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Sunday, August 3, 2014 | 9:30/11:00 a.m.
Judith L. Watt
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 17:1–7, 15
The fields were fruitful, and starving men moved on the roads.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
You sit down at the table. The server brings the water to you and your friends.
And then, almost always, the next thing that happens—the basket of bread is plunked down in the middle of your table. Sometimes with butter. Sometimes with herbed butter. Sometimes with olive oil and maybe a little garlic or parmesan cheese. Sometimes instead of bread, it’s the basket of tortilla chips or pita, depending on the restaurant. We are so accustomed to this ritual we hardly think about it. We dive in and take our hunks of bread, dip them in the oil or spread them with butter, chatting the whole while, catching up, getting settled.
And if you look at this table, you notice what you’ve always known: that bread sits here, too, in the center of this table. We are accustomed to this, so accustomed, we hardly think about it. Bread in the center of our tables.
Bread is something so simple but also something so necessary. It connects us as human beings. It is a staple, often referred to as the “fruit of the earth.” It connects us to our ancestors. Bread in the wilderness. Manna that came down from heaven. Leavened bread and the unleavened bread, depending on the religious season.
And it gets plunked down in the middle of our restaurant tables. And it is always in the middle of our communion table. Bread connects us. We need it. We share it.
Today’s lesson about Jesus and the disciples and the feeding of thousands of people all with only a scant five loaves of bread and two fish is a familiar one for most of us. So familiar it’s hard to pay it much mind. It is the only miracle story recorded in all four gospels, and so we know it was a central story for those earliest Christians. Our modern proclivity toward analysis and reason makes it easy for us to dismiss it. The numbers don’t make any sense to us. How could five loaves and two fish feed more than five thousand people? It might help to know that in those days so long ago, it was commonplace to exaggerate numbers, not only in texts of faith, but also in the historical record. Josephus, the famed historian of that time, did it too. And yet I mention exaggerated numbers with caution because my intent is not to diminish the miracle or diminish the power of God. My intent is to help us remember and notice again the miracle of what happens when compassion and generosity take hold, even when hope hardly exists. The real miracle of this story is that Jesus moves people toward generosity with five loaves and two fish and a few ordinary disciples.
This story is about sharing. The disciples went to Jesus and tried to get him to send the crowds away, back to the towns. It was late. Stores would close. The disciples reasoned that the people needed to get back to town to buy food. The disciples cared about the people, too, but they didn’t know what to do about them. Certainly there wasn’t enough food here. So the disciples went to Jesus, because they wanted Jesus to fix the problem.
I once read a Harvard Business Review article called “Who’s Got the Monkey?”
I bet a lot of you have read it, too. It was an article meant to help managers with time management and distribution of responsibility in accomplishing goals and solving problems. The guidance to the manager was to always keep in mind the question “Who is supposed to have this monkey on his back?” In other words, “Whose responsibility is this?”
The disciples come to Jesus and want him to deal with the crowds and their hunger and Jesus quickly puts the monkey on their backs. “They need not go away,” he says. “You give them something to eat.”
When I look around at all the problems of our world today, I just want to pull the covers up over my head and hope someone else can figure them out. They are overwhelming, and I am overwhelmed when I think about them. Hunger is just one issue. And there are so many parts to it. Viable grocery stores in poor neighborhoods, healthy and nourishing food for school children, enough food for the homeless and poor. Problems with distribution. Political barriers. Wars. Climate change. The disciples were overwhelmed. The crowds were too big.
The problem was too big. They looked around and figured they didn’t
That’s how I feel. The problems are too many, and I don’t know what to do. I just want God to fix it. And way down deep, what I recognize is fear. Fear that the problems have gotten out of hand. Hunger, violence, wars, bloodshed. I don’t want to spend much time thinking about all of this, because the escalation of violence and poverty and failed states and terrorism scares me. Today those crowds that followed Jesus would have been screened; backpacks would have been scanned and checked, and even after all of that checking, we would still wonder if someone had slipped through with a concealed weapon. I just want to pull the covers over my head and want God to come up with the solution.
But Jesus wasn’t in such great shape himself. What is little noticed in this story is how it begins. It begins like this: Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. When the story begins, what Jesus had just heard is that his cousin John the Baptist had been beheaded and that John’s head had been delivered on a platter to Herod during a raucous, opulent, over-the-top birthday party. Violence big time. It’s easy to miss this, that Jesus wasn’t in such a good place himself. And so he withdrew to go to a deserted place. Was it to get away from the horror? Was it to get to a place of peace and calm? Was it that he sensed his own life was in even more danger because the powers of the state would soon be after him? Certainly his message threatened to turn their world upside down. Love instead of military force? Enough food for everyone instead of food for only for those who earned it? Compassion instead of fear and hate?
I imagine the deserted place of this story like a brown, empty lot in one of our most blighted areas. But I also imagine the deserted place in the middle of our consumeristic society and in the middle of deeply human souls struggling with addiction and in the middle of our grocery stores where there is so much produce we have become numbed to the fact that some people have no access to fruit or vegetables or clean water. I imagine the deserted place in my heart when fear has taken over and I just want to take care of myself. Jesus looks on the crowds, sees them as hurting, and acknowledges them as human beings. He addresses the hurts of the people from right out of the middle of his own deep hurt. One author says that it might be helpful to not picture Jesus as the one in this story who is serenely above it all, pulling all of the necessary levers behind the scenes to generate an abundance of bread and fish. Maybe we need to see Jesus, instead, as the one with red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained cheeks and whose hands are trembling for the sorrow of it all. Out of his own scarcity, and out of his own emotional train wreck, Jesus manages to bring forth an abundance of life and joy. And he moves the disciples to be part of it (Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, Proper 13A, August 3, 2014; textweek.com).
Barbara Brown Taylor writes of the problem she has with miracles that mesmerize us and lead us to leave everything up to God. “Miracles,” she writes, “ let us off the hook. They appeal to the part of us that is all too happy to let God feed the crowd, save the world, do it all. But in this story,” she writes, “God tells us, out of God’s own deep pain and sadness for the world, ‘Stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead’” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven).
So what are we to do?
Maybe first, remember the compassion of Jesus. It is God’s compassion for all of us—we who are hungry for so many things, food included. The original language of the story tells us that Jesus’ compassion was visceral. His internal organs were torn up when he saw the needs of the crowds. Remember Jesus’ compassion, because it is God’s compassion for you and for me, hurting people all of us. Remember the compassion, receive it with thankfulness, and share it generously.
Ask God to show you the gifts you do have to offer, even if they seem meager. Even if you know they are not enough. Offer them anyway. An hour making sandwiches for the homeless. Two hours in a soup kitchen. A check written, even if you aren’t a multimillionaire. Make simple kindnesses your habit. Increase your ability to be kind and to show mercy. Søren Kierkegaard said, “Mercy has converted more souls than zeal or eloquence or learning or all of them together.”
And then, the next time that basket of bread is brought to your table at a restaurant or in your kitchen, remember the meal you are about to share here. Because when we share in this meal, when we eat this bread together, it is an enactment of today’s story. We are fed at this table because God looks on us, hungry and doubtful as we are, with deep compassion. The bread is blessed and broken and given to the disciples to share, along with the cup. The disciples are needed to participate, to distribute the food, to share the sustenance. And it’s offered to all of us. And we’re all fed.
“Taking the five loaves and two fish, Jesus 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 then—and then—they took up what was left over of the broken pieces. There were leftovers still to be shared. May it be so with us today.