Sunday, August 3, 2014

Lunch With 5,000 of My Closest Friends (8/03/14)

Lunch With 5000 of My Closest Friends
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 3, 2014

2 Kings 4:42-44
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat.’ But his servant said, ‘How can I set this before a hundred people?’ So he repeated, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, “They shall eat and have some left.” ’ He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.
Mark 6:30-44
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 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.
And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 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.
 When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ 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?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’
 Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 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. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

We are spending time this summer with famous meals of the Bible.   Today’s meal is a popular one.   There are six versions of this parable in the four gospels.   I use the word parable for this story following historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan.  

Professor Crossan wrote a book a few years ago called The Power of Parable.   In this book he writes about a variety of parables.   It is obvious that Jesus told parables.   But parables were also told about Jesus.   The writers of the gospels told parables about Jesus or they repeated parables they had heard.    Crossan prefers the word parable to fiction or legend.  A parable has a function.    The storyteller uses parable to show us something.   A parable is about what is more than literal.   

When we hear Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, we don’t worry if it was an historical event, whether it happened or not, but we are concerned with what it means for us.   Similarly, many stories told about Jesus are not historical events but are parables about Jesus.  Their importance is about what is more than literal. 

The word parable means literally, “to throw alongside.”  A parable throws things alongside each other.    How is seed scattered on various types of soil the kingdom of God?  How is the Samaritan story the kingdom of God?    You throw the phrase the kingdom of God alongside the Samaritan story or the seed story and see what happens. 

Those are both parables by Jesus.   We don’t care if they happened or not.  They invite reflection and action on behalf of the kingdom of God.  That is what is important.   The same is true for stories about Jesus.   How is Jesus feeding the 5,000 or the 4,000 depending on which parable we are hearing, the kingdom of God?   What does this parable show us about life, about God, about humanity, about justice, about food? 

To get to those interesting questions, we need to look at these parables a little more closely.    This parable occurs six times in the gospels, twice in Mark, twice in Matthew, once in Luke and once in John.    This parable meant a lot to the early Jesus movement.  

Four versions, one in each gospel has Jesus feeding 5,000.  In Mark it is just 5,000 in the other gospels it is 5,000 men plus women and children.    In each of these tellings there are five loaves and two fish and twelve baskets left over.    We have some good numbers.  Five loaves plus two fish is seven.  Twelve baskets.  Twelve tribes of Israel.  Twelve apostles.  Twelve months in the year.  Seven and twelve are sacred numbers.   You don’t need to make a whole lot of it, except to note that they are storytelling numbers.   They indicate that we are in the realm of parable.

There are two other versions to this story.  In Mark and in Matthew, not long after feeding 5,000 with five loaves and two fish and twelve baskets leftover, Jesus feeds 4,000.  This time he has seven loaves and there are seven baskets left over.    Seven is important whether it be five loaves plus two fish or seven loaves.   '

What do we know?  This is an important parable that was told often with a couple of versions, 5,000 and 4,000.   The use of magical, sacred numbers indicates that it is a parable with a more than literal meaning.  It is not meant to be journalistic report of an historical event.  

What might have been the basis for this parable? 

The major story of the Torah is the escape from Egypt through sea and the wandering in the desert.   This journey is filled with water miracles and food miracles.  According to the legend, the Israelites cross the sea miraculously and are fed manna from heaven each day---daily, their daily bread--in the wilderness.  

In the Gospels, Jesus walks on water, calms the sea, and feeds the crowd in a deserted place.   Parable.  As God was present then, so God is present now.   As God led the ancestors through the wilderness to the promised land, so God will care for us in this occupied desert and lead us to a promised land of justice and peace.   

The feeding of the 5,000 calls to mind vividly the Torah. 

But that is not all.  It also calls to mind the prophets, particularly Elijah and Elisha who also perform miracles.    Elisha’s story is similar to this one.   A company of prophets, like a union of prophets are hanging around hungry.    A guy brings twenty loaves and some fresh ears of grain.    Elisha says give it to them.   The complaint is that there isn’t enough for 100 hungry prophets.  Give it to them anyway, Elisha instructs.  God will work a miracle.  Sure enough.  Everyone eats and there are leftovers. 

It is the same story even to the details of the plot.   A hunger problem with a specific number of hungry people.   A small specific amount of food.  Doubt and concern among the servants or disciples.   The demand of trust by the hero.   Everyone eats.  Leftovers.   

The story is applied to Jesus and expanded with numerical detail that gives it that sacred quality.   Seven pieces of food for 5,000 with twelve baskets leftover.   Seven loaves feed 4,000 with seven baskets leftover.    That is the divine presence.   Jesus embodies the divine presence and is worthy of trust.  

That is the take home.  In the midst of the wilderness, the desert, the deserted place, where there isn’t enough, God provides.   Live with that trust. 

How often has that parable been true in your life?    My hunch is that this parable has been true a lot in your life!  It has been true in my life.

How often have we faced something that seems to have no answer, that seems overwhelming, that seems against the odds, and that fills us with worry?   Now look back.   We made it through, didn’t we?    We may have the bruises to show for it, we know the grief over the loss, but we are here.    We might even look back and scold ourselves:  “Why was I so worried?”    

The parable of the miraculous feeding was popular and repeated because it is true.   There may be many ways of stating this truth.  One way is this: 

“Life happens and will happen.   It is a lot easier if you can take a breath, trust, and watch it unfold.” 

