Last week, when Beth Walker was the lector, she began the second reading and a sentence or two in, stopped, and said, “I don’t want to read about the Feeding of the 5000.”
She knew our lesson was from Mark 6. But looking at the message on her phone that I had sent her earlier in the week, I misled her. I knew the Gospel I was preaching on, but moving too fast, I typed Matthew instead of Mark, thus causing her Sunday morning to turn to the wrong place. She begam reading before she realized my error.
Beth isn’t here this morning, but someone should tell her, so that she can tell her friend Mary (who, church, was teasing me last Sunday night that I let my parishioner take the fall for me), that I have confessed fully.
Those of you who were here last week, will remember that Beth corrected herself, spared blaming me in public, and read the right pericope in a sort of line drive, liturgical triple. (I’m not sure what more she could have pulled off to make it a homerun, except perhaps speaking it in tongues, but…)
I laughed then when I opened the Bible on Monday morning to find that this week’s Gospel text according to the lectionary is John’s version of the Feeding of the 5000.
It seems that — with or without any mistakes — our tradition, or maybe even the Holy Spirit, is really trying to get us to consider Jesus’ meal in a minute. I’ve paired it with what one might consider as Moses’ version of the same. Well, admittedly, Moses’ meal was served with a lot of help from God.
We heard again this morning, that in that first desert, when the bread of heaven came down upon the fleeing refugees, it was like hoarfrost on the ground. And strangely sweet. (I have always wondered if it really tasted like it was flavored with date oil, or, rather, if, when one is fearful of starving, even something bitter could be described as sweet?)
In the mornings, people could gather it up in jars — not mason jars like they were canning, but more like some kind of clay jars — gather up enough to last through the day. Then as now, as I alluded to in the “Getting Ready for Sunday” teaser in the E-pistle, there were all kinds of folks.
Now each of us have a host of different types in us, in different measure. And we lead with different parts in different seasons of our life, even in different situations. But in pretty much every time and place, there tend to be a group who can be recognized as:
The worriers, the plan-a-headers, the supply specialist, the bean counters.
And then there are those whose inner self isn’t just about assuring their own security, but more about taking some advantage:
the schemers, the instinctive retailers, even cruise directors or tour guides or concierges of the caravan angling for their tips.
These were the folks, I bet, who realized first that you could fill a whole lot of jars before the dew was off the ground. Then they were the first ones, to their own chagrin, to learn that manna had a shelf-life of one day. “Use before sundown,” said the fine print they hadn’t noticed on the label. After that it rots.
So the only option was to trust the day, to understand that the day would not only provide trouble enough for itself, but that in sort of a lovely parallel or even extension of that same teaching, the day will also provide the necessities required by and for that 24 hour period. Look at the lilies of the field. Remember the birds of the air.
Beloved, this is a most basic teaching for those of us who profess to believe in a God who watches over us so that we are not wholly depend upon ourselves for survival…. Rather than having to — by any means necessary — gather, beg, borrow or steal the provisions we need, we’re exhorted and invited to let go of all our striving, and our need to control, and the fears and anxieties that control us… so that we can relax into a world wherein what we need is provided.
This big, grand theological point is summed up in a little word called “grace,” the unearned gift. So that we can relax into a world where we are held up like eagles on the air or a child learning to float in the water. But it’s hard lesson to grasp, much less assimilate or make the law or spirit by which we actually live our lives.
On the mountainside, in another wilderness, we come to this teaching, this hard lesson a second time (and many more times in each of our lives!) Jesus asks Philip, “Where shall we buy bread to feed this crowd — five thousand, John tells us. Philip’s heart sinks. Why’s Jesus asking him this? He falls into a responsibility and impossibility tail spin: “No way. That can’t be done.”
That’s when Andrew pipes in, showing that he might be a bit further along in the lessons of faith. He offers, “There’s a boy here with five barley loaves and two fish.” Clearly, Andrew realizes that a meal sufficient few a few — that which, as the intro. pointed out, a young boy can carry himself, won’t feed a multitude.
But Jesus, surprisingly, replies: “Begin with that.” Even if we can just grasp a fragment of the truth this story tries to relate, let’s begin with that. We know this story well; it’s one of the few in all four Goseps, even if we sometimes leave it to lie in story land because living its lessons out in our own lives isn’t so easy.
You know and just heard how this story ends: the disciples gather up the crusts and pieces and crumbs, leftovers, the fragments — “so that nothing will be lost,” Jesus tells them — and there are baskets full. Twelve in all.
