Scripture | Psalm 23 | Mark 6:30-44
This last week I was down in San Antonio for a conference on Stewardship. It’s a conference our denomination sponsors every year but I had never been before. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Well, there were hundreds of people there from around the country – pastors, elders, Presbytery staff, all kinds of folks. In worship, in the Plenary sessions and workshops, everything seemed wrapped around the same idea: it doesn’t help to start with what we lack or even what we need; the place to start is by seeing the abundant gifts of God.
I started thinking about some of the passages we’ve heard in worship in the last few weeks…. Jesus turning water into wine, six big vats of really good wine, and the abundance of joy and celebration… The gift of Sabbath, and how it changes how we see time… The parable of the sower, throwing seed around everywhere, some of it produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold… I started seeing the abundance underlying all of it!
So it was kind of funny when I turned to the text we had planned for today; and yep, there it was again. Five loaves, two fish, feeding 5,000 hungry people. With twelve baskets of food leftover.
The numbers may seem random, but they’re not. They carry a lot of symbolism.
5 + 2 = 7, the seven days of creation, when God made the world from nothing, created plants and vegetables and trees, and sea creatures and birds and animals, and then human beings – and everything had enough to eat. And twelve? That’s a symbol of wholeness, completion. Not coincidentally, twelve is the number of the ancient tribes of Israel, and the number of people Jesus called to be disciples. 5,000? As far as I know that’s not a symbol – just a whole lot of people.
These numbers are subtle reminders that this God has always been about abundance, has always been extravagant with grace, has always taking care of this creation. It’s a reminder of what has always been true:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”
At the start of today’s story, Jesus wasn’t intending to go on a mission to feed people. In fact, he and the disciples were trying to get away for a while; the text says they didn’t even have time to eat, which, I think, is no small irony. So they go off to a deserted place to rest. Unfortunately for them, the crowd sees where they’re going and heads them off. Worse than paparazzi, they won’t leave Jesus alone.
But he has ‘compassion’ for them. That’s where it all starts. He has compassion.
It’s an interesting word in the Biblical Greek, kind of hard to translate. “Churning of the gut” is what it really means. ( Pete Peery, Pastoral Perspective on Mark 6:30-44, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014] 182). “They were like a sheep without a shepherd,” and Jesus the good shepherd finds it heartbreaking to see his sheep wanting. So Jesus begins to teach them. He does not turn them away.
After a while the disciples start to get worried. It’s getting late; these people must be hungry. This isn’t a picnic on the green where people came prepared with food hampers. There is need.
“You give them something to eat,” Jesus says.
The disciples are incredulous; they say something along the lines of, “You have got to be kidding.”
And Jesus says, “No, actually, I’m serious.”
What the disciples see is scarcity. It would take a small fortune to feed all those people. All they see is what they lack.
But Jesus seems unconcerned. “Bring me what you have.” He tells them to have everyone sit down in the green pastures. Then he takes the bread they’ve brought, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. And it is more than enough.
There’s so much I love about this story. For one thing, it’s honest about how the disciples react. It’s how we see the world, too. We naturally see need and want. It’s honest about how we see our own resources, as scarce and lacking. Nowhere close to being enough.
But look at the way Jesus responds. This time, he doesn’t just create another miracle. This time he doesn’t fill the need himself. He commissions the disciples, he instructs them, and he empowers them.
- ‘You give them something to eat.’
- ‘Bring me what you have.’
- ‘Seat the people down in groups of hundreds and fifties.’
- ‘Give them this bread and these fish.’
- ‘Gather up everything that’s left.’
It’s empowering. He’s inviting them to join the miracle.
But notice: he doesn’t offer any soft reassurances. They need to be open to the unexpected. They have to trust him. They have to risk doing something they’ve never done before. And they have to enter that same place of gut-wrenching compassion that he has. That’s the source of the abundance, the miracle of ‘enough for everyone’.
