Feeding the Five Thousand
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 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. 35 When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 37 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?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 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. 42 And all ate and were filled; 43 and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
Feeding the Four Thousand
8 In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, 2 “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. 3 If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.” 4 His disciples replied, “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” 5 He asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” 6 Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. 7 They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. 8 They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.
Jesus feeds thousands of people a total of 6 times in our four gospels. Twice in Matthew and Mark and once in both Luke and John. Like many of you, I’ve read or heard these stories multiple times. What stands out to me this time is that they were in a deserted place or a place distant from resources. Even if the disciples happened to have what would be a year or two of the average person’s salary on hand, it would not have been enough money to buy bread for thousands of people, and there was nowhere to buy it from. We have food deserts today too. (Pause to sip coffee)
I drink a lot of Starbucks coffee. (Pause for congregation to laugh, they know I have on every Sunday. In person worship is amazing). I usually get it from the drive through. I’ve had the person in front of my pay for my order a few times. And when that happened, I used to pay for the person behind me. But if it happens to me now, I don’t. One day Kurtis and I were having a no good very bad rotten morning. We had run out of coffee. We both needed to be in sperate places, so we went through the Starbucks’ drive through in two cars. I went through first so I could pay with my Starbucks phone app and get stars towards my next order. I told the person at the window I wanted to pay for the car behind me. He scanned my app and then turned to his coworker and said, we are going to have another pay it forward line again. I could tell neither of them were happy about the idea. So, I said, don’t worry he is my husband, we usually only have Starbucks together on Sunday mornings and I have the app on my phone, but we ran out of coffee so we’re here today in sperate cars, but I still want all of our points on my app. I don’t know if he was surprised that I had heard him or if I sounded as if I was already caffeinated or if maybe I was oversharing with a stranger… again. He apologized and explained in a way I can’t remember well enough to repeat how their orders work and when someone pays for the person behind them the order is cleared before it actually is out the window and things get really confusing between the baristas and the drive through check out. He looked warn out. He forced a smile, handed me my chai latte and hoped I had a good day. I think our phones listen to us, because later when I was scrolling Facebook, I came across a couple of articles about how people doing good deeds by paying for other people in line causes headaches for the people working the drive throughs and it really isn’t as charitable as we all pretend it is. Really when I thought about it, paying for someone who is already in line at Starbucks isn’t charity. No one gets in a drive through line that isn’t able to pay for connivence coffee. When we pay for someone else’s Starbucks, we are just making a nice gesture to someone who is just like us, someone who lives in a place with abundant resources and has enough money to enjoy the resources and the luxuries. If we really wanted to help someone or pay forward a blessing to someone else, we should give to someone who can’t get to the resources we have. Maybe we should visit a food desert. Or maybe the easier thing to do when someone pays for my Starbucks is to open another app and send $5 to a charity that feeds and clothes people and actually interrupts systemic poverty. Treasure House Fashions call this type of giving “Love us a Latte”.
Jesus wasn’t in the middle of a market when he fed thousands of people. He was in a remote place. In both stories Jesus is concerned about the people have nothing to eat, but the second story adds that they will faint before they make it to a place with food. Most people can survive if they miss a meal. But the kind of people that are desperately following Jesus even to a deserted place probably don’t have much to look forward to if they turned around and went home. Throughout Mark’s gospel we see Jesus and the disciples surrounded by desperate people. They are hungry and sick, they have broken bodies and tormented minds, they are pleading for their own healing or for those they love. In what we’re read in Mark’s gospel so far, we know that Jesus has the power to calm stormy seas, cast out demons, heal the sick and raise the dead. What does Jesus do with his incredible power? He alleviates suffering in the most vulnerable and broken people and shows them that the in the kin-dom of God everyone has more than enough to eat. Jesus is casting this vision in a context of the Roman Empire which for all of its advances and wealth still has problems with the injustices of insecure food supply (Wisdom Commentary on Mark p. 163). The Roman Empire had food deserts.
There are 6 stories in our gospels about Jesus feeding thousands. In Mark these two stories are only 47 verses apart. The Wisdom Commentary (p.208) notes this and also the repeated healing exorcism stories as indications that these were pervasive problems. The second story occurs in Gentile territory emphasizing that “Jesus’ powerful compassion and commitment to accomplish God’s desire for all people to be fed, [is] a desire that has no borders.” (Wisdom Commentary p. 209). “Jesus’ powerful action in feeding this crowd with abundant food anticipates in the present God’s eschatological purposes of justice in which food will be abundant and food insecurity no longer a daily struggle for many. Present-day followers inherit the same task in a contemporary world in which it is often claimed that there is enough food in the world for all the people on the planet, yet significant numbers of people regularly face food insecurity.” (Wisdom Commentary p. 169).
I would add to that comment from the Wisdom Commentary that there is also enough clothing, shelter, and medicine that no one in the world should be hungry, naked, homeless, or suffering. I know many of the other nonprofits that Third Church financially supports would agree too.
As my relationships with our mission partners deepen, I’m learning that people serve their vulnerable neighbors for all sorts of reasons. And as my relationships with the interfaith clergy in our area deepens, I’m learning that faith (of any kind) calls us all to service and justice work. What I am also noticing in my work with Days for Girls locally is that even people who don’t claim any particular faith feel that serving others to alleviate suffering is important. Part of what I’m hoping to cultivate in those who volunteer with DfG and in our congregation in the coming year is connecting spirituality and serving others. This could mean connecting those with a sense of spirituality with the service work they already to or to help them see service as a way to live out their beliefs. Or perhaps connecting service work to a growing sense of spirituality. And of course, building relationships.
I’ve learned over the last year how important relationships are. And it seems to me that my closest and most dear relationships are with people with whom I’ve engaged in meaningful work. Recently I’ve begun asking those people to talk more about the reasons they do volunteer work. I’ve also posted questions on my social media and blog inviting those I can’t have a direct conversation with to weigh in too. On Friday I received an email from a friend who while recommending a book referenced today’s scripture text. She said, “As for Sara Miles—she is an Episcopal deacon who had been an atheist and then had a spiritual awakening of the ‘lightning bolt’ variety. Her wife is still an atheist, which must lead to some interesting situations. She started a food pantry in her church which grew to much more than a food pantry and her various outreach activities, at times, were definitely not well-received by her congregation which sort of wanted to keep the poor at arm’s length. I was very struck by how the pantry patrons became, also, volunteers, in spite of mental health problems, prison records, etc. Her writing really broadened my understanding of serving, especially considering I was on the board of our local food pantry at the time. Reading “Take This Bread” was the first time I realized Jesus did not say, “Hey, I’ll feed the 5000 while you guys sit around and watch me work a miracle”, but instead, when the disciples said the people were hungry, Jesus replied ‘Then you feed them.” (Thanks Ruth).
She is right. Jesus didn’t feed 5,000 people on his own. He took the bread, blessed it and broke it and gave it to his disciples. It was the disciples who served the people. The disciples participated in the miracle.