By Seminarian Jean-Pierre Seguin on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost:
I come before you today in the Name ✠ of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today’s Gospel tells us about fear and unexpected plenty. And it underlines the connection between justice and divine liberation. Jesus and the disciples attempt to get away from the crowds as His ministry around the Sea of Galilee grows in popularity. But they cannot. Finally, on a mountainside, an anxious and hopeful crowd gathers to hear Jesus. Seeing a large group at an unplanned event, the disciples worry that it will be impossible to feed all who are present. This is not an unexpected fear, as they did not plan to have a mass teaching and healing event. Andrew points out a child with five loaves and two fishes. And Jesus says to share them. Seven is considered a number of completion or fullness in Scripture. All eat of this simple meal, and the scraps fill twelve baskets, just as there were originally twelve tribes in Israel.
Some people interpret this divine act as a moment when the people’s hearts were opened and they shared food they had brought, providing enough for all. While the text does not deny that this could have occurred, it also does not explain away this divine act, this divine sign. A few sentences later, Jesus is walking on water. While I respect the more modest, and perhaps modern, understanding of this text and the moral of sharing what we have with others, I think it is worth our time to stay a minute and ponder this sign from God.
This is not the first moment in Scripture that God provides enough food for his people in times of duress. God rains down manna on the Hebrew former slaves in the wilderness. He feeds them, even with quail, throughout their wilderness wanderings. The bread that comes from the heavens molders if it is stored. It is to be gathered daily and eaten. And the only day on which the people cannot gather it is the Sabbath. In the selection from 2 Kings this morning, a man brings Elisha twenty loaves of bread and some ears of grain, planning to leave them at the feet of the man of God. It is the midst of a famine. People are wanting for food. And someone wants to feed the prophet. Elisha, surprisingly, directs that the loaves be given to feed one hundred people, as God commands. According to God’s word, all have plenty to eat, with some left over. The feeding of the five thousand confirms that Jesus is indeed God. It tells us, as believers, that as a part of the Trinity, Jesus provides food for those who need it. God’s abundance in the feeding of the five thousand overcomes the anxiety of needy people seeking healing in a broken world.
Jesus’ feast, however, is one of simple food. Five barley loaves and two fish, likely salted so they could stay eatable, were shared by all there, and there was food left over. This is not to say there is no place for rich food in life. It is notable, though, that Jesus manifests a sign through simple food among a gathering of regular people, coming together, because of inspiring words and healing actions. John’s Gospel also notes that it is Passover. Passover is perhaps the original liberation meal; it is the base liberation meal for the tradition. God tells the people, the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, to gather in their houses, to prepare a lamb, to mark their door posts. They are spared the calamity, and they are led to freedom. It is notable that John places this meal that occurred around the time of Passover on a mountainside, in a rural and fishing area with small towns, not in Jerusalem, not near the Temple, not near the centers of religious observance. A sacred moment occurs when people see God, in a man who they previously would not have even seen as a teacher.
We all have moments where God comes through in tough situations. I’ve had plenty of them. I was not here, but I gather that this parish experienced that with the boiler situation in the past year. This church, which is lined with brick, suddenly lacked heat. And yet the people still came and worshipped. Still came, seeking God, seeking company with each other. Seeking the fulfillment of God’s promises, and together with people showing up, through strength, through God’s grace, and through God’s power, heat was restored. And that is, perhaps, an experience of God’s presence, where God works through us in community, even when there are five loaves, two fishes that a child has brought.
Part of the beauty of community is that God can be seen in it through the many gifts that people bring. We must be present in this situation. And Jesus is even willing to work with Andrew in his anxiousness and bring all to a deeper understanding of the good news He has come to make known. It’s also interesting that this happens when the people have gathered, they’ve broken out of the rhythm of daily life. They’ve taken a day trip, perhaps, to come hear Jesus speak. Maybe they have an ailment. Maybe they need healing for a loved one. Maybe they’re inspired by the word, but they’re there, they’re on a mountainside, an impromptu gathering, because word is flying all around the towns on the Sea of Galilee, that Jesus is coming, Jesus is here, Jesus has moved here. And rather than run away, Jesus cares for their needs. He eventually takes the time He needs to recharge and avoid going to the Cross before He would like. But He takes the time to be with the people.
In participating in the event, the disciples also get to feed the people. They provide the apparently meager bread and fish, and everyone has enough. A moment of community, a moment of transformation occurs. People are filled with a renewed sense of God’s power, God’s love, and God’s presence that connects them to the rich tradition they share.
It goes without saying, I think, that we live in trying times. There are various political calamities. Climate change is showing itself in disastrous and quite terrifying ways this year. Extreme heat, floods, fires. Political leadership in many situations appears lacking. And there are people on our streets who go without shelter, who go without food. There are people in houses who struggle with debt, who struggle to keep that roof over their head. And there are the challenges of life that have always been with us.
To live in these times as a community of faith, we need to have a creative, sacred imagination. This is how we live as disciples, we proclaim good news that is almost difficult, it’s difficult to comprehend, how can we believe this? How does everybody have food when they were five loaves and two fishes? I can’t say how that happened. I can say that God’s light and God’s love have come into my life in moments of deepest darkness. I can say that I have experienced moments of empathy and connection with a stranger that seemed to enrich both of us in ways we hadn’t expected. I am here because God’s love is in my heart.
I didn’t originally grow up in the Church, but my parents put me in the church choir. I went to a Catholic high school. I got involved with Christian justice groups. Through these groups, in these contexts, the word of God was able to become clear to me. I sat, I learned, I responded. And I’m still amazed, sometimes, to find myself here in a position of sharing that good news. So, the last thing I would want to do is explain away the feeding of five thousand people, is to explain away a gathering of absurd hope on a mountainside in first century Palestine. I refuse to explain that event away, because I don’t know what unexpected thing God is still going to do today. I don’t know what unexpected thing God is going to show in the midst of the Church of the Advent in the community of South Baltimore, inside the church, out on the street. Because what I know of God is that God is indeed love. And God is the God who brought slaves out of oppression in Egypt, through the wilderness to freedom. God is the God who has made enough, who can make enough. Who has given us a world that creates so much. And sometimes, when that is not enough, creates more. And we as creatures, as humans living in this world, need to remember, I remind myself as much as any of you, that when the world seems totally dark and perhaps there’s a crazy dream, and we’re chasing it, we sometimes need to sit and wait for God. And when God shows up in a small way or a big way; whether our prayers are answered in the ways we expected or not, remember that God is a God of abundance, the God of creation. God known to us in Jesus, who would not let those who came to Him in need go hungry. Amen.