By Bill Carroll
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 toward 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.” (John 6:1-14)
I really only love God as much as the person I love the least. Words from Dorothy Day, a journalist who converted to Roman Catholicism and founded the Catholic Worker Movement in the early 1930’s. During the Great Depression, Dorothy embraced a lifestyle of voluntary poverty, and she stayed to live and work among the poor of New York City for nearly five decades. Today there are still Catholic Workers in many of our major cities—and in rural places as well.
That’s because the Catholic Worker movement had—and still has—two main initiatives. One is the Houses of Hospitality, which are basically houses (mostly in poor, urban neighborhoods) where anyone can be welcomed and receive a meal and community. The first time I visited a Catholic Worker House was in a burned-out neighborhood in Chicago, where they were caring for desperately poor people living and dying with HIV/AIDS. In most cases, the ministry is less specific. Poor people take up residence in these houses for a season, drifting in and out. There’s often a public feeding ministry—as well as advocacy for peace and the needs of the local poor. Some of the Workers have chosen a life of voluntary poverty, living by begging and manual labor. One of the main things they do is to sell the Catholic Worker newspaper, which you can still get for a penny a copy.
The other main initiative is small farming communities, teaching people to grow their own food and become less dependent on the economy we get most of our food from, so that neighbors can help neighbors find bread.
Dorothy Day had no illusions about the kind of people she was living with. With the sharp eye of a seasoned journalist, she documented their foibles and bad habits, as well as their God-given dignity. She was the one who taught us that God loves poor people not because they are good, but because they need our help. She also said that the Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.
In other words, as those who’ve been created and set free by grace, we all come before God empty handed. The poor just know that more clearly than the rest of us. They know real hunger and danger. In their bodies and bellies, they know the risks of being human—living in mortal, vulnerable flesh. They know what it means to do without—and have the rest of us ignore them, shove them aside, or avert our eyes.
I begin with Dorothy Day, because one of her most famous books is called Loaves and Fishes. Loaves and Fishes tells the story of the earliest days of the Catholic Worker movement. It is a beautiful, down-to-earth chronicle of life among the down-and-out of New York City. The writing is filled with compassion, sharp wit, and brutal honesty. Dorothy chose to see the life of the Catholic Worker in terms of the feeding of the crowds. That’s because, living as a poor people themselves, she and her companions had to do God’s work with whatever was at hand.
Dorothy and the Catholic Workers, like Jesus and the apostles before them, had to make do and live hand-to-mouth. She describes this situation in terms of the word “precarity,” which is probably a better English word than the more cumbersome “precariousness.” Precarity has to do with sharing in the dangers of a fully human life. It means life without a net—life without the security that most of us seem to want and need. It means being exposed and vulnerable, dependent on the kindness of our fellow human beings. It means living in abandoned places that often seem devoid of hope and creating community with those who live there.
Few of us are called to follow that path in the radical ways that Catholic Workers do. But God calls us all to be better neighbors to those in need—beginning with small gestures of help and kindness and building toward real solidarity and friendship. The Catholic Worker Movement can inspire the rest us to make real changes in our lives. It’s not enough to sit by and watch, to stand apart in silent judgment, or to throw up our hands in despair. It is possible, here and now, to organize–to give, to work, to pray—so that we can do the works of mercy and justice—and give others a chance to live. We don’t need a lot of resources to begin. Just eyes to see what we already have and put it to use for the Kingdom. When we do this, we join the Jesus movement, and we discover, again and again, how God provides.
In the Gospel, a large crowd of needy people have gathered around Jesus. They are the poor, the meek, and the isolated. They are lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. They are the unclean, and those who suffer with sickness, grief, and despair. But they’ve seen Jesus healing people—forgiving sins and making people whole. In the story, Jesus is on a mountain, teaching them, right around the time of the Passover—that ancient feast of liberation from slavery. The hour is late, and they have nothing to eat. And Jesus, like a Shepherd, has concern for his flock.
And so, he asks the disciples where they can find bread to buy for the crowds. Philip speaks for the finance committee, when he wonders how this is possible: “It would take six months’ wages,” he says, “for each to get just a little.” And Andrew speaks for the outreach committee, when he notices the boy with his five loaves and two fish. But even Andrew has his doubts, as he sees the scarcity of resources: “But what are these among so many?”
Then finally, Jesus takes charge and does something startling and unexpected. What he does reminds us of the Eucharist—the meal we are sharing here in church today, whereby God gathers us as a united People, by the Body and Blood of his Son. Indeed, Jesus performs the same four actions that are at the heart of every celebration of the Lord’s Supper: He takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and shares it. (And also shares the fish.)
In Jesus, we come face to face with the Liberator God of Israel—who takes a bunch of oppressed slaves and makes them into a People. In him, we encounter our Creator, who makes us out of nothing. And we meet the Savior who feeds us, heals us, and makes us whole. In his presence, there’s always more than enough to go around.
If it’s true (and I think it is), that we only love God as much as the person we love the least, then we have work to do. It begins when Jesus sees us and accepts us as his own. Then it continues as he invites us to join his movement and become his People in the world. He receives us in all our weakness and apparent insufficiency, just like the loaves and fishes the boy had that day by the shore.
Jesus takes us and offers us up.
In him, we present ourselves, our souls and bodies, as a living sacrifice to God. And, in and through his Spirit of love, he makes of us ENOUGH.
We become his Body. We become his hands, his feet, his voice.
And then we are taken, broken, blessed, and given.
We are sent–to go and feed the world.
The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty. In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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