Jesus: “Sit down!” (OK, that was easy)
When I was in high school I went to a youth camp in Michigan every year; one year the theme for the week was, “Obeying the Commands of Christ”. We were told we should learn all of Jesus’ commands, and focus on obeying them. It sounded reasonable on the surface, but looking back, it’s one of the perspectives that drove me away from fundamentalism. The perspective of focusing on commands turns grace on its head and makes the entire focus of spirituality a drudgery of law-keeping. Anyway, I don’t know how they came up with the list of Jesus’ commands we were supposed to obey, but they missed the one we have in this text today. He told the people to sit down (v. 10). They did. This is the second easiest command to obey in the whole bible – the first is of course, “be fruitful and multiply.”
Moses: fame and human side
Normally when we think about commands and laws in the bible, we think of Moses. He was famous for many reasons, and going up to THE mountain, Sinai, and coming down with the torah, the law is what he is most famous for. I love the whole Moses’ story – how on that first Passover night in Egypt, the Hebrew slaves were liberated from Pharaoh’s oppressive hand. Moses led the people through the waters of the sea, and though they grumbled, he interceded and fed them with Manna in the wilderness – warning them not to try to save the leftovers. (Exod. 16:19)
I love the story of Moses because the bible lets us see him in his frail, reluctant, self-doubting humanity as well as in his moments of true greatness. We see him at the burning bush where God is trying to call him into service – but Moses isn’t so sure he has enough of what it takes to do the job, or even to be listened to by his own people. God speaks out of the bush to Moses, saying
“I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exod 3:14 )
Later, he again questions his ability to keep leading, making God promise again that his presence will be with Moses. Compassionately, God acquiesces:
And He said,
“My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exod. 33:14)
I’m certain that if people knew where Moses died, it would be one of the great religious shrines of all time – but of course Moses died alone, so we do not know where. But Moses continued to live on for the people of Israel – not just in the fact that he gave them the torah, the law, but also in the expectation that he left behind. Moses predicted that in the future, God would again raise up a prophet like himself!
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. (Deut. 18:18)
The expectation and its questions
A prophet like Moses? The people in Jesus’ day had this expectation – and it filled them with questions. “If such a prophet came, could there be a new exodus from foreign domination? Could God’s people once again hear those reassuring words, “I AM” and know that he was with them, that he could again feed them when they were overwhelmed by their scarcity? Could they again go through insurmountable barriers, like the sea – even in these new stormy times? After all, nothing seemed less likely. They were living in tough times, pawns in a foreign empire. They even renamed their own sea of Galilee after dear Emperor Tiberius.
This is the situation in which we find ourselves as our gospel text opens. Jesus went to the side of the sea of Galilee, or rather, “Tiberias,” with a large crowd. John says he went up THE mountain – like Moses had done, and at the same time of the celebration of the first exodus, at Passover, he gave them a command, which they followed: sit down. Is it any wonder that the next thing that happens is that the people in the wilderness are miraculously fed? Is it even surprising that there are enough left overs so that each of the 12 tribes of Israel gets a “to go” basket?
Should we be surprised that the very next thing that happens is a crossing of the sea, of course in a storm? And couldn’t we all by now predict that we would hear the words from Jesus repeating the words God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, “I am” – which only makes sense to translate in English “It is I”?
The connection: our time of scarcity
What are we to take from this thickly layered text?
I believe this speaks powerfully to us today – being, as we are, in remarkably similar circumstances as those people who obeyed the command to sit on the grass that day.
For the first time since the Great Depression, we are living in times of scarcity where there used to be abundance. Many people have lost homes, jobs, security, pensions, and for some, also hope. But speaking of economic scarcity only scratches the surface of the scarcity-issues we face in these times. We are living in a time when even the Baptists are loosing church members, not to mention the fact that the Presbyterian Church has just seen its biggest single-year decline on record. To make matters worse, we are told that the new generation does not plan to take their parents’ place in churches in the future. And to top it off, time itself is also scarce in churches like ours in which, according to our recent survey, the average age is 75.
What are we going to do? Is there a way out of this scarcity-crisis?
I believe that the answer is qualified “yes, if.” The answer is “no,” if we think we will be saved simply by economics. I certainly hope that the economy can turn around quickly so that the suffering caused by this crisis can be alleviated, but even if it does get better, that will not solve the problems of the church, or our own sense of being alone at sea, at night in a storm. We can no more be saved by economics than those people in Jesus’ day could have been saved by making him king – which is what they wanted to do.
The answer is “yes,” there is a way out of this scarcity-crisis, “if”. If we are indeed willing to sit down on the grass and allow our Lord to feed us. The solution to our scarcity-panic is to stop long enough, to hear what this new Moses has to say to us on THE mountain. Listen to the very words used of him that day:
Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; (v.11 )
He took bread, he gave thanks, and he gave/distributed it to his disciples. This is Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist – which means “thanksgiving” (in fact, this is the only eucharist that John records).
How will we, the frightened disciples who will frequently find ourselves at sea in a night-storm, ever hear his reassuring voice saying, “I AM who I AM; don’t be afraid”? (v. 20) We will know his presences as we sit still long enough for him to feed us at his table, together.
Assessments: what do we have?
It will never look like there is enough to go around. There will always be overwhelming needs. We will look around at our resources and we will ask, where are we going to get enough? We will assess our possibilities and we will always come up with amounts too small to overcome the degree of scarcity we perceive. And the resources we could pull together to try to meet the need would indeed be the equivalent of a paltry pair of fish and a miniscule amount of bread, if we were sitting there on the grass alone. But we are not alone. Jesus is here. We are not in the storm alone; Jesus is here. God is present, here and now.
What we need is only for people who are willing to be the boy, to come forward with what they have, and offer it up, to get the ball rolling. And this is exactly what is happening right now among us in an amazing way!
Being the boy with the little lunch
It has been a wonder for me to see people in this congregation step up and say, in effect, like that little boy with the lunch said, “Here is what I have been given: I’m willing to let the Lord multiply it.” People have stepped forward to take leadership and participate meaningfully across the spectrum of this congregation’s ministry teams: from property and worship to fellowship and mission, from membership and communication to administration and congregational care, and Christian education — where we still need more participation.
Not only that, there are new initiatives being born right now, starting with the Acts 16:5 Initiative group. There is a new plan being developed for small groups, and another for increasing our community visibility, and for outreach.
This may indeed be a time of national scarcity, but we are not allowing scarcity to define us. We are defined by the fact that our Lord is with us, and he is giving us himself again and again, in the breaking of the bread, with the result that we have even more than we need for ourselves. In fact, we have substantial quantities left over to share with others – exactly as he wants us to do.