of homemade dressing that was delicious when it first came into being but by now looks like something a bit more questionable; invariably there’s half of a lemon well on its way to fossilization; invariably there’s something else in the back whose original purpose nobody even wants to guess.

And I want you to know that in general it’s not that we don’t clean out the fridge. We do, with decent regularity. The problem is that it accumulates so quickly. The problem is that I get emotionally attached. The problem is that if I’m out to dinner and the sweet potato biscuits are particularly good then I don’t want to let them go to waste; I can’t quite abide the thought of them rotting at the bottom of a dumpster somewhere, even though if we’re honest reheating old sweet potato biscuits is a fool’s game, but nonetheless. I want to take them home. I want to take them home because I believe in them. I want to take them home because I want them to have a home. I want to take them home because I want them to fulfill their destiny as delicious dinner accompaniments even if there’s almost not an imaginable moment in the next week when we might sit down and put them to use. I’m saying that our fridge abounds with leftovers because we are living into hope. Hope for a day when all the stray chicken tenders and half-used onions and all those tiny plastic cups of salsa, don’t even get me started on the tiny plastic cups of salsa — I live into hope for the day when all these stray leftovers will find their way into a feast.

Of course if the five thousand hungry people in John’s Gospel came over to our house I suppose I’d use all my leftovers very quickly. The problem that presents itself in this story is not that the disciples have too much food; it’s quite the opposite, and you may know how it goes. The feeding of the multitudes is the only one of Jesus’s miracles that appears in each of the four Gospels, and the beats are pretty familiar every time. Jesus’s teachings have been more popular than expected, and all of a sudden he and his disciples are surrounded by a huge crowd without having done of any of the logistical planning that goes into hosting that kind of event. Suffice to say that they do not have a youth group putting breakfast tacos together nor the capacity to order a few dozen pizzas nor even the basic workflow of an elementary church potluck. 5,000 people and nobody has brought anything, except, in John’s telling, one boy, who has brought some loaves of bread and some fish. These aren’t leftovers. They’re not scraps. It’s a good meal for a hungry boy and for a few friends. Or, in Jesus’s hands, as you well know, it’s enough to feed everybody.

Jesus takes the bread. History does not record the boy’s reaction to having his food redistributed but let’s give everybody the benefit of the doubt. Jesus takes the bread and the fish, and divides them up, and he distributes them throughout the crowd, and everybody eats as much as they want. God multiplies this meal, God takes this small offering and makes it into the full abundance of the kingdom, everybody eats as much fish and bread as they want. But that, to me, is not the truly remarkable thing. The truly remarkable thing happens next, when Jesus goes after the leftovers. “When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.”

Why? Why twelve more baskets of bread? Haven’t they made enough? Haven’t they eaten enough? At this point isn’t Jesus just showing off? Or did he maybe make a rounding error in his calculations, we’ve all done that, one tablespoon of baking powder where it’s supposed to be a teaspoon of baking powder and all of a sudden twelve extra baskets of bread and he’s just making it look like he meant to do that all along. Regardless, haven’t they done enough by now to pave the way for ten thousand sermons about God’s abundance? Except if that were the case, if that was what this story was, a story simply about Jesus and multiplication, if that were all it was, couldn’t we just leave the extra on the ground? Couldn’t we just leave those crusty end-pieces lying right where the crowd discarded them? Couldn’t we just leave those scraps of mackerel for the next flock of very lucky seagulls? Wouldn’t it be just as astonishing a display of abundance to say ‘look how much food God made, we couldn’t even finish it!’”

It would be. Except that’s not the story. The story is: Jesus is in it for the leftovers. Jesus believes in the leftovers. Gather up the fragments, so that nothing may be lost.

John’s Jewish readers — not to mention the crowd itself — would recognize this reference pretty quickly, from the story of the manna in the wilderness that God sends to Moses and to the Israelites on their way out of Egypt. The instructions in that story are pretty specific: Israel is to gather up each morning exactly as much as they need for the day, and Moses interprets this to mean that God will send them exactly as much as they need, no more, no less, which seems to be why he then instructs the Israelites not to let any of the Manna stay out overnight — “let no one leave any of it out until morning.” Of course they don’t obey, and the manna that stays out overnight becomes foul and breeds worms and by morning it’s useless. So when Jesus tells his crowd to gather up the pieces, they understand the overtone. This bread, this fish — all of it, every scrap — all of it is part of God’s abundance for you, for this time, for this moment. Do not let any of that food pass you by.

