(a sermon for July 10, 2016, the 8th Sunday after Pentecost; fourth in a series, based on Mark 6:30-44)
The thing was, we really weren’t planning much of a 4th of July celebration this year.
After all, we’ve been in the throes of major repair work at our camp up in Maine for several weeks now; there’s quite literally been a huge, gaping hole in the wall where a fireplace and chimney used to be, and my wife Lisa (who’s been up there overseeing the project and helping out where she can) has been knee-deep in brick, mortar and dust! Moreover, our contractor (who’s also our nephew, Gabe!) had to leave in a few days for National Guard duty and wanted to try and finish up before then; and so he decided to work the holiday, and brought his brother (our other nephew, Josh!) along to help! So, given that a lot of the family couldn’t be with us anyway and that we all had plenty of work to do at the camp as well, Lisa and I just figured it’d be a low-key kind of Independence Day, albeit a pretty busy one!
But then things started to change: first, Gabe’s wife Chelsea called and asked if it would be okay if she and their baby daughter came down late in the day and stay the night along with Gabe; then it’s Josh’s wife Alex with their two young children who thought they might come down to go swimming in the lake; and then we remember that Lisa’s sister and her mother are going to be on their way back up from southern Maine right around suppertime and so they really should stop in… well, suffice to say that suddenly we had ourselves a 4th of July celebration! And now there’s salads being made, hot dogs and hamburgers are cooking on the grill and everything’s being laid out on the table for a pretty impromptu yet rather sizeable holiday feast! Nothing formal or fancy, mind you; and I’m not at all sure what the little ones were thinking about all this (I actually overheard Josh’s little boy Thomas – four years old (!) – ask his Daddy if he could “speak to him in the ‘Dining Hall,’ please!”); but in the end, we all had a great time, everybody was well-fed and it was a perfect way to cap off a very busy day.
It wasn’t until later on that it occurred to me that the scene probably wasn’t all that different from what it might have been like on “a summer day with Jesus.” This comes through clearly in our text for this morning, Mark’s version of the story “Feeding of the 5,000.” Now, this is arguably one of the most important stories we have about Jesus in the gospels: not only because it’s one of a handful of passages included in all four gospels but also because it’s a story that gets to the heart of just exactly who Jesus is and what he’s about; and it’s presented in a fashion to which we can all relate. Because, you see, no matter who we are, where we come from or what our experience in life happens to be, we all know what it’s like to be hungry.
The Rev. Debra Shew, an Episcopalian vicar from Atlanta, says this very well. She writes that hunger is the universal experience. “From the moment we are born, we are faced with it… we all feel it. We all know it. It is incessant… it propels us to the things that give us life… to the things that quite literally we can’t live without. We [all] spend time and effort and energy of every kind making it go away, on filling ourselves with something, on staving off our hunger and keeping it at bay.”
Granted, I would hasten to add here that most of us cannot ever claim to know what it is to be hungry in the sense of not having enough food and water to survive; we are among the most well-fed, if not over fed people on the planet, and for the vast majority of us, “staving off our hunger” is no more difficult than opening up the refrigerator or ordering pizza! So I don’t want to be flip here; but all that said, we also need to understand that there’s more than one kind of hunger, and that every one of us yearns to be filled up with something more than just food. We want to know what it is to be truly loved, to have a sense of belonging, to know our lives have a real purpose; and when those things are missing, we are left with a real hunger. It is no coincidence that when you ask someone who is going through some difficult transitions in life – a divorce, for instance, or the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one – when you ask that person how they are feeling, very often one of the first things they’ll say is that they’re feeling empty; that there’s a void inside of them that needs to be filled.
Oh, yes… we all know about hunger, don’t we? We all know what it is to have our hearts ache for that which we need so deeply; and so many of us have had that experience of emptiness in our lives. We’re hungry; but the good news is that Jesus is here, and he wants to give us something to eat.
Well, as Mark tells the story it is late in the day, and it had been a busy one for both Jesus and his disciples So many people: hundreds, if not thousands of them all clamoring for Jesus’ healing touch, looking to be made free of their diseases and their demons. It’s also worth mentioning that in Mark this also comes on the heels of the news of John the Baptist’s beheading, so there’s also profound sadness and grief that’s entered into this particular day; to the point where Jesus himself has urged his disciples to get in the boat and “’Come away to a deserted place… [to] rest a while.’” But of course, this wasn’t to be because the crowds only “hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.’”