It is sometimes easy to confuse trust with belief.  We may think that the important thing is to believe that this story happened.   I find that the important thing is trusting that this story happens.

As I look back and as I look ahead and as I look in the present, I realize this story repeats itself again and again in my life.   Like the disciples I am worried or anxious, “How are we going to feed these people?”  It happens whether I trust or not with leftovers.  I look back and wonder why I didn’t trust more.  

After this feeding of the 5,000 in Mark’s gospel, the disciples follow Jesus around.  Then he feeds the 4,000.  Immediately after that, after two miraculous feedings, the disciples are in the boat and they are worried because they forgot to bring bread.    What will we do now?  That is true, too. We worry, we get by, and we forget that we got by so we worry again.   

I like to think that I am getting a little bit better in the trust department.   If not, that’s OK, because the disciples were dullards, too.    I guess that is a good reason to go to church, to be reminded that this parable is true.  

And there were twelve baskets left over.

Another reason this story is popular is because it is connected with a ritual called the potluck.   The church over the centuries turned it into a symbolic potluck, reducing the loaves to a little wafer or a bit of cracker, and the fish turned into a plastic shot glass of grape juice.   Many other meanings and rituals gravitated toward it, but originally it was a potluck, a divine picnic.   

You bring what you have.  You share it.   Everyone gets something.  There are leftovers.  That is church.    Notice the liturgical language in Mark’s version of the parable:

“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.”

It is like communion.  It is a sacrament.  

Some biblical scholars think this parable was told to explain the meaning of their gathering.   In other words, the gathering for a common meal was first and this story was told later to explain it.   

Think of it this way.  You can imagine people asking why they are seven days in a week and why should they keep the Sabbath holy?   What is the story behind that?  Someone creates the story of the seven-day creation to explain why.     

I can imagine the followers of Jesus asking why do we gather for a common meal?  What is the meaning of our meal?  What is the meaning of our community?  This parable of the feeding of the 5000 is told to illustrate that experience.    We gather to share our resources, to share our lives, to encourage one another to trust, and to watch God happen with leftovers.

While this parable is not historical it does reflect the essence of the ministry of the historical Jesus.  In the face of hopelessness, occupation, ethnic division, and scarce resources, the historical Jesus encouraged trust, liberation, the breaking of boundaries, and sharing.     So it was appropriate, natural even, that a parable would be told about him feeding 5,000 with meager resources.  

The challenge for us, the invitation to us, is to notice how this miracle continues to happen and to participate in it.   Dominic Crossan writes that this parable is about “the equitable distribution of our earth for all.”   There is more than enough Earth for all when “it passes through the hands of divine justice.”

When we consecrate Earth and Earth’s resources, whether it be food or whatever, because everything is a gift literally from the stars, when we recognize that all is sacred, and we trust that there is enough for all, miracles happen. 

We are invited to participate in this divine justice.   We do this by offering our gifts to the work of our community.   Our time, our skills, our treasure sharing, trusting that even as we cannot see what will happen, nevertheless it does without our knowing.

I do want to say something about this congregation.    It is important to acknowledge the presence of divine justice.   I don’t say this to pat ourselves on the back.   It is important to say what this congregation has done and has meant to people.  We can forget that this parable is true.  We can forget that this parable is enacted in the lives of our community. 

This past week I received a phone call, a request to officiate at a holy union ceremony for two women.  The person who was to officiate had an emergency and couldn’t do it.   I received the call Tuesday.  I met with them Friday and we had the ceremony on Saturday.   They didn’t have much money.    It was nothing elaborate, a ceremony and a picnic.    The ceremony was at Elk River Falls in North Carolina.  Just the other side of the town of Roan Mountain across the state line.  

I asked them why they wanted to do this.  They said they wanted to commit themselves to each other in front of their family members.    I asked them how they heard about our church, and they knew someone who knew us.   Our reputation is starting to grow.

On the rock that overlooks the falls, I officiated on behalf of our congregation at this holy union.   It was a Saturday and it is a busy place.  There were people going back and forth.  As this is happening there are people gathering and watching.   I can imagine the wheels turning, “That is a preacher, all right.  That’s a wedding for two women.”     I realized that we were participating in divine justice and love.  

As it is with these things, not all family members are on the same page.   But it is harder to keep hearts hardened when you witness something like that.  After it was over another person asked me for my number so I could do a holy union for her and her partner.   I gave her my card with our church name on it.  I don’t know if I will see these women again or any of the people who were there.    This was a divine  sharing of bread.

I could see the recognition and gratitude on the faces of the couple and the family.  It was an eye-opener.  This is a real minister with a business card who has an office in a real church building.  This is a real minister doing this on behalf of a real church.    That means a lot.  I do these things as a minister of this congregation.   There are some things I do on my own, so you don’t get in trouble.  But there are other things for which I want you to get in trouble.   You are becoming known as the church that does this. 

I don’t say this to pat myself on the back or the church.  I certainly don’t say this to compare ourselves to other churches as if we are better or something.  We are not.   There are many, many things we could learn from other churches.  Every church has its own particular gift and one of ours is equality for LGBT people.   That is it on that. 

I share this story because I want to remind you that this congregation has effects beyond its walls.   I share this story because I want you to know that this miracle of feeding and sharing and divine justice happens.   It happens far beyond our knowing and our awareness.  Divine justice does pass through you.    As uphill as the journey might seem, as meager as our resources, nevertheless God blesses and shares what we have with the world.   

And there were twelve baskets left over. 


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