It’s been eight weeks since we celebrated Pentecost and came out of the festival season of Easter and into the twenty-five week stretch that we call the time after Pentecost, or ordinary time. For the last seven weeks we’ve been reading from the gospel of Mark stories of Jesus’ miracles and teachings, deepening our understanding of the ministry that eventually led Jesus to the cross, the tomb and the resurrection. Today we begin a five-week excursion away from the gospel of Mark, and into the gospel of John, that begins with one of the best known miracle stories of Jesus: the feeding of the five thousand.
It’s somewhat interesting to notice that a version of this story shows up in all four gospels. Last summer, when we were reading our of Matthew, we heard that account of the miraculous feeding one week, and the next week we were on to Jesus walking on water. Next summer, when we’ll be reading out of Luke, the lectionary skips Luke’s version of this story and we won’t hear it at all. But this year, rather than hearing Mark’s version of the feeding of the five thousand (which, like Mark’s entire gospel, is the shortest of them all), we move to the gospel of John – and not just for the story itself, but for an additional four weeks of commentary on the story by Jesus. What begins this week as a very miraculous, but concrete, miracle – loaves and fish multiplied to feed a crowd of thousands – will become an extended conversation between Jesus, his disciples and the temple leaders on the kind of bread that satisfies and the kind that perishes. It will culminate four weeks from now with difficult words, “truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you…” to which his disciples will respond, “this is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
Knowing that we’re going to be venturing into the esoteric waters of John’s metaphors for the next month, perhaps it is good to notice that this cycle of readings begins with a very concrete, observable action. Jesus saw hungry people and fed them.
The story begins with Jesus making a comment to Philip, posing a hypothetical question, “where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Then John adds, “he said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.” This is the question, what did Jesus do? Upon hearing that there was a boy with five barley loaves and two fish, Jesus asks the disciples to get the crowd seated. Once everyone is settled in, he gives thanks to God for the food that has been provided and begins to distribute it, and there is enough for everyone with enough leftovers to fill twelve baskets – which means there were more leftovers than the original amount of food Jesus started with.
Many preachers coming upon this story will wonder in front of their congregations if the miracle that took place that day was less a mysterious, mystical multiplication of loaves and fishes, and more a miracle of generosity. Doesn’t it make more sense to suppose that people were moved by the witness of the boy who offered Jesus all that he had, like the widow and her last penny, and that they too in turn opened up their traveling sacks to reveal whatever food they had packed when they left their homes that morning to hear what the traveling preacher from Nazareth had to say?
I think that does make more sense, and taken with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that we heard this morning, which concludes, “now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine…” I think it’s a useful direction to go – to remember that God’s power is at work within us, and that the power to feed the hungry people in our communities is within us as well. But, I also think it’s worth noting that the second half of this morning’s gospel reading has Jesus walking on water – so clearly the gospel of John isn’t uncomfortable with unexplainable miracles. Whether Jesus fed the five thousand by mysteriously multiplying loaves and fish on his own, or by miraculously mutating the human heart to incline the crowds toward generosity is not the point. God’s desire to see human life respected and the world transformed, that is the point.
The ELCA sent out a packet of information on its world hunger appeal earlier this year, noting that this Sunday would be an excellent time to focus on the extreme needs of the one billion out of this Earth’s 6.7 billion human beings who live on less than a dollar a day. That is not an abstract number, though it is too large for the human mind to comprehend. One billion people is not a metaphor for spiritual hunger, it is a real number corresponding to real hunger – hunger felt in the belly, hunger that will kill more six million children under the age of five this year alone.
I don’t debate the reality of the needs of these people, but I do wonder – as a preacher – about how best to address need this staggering in a sermon. I’ve been supplied with an entire package of statistics about hunger, infant mortality and poverty, and I’ve been encouraged to share it with you as a way of moving this congregation to deeper action. But, I wonder, is lack of information really the barrier between apathy and action? And, is it even fair to say that we’ve been apathetic on this count? Every week a portion of the offering we take up is passed along to the synod, a portion of which is passed along to the national church, which bundles our gifts with the gifts of other churches to attend to the needs of the whole church and to support the world hunger appeal. In the middle of June we took up a second justice offering of just over $125 designated directly for the world hunger appeal and sent that off. We know that our gifts are small, but we trust that the small gifts we offer to God – like the boy with his five loaves and two fish – can be multiplied into something much larger in God’s economy, where acts of generosity inspire even greater giving by those around us.