Now, I confess that during the stewardship conference I found myself questioning all the happy-talk about God’s abundance. I mean, just look at the world out there. The refugees swarming Europe. The drought decimating central Africa. The hunger right here in Licking County. There are so many needs that don’t get met. There’s plenty of evidence of scarcity and want; how can you deny that?
I asked one of the workshop presenters that question, and his answer took me by surprise. He didn’t quibble with me at all. He didn’t question the need. What he said was that it’s always been true. Even in the time of Jesus, when the Roman Empire had Israel in a tight noose; and further back, when the Hebrew people were in Exile; and when they were wandering in the wilderness, and especially when they were enslaved in Egypt.
It is precisely in times of want and suffering that the Bible proclaims God’s abundance.
This isn’t wishful thinking. It’s a theological counter-claim: this is what God is like. This is what God is creating. This is what God intends for us, and this is what God wants us to be part of. Not as the world gives, but as God does.
It was a totally different way for me to see these stories.
And then I started seeing abundance everywhere. Grace upon grace. People rising up to be part of God’s intention.
First it was an article in Christian Century about a place called “Daily Table” in a poor neighborhood in Boston. It’s run by Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s. Daily Table is a small grocery store that actually looks like a small version of Trader Joe’s, only with really low prices and only healthy food. It’s part of a nationwide movement whose goal is to address hunger by diverting some of the massive amounts of food that usually ends up in landfills. A lot of the food is from grocery stores or producers who want to discard stuff that’s close to its expiration date.
At “Daily Table” they even have a professional chef preparing entrees based on what’s been donated that day. It’s a challenge sometimes – what do you do with a truck full of Brussels sprouts? But it’s filling a huge need in what’s been a ‘food desert.’ One woman started crying the first time she came in. “I can afford the food here!” she said. “I can afford it!” For her, it’s God’s abundance! ( “Waste not, hunger not: Daily Table sells fresh meals cheap,” Christian Century March 2, 2016, 22-25).
Then I read Sarah Kosling’s blog-post about her work in the Peace Corp in Nepal. Sarah is a Denison grad and one of our members – Susan Kosling’s daughter; Will’s older sister. Sarah’s an agriculture volunteer teaching ways to increase sustainable food production and diversity. She says, “Nepalis live off the land, only eating what they’ve grown. Therefore, our diet is lacking in diversity… whatever’s in season…. [S]ome nights my Nepali family would go to bed hungry because they didn’t have enough rice from that year’s harvest.” Sarah is learning a lot from them, and in turn she’s teaching things like how to grow mushrooms, how to build a ‘plastic high tunnel’ for off-season vegetable production, and how organic compost produces more rice than expensive chemical fertilizers. She’s collecting seed packets to distribute to increase the variety of vegetables. When I read Sarah’s blog, I saw God’s abundance. (https://koslins1.wordpress.com/author/sarahkosling/)
Like I say, I started seeing it everywhere… like the Cub Scouts Food Drive yesterday, which will supply the Licking County Food Pantry with tons of food. They almost filled a truck with the donations! (Any Cub Scouts here who were part of that? Anyone donate food or money?) An abundance!
And the Family Island Book project, that Suzy Henry leads every year – we collected almost 3000 books for children’s libraries in the Family Islands – 25 people showed up in Heritage Hall yesterday to process them (who participated in that?)… I see God’s abundance, don’t you?
There’s so much need in the world. I know that. You know it, too. But none of these things would have happened until people were filled with compassion, the same deep, heart-churning compassion Jesus felt. Nothing would have happened unless people felt empowered, like they really could do something that mattered. Nothing would have happened if they weren’t willing to take a risk. They had to believe that in God’s kingdom abundance really is possible – and that we can be part of it. We need to be part of it.
Jesus commissions us, empowers us, sends us…
“You give them something to eat.”
It’s pretty incredible, really. God’s vision for this world is abundant… and God invites us – us! – to roll up our sleeves and be part of it all.
May it be so!