Bread Bowls and S(o)uper Bowls
I always feel sad for Jesus at the beginning of this story. Immediately before our passage begins, he has just heard is the news of the death of John the Baptist – his cousin, mentor, and friend. It is possible that when he died, John was better known for his ministry than Jesus was for his. The day Jesus was baptized, the crowds came because of the word John was preaching – Jesus had not yet begun his ministry. It is possible that John is the only one in the world who had a clue what Jesus’s life was like. When our passage opens, Jesus is grieving. He wanted some quiet time to mourn; he went to a deserted place to pray, thinking he could have some time to regroup before facing the crowds again. Jesus took a boat to find solace, and the people followed him by foot from the towns. I wonder what the scene looked like – Jesus pulling ashore in his boat, sights set on some time for prayer and perhaps tears, and then seeing all the people who are waiting for him.
As an introvert who needs quiet time to decompress and re-energize, I can imagine all too well how Jesus felt when he saw the crowds. Perhaps he felt like a parent who has spent all day dealing with the needs of multiple children with multiple demands who won’t take a nap. One more “Daaaaad – I need juice” is one too many. Or a nurse or doctor in the hospital who, in the middle of a full and crazy night slips into a room for a moment’s peace, only to have a pager sound, phone ring, or patient call. I wonder if Jesus wished for a moment that he was back on the boat, in the middle of the water. Jesus looks at this crowd and sees people in need, people who want to hear what he has to say, and who want to be healed. Jesus squares his shoulders and responds not with irritability, not with annoyance, not with the air of one who has been inconvenienced, but with compassion.
It is this compassion that shapes Jesus’ entire ministry, really his entire life. In this story of bread and fish and leftovers, we see the compassion flow from him. The followers are so desperate for his words, his touch, his healing that they have followed him out into the middle of nowhere to starve. Their need for the peace, healing, mercy, love and word of Jesus is stronger than their need for physical food. Jesus looks out across the crowd, and he is deeply moved. The people are in the wilderness, they are hungry, hurt, longing for something more, and crave the mercy that Jesus can offer (Russell-Jones 312). Today, in the desert, mercy takes the form of bread and fish. We remember that God is love, and that Christ is Immanuel – God with us. Despite the temptations he faced in the desert with the devil, despite the pressures to be something besides what he was, Jesus was motivated by compassion for humanity. He was not motivated by power, money, prestige, comfort, or accolades. He was love, and was motivated by that love. The compassion we see in Christ shows us that Christ cares deeply about each of us – even down our most basic needs.
The crowd wanted someone to help them with the basic physical and spiritual necessities of life. There were families who had no place to stay at night. There was a woman in need of clothing for a job interview. The 101 people we fed at Friendship Table on Tuesday were there. The folks seeking assistance for rent– they are standing there looking at Jesus too. Men and women who are addicted to drugs and need counseling were there, as were battered adults and abused children. Children whose only substantial meals come from the school lunch program and weekend and summer feeding programs cried out to be fed. There were individuals seeking physical healing form illness, and spiritual healing for broken hearts and lost souls. This crowd of unmet need would be overwhelming to any of us. The problems seem too big to solve, there are too many who need help, and so we get stuck in a place of indecision and feeling powerless. Imagine if you were one of the disciples facing the people. How would you know where to begin? If it had been a “crowd” of just 6 or eight following Jesus, the disciples may have felt better equipped to face the task ahead. If it had just been a few, they could have sat down and done intake interviews and needs assessments to find ways to solve the problem. It there were fewer people gathered, the disciples may have felt that they could actually do something. But a crowd of 20,000? In the face of that crowd they felt powerless standing there in the wilderness without any resources or ways to help.
I don’t think it is any accident that Matthew tells this story, or that it happens in the wilderness. In Matthew’s gospel, we see a lot of Jesus going to be alone, and a lot of events in the desert. It is in the desert where Jesus is tempted by the devil to claim political power and turn bread into stone, and it is in the desert that Jesus says no to these temptations. The desert is a significant place in this gospel, as it is in our lives. During Advent, Ted preached about John the Baptist in the wilderness, and he said something that is still running through my mind, that helped me reframe what the wilderness is all about. I used to think of the wilderness as dry, dusty, desolate, and empty of everything – including God. Yet, Ted described it not as a place of desolation, but a place where God is still with us, and is a place of prayer. This space that can be described as hopeless, is actually one where God can be at work the most in our lives, if we can be open to that happening. That thought shapes how I look at this wilderness today, and how Jesus responded to those who were crying out to him in it. The question is not “how do we make them go away since we can’t do anything”, but is instead the one asked in Psalm 78 as the story is told of the Israelites wandering through the desert. The question is, “Can God spread a table in this wilderness?”
