Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, July 26, 2015, on Mark 6:32-44
And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
‘Tut, tut, you naughty boy, you shouldn’t do that.’ ‘I didn’t eat dirt!’ ‘Yashoda said, ‘No? Well, then open your mouth.’ So Krishna opened his mouth. And what do you think Yashoda saw? She saw in Krishna’s mouth the whole entire universe.”
It is a great story, in a book about stories, and about the question, which way of telling a story is the best? I thought of that scene as I reflected on our text from Mark’s gospel, the feeding of the 5,000. Why? Because no good Hindu believer would imagine this story of Krishna was something literal that happened one day; it is deeply symbolic. And the book, the Life of Pi itself asks the question: how do you read a story, especially a story in which God does something?
Well, this feeding story could be read literally. In that case, it is a magic story that happened one day. The result on that day was that hungry people were fed once. The point of the story would be that Jesus had god-like miraculous power.
There are lots of hungry people in the world who missed that miracle that day because they were not there. And there are people who are hungry all over the world today, and always have been throughout history, who missed that meal as well. If this is just a story of a single meal, even with all the leftovers, it still leaves a lot of people out.
But I do not believe Mark told this story so that we would take it literally. It is bigger than that. I think there is something with significance here – worldwide and deeply personal significance, so let us look at it.
First, by feeding hungry people in the wilderness, Mark is showing us that God is working through Jesus like he did through Moses who gave the people manna from heaven. But there is more going on here. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus does two feeding miracles; this one, and in chapter 8. Here he feeds 5,000, there he feeds 4,000. Later in chapter 8, there is a fascinating conversation between Jesus and the disciples, in a boat, that sheds light on the way in which Mark wants us to read these stories. The subject in the boat is bread. The disciples feel badly because thy did not bring loaves (plural), but only brought one loaf – not much among twelve grown men plus Jesus.
Listen to the discussion:
[Jesus says] “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:18-21)
We are not from Palestine, so we can be forgiven for not catching the fact that the feeding of the 5,000 was on the Jewish side of the lake, while the feeding of the 4,000 was on the Gentile side. That’s why there needed to be two feedings.
The whole story is loaded with symbols. Even the word for baskets differ: when he feeds Jews, they pick up 12 baskets of leftovers, one for each tribe of Israel, using a Jewish word for basket. When they pick up the leftovers on the other side, they use a Greek word for basket, and there are 7 left over, just as there were, according to Moses, 7 nations of Gentiles in the promised land that the Jews would conquer. (Deut. 7:1)
The point Jesus was making in the boat discussion was that many loaves were not needed; only one loaf was needed. From one loaf, taken in gratitude, broken, and shared, there could be abundance for everyone, in fact, for the whole world – Jews and Gentiles – leaving no one out.
One loaf is clearly a reference to a community, celebrating Eucharist together. In the days of early Christianity, we should imagine groups meeting in house churches, probably comprised of 50 to 100 people at the most – the number of people who were grouped together for the meal. What other point would there be in grouping people if you were simply going to feed everyone? The point is, it looks like church; like a communion service.
Even the very verbs Mark uses are Eucharistic words. Just like on the night of the Last Supper which we remember in the Eucharist, Jesus “took” the bread, “blessed, broke, and gave it” to his disciples.
Even the green grass they sat on is symbolic. I have been to Palestine, and I want to tell you that in places where they do not have those irrigation hoses, there is no green grass to sit down on – especially in a place that was “deserted” – actually the word means “wilderness.”
But of course the image of the the desert springing to life with fresh vegetation is exactly how the prophets pictured the new age when the kingdom of God would come (Ezek. 47). So the people had green grass to sit down on, and on which to share broken bread together. The Kingdom, or should we say, the realm of God had come.
One more bit of symbolism will be helpful to see. Jesus, Mark tells us, looked at these hungry people with compassion, and observed that they were like “sheep without a shepherd.” Last week we spent time on the concept that the Lord is our shepherd. But there are several layers involved in this image, and I want to share another with you now.
The prophet Ezekiel is where Jesus first heard that phrase, “sheep without a shepherd.” In Ezekiel’s day, it was a comment about the failure of the leadership to meet the people’s needs. The shepherds were the people in government. And their failure was proven by the fact that some sheep were getting fat at the expense of the other sheep who did not have enough.
Listen to how Ezekiel describes the situation:
“Son of Man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezek. 34:2-4)
Jesus saw the poor hungry people of his day and gave the same assessment. They were like sheep without a shepherd. The leaders who were supposed to “let justice roll down like waters,” who had the obligation to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, were caring only for themselves.
