2 Sam 11: 1-14; Ps 14; Eph 3: 14-21; JOHN 6: 1-21
This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice… AMEN.
“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” This is the 4th of John’s seven signs and part of John’s account of the Feeding Miracle. Each Gospel tells this feeding miracle: the numbers vary—crowd counts always do, and Mark named only the number of men; the time of year varies—here it was linked to Passover, and so the feeding prefigures the Last Supper, part of the Passover, and a forebear of the Eucharist; the emphasis is different—the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke emphasize Jesus’ compassion for the people, while John shows Jesus’ power and authority.) Here too Jesus escapes or retreats to the mountain not only for respite, but also to avoid the crowd’s forcing him to be king. He already understood that temporal power wasn’t his path.
Last week’s Gospel was Mark’s account of the feeding, this week, John’s. The next three weeks are approaches to John’s “I am the bread of life”, and then John’s identifying these lessons as Jesus’ having “the words of eternal life,” but today, week two of the five weeks of bread. (Mark’s Gospel is so short, that in the height of vacation time, whether vacation for preacher or listener, it’s padded with a month of John to give the Mark lectionary length enough to get to Advent.) Since feeding and being fed with the bread of life is Jesus’ on-going gift, presence, and core symbol it’s not an unreasonable topic to be examined so carefully, but more manageable if we are not together here for each of those 5 bread homilies.
However, this feeding story begins with Jesus asking, “Where are we to buy the bread for these people to eat?” Phillip replied, “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Did you not find it interesting that the question “Where?” was answered with a cash payment amount. Where can you buy that? Not with that amount of money. This week’s meditation steamed about that point, and other directions that thought went to: health care, and I’d add decent education, safe, clean housing, fair tax and pay systems, and other values we think for a fair and just society, to help bring about God’s reign.
Jesus’ response was to make do. Use what was there and show it to be enough for all, and with much leftover.
Returning to last week’s “Four Compass Points: Live into the Questions, Discover the Gifts, Remember the Stories, and Embrace the Practices,” I thought about the “Where will we get enough to feed people with” and its two-part answer of: on the one hand not a whole pile of cash, while on the other, with what we have on hand. What is the real question embedded in “Where will we get enough to feed people with?” Is it about food and nurture, faith, strength, hope, heart, or just plain immediate bread? What would feed you? I’ll bet for each of us here simple bread and fish wouldn’t be enough. Perhaps if we were hungry enough we’d take that as a meal, but some of us wouldn’t eat fish. There’d be comments on the mercury level of seafood, or that the Sea of Galilee’s fish weren’t clean enough and some would only eat veggies.. There’d be comments that the bread wasn’t whole wheat, or multi-grain, or gluten-free and on and on. Whether this meal would be given as metaphor or food, there would be enough nattering to distract from the satisfaction of being fed. What would feed you? What would feed us as a community? Can we imagine it? Would we recognize a filling meal received, if we could imagine it?
What ingredients or components of a meal would it take for you or for us to feel and be fed? How many of whose paychecks would it take? Jesus had compassion. He understood what the crowd was feeling and what it needed. Perhaps he’d experienced that same feeling, but he’d spent the day with them, talking, healing, and I imagine listening to them and hearing what they wanted. The crowd had come away from home looking for something—people were excited to hear what Jesus had to say. They were willing to walk a considerable distance from home. The place was green and grassy, not worn down by constant traffic, and so was probably new to them. They were not doing their usual routine either of their home workday or their usual not-work habit. They were curious and hopeful to hear Jesus. They wondered whether he was Messiah, but more simply they wondered what he had to say and whether he could help them feel better. They were missing something they felt they needed—and knowing people in big crowds, of course different people were looking for, needing and wanting different things. While some needs were acutely specific, an illness, an infection, or a condition or situation needing healing, others, I imagine, needed healing of spirit, from hopelessness, purposelessness, aimlessness, despair, from a malaise or feeling of just not being happy and having little idea how to get there, other than doing what they’d been doing and finding it not fulfilling enough for a whole life.
They were curious and hopeful. They were trying something new. They went out in families, in groups, and—given the large number of people—with people they knew and strangers they met along the way. They were getting out of their routines. They were reaching out, reaching for something to make them feel or make “it” be better, happier, more joyful. They were not Yankees who’d say with Longfellow, “Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.” Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead… Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;” Their tradition was shaped by “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Even though Longfellow urges action, it always sounds almost grim and dutiful, striving for worthiness, rather than of an overflowing life of rejoicing.
Anyway, the crowd had gone out from their several and many routines and were hopeful and curious. In Following the Path, Joan Chittister writes about happiness. “Happiness, I have come to understand, comes when what I choose to be about in life is actually worth spending my life doing… One thing for sure, happiness comes at a cost. It requires that we make great long-range choices at the very moment it most seems that the short-term choices will do. It means that we must discover what we are and what we are called to do with our lives. It means that we must determine both what the world needs and what we have to give it. And having discovered that, we must set our hearts to doing it whatever the obstacles, however long the way… [It includes finding] two qualities —knowing that we have within us something that marks each of us in a special way and that this quality been given to us for some reason greater than ourselves—are the essence of coming to wholeness.”
These people on that green grass expecting to hear something from Jesus wouldn’t have used just those thought patterns, but they, like us, were reaching out in hope and curiosity towards a fulfillment of some kind. Even the people wanting specific things, like cures, wanted more an undergirding of something that would make possible the hoped for healing or make it less urgent overall. If their lives themselves were fulfilling, then each ache, pain, limp, illness was just part of the package and not the determining factor. Like Jesus, they went off to find something. Jesus went off alone, while they came in bunches, groups, crowds, and more. He knew that he had to refresh himself somehow both regularly and his own way, and he repeatedly did that. The people in the crowd listened and asked, talked and heard, received and were filled. When we seek what we are to do, who we are, and test out those large questions, we need to go in hope and curiosity, looking for refreshment. I observe they didn’t go out to gossip, spread rumors, or talk about crises or doom. They sat on that green grass and listened and waited and were fulfilled. And they were fed. My guess is the bread and the fish were the least of what made them feel fed. The actual food probably was more food for going back, going home, food for the journey, not the journey to Jesus, but back to whatever they did in their lives. They’d found what they were looking for. They were content. They wanted to stay there, perhaps a “place of love and delight” as “Simple Gifts” says.
We take a similar path “to find out where we want to be.” Who is each of us? What are we called to do? How would we know it, if or when we find it? Is it right to do that, or continue in the daily routine? How can we do what we are called to do and combine or permeate that with what we do do? Is it ok to do what we feel called to or is that self-indulgent? How do we tell the difference? Jesus comes to us to feed us and help make us whole. Jesus is at work building the reign of God, healing and listening, filling and feeding, always providing enough, with plenty left over for more. He gives us bread of life, and it’s always enough: Good News.
© Katharine C. Black 29 July 2012 St. John’s, Boston