August 6 2017 Sermon
“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Would you pray with me? Amen.
There is one miracle story in all four of the gospels and it is the feeding of the five thousand. Without a doubt, there is something about this story in its grand sweep that the early church wanted to remember. Although there are some variations in each telling across the four gospels, the overarching narrative is still present. The same can’t be said for the Christmas story.
The Christmas story with the wise men, shepherds, angels, no room in the inn, and all the other familiar details only shows up with variations in two of the four gospels. Mark and John don’t even include any baby Jesus stories. So given the prominence of the feeding of the 5,000 in each of the gospels along with many other meal stories, it’s worth paying a lot of attention to what Jesus and the disciples do to feed the masses and entertain guests at meals. As far as the gospel texts are concerned, there’s a much more significant premium put on the abundance of God’s provision of food to the needy and outcast than baby Jesus, sweet and snugly.
Can you imagine if we shifted the weight of our church life from Advent and Christmas to reflect more clearly Jesus’ ministry as we see it in the gospels? What might we do differently? We’d probably start by opening a health clinic to expand healing and wholeness, and then start hosting community dinners for free. No one goes hungry in God’s reign. We’d go down every neighborhood and backroad in this area inviting anyone and everyone to come experience God’s unending welcome in their life. But that’s a sermon for another day. Suffice it to say, we’d spend a lot more time cooking and gathering around dinner tables as a Jesus gospel reflection.
Years ago upon the death of my grandfather’s eldest brother, my great aunts, beloved cousins, and I sat around the dining room table looking at old discolored photographs. The particular photo that caught my eye was of a wedding banquet: there were tables stretched end to end across a room as wide as this sanctuary is long, candelabras adorning the tables every few feet, loaves of bread as big as tree trunks, and finely dressed Sicilian men and women dwarfed by the high backs of the banquet chairs. It looked like a feast of a lifetime and a scene right out of the Godfather. There was so much food on the table that there didn’t appear to be any room for dinnerware and cutlery.
You know no one went home hungry from that wedding feast.
As I think back through my childhood and all the times I gathered around table with this extended family of great aunts, uncles, and cousins, I realize they probably inherited their table manners from those who planned the wedding feast captured in that dusty photograph. Often after dining on salad, homemade buttered bread, olives, cold cut deli meat, lasagna, coffee, delicately crafted cookies from the local bakery, and biscotti, I’d have to insist to my Aunt Rissa and Aunt Mae that I couldn’t possibly eat anymore food. And despite my insistence another plate of noodles and sauce would make its way onto my place mat.
Around Aunt Rissa’s dining room table I began smelling the aroma of grace, tasting the flavor of God’s abundance, and some really good Italian shells with sauce. I think this is why Jesus spends so much time at dinner parties and ministering through the offering of daily bread to his travel companions and strangers. There is something so fundamental about nurturing human relationships in community through food that Jesus chooses this as one of his primary ways of being in ministry.
The first miraculous sign Jesus demonstrates in John’s gospel is food related-Jesus’ mother comes to him at a wedding in Cana of Galilee and says that the host of the wedding needs a good wine to pair with dinner. The host is running out of wine and the whole party is on the verge of collapse, not to mention the tremendous amount of dishonor and shame that would accompany the host should food and drink run out before the party is over. So Jesus tells the wait staff to take some nearby pots, fill them water, and then he prays until water turns into a vintage wine with quality that stuns the host. God’s abundance of provision looks like a wedding feast where there’s no risk of food and drinks running out before the night is over.
If you’ve ever done detailed planning of your own wedding or that of a family member or child, then you know that RSVP’s are counted over and over. You pin down the number of folks who will be in attendance so the caterer has an accurate count. You may have to err on the high side accounting for some folks who didn’t send in that RSVP, but you don’t dare risk not having enough food for wedding guests.
Wedding hosts make plans to feed the masses. It comes with the territory. And that’s exactly what’s wrong with the feeding of the 5,000. What happens doesn’t make sense. There were no plans in place. The caterer hadn’t been contracted. Supplies weren’t picked up ahead of time to accommodate the needs of this flash crowd that followed Jesus out into the wilderness. The event is poorly placed, under resourced, poorly planned, downright miraculous, unexpected, and divine. Jesus creates one of the most miraculous demonstrations of God’s grace and abundance out in the middle of nowhere, for common folks, and for no reason other than that it was dinner time. No fancy occasion to celebrate.