These people weren’t going away, and there was much work left to be done! But the point is that Jesus did not react to this “great crowd” with weariness or anger; in fact, we’re told “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” You see? There’s this emptiness amongst the people, this hunger and need to be fed, and here’s Jesus right there ready to fill them up with good things! And if that’s not evidence enough; later on, when it’s really getting late and everybody’s starting to get physically hungry; about the time the disciples are ready to send everybody out “to the surrounding country and villages” to buy themselves some supper, Jesus once again answers with compassion that transcends not only the lack of bread and fish, but also the kind of bone-crushing exhaustion that comes at the end of both the day and one’s own strength. He says simply, “’you give them something to eat.’” And before you know it, five loaves of bread and couple of fish manages to be enough to feed 5,000 (or perhaps even more since Mark makes a point of counting only the 5,000 men who were being fed!); and there were leftovers!
It’s an amazing miracle, to be sure; but even more than this, it’s an incredible study of contrasts: all the while that the disciples are seeking to send the hurting masses away to take care of themselves, here’s Jesus taking what they have, as meager as it seems to be, blessing it and offering it up for the sustenance of all; and it ends up being more than enough to fill their empty bellies and their barren souls.
But lest we assume that this is simply an old story with a very happy ending, understand that the contrast we’re speaking of is one that continues to exist even today… and even with us! William Willimon, in fact, has written that this story paints a disturbingly clear picture of the contemporary church. “Send them back to town,” he says, “where they can buy something to eat… send them to the local mental health center. There they can get ‘professional help.’ Send them to the Department of Human Services – anywhere other than here. Increase the Social Security payments, let the government provide day care – anywhere other than here, anybody other than us. Master, send them away.”
All too familiar, these cries of protest and disbelief; our own hopelessness that nothing can ever be done that can possibly satisfy the hunger we see around us, much less the hunger within ourselves. And yet, here’s Jesus; still taking the bread, still blessing the bread, still breaking the bread, still giving the bread… here’s Jesus, diligently and lovingly feeding his people, giving peace where before there had only been strife, bringing purpose and fulfillment into the barren emptiness that so often seeks to starve us. Jesus comes to us and has compassion on us… and miracle of miracles, God’s people are fed, and filled up!
You see, there are at least two things that we can take from our text this morning; two sides of the miracle, if you will. And the first that yes, that over 5,000 were fed that day; and likewise you and I are fed daily out of the same compassion of this one who is truly the bread of life. We all know what it is to be hungry in this life; but whereas everything else the world and its culture has to offer ultimately leaves us empty, our Lord offers to give us the food we need to live with fullness, dignity and joy; and in times like these, that’s a miracle indeed. But the other side of the miracle is that as you and I are fed, so we are called to feed others with the same kind of compassion.
In most cases, you know, scripture reveals relatively little to us of the tone of voice that Jesus used in his words and teachings; but in this passage it’s pretty clear that when Jesus says, “You give them something to eat,” the emphasis was definitely on the word you: “YOU give them something to eat.” In other words, get up, stop making excuses and go feed these people! Even when the disciples protest that there isn’t enough money or food to feed everyone; even as Jesus is already blessing and breaking the loaves, we need to remember here that it’s the disciples’ hands that are passing the baskets to the crowd!
You see, if you’re going to spend a summer day with Jesus, rest assured, you’ll be put to work… because as his disciples, you and I are always and ever being used by our Lord to make sure the people he loves will be fed. It might come in working at Friendly Kitchen, or helping to make sure the shelves of a food pantry are well-stocked; for that matter, it might come in sitting with them in a hospital waiting room, or maybe it’ll happen in the middle of the busiest part of your day when you suddenly realize that you’re being asked by someone near you to just stop… stop long enough to listen, truly listen, to their pain. To spend time with Jesus, you see; to walk with him and to do what he does requires from us true compassion.
It takes LOVE.
Beloved, our Lord offers to each and every one of us the miracle of sustenance; the blessing of being able to walk through this pilgrimage of life having been truly fed, and well-fed at that. But there are so many who are empty, and need the kind of nourishment that only our Lord can bring forth; but the truth is that might well require you and me to bring them that basket of bread and fish. Our Lord needs us to bring our compassionate love to every situation and to every person; and to have the kind faith that moves us from weariness to action, from reluctance to willingness, and especially these days, from fear to boldness.
The question is, I suppose, can we ever share our love to the extent of feeding 5,000, so to speak? After all, there is so much hunger in this world, and of every variety. All I know is that if we’re willing to let our Lord make use of whatever small amount of resources or talents or patience or compassion or even we think we have; then certainly he’ll do far more with it than any of us could ever have dreamt or imagined.
Because there’s still a lot of daylight left, friends… and even now, Jesus is still saying to us, “You give them something to eat.”
Let us do just that, beloved… and as we do, let our…
…thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry