Too Big, Too Small
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent, March 14, 2021
“Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, saith unto him, There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?”
SIZE CREATES apparent impossibilities. A pair of shoes that are too big will not fit your feet, even though you can get into them; you can’t walk far before they just fall off. A pair too small you can’t even squeeze your feet into. A simple matter of an inch makes a difference. Too big, too small, too hot, too cold: Goldilocks made sure of that.
A journey that places its end too far away might never be reached, and thus never tried. An ocean too wide, like the Pacific, could be impossible to cross without a special vehicle. 100 years ago, no airplane could do it. A mountain too high poses a problem, in bitter cold and lack of air. But some people try it simply because it’s there.
Distances that are too big make space travel problematic. You might travel to Mars, but how many years’ food will you need to bring? And water? And air? The nearest star from us, Proxima Centauri, if approached at the speed of light would still take 4¼ years to arrive. The farthest star visible to the naked eye in Cassiopeia would take over 16,000 years at light speed to get there.
Then there’s deep space. The Hubble Space Telescope once aimed its focus at a black spot in the Little Dipper and waited for faint light to develop a picture. What came was a crowded photo of 5,500 galaxies upward of 13 billion light years from here. That’s too far, and the size of our universe just got too big for our minds.
While I studied architecture at the University of California, my roommates were working as graduate students in the UC Radiation Lab up the hill. The Bevatron and Cyclotron accelerators made collisions of tiny subatomic particles possible and electron microscopes able to photograph the collisions. I saw some of the results that, to me, looked like sparklers. I was told these were quarks, and ‘x-etons,’ the smallest known particles of matter. Something so small it’s invisible to our eyes could be seen and experimented on. How small is our world, anyway?
Things too big, and too small for us to reckon with surround us daily and we ignore them. We have to ignore them. It might drive us mad to take all that in. The atoms that make up your hand are spaced so far from each other that there’s more nothing there than something. You are a series of very tiny dots with forces between them to hold them loosely together. Our tiny earth spins its way through space held by an invisible gravitational force in a helical path through unimaginable distances in clouds of stars and space dust hurtling eventually toward a collision with the Andromeda Galaxy. If we live 4.5 billion years to see it, the fireworks will be worth the wait.
But we focus on what’s before our eyes and we don’t think about those big and small extremes. We can’t see them, and don’t want to. But bring something that’s just a little too big on the field, and watch everybody run. Everybody except a shepherd lad. Goliath is described in 1 Samuel as being 3 meters tall. That’s over 9 feet. He is described as a giant. We shake our heads and say that’s impossible, but in 1940 a Michigan man was taped out at 8’-11”. Hard to believe, but it’s there in Guinness. Young David, only a teenager, felt indignant that such a monster could cow the entire army of Israel with his boast to beat any of them in single combat. The youth had killed both a lion and a bear in protection of his sheep. He was a crack shot with a sling, for sure, but David particularly felt the offense as the defiance of the God of Israel. He was certain God was far bigger than the giant. And it proved true.
Many miracles in the Bible deal with size when problems were met with faith, and overcome. An army was 100,000 strong, but Gideon led 300 men to the hilltops and their torches and noise stampeded his enemies into killing themselves. The Red Sea was too wide and deep. The wilderness too dry and vast. The Canaanites had walled cities and great warriors, too much to face in battle. Again, and again, the Lord showed Himself by overcoming the things that were too big for Israel, and against which they felt far too small. They gave Him new names to remember the miracles of deliverance and victory against all odds.
It was coming near to Passover, the remembrance of millions of Jews enslaved in Egypt getting free and escaping to the desert. Jesus led his small band of followers around the shores of Galilee into the eastern Gentile lands, seeking to get alone with them and set some distance from the crowds that followed Him everywhere. No luck. Thousands of people followed to that side of the lake and wanted to hear more of His teachings, now far from their homes. Jesus ascended a mountain and sat. Looking over the thousands, this shepherd thought how hungry they were. A physical hunger, for certain, and even more, a spiritual hunger that could hardly be satisfied. He knew that, with all the apparent human needs unfulfilled in this world, the greatest disaster, the most daunting quest was His own: to conquer a real giant—the vastness of human sin and iniquity. Such a major breach had been rent in the relationship God established between Himself and his favorite creature, but the bridges were down, the creation in rack and ruin, the distance to heaven for any human being far too great for any to reach, and true redemption even for one person a price none could pay. None until now.
