Rev. Diane K. Hooge
The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle story included in all four of the Gospels. To more fully understand this text, it’s important to back up and figure out what’s been going on. In the earlier verses of this same chapter of Matthew, one can read of the outrageously violent death of John the Baptist with all of the palace intrigue that went along with it. Anyone who has gone through the loss of a loved one knows the kind of bone weariness that often accompanies grief, and when violence is involved, it compounds the grieving. Mourning has a way of sucking the very marrow from our bones.
I suspect that the disciples were in a state of shock as they gathered around Jesus debriefing their week from hell. Their story began with the birthday party that Herod had thrown for himself. He had invited all the upper echelon of society. Who knows how many times his wine glass had been filled before the daughter of his conniving sister-in-law, Herodias, came in to dance before Herod and his guests. The dance had obviously been a crowd pleaser and she was invited to ask for whatever she wanted from the kingdom. With some side whispering from her sinister mother, she chose the head of John the Baptist.
The disciples were left to bury their beloved friend, prophet, teacher and mentor. Jesus, fully aware of his own grief, listened to the disciple’s pain and suggested that they get out of town for some rest. I can appreciate the collective sigh of relief that must have arisen from the group as they climbed into their familiar boats, pulled up the anchors and adjusted the sails as they settled into the familiar rhythm of moving across the lake with their eyes on the lookout for one of their favorite get-a-way locations.
It didn’t take long before their retreat site was discovered. The people poured in bringing their various hungers in life with them. Jesus saw this time as an opportunity to bring teaching, healing and compassion to peoples’ weary lives. I suspect the disciples weren’t holding quit the same vision—they had just lost the safety of their cozy comforting circle. They had already given up their plans for the day—and now their dinner plans just got put on hold. The coping skills of the disciples began to be tested. I can appreciate their plight as they began seating the overwhelming throng of folks. It had to have felt utterly useless when there was barely enough food to feed the disciples and Jesus, let alone the thousands surrounding them.
As I sat with this text this week, I flashed back to the hotel classroom of a leadership training course that I participated in over several months. The location was New York City. I was preparing for my final segment of the class and had my tickets. I had spent the better part of the week walking with the grieving family and grieving congregation though the death of a beloved member of the church I served. I went into the weekend weary from the emotional impact of the loss of this saint of the community along with the physical demands of covering as many details as possible in preparation for the memorial service that would be held upon my return.
My Friday night class had not gone well. Saturday was equally demanding. By Sunday morning I was exhausted from being up late with homework. By noon, I was ready for an easy afternoon assignment. However, I had forgotten just how pushy the leadership could be in providing experiential learning events for all of us. The code word was “extending”—“extending yourselves.” The afternoon lesson was about leaders having the responsibility to extend themselves to make a difference. It was those extending experiences that could strike terror to most all of our hearts.
Before noon, the class was divided in half. There were nine folks in each group. The assignment was handed out. Each group was to collectively negotiate how they would implement their vision for the assignment. Our group’s vision was to provide a meal for at least thirty people to be served in a tiny wedge of a park about two blocks away. The park was filled each night with homeless people who staked out their spots before dark. The class rules were that we could handle the plan however we wanted, as long as the group stayed within sight of each other. We could not use any of our own money. Our timeline: three hours.
Being part of a local church, I pushed for joining with an existing “not for profit” organization that already served the homeless. Like the disciples of our text, I wanted things to be easier. In light of the fact that we had no money and only three hours to implement our plan, I thought joining up with a non-profit seemed like a pretty reasonable idea. I didn’t sell my plan.
It was difficult in that moment to think kindly about the person who had encouraged me to enter the New York training program. Even if I felt enough group pressure to not whine out loud, it was operating full bore within me. We planned our strategy in the hotel lobby. We would approach only managers in every restaurant we visited. We would as for food to implement our goal of setting up a meal in the park for the homeless. I was the first person to hold a cup on the street and solicit funding for our project. I was dumbfounded when my first gift was placed in the cup. We utilized the various languages of origin of our colleagues as we visited restaurants in the neighborhood.
We timed our request at the donut shop based on the knowledge of a group member who knew what time the discounted donuts went on the shelves. We used the money we collected to buy beverages to go along with our eclectic collection of food.
