Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
There’s a lot to be said about this story of feeding the five thousand—where did all that food come from? Why did they only count the men—does that mean there were really 15,000 people? If so, where did they all come from? But I want to begin by saying what was not said in this story—that Jesus has gone to be by himself to mourn the death of John the Baptist, beheaded by Herod at the request of his wife and daughter. This death has struck him so hard he wants to withdraw from the crowds, even from his own work, to grieve. He even gets in a boat to escape them. So, behind this beautiful scene of provision lurks death. And I have to believe, at some level, there's something of a struggle here between death and life.
When I hear this story, I have a scene in my mind—everyone is taking a break, hanging out for a bit, and the disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus. “What brings you here,” Jesus asks, and they tell him: “Herod has beheaded John and we have buried his body.” Jesus commissions a boat from his disciples, and he sets off. “Where’s he going?” one person asks. “Who? Jesus?” “Yes—look. He’s sailing away!” “He can’t do that—he hasn't healed my kid.” Then a wild argument—is he going across the bay? Is he going to an island? No, he's heading to that deserted place--he tends to do that to pray and brood. They hear the news and put everything together: “He’s going to be alone to mourn the death of John the Baptist! Quick, let’s go to him.” And then, en masse, like a flock of birds or a mess of ants, they pick up and migrate to meet Jesus. In my reading, the deserted place that Jesus finds is the sea—and as he comes to shore again he finds they have crowded the beach and the hills, thousands upon thousands, to hear what he has to say. How did they hear him, anyway?
But maybe now we see the juxtaposition here, the two powers orbiting one another. One is Herod in his palace, with his legions from Rome and his ties to the money and power in Judea and Palestine. The other is Jesus, homeless, with a coterie of disciples of every walk of life, but mostly the less picturesque walks of life, surrounded constantly by the raving, the possessed, the know-it-alls, the spies and the doubters, and especially the sick, the lame, and the lepers. His company was mostly nameless, mostly poor, mostly dying slow or dying fast. What would you do if you heard the state had murdered your colleague? When Jesus was on that boat, looking out to the crowds, he saw them in their need and in their hope. He saw the teeming shore of the dispossessed and oppressed, while his opposite number saw only his reputation in front of his greedy friends. The first power was death, ruling in fear and violence. And the second power is life, ruling--well, ruling isn't the right word. The second power is life, giving of itself.
It’s amazing how ready Jesus was to give out of his grief. Even as evening comes he says, “They need not go away.” He’s been working all day, grieving all the while. When he sees the crowd, he sees them truly as the Lord: their protector, their lover, their provider. He sees them within the span of their lives, the short ugly lives of peasant peoples occupied by a foreign power. They are his people, and they need not go away. They can linger in the embrace of his compassion. He can give them everything they need.
When we look at this story we’re often eager to explain the miracle—how did five loaves and two fish get turned into twelve baskets of food? This week I think that's the least interesting way to look at it. The miracle story is never about the miracle. I think we should instead look at the compassion of Jesus and the way it transforms his disciples. The disciples, as good disciples are wont to do, are concerned for their teacher. They see him tired and sad and worn, and they want him to take care of himself. And they’re concerned for the crowds—they should go and get something to eat, because it’s growing dark. But as Jesus, as he does in many of these miracle stories, simply refuses to abide by the limits of his disciples. Instead, he breaks their limits.
Jesus' direction is a strange one. Can you imagine being a disciple and handing over your bread or your fish, and then Jesus giving it back to you and saying, "Go ahead and feed them." All these people had scampered and scrambled into the wilderness. There were thousands upon thousands, an unwashed horde reposed in hunger. The disciples must have felt foolish holding a crust of bread or a fish gill. Feed them? I wonder if they looked back--feed them? And they all were filled, and even more. Maybe what the modern commentators think is true--maybe everyone just decided to share whatever food they had brought. We see such miracles at every potluck, when there is too much food, no matter how many people come. Maybe the pre-modern idea is true--the Word of God does not obey logic or the limits of reason or even the laws of nature. But whether it was the laws of nature or the natural resistance of people to share, Christ broke the limits. They need not go away, all these hungry people. Jesus feeds them.
We had some friends here a couple weeks ago, and we had the game of competing table graces. We started to pray before lunch, and our four-year-old friend said, "This is not the right prayer." And we asked, "Well, what is?" He responded with what has become a standard table grace, which comes from the today's Psalm: "The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand and you satisfy the desire of every living thing." Amen, we all said.
We desire quite a bit, we living things. Above all, we desire more life, and we desire more of the things that make life good. But the Psalmist has put our desire in context, and it is the context of the crowd looking at the man holding five loaves and two fish, blessing them, and giving them to disciples to pass around. They are the eyes of the crowd looking to Jesus, pleading--feed us. Feed our stomachs, feed our souls. Give us food, give us meaning. The eyes of all look to God, and God opens his hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. Jesus feeds us with his body, with his love.
In the tension of death and life, life--I want to say wins, but that is not quite true. Death makes an absence in life. You could even say death is but a hunger for life that only life can fill. The compassion of God fills the absence until it overflows, and streams all over.
Today we baptize Maya. We join her to the death of Christ and we plunge her into that living stream of life and love that comes to us from the cross. And we meet around this table, where Jesus comes, alive, to feed us with his body and blood. And I have to believe that not a person here will fail to be transformed. God's love and compassion for you are so great--he sees your need and opens his hand to satisfy your deepest desires. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack