There is no shortage of horrible in the world. There is disease and hunger, destruction and violence, accidents and natural disasters, greed, corruption, injustice, and just plain stupidity. Perhaps worst of all, there are people who feel a need to affirm their power by victimizing others. There is no shortage of horrible. There is no shortage of need. Sometimes even when you try to get away from it all it seems to follow you.
Jesus had been moving from town to town, teaching in synagogues, teaching by the seashore, telling stories—parables–to help people understand what the kin-dom of heaven is like, to help them learn how to see it, and everywhere he went he ran smack into people’s needs and expectations. He poured out his power healing people. He was constantly challenged by the inflexible piety of the Pharisees. He stretched his patience explaining things to obtuse disciples. When he went to Nazareth, the town he grew up in, he was so walled in by the odd double-whammy of doubt and familiarity that he was unable to accomplish anything.
And that’s when he learned that his cousin, his partner in ministry, John the Baptizer had been executed by Herod.
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
Jesus needed to retreat from the horrible. He needed a break to mend his broken heart. So he told his disciples where to meet him then got in a boat and set off for some alone time.
Somehow the crowds found out where he was going and when he stepped ashore they were waiting there to meet him. So much for alone time.
The text says that when he saw the crowd he had compassion on them and cured their sick. There’s both urgency and intimacy in the language here. The word compassion, especially in the Greek, sounds as if his heart is spilling over with a mixture of anguish and love for all these people, as if he is reaching out his healing hands to touch them even before his boat has ground itself against the pebbles on the shore.
And then suddenly it’s evening. The disciples, expressing a practicality that feels more than a little anxious, see a problem. We’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the villages and buy something to eat.
Their suggestion sounds reasonable enough at first glance, but it raises a lot of questions. Where, exactly, are these villages? How far away? Do these hypothetical villages have enough spare food that they could afford to sell some to a battalion of unexpected visitors who show up suddenly at the dark edge of dusk?
For the disciples, the crowd is a problem. It’s been a long day, people are getting hungry. Hungry crowds are potentially dangerous. Solution? Send the crowd away. The nameless, faceless, we-don’t-really-see-them crowd. Send them away.
And then Jesus says something that just stuns them: There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.
But… but… but… how are we supposed to do that? All we have here are five loaves and two fish! That’s our dinner!
Jesus tells his disciples to bring him the five loaves and two fish. He orders the crowds to sit down, which is as good as telling them to pipe down and pay attention, then he looks up to heaven and blesses the bread and the fish.
We’re not told exactly what Jesus prayed, but I like to think that maybe he prayed the traditional Hebrew blessings for bread and meat or fish. These blessings are different from the mealtime prayers we usually pray. Most of the time when we say a blessing over a meal, we are asking God to endow the meal with some special grace or benefit, or to bless us by way of the meal. The Hebrew blessings, though, assume that the meal is already blessed by God, that it already a gift from God for our benefit, and so these mealtime blessings offer to God the blessing of praise.
This is the blessing for the bread: Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
For the fish: Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, at whose word all things came to be.
You know what happened next. Jesus broke the bread and ordered the disciples to start handing out food. Five loaves and two fish. It couldn’t possibly be enough. Yet somehow five thousand men plus women and children who had tagged along were fed, and twelve baskets of food were left over.
I want to say right here and now that I believe it is entirely possible that when Jesus lifted his eyes to heaven and prayed something transformative happened to those loaves and fish that enabled them to somehow stretch to feed five thousand plus. With God all things are possible. Miracles can and do happen.
I also believe, however, that every bit as important as whatever may or may not have happened to the bread and fish, something transformative happened in the hearts of all those people sitting on the grass. When they heard the voice of Jesus intone the blessing they all knew, they were reminded that all bread is a gift brought forth from the earth by God so that it may be broken and shared. I suspect that when they heard “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, at whose word all things came to be” they were reminded that they were a people bound together with God and with each other in a relationship inherited from their forebears and passed on to their children in an ancient covenant of love and mutual protection. They were transformed by the voice of Jesus praying the blessing they all knew. They were reminded that they were bound by kinship in the kindom of heaven. So now, that loaf that had been tucked up a sleeve and saved for the walk home, that loaf, too, was brought out and broken and shared. The dried fish that had been wrapped in a cloth, stuffed in a pocket and saved for later, that, too was added to the feast. Jesus had prayed the family prayer, so now this was a family meal and everything was brought out to be shared.
Transformation of the bread and fish or transformation of the people. One way or another, or maybe both, there were 12 baskets of leftovers. Which, by the way, indicates that someone had brought baskets.
You give them something to eat. When Jesus said that to the disciples all they could think of were all the reasons why it simply wasn’t possible.
We seem to have a built-in tendency to want to kick the can down the road when we are confronted with a situation that feels overwhelming. We do it with healthcare. We do it with food insufficiency. We do it with homelessness. We do it with systemic racism and injustice.
There’s a universal hunger in the human soul to make the world a better place, a place where no child goes to bed hungry, a place where everyone has a roof over their head, a place where we truly have equality and equity and liberty and justice for all. Too many of us, though, have been waiting for someone else to come fix everything. We’ve been kicking the can down the road.
Well, we’ve run out of road.
Jesus says, “You feed them. You house them. You educate them. You build a more perfect union.”
And if you think the resources you have on hand aren’t enough to do the job, then look up to heaven, praise God for the goodness you do have in your hands and acknowledge where it came from, then start handing things out. You might be amazed to find someone else has brought along baskets.
John Lewis, the great Civil Rights leader, Christian pastor, and U.S. Congressman, didn’t have anything to give to the struggle for Civil Rights except for his body, his mind and his heart. But he trusted that was enough.
Lewis gave everything and suffered great abuse as he walked a path of nonviolence calling this country to live up to its own ideals, to continue becoming a more perfect union. In his last hours, he took time to write a loving farewell to us all to encourage us to keep getting into “good trouble, necessary trouble” for the sake of what’s right.
Toward the close of that letter, Lewis wrote, “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way… So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
Sometimes it seems as if there is no shortage of horrible in the world. But there is also no shortage of the goodness that sustains us if we will bless it and share it. In Jesus’ name.