You may remember that this story of an impromptu banquet in the suddenly-verdant wilderness comes right after the story of king Herod’s sumptuous banquet. That meal ended with John the baptist’s head on a platter. Ancient Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Herod felt threatened by John’s messianic preaching and the organized peasants, gathering in large groups, who followed him, anticipating a change. (see Binding the Strong Man, p. 208). Organized sheep make unjust shepherds nervous.
“You feed them”
The central moment in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is the conversation between the compassionate Jesus and the disciples. They notice, and point out that the people are hungry – they are not without compassion too. So Jesus tells them to feed the people. But based on economic realities, there is not enough. It is impossible. I can just hear someone saying, “Well, you know, Jesus, I am a business man and I look at this from a business perspective. The market is what it is; the price of bread is set by the forces of supply and demand.” The market does not care that people are hungry.
So their solution was to tell Jesus,
“send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.”
Treat them as autonomous, individual consumers, and throw them to the mercy of the market.
Jesus’ Alternative Vision
But Jesus has an entirely alternative vision. Jesus’ vision is of a new community that operates by radically different values.
He creates groups of 50’s and 100’s – not on the basis of family ties or even friendship. These people who were attracted to Jesus could well have been absolute strangers to each other, but these strangers were now organized into these new groups. These flash communities were sized just right so that everyone could take the Eucharist from one single loaf. One loaf, as Jesus told the men in the boat, is enough, when it is the bread of Eucharist.
“Eucharist,” by the way, simply means “thanksgiving.” When a community of strangers gathers to break bread together, and by doing so, identifies itself as a community of people brought together by Jesus, they become family. And when they break bread with thanksgiving, they are proclaiming a whole life-orientation of gratitude. They are thankful because they know that everything is gift. Every mouthful of bread, every sip of wine, every denarius in their money pouch, comes from God, the Heavenly Abba who cares equally for the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field.
A community of strangers who have been made in to a family of gratitude experiences a miracle: the impossible becomes possible. Instead of the context of alien wilderness, they create a context of green grass that just begs you to go get the blanket and the picnic basket and the ice-cream. Instead of an economy of personal hoarding and scarcity, they live into the vision of a shared humanity and abundance.
Now, we are that community. We are that group of strangers who have been made into a family by the alluring call of Jesus. We have responded to that allurement; we know ourselves as followers of Jesus. Now, we are the body of Christ. Just as the bread of the Eucharist is Christ’s body, broken for us, so now as the body of Christ, we offer ourselves to be broken on behalf of a hungry world. We are those baskets of broken bread – not whole bread, but broken.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus tells us; blessed are those with broken hearts who see suffering, and feel compassion. Who first feel compassion, and then who respond. Blessed are those whose brokenness has been shared with other broken people, and whose life is offered on behalf of others who still have hungry bellies and hungry hearts. Blessed are those who hold the shepherds in government responsible for providing for all of the sheep, not just for the elite 1%.
A New Vision for Humanity
So this is not a story about one magic meal on one day. This is a story of a new vision for humanity. It is a radical change. It is like a new creation – which is probably why Paul liked to call Jesus the new Adam.
Like an ice-cream cone with two scoops, there are two enticing allurements for us here. The first is the vision of us as a community of followers of Jesus. We are offered a vision of living as a community of radical hospitality, radical openness to strangers, to others, radical inclusion offered on the assumption that whom God has brought together, God has brought together. And based on the depth dimension that we have all experienced, that when the stranger is embraced with hospitality instead of hostility, the impossible becomes possible, a new future is created, and God becomes present.
The other scoop is how our community blesses the entire world. Never before has there been such time in which it is so urgent that we be a model of that new humanity. The most obvious place to start is with people who are literally poor and hungry. We are the kind of people who look at the world as Jesus taught us to: with compassion. Compassion leads us to share our resources until all are fed. But we do not stop with private charity. We ask the follow up question: why are people still hungry? What systems need to change so that hunger and poverty can be eliminated?
Our community is called to bless the world in other ways as well. With all of the divisions and hostility in our country and in the world, we have the role of reconcilers. We are called to live into this new vision of a new humanity by our steadfast commitment to ending discrimination of all kinds – against LGBTQ people, against people of other races, against immigrants, yes, and including against people of other religions; yes, including Muslims.
We are not going to join the ranks of the cynics nor of the doomsayers. We have been given the gift of a vision of hope for a future that God is creating every day. So we must be a community that faces this future with the fitness and energy of those who have been doing their daily workouts, our regular Christian practices like prayer, meditation, and the sacraments, which strengthen us for our mission.
We are Jesus-followers. Bread, broken for the hungry. A family with an amazing, hopeful purpose.