Daily reflection for Sunday, August 6, 2017
Time after Pentecost
Then Jesus ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Where two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name, you can be sure that they’re eating. That’s true both seriously and humorously. After all, to be fair we do break bread together every time we gather for worship. And actually that’s one of the primary ways we encounter Jesus’ presence among us.
But let’s be honest: Christians, just like people of every faith, (and no faith), love to celebrate with food. We have humorously come to be defined by our celebration of “pot-luck” dinners. But the revelation of God’s empire should not be lost in these simple meals. Folks from all walks of life, an open table of abundance, and a diversity of foods and traditions from every language, nation, and people reflect God’s dream for humanity. The Holy Spirit’s work through Christian fellowship cannot be overstated. Not by me anyway. I always say that it was a potluck picnic that got me back to the Church after years of avoiding it.
So it’s no surprise that we find Jesus feeding the crowd in this well-known story. We expect a meal to be shared whenever Jesus shows up. Things like more than enough food, large lines at the buffet, and plenty of leftovers are familiar to the Church. That’s why I don’t think the size of the crowd is the point of this story. Not for me, anyway. After all, there are plenty of Churches out there that feed so many people that they would be lest than impressed with Jesus’ efforts. There is not even mention of southern-style sweet tea, whiskey cakes, empanadas, pork buns, or, what no Christian gathering is complete without…coffee. Jesus provides a simple, bare bones meal for the crowd. We’ll cut him a break, he’s in a pinch after all. Like a contestant on Chopped he opens his mystery basket to find five meager loaves of bread and two fish. What do we expect him to do?
Which leads me to the point I want to make about this story: we expect Jesus to perform miracles. I am afraid we too often get hung up on the miraculous details of this story that we miss the very simple point: Jesus is concerned with feeding hungry people. Instead, we focus on the miraculous elements – the large crowd, Jesus’ ability to produce bread ex nihilo, or “out of nothing.” In other words, in this scene, Jesus does something so amazing and miraculous, something we ourselves can not do, that we can only conclude that he is of God. The emphasis becomes Jesus ability to perform miracles. If you grew up in the Church, this is probably how you have heard this story.
Unfortunately, this assumes a literal reading of the text. If all of the details of the story aren’t accurate, there is no miracle production of bread. And furthermore, if this is what a miracle is, then we would have to say that miracles aren’t happening anymore, because bread isn’t being miraculously produced out of thin air anymore. Of course, we’ve tried to soften this over the years to make it more believable. Maybe when Jesus shared the five loaves and two fish, everyone else became generous, pulling out the loaves and fish they were hiding for themselves. Maybe there was a little more than five loaves. But again, getting hung up on the details misses the point. It completely overlooks the real miracle of the story: hungry people are being fed. I don’t know how much of this story actually happened, if any. But I do know that God envisions a world where all people are fed.
I also know that Jesus uses his disciples to do it. In the story, Jesus gives the bread to the disciples, and they are the ones that do the work of feeding the crowd. Now there’s a miracle – people working to feed others. Compassion for those who are in need. Jesus just isn’t about teaching, he is also about action, and he sends his followers to participate in this lifesaving and transforming action. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry follows a pattern: (1) Jesus teaches about the values of God’s empire. Think “Blessed are the poor, hungry, and the peacemakers…” (Matthew 5). These values are often opposite of the values of the empire of his time, in which the poor were devalued, and were suffering from systemic injustice. (2) Jesus puts these words into action. He is not just one of words, but of deeds. Jesus lives out the values of the empire of heaven by enacting it here on earth: when the poor and hungry are fed, and by standing up to the empire to advocate for social justice. (3) Finally (and this is where we come in), Jesus sends disciples to do this work as well. Proclaim God’s values. Feed hungry people. Advocate for social justice by standing up to the empire of our time wherever governments are serving the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor.
Which brings me back to the story and the crowd of 5000 and the miraculous feeding. Wherever this ministry is being done, God will provide. Like the disciples, we so often approach life with scarcity thinking. “We only have five loaves and two fish. We only have X number of dollars in the bank. We only have six kids in Sunday School, or 3 years of experience, or 4 people on the team.” This all stems from our own insecurities and issues. Jesus shows us another way, a way of abundance. “God, thank you for all X number of dollars in the bank. God, thank you for the six kids in Sunday School, or for the people on the team, or for whatever else.” Because for God, it’s enough. It’s enough to do miracles. Whether it’s 12 baskets of leftover chicken nuggets, 12 pounds of vegetables from the garden going to families that need some help, 12 phone calls to senators, 12 cups of coffee shared over conversation with a friend or stranger, 12 backpacks, 12 words of kindness, 12 hugs, 12 holding the doors, 12 donations, 12 times you gave an angry employee the benefit of the doubt, 12 offering envelopes, 12 thank you cards… it’s enough. All of our own broken pieces are gathered, and all eat and are filled. God’s kingdom comes, on earth as in heaven.
Prayer of the day
Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.