At 1:30, we showed up at the part—a triangle stretch of concrete outlined with flower boxes and park benches, with a police officer overseeing the site. We pulled two tables together and spread out our loaves and fishes. We cut up the pizza and fruit into manageable pieces. I moved into my typical Sunday morning mode moving from bench to bench inviting people to share a meal with us. Not everyone was comfortable with eye contact, let alone going over to the meal. Not everyone spoke English, but they all got the message.
It was an amazing experience. There was an initial holding back as folks made an assessment of who we were. And then people began coming by and joining in. They stayed to talk. A family from Belgium was stunned that this was taking place in a park. It was an incredible cross section of humanity who came to the table. Everyone wanted to know why. We said that we had decided to get together and create a gesture of goodwill—which was true. At approximately 2:00, we dismantled our table, folded up the hotel tablecloth and began a negotiation process on behalf of a man who came to our table who was in need of a detox program. One AA member of our group lined up a facility to receive him, and we placed him in a cab paying the driver to get him there. As we left the park, folks all around offered us smiles, waves and called out their good-byes.
We still had enough money left over to make a small donation to a man on the street who was working for an organization that creates job opportunities for folks who are living in shelters.
The incredible reality of that day was that when we reported our experience back in our hotel classroom that afternoon, I had far more energy than I had had the whole weekend. It was a day of learning about seeing a situation through the eyes of abundance vs. scarcity. It was a day to understand the word miracle from a new perspective. There is a mystery in a process that demands a group effort to extend not only oneself but the group as we participated in what I certainly had deemed as “an impossible project.” Surely that’s how the disciples felt.
That Sunday afternoon gave new meaning for me in Jesus’ words to the disciples, “you give them something to eat.” I’ve continued to hold the miracle that I experienced in that three hours in New York. We broke all the rules—our own rules—rules about what one can and cannot do.
I learned that if wasn’t just about feeding hungry people. I believe that there were some truly physically hungry people in that wedge of the park, but I’m convince that there were far more emotionally hungry people sitting in tat bit of oasis within the city who for a short time on a Sunday afternoon experienced some personal encounter. We were witnesses to the strengths of each group member who contributed their unique piece to the event and few collectively experienced the bonding that takes place when the seemingly impossible is achieved.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asked the disciples to begin managing the throngs of people by placing them in groups. In the job of settling them around the hillsides and in the introductions and management of people was the lesson about needs. Those in need could no longer be viewed as numbers but face sand stories. The disciples got to witness the reality of hungry crying babies and depressed adults who longed for life to be more than just survival. These were people who had journeyed around the lake yearning to hear and receive from this teacher who embodied authentic compassion and who was like no other teacher that they had encountered. Their experience was in shocking contrast to the world of the palace.
Jesus took the time to provide life giving words of hope to those who gathered. The focus was on the needs of those in the crowd. When it was time for dinner, he did not send them home. He didn’t recommend the Mom and Pop market in the nearest town. Hospitality began with his leadership. He asked the disciples what they had. He proceeded to bless what was available and out of scarcity came the miracle of abundance. Grace was the lesson of the day.
We are reminded through this lesson that the Church belongs to the world. As always, we’re invited into the story. Who are the people that we are being invited to feed? As I sat with this text this week, I thought about the role of various groups in this community. As I have been listening to members throughout the church, I’ve heard several of you tell me about the two years that this church provided breakfast for the homeless. So many of you commented on what an important time that was for you as you served each week.
I’ve been so touched by the work that has gone into climate change and stewardship of the land. Tomorrow a group of us will gather to continue the conversation about what our role is in advocating for the thousands of refugee children who are crossing our borders—many of them have no parent accompanying them as they flee the horrifying world of gangs, corrupt political systems and the Herod’s of their lives.
We like the disciples are invited to offer our bread to the world. Where are we being called to extend ourselves? What is God’s invitation to us in this time of transition? Where is God inviting us to be united as people of faith believing in the abundance of God’s grace to make a difference in the world? The reality is that we do not do this work on our own power. We need God and the unique gifts of one another. And, like the disciples of our faith heritage, we are called to remember that we do not serve a God of scarcity but a God of abundance.
Hear these words from the Prophet Isaiah, “But those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31) May it be so. Amen.