Different people have different ideas of what constitutes a food emergency. If I hadn’t already known this, I would have learned it leading one of the groups I have taken to the Holy Land a few years ago. During the orientation gatherings I had told everyone repeatedly that lunch was not included in the tour – that we would stop sometime in the middle of the day at a place where they could pick something up, but I recommended taking crackers and snacks to eat while out and about. Well, the first day – it may have even been the day we visited the traditional site of the feeding of the 5,000 – a group member, not a member of this congregation, came to me and asked me when we were stopping for lunch. She was hungry and she told me that I would learn that lunch was very important to her. In her mind, a food emergency was developing.
In today’s story, I’m not sure I see a food emergency. The crowds had followed Jesus to a deserted place along the Sea of Galilee, and he spent the day curing the sick. When evening came, the disciples began to get anxious about an impending food emergency. They came to Jesus and said, “Look, it’s getting late and there are no restaurants nearby. Pronounce the benediction and send the folks away to buy food for themselves.” They had walked to this place from their homes that day. It might be late before they got home, but they wouldn’t starve to death in that time. It was not like Moses, who brought all those Hebrew slaves out of Egypt into the desert where there was no food to feed them and no water to drink. That is a food emergency.
But what happened that day became an iconic moment for the followers of Jesus. It is the only miracle story recounted in all four gospels. So today as we come to be fed at the table of the Lord we will examine what this story has to teach us.
Perhaps the first thing to note is that this story follows immediately the story about the death of John the Baptist. John was the cousin of Jesus, the one who baptized him and prepared the way for his ministry. This was hard news for Jesus to hear, and he tried to go away by himself to grieve and reflect but the crowds were already there waiting on him when he arrived.
Both stories have a meal at the center of them. The first is a birthday feast for King Herod, with plenty to eat and plenty to drink and even a dancing girl for entertainment. Herod was so pleased with her that he rashly promised to grant any wish she had. At her mother’s behest, she requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter. That sobered Herod up in a hurry, but he had no way out of granting it and it was done. This feast is characterized by overindulgence, greed, vengeance, and scheming.
The second story is not meant to be a meal at all. Jesus is surrounded by human need and pours his compassion out upon all. When the hour gets late the disciples call his attention to that fact and encourage him to move them along towards home. There was nothing mean-spirited about their suggestion, it was very practical. This had not been billed as a covered dish supper.
But Jesus shocks them by saying, “They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat.” He didn’t say, “Don’t worry, I’ll feed them.” He said, “You give them something to eat.” I’m sure the disciples looked around at each other as though he had been out in the sun too long. They said, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” He said, “Bring them to me.” He took the loaves of bread, looked up to heaven and blessed them, then broke them and gave them to the disciples, who then gave them to the crowds. There were 5,000 men, plus women and children, but they all ate and were satisfied and there were twelve baskets full of bread left over at the end. Twelve baskets sounds like a lot when you think about the five loaves, but it is a pretty slim margin when you have fed perhaps 15-20,000 people. The story is told in a very understated manner, no dramatic gestures or tables full of food; what they have is passed around and it is enough. This meal is characterized by compassion, by sharing, by simplicity, by contentment, all unlike the other meal.
I expect that as the gospel writers shared this story with their early church communities, two things stood out about it, and I think both are still relevant for us. First is the fact that Jesus commissions his followers to feed the hungry, to care for human needs. He teaches us to look beyond the perceived scarcity, that we don’t have enough to make a difference. He calls us to do what we can with what we have and trust him to make it sufficient. How we need to hear this message. We live in a society which is so fearful of not having enough for ourselves that it is hard for us to let go of resources no matter how much we have. I believe the Mission Trip participants will have much to teach us about this from what they have observed both about need and about hospitality on their trip. I encourage you all to stay for lunch and their program next Sunday after worship.
The second thing that stands out is the fact that Jesus is compassionate and provides for his followers. As we gather around the Lord’s Table this morning and hear those familiar words: Jesus took bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to them – may they remind us of the Savior who does not send us away to fend for ourselves but invites us to stay with him and be fed with the bread of life.
This Messiah gathers an army not to provision them with weapons, but to heal and feed them. He sends them out not to conquer empires, but to win hearts and souls, to teach and heal and feed others as they have been taught and healed and fed.
During communion today the choir is going to sing a hymn which is new to us and I encourage you to turn to it and follow the words as they sing. I think it captures the meaning of today’s story beautifully. It says things like this: “When at this table I receive a blessing, the broken bread, the wine of life for me, then let me share the peace with you, my neighbor, and let the Spirit set our spirits free. If at this table I have need of healing, unbidden grief, relationship gone wrong, then let me know the hands of God enfolding, and let lament become believing song. If at this table I forget the hungry, the dispossessed and warfare’s spreading stain, then let this bread become the bread of judgment, this wine the sharp awareness of that pain. What faith I have, I bring to join this table, what hope I hold, in Christ is taught and true; with brothers, sisters, I will share the blessing, the feast where God is making all things new.” (537, “When at This Table, Shirley Erena Murray)
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
August 3, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church