Jesus thought this a good time to teach His apostles. They were all eyeing those many souls waiting for a lesson from the Master, and getting hungrier by the minute. Jesus turned to Philip and asked him, “Where should we buy some bread so we might feed them?” Philip jumped, wondering how the Master had stolen into his thoughts, but his own conclusion came out that an amount far greater than their treasury, 200 day-laborer’s wages would be insufficient to buy sufficient quantity of bread, even a scarcity, so they might have but a taste. It’s too big, Philip concluded. And our resources are too small.
Too big, too small. A fair estimate, for common people in a common experience. Something moved Andrew to observe, out loud, that he knew of five bread loaves with a young man in their company, with two small dried fish. And even as he spoke, he excused the suggestion, saying it’s too small, and the problem is too big. The problem now defined by the all-too-human apostles was too big, and they were too small. And they had put God out of the picture. Okay. Sit down and make the people sit in ordered groups so we might count them and size up this problem. In groups of fifty, it made it easy to count and the people were numbered at 5,000. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.
I have twice sat in a hall with 3,000 people being served at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. It took a lot of servers and loads of food, and massive preparation to serve all those people breakfast and have it all arrive on time. I was impressed. 5,000 on the hillside in the wilderness with five round barley loaves, two tiny fish—woah. But something in the demeanor of Jesus gave them no room to object. He lifted up the basket holding the small meal and blessed it in the Name of the Lord of the Universe who makes the grain to grow from tiny seeds to great fields of waving barley, and this offering of bread. Then Jesus took the loaves and broke them, handing them to each apostle. “Break these and feed the people,” He commanded. Something was happening to the bread. And to the fish. It was hard to see, but what would scarcely be enough for the twelve was now more than they needed, and they began breaking and giving it away. Down the lines of waiting faces they went, breaking, blessing, giving the food away.
More and more it grew. People took their portions and began breaking bread to share and found that these too were increasing, inexplicably. Fish sandwiches were formed in grateful hands and every eye watched in quiet excitement the miracle of multiplication.
It didn’t keep going, past the need, very far. But it was a Middle Eastern sufficiency, which means that there is always more food than mouths to feed, and no one is hungry when the meal ends. The most astonishing phrase here can be overlooked: And when they were filled. From ‘200 pennies can’t begin to feed even a few of them’ to a point when the free gift of five cheap loaves turns into dinner for 5,000, and then some, the lesson is given. And still one lesson more. Gather up the fragments. We waste nothing of a miracle. And twelve baskets-full are passed up and amassed to show how generous God is.
Later, those thousands would clamor to make Jesus their king, the king of bread, Lord of free food. They would follow Him back to Capernaum where He would challenge the shallowness of their faith to seek only bread that could not sustain them, when He was Himself their food and drink, His flesh and blood real food to them, if they would have it. The connection to our Communion was made, in the same chapter of St. John’s Gospel: the multiplication lesson had this great corollary. His body and blood went on to give spiritual sustenance to generations yet unborn, billions needing the Bread of Life, which we feed on, to make us able to live forever and draw life from Him, without which we die.
How big is your problem? Fess up. It’s got you stumped, defeated, discouraged. You define yourself as unable to do the needed thing and hope God is understanding, but fearing that He’s too big to notice. Biblical miracles are great, but my problems are too big and I’m too small to catch His attention. Why would He bother? Which of the people on that hillside was forgotten by Jesus and His free meal? Who went unfed? We are not too small and He is not too big to notice, and our issues are not too big, and our God is not too small to fix them. We only need to know Jesus, and He is sufficient for our need. Our greatest need. Our biggest giant. Our greatest hunger. Our most horrible failure. He made us and He made the universe. He is larger than that. He is big enough.