Let’s begin with that.
Because it’s much the same here in our lives as it was on that mountainside with fishes and loaves or in the wilderness with the manna: the real work is to trust the day. The day that has already sent a generosity of ears to listen, and along with them, a hunger of mouths or grumbling stomachs to feed… alongside of a multitude of other varied needs.
(I sometimes wish that I could look out from the pulpit and recognize all the needs you bring with you to church, and then other times, I’m glad I can’t see it all, because that might scare me into silence.)
Trust the day, full of wonders as surely as worries, and words to remember forever, a sea of faces, the frost of loving provision and now this agaom, the brink of miracle.
Trust the day, and do not let anxiety or doubt, avarice or control hold sway:
Events, accomplishments and destinations really do take planning, we know that. But food in the desert and food on the mountainside just happened without any planning.
Trust the day, because a small boy is holding out five loaves and two fish, a gesture of love and a sign of amazement. Trust the day, because Moses heard the people’s grumbling and asked God for help. Trust the day because one of us, at least one disciple has enough understanding of the faith to offer up to God what is clearly insufficient, and, trust the day, because God in turn, shows us that the response of Divine Love is not according to our deserts but because of who God is. God who does not hand out plans; God doles out love. God is not gauging whether or not we have earned what we need; God is giving it away because of our need and God’s love.
Who hasn’t given into feeling we’re on our own and have to figure it out and work it out… and provide for ourselves because no one else will and otherwise we’ll starve?
Who hasn’t connived and schemed a bit, cut some corners, and felt that “if I can just get ahead a little, ahead of the other guy, or the day, of myself or of time itself… if I just get ahead a little, that will be where I can find some security and some rest?”
All our over-self-reliance and all our failure to lean on God has been our human weakness since the beginning. It explains Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, and on down through the generations. Even when we know where it leads (or doesn’t lead), we end up heading down that path anyway. I wonder why?
Heading out in the wrong direction, doubting yourself, doubting God and certainly Jesus, muttering no good will come of this at each step of your way, seems to be all the faith we can muster most of the time. It’s also the way we pinch what the Spirit can do for us and how the community can help where and when we can’t help oursleves.
But here’s the crux of all this. Let me suggest to you that collecting the fragments after feeding the 5000 was ironically just like the short shelf life of the manna. What I mean is, that the fragments aren’t leftovers for another day. Rather they are Jesus’ device for making sure we can’t miss the miracle:
the grace that, for the day, can quell the hunger and fear and faithless in that people faithful and faithless… and in each of us.
‘Nothing lost’ is, after all, ‘nothing unnoticed.’ No one overlooked. Nothing missed.
But it is not necessarily something saved.
This is all, in the end, Holy Bread, and it has no shelf life at all. To be eaten, received and given thanks for immediately, that’s the rule and the spirit of our faith. It’s grace needed and being used. God doesn’t have to hoard or be anything less than selfless. Holiness cannot be shelved. Nor, I think, can trust be set on a shelf for later use.
Let’s begin with that.
Misreading Jesus’ instruction to gather up the pieces to mean that he’s suggesting storing up sacred bread for some other time seems to me as foolish as putting manna in jars. It all goes bad almost immediately.
Why? Because God’s intend that this power of Spirit that pervades miracle bread — and grace itself –moves into us and through us, out into others. We who have straggled in from God-knows-where; we, a collection of fragments ourselves; we, are to be fed to become the Bread that feeds the world.
This power of Spirit will not remain last or linger of be left behind… in shelved bread, in overlooked or forgotten people, in fragments that are gathered because they are parts of some greater whole. This power of Spirit transfers into us and travels out in us, to wherever it is needed that it will not be lost.
Lost is what it would indeed be, if it were possible to shelve it, store it away and mete it out, label and date it, or try and come back later for seconds.
Some churches have long had the tradition of putting any leftover communion bread outside, on a bird feeder in the church yard where it feeds every passing hunger before sundown. Where in the mysterious ways of God, whose bread starter includes small boys and generous women, this sacred, daily bread is never lost.
And therein, and in the rest of life, in some truth that is as mysterious as it is holy, hunger is thereby at last separated from any need to fend for ourselves.
Hunger, a natural part of every day, finds itself fed by fragments: our daily bread — fragments of us, fragments of generosity, fragments of goodwill, fragments of community.
Let’s then begin with that. Amen.