But when Jesus talks about leftovers here, I don’t think he’s just talking about daily rations, or even just about God’s abundance. I think he’s talking about people. He tells the disciples to gather up the fragments, so that nothing may be lost, and that sentiment shows up again and again in the story that John folds. A few chapters later Jesus will talk about being the good shepherd, such that none of his sheep will become lost. Even later, when Jesus is praying in the garden, he talks to God about how he has protected his disciples, that none of them have gotten lost. So this moment in today’s story isn’t just about God providing for the crowd; it’s introducing a major theme in John’s gospel which is Jesus who will not let things go missing. Jesus who will not let things to waste. Jesus who insists on gathering the fragments, fragments of bread, fragments of fish, fragments of people, all the broken pieces. This is not about the food. This is about you and me. This is about the one who seeks each of us, as we are. The one who knows each of us, as we are. The one who sees each of us, as we are. The one who gathers up the fragments.

It’s one thing to say this, and another to believe it, particularly in this Back-to-School week and on this Rally Day, neck-deep in this season where we so desperately want to put our best foot forward. I think of all of the teachers and students who were just up front having their backpacks blessed and I think of how many of you made sure to wear your best outfit on the first day of school, to make your best first impression, to start the year off just right. And I don’t mind saying that we catch a taste of that here at UPC, too; we want to start this year off right, this is just one of those days where everybody wants to look their best. But I also know that this doesn’t always last. I know that new year energy can wear off real quick. I know that new shine can soil real quick. All that Monday morning energy can disappear by Friday night and Saturday’s on fumes and by Sunday morning all we can do is come to God with whatever we have left over. Just the pieces. This is the joyful feast of the people of God — here, where Jesus gathers up the fragments.

I’d like to go this potluck. I’d like to go to a church potluck where everybody just brings leftovers. At a conservative estimate I have been to approximately seventy-five million church potlucks and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody bring leftovers; some folks bring the easy vegetable plate; some folks bring the helpful casserole; some folks play to win, beautiful caprese salads or knockout desserts. But never in my life have I seen anybody bring leftovers, and yet this is the potluck I’d love to go to. Where we all just bring the under-loved Tupperware hanging out in our fridge, all of it, a whole spread of miscellany, just the honest stuff, just the truth, just the whole truth, because we know everybody’s got some, because we know everybody’s a mess somewhere. I think we’d serve it on the finest china. I think we’d set the tables with the finest linen. And you’d go through the line — the serving line would wrap around the hall — and you’d put this hodgepodge meal together, lukewarm sweet potato biscuits and leftover salad dressing and a few little cups of salsa, and we’d sit together at the table, no one’s plate better than another’s, no one’s any less ridiculous. And somehow we would be known, fully known, truly known, in the breaking of this broken bread.

Okay, maybe this isn’t actually a good idea for an event. But it’s absolutely the sacred work of the church. To be a place where we come as we are. To be a place where we are known as we are. To be a place where Jesus can see us, and find us, and welcome us, and gather us in, all the leftovers, all the fragments. It is the sacred work of the church, the sacred work of University Presbyterian Church. I’m deeply excited to start another year with you all worshiping in this place. And for no greater reason than this. Because I know in every way that matters that we have that potluck every week. Because I know every week God works here to welcome us just as we are, to set the finest table for all the leftovers we bring to the feast. And I know if the china breaks, we take it down the hall, and we cut it into pieces, and it end up in in the mosaic hanging in the Great Hall, which is the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, the story of Jesus gathering the fragments, the story of Jesus gathering every one of us. Because I know the real story of this place is all the broken pieces gathered together, by the grace of God. And because I know God will not stop gathering until every last one of us is in the picture.

Thanks be to God. Amen.