It’s not that I think we are incapable of deeper giving. I think we are all capable of deeper giving, but only when our gifts are tied to our sense of love and compassion for those around us – not drug out of us by horror at the overwhelming needs of faceless people.
People living on less than a dollar a day stopped being faceless to me when I traveled to South Africa in the summer of 2000. I was there with a group of college students, seminarians and faculty from Emory University. We were studying the Truth and Reconciliation process that South Africa undertook after the fall of apartheid, and so we were meeting with people all over the country who’d been involved in different ways.
One of the best and most memorable meals I had while I was in South Africa was served to me after worship on one of those long folding tables found in church halls around the world. You know the kind – we have them downstairs in Haberland Hall as well. I was in Alexandra township in J
ohannesburg. The townships were the segregated areas designated for blacks during the apartheid years, and that is still who lives there. The homes and gathering places were made of corrugated tin panels, the floors were often still dirt, though new cinder block construction was beginning to go up. It was quite rare to find indoor plumbing of any kind, and you could see irrigation trenches running in between the shacks carrying water and waste openly in the streets where children played.
I was in Alexandra for Sunday morning worship, which went on for hours. The preaching was energetic, the hymn singing was enthusiastic and bubbled up from the congregation as people called out song after song and sang everything by memory. Afterward they served a potluck meal (as universal a church tradition as the long folding tables) with the most savory dishes: meats in rich gravies, starchy sides and boiled vegetables. I ate as well at that table as I have ever eaten at any restaurant, and I knew for a fact that my hosts were among the world’s billion living on less than a dollar a day.
What do we mean when we say that we’re in the middle of a bad economy? Financial analysts tell us that economics is the study of consumer psychology. That the credit crisis was the result of banks tightening up their lending out of fear of diminishing returns. That the home mortgage bubble was the result of collective greed and the assumption of unsustainable growth. Now we in the industrial west are waiting for the public to relax, loosen their anxieties about future earnings, and begin buying cars again. That’s what we call a bad economy. Fundraisers are having a hell of time raising money for worthy non-profits, the state is cutting desperately needed human services like child care, education, and mental health services because no one wants to talk about a tax increase during such a bad economy. Some public figures are expressing outrage that government would even consider raising taxes when the middle class is being pressed so tight.
But the economy has always been bad for the poor, and that is rarely talked about, and the “tightening of the belt” that we call budget cuts will affect the poor the most. So the poor have learned to put their trust in something else: in each other, in networks of people they see and trust and can rely on to take care of them and their children. Even in the never-ending bad economy that is the status quo for the world’s poorest people, there is, miraculously, still enough to feed strangers in your midst with the best food you know how to cook.
The gospel of John has no trouble with supernatural mysteries, with Jesus walking on water. But I still tend to think that what happened on that grassy hillside was like what happened to me in Alexandra township. The people who chased after Jesus while he was alive were among the poorest people around. His message of God’s passionate concern for the least and the overlooked gave them hope that God was on their side, and I think it was they – the poor, the least and the overlooked – who were seated on that grassy hill, people with enough common sense to pack a lunch before leaving the house and enough spirit to share with one another when it was time to eat.
I think Jesus knew that, that Jesus was banking on that, so that Jesus could say something to his disciples and the temple authorities – so that Jesus could say something to people living far enough away from hunger as a daily reality about what a bad economy really looks like, and reveal the miracle of human spirit that survives in the least expected of places. And if people can survive, even thrive, on bread and fish shared with a neighbor; if people can find hope for tomorrow and joy in a new way of living just by sharing a meal like the one Jesus wants to offer; then is the bread you earn for yourself and eat by yourself for you and yours really as satisfying as you’ve been led to believe? Is the bread of self-sufficiency really what brings life?
But that’s a somewhat abstract question, one belonging to another Sunday in this five-Sunday cycle on the Bread of Life. To be continued…