It is through the compassion of Jesus that we receive the answer – yes. The disciples try to send the crowd to the villages and towns to find food, and Jesus says no. The miracle of this story is that in fact, God can, and did, spread a table in this wilderness. I honestly don’t know how it happened – if folks pooled what little they had as the bread and fish were passed around, if there was a secret stash somewhere, if they were filed spiritually rather than physically – these are all theories that have been advanced by scholars. What I do know is that it was a miracle that all had enough to eat. There was a table spread in the wilderness, and Jesus and the disciples met the need of all who came to eat.
It is critical to note that it was the disciples who did the physical feeding that day. When John was killed, Jesus recognized that the same thing was likely to happen to him. He would not always be on earth, and would not always be the one able to do the ministry. There is urgency to his work, perhaps that was not felt before. So, in a sense he passes the torch to the disciples. It is the beginning of their time to do the work of God, their time to act. I’m sure the disciples were beyond baffled when Jesus took the bread, prayed over it, broke it, and distributed it to them, along with the fish. “I’ve done my part, now you get to work.” Here’s the secret – Jesus didn’t feed the 5,000 men who were gathered there that day, he did not feed this crowd that possibly approximated 20,000 when you added in the woman and children. He blessed the bread and told his disciples to get to work. He fed the disciples and told them to pass it along. He set the table for the feast in the desert, supplied the meal, and told them to do their part – It was the disciples who did the work, and that is what Jesus is saying to us today. The disciples stepped up and answered their call. We may feel powerless in the face of the needs we see every day, but as followers of Christ, we are called to share his compassion. In an article in the Christian Century, Trygve David Wilson makes the point that the ministry we serve in Christ does not pivot on what we have to offer, but on how much God gives, multiplying what we have. The disciples did not think they had anything to offer. Jesus said to them, bring your nothing to me. Five loaves and two fish were enough to fill everyone when all was said and done (Johnson, Blogging Toward Sunday). We may not think we have much, we may not think we can do much, but Jesus says to us, bring me your nothing. That is the call of discipleship. To bring what we have for the service of Christ, and let him work with it. We are not called to stand passively by and let folks suffer, but do what we can to do the work of compassion. We have enough. We have enough to grab a can off the pantry or supermarket shelf to put in a food pantry box. We have enough to give just a little bit more to the church. We have enough to offer our time to serve. When we give what we have for Christ, it is enough.
We are called to active ministry. Jesus did not feed 5,000 – Jesus fed the twelve, who in turn fed the crowd, and now it is our turn. We are not called to be passive in the face of all the need in the world, we are called to be fed by Christ and to turn around and feed others. Feeding others may be acts of physical labor and service, it may be serving on a committee or board, it may be a financial contribution, or it may be lifting prayers.
Today, as a congregation, and with our friends from Heritage Baptist, we will participate in active ministry. We will be fed physically with soup and bread and dessert, and we will feed others with our contributions. The requested minimum donation is how much you would spend to take your family to lunch today. Together, we can feed a lot of children. Each weekend, the Backpack Buddies program sends food home in backpacks to at-risk children. The backpacks contain enough food for two breakfasts, two lunches, three dinners, and two snacks. It costs approximately $7 per child per weekend, or 78 cents a meal or snack. If we wanted to provide 5000 meals, it would cost $3,900. Together, we can do that, easily. For these children in the wilderness, God will spread a table, and we will provide the food. Active ministry this morning looked like those who woke up and were here at 6 am to bake bread. It looked like those who picked up soup, or baked desserts. It looks like those who will wash up in the kitchen after you have eaten. How has Christ fed you so that you can in turn feed others?
It is appropriate that today is a communion Sunday. The story of the feeding of the 5000 is one that was recited when the early church gathered for the Eucharist. It is the only miracle story that is found in all 4 Gospels, though it varies among them. When we read this story, we remember God’s faithfulness to us, and Jesus’s call for us to be in action. God fed the Israelites in the wilderness, raining manna down from heaven. God set a table in the desert so that the hungry could be fed, and with 5 loaves and two fish, the disciples actively served in his name. They took the nourishment Christ had given them, and they shared it with others. When we come to this table, we remember the compassion of Christ, compassion that led him to the cross in love. He showed compassion to his friends, serving them the last time they dined together. We come to the table to experience that compassion. We come to be nourished, to be fed, so that we can feed others with what we have – it may only be seventy-eight cents, a can of food, or an hour of our time. We may offer extravagantly from our own sense of compassion. We are fed at the table so that through Christ, our offerings can feed others. We are the disciples – Jesus has blessed the bread, broken it, and given it to us to share with those who need it most. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Rev. Julie Jensen
First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
February 3, 2013