To set this whole episode up it’s helpful to remember that John the Baptist was just murdered as a birthday party favor for Herodias and Herod. So Jesus is trying to have a me-day in a moment of solitude because he has lost his cousin and friend. He tries to get away to a deserted place and is followed by crowds from the city. So now a huge crowd of folks has followed Jesus more or less into the middle of nowhere. I suppose the crowd didn’t think they would be away from home for long so not much of a need to pack meal provisions. On top of that, daily bread was hard enough to come by so maybe there wasn’t much in the pantry to put in the picnic basket to start with.
Regardless, a crowd has sought the healing touch of Jesus Christ and he has met their suffering with compassion. The sick among the crowd are healed. It’s been a long day and the sun is beginning to set. Of course the disciples are worried about how this unexpected gathering is going to conclude. How do we indicate to the people that it’s time to go, that nothing else spectacular is going to happen today? Let’s get these folks on the road before they get hungry.
I suppose they figure that if Jesus gives the benediction then folks will pack up and head for the villages to get dinner. ‘Send the crowds on their way.’ Quite surprisingly Jesus tells the disciples, these folks aren’t going anywhere. You feed them. You have all that you need even as little as it may be. The disciples petition. Jesus all we have is five loaves of bread and two fish. That’ll do. Bring it here. Any good meal needs a blessing.
Instead of Jesus dismissing all those who had come out to see and hear him and be cured, Jesus instructs them to sit in the grass. Stay awhile. Sit with friends and family and leave room in your circle to welcome in others. It’s genius. You don’t build long lasting relationships standing up and talking-you do that work seated around a meal of abundance. And it’s a practice that needs to be repeated with some regularity so that relationships continue to grow in God’s grace. So once folks are seated in the grass, probably chatting with one another about the day’s events, Jesus begins to prepare the meal.
Like we’ll see on the night of the last supper, Jesus looks to heaven, takes the meager provisions of fish and bread, give thanks to Almighty God, breaks the bread and gives it to his disciples-SO that they can give it to those seated in the grass. Perhaps this move prefigures the Eucharistic celebration that comes later when Jesus serves the disciples with the bread and the cup. It’s an early glimpse of the Last Supper.
The disciples serve the crowd until all had eaten their fill and then they collected baskets worth of extra bread. No one went home hungry that day-just as if it were a wedding feast.
So what do we do with a catering miracle? In what way does this form us as those who seek to love God and neighbor fully? Of course the events are miraculous-Jesus takes a little bit, prays God’s blessing on it, and turns it into far more than was needed. Perhaps scarcity isn’t what we make it out to be in the church’s ministry. A little bit has a way of turning into an abundance of God’s provision. I wholeheartedly believe and see that to be true. But there’s something else at work here.
In most of the gospel stories about Jesus, he is the focal point. He heals, forgives, restores, preaches, teaches, challenges, upsets, loves, reconciles, inquires, and a whole long list of other things. It’s a rare thing for the ministry of the disciples to be lifted up and highlighted in a noteworthy way. More often than not, the disciples are portrayed as being dense and failing to comprehend the nearness of God’s reign. But today, the disciples present an enduring model for loving God and neighbor. Once Jesus tells them, you do it, you take up the mantle of ministry for these folks are entrusted to your care, the disciples get on it. It took some coaching from Jesus but they do exactly what is required of those who follow Jesus Christ. They model discipleship for the rest of us.
They identified what they collectively shared that might be of some use to God’s reign and they offer it up. Jesus you can have this. It’s probably not enough but at least it’s a start. Jesus blesses what they’ve offered and gives it back equipping them for ministry among their neighbors. They serve their neighbors out of a position of trust in God’s abundance and no one went home hungry.
Let it be so with us. Pray that Jesus Christ takes all that has been entrusted to our care, blesses it, and hands it back to us saying, ‘You do it. Give them something to eat until their bodies and souls are full.’ Bless you in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.