Mark 6:30-44, NRSV
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.
Mark 8:1-10, NRSV
In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.’ His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’ He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.
Preached Sunday, October 15, 2017 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman on the Occasion of Westfield’s Homecoming and 302nd anniversary of its founding.
Not once, but twice in the Gospel of Mark do we find Jesus feeding a multitude. You know the basics of the story: there were lots of hungry people and little food to feed them. This, of course, is a problem—you can’t feed lots of hungry people with little food. The disciples go, round up what food there is, and miraculously, this giant crowd numbering 5,000 men (4,000 in the second story) and who knows how many women and children are fed and then some.
Now we could talk about the typical understandings of this story—how in God little becomes much or how when God is part of the story there will always be more than enough. We could explore what it means to feed people and wonder just what God could do with our closet of goldfish and animals crackers downstairs.
But what I’m interested in today happens before all of that—before the feeding, before the loaves, before the fish. Before all of that Jesus tells his disciples that they need a break—I like to think he told them to take a nap…I love a nap. In fact, these first verses inspired our call to prayer that we sing every week, a weekly reminder that sometimes you need to be quiet, to retreat and be with God.
Anyway, they try retreating—and it works for a bit—until the crowds that were following Jesus found him again. And Jesus saw them, and, the Gospel tells us, “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” So Jesus begins to do what he does best—he begins to teach. Now, we don’t know what he taught the crowd that day—usually we think the teaching for us is toward the end of the story, that God can do remarkable things with whatever it is we offer faithfully.
But really, I think what we could stand to think about is what Jesus teaches the disciples. Listen to that bit again: “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.”
I love these few verses here because I think the disciples are showcasing their humanity—that is, their brokenness, more than just about anywhere else in the gospel. It’s shrouded in that compassion we all know too well—one that proclaims genuine care. But that outer coat of “genuine concern” soon cracks and shows dismissive judgement underneath. Do you hear it? “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.” The disciples weren’t wrong, but I doubt they were entirely concerned for the multitude gathered there. The disciples were tired, remember? That’s the whole reason they stole way to a place they thought would be quiet and removed. The disciples are just trying to get a nap—I get it! And they knew that was only going to happen if everybody went along their way.
But Jesus isn’t having it. “You give them something to eat,” he replies simply. You can almost feel the disciples’ roll their eyes. I imagine it like 8 year olds rolling their eyes at parents. “but we’re tired!” you can nearly hear them whine. They don’t use the tired excuse. Instead, they use that old standby of excuses that challenges nearly every good effort: “Are we to go and buy two hundred Denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” Two hundred denarii was two hundred days pay. If I were to translate that line for today’s listener, it might be: “You want us to spend our money on them? They aren’t worth it! It’s too expensive.” Now isn’t that just about the most human response you’ve heard: Here are people who need our help. “But it’ll cost too much! It’ll be too expensive!”
The disciples aren’t quite fighting with Jesus, but it’s about as close as they come until Peter tries to tell Jesus that he doesn’t have to be crucified and Jesus famously replies, “Get behind me, Satan”—but we’ll get to that in a bit. Jesus is clearly pointing them in one direction, they want to go in another. But instead of getting angry at the disciples, Jesus encourages them to do what’s right and, in turn, instead of getting angry at Jesus, the disciples do as he asks. And, somehow, much to the disciples surprise and, I suspect, relief, everyone gets fed. It wasn’t what they were expecting, it didn’t look like they thought it was going to, but God showed up anyway and people got what they needed and were fed.
When you join Westfield, we ask you two sets of questions: one set is about your faith. Those boil down to these two fundamental questions: do you claim Christ and do you reject evil? And the second set is about their commitment to Westfield. That second bit is what we call the three essential questions. You’ve heard them before—they’re not really about faith or orthodoxy. They’re about what we believe it means to be in community. I ask each new member these three essential questions and I ask our congregation those three essential questions every time, every time, someone joins. Will you fight with us? Will you forgive us? Will you bring us casseroles when we’re sick?
Those three questions are kinda like what happens when Jesus feeds the multitude. What we’re asking is, will you fight with us—that means will you get angry and not get it and try to understand and think it should be different—will you fight with us? We don’t get it right all the time, sometimes, like the disciples, we totally blow it. But we’re asking you to stay with us through it, to keep asking the questions and keep looking for God, because together, we are confident, we know that God can make much out of little.
And then, when that is over, when the dust has settled from whatever “it’s too expensive, make them do it themselves” fight we’ve had, will you forgive us. When Jesus feeds the multitude, he forgives his disciples by asking them to keep going. Will you fight with us and will you forgive us—will you be there for the hard stuff and for the healing stuff.
But that’s not all we ask. We also want to know if in the good times and in the bad—will you keep feeding people—will you take the little you have—the little money, the little food, the little hope, the little patience, and make it into something that feeds the others here in this room and everyone out there. That’s what Jesus is asking—that we fight and forgive and feed.
Today is Homecoming Sunday. On Thursday, we’ll celebrate 302 years of being a congregation. In three centuries and some change, we’ve fought and we’ve forgiven. But the thing that makes me most proud, is to think of how we’ve fed.
You know we’re good at potlucks. And we’re super good at Church Suppers. But you may not have experienced what it’s like here every second Friday of the month. On Friday, we hosted our monthly Be Our Guest supper. I was rummaging around, looking for little bits of Westfield trivia to take on our grave tour the next day. Kat, our moderator and lead Be Our Guest cook, came to chat about what I was looking for. I looked over, and she had tears in her eyes. “We fed people tonight, Jon, who hadn’t eaten for three days. They live in the woods. We fed kids who hadn’t eat the last three meals and some elderly folks who usually eat supper by candlelight because their power’s been cut.” It’s unimaginable, isn’t it, what some face day to day? Then Kat looked at me and said, “This is worth fighting for—feeding people.”
I left my office that night sad and proud—sad at the state of the world and proud that this church, that fifteen years ago didn’t know if it’d still be here today, does just what it promised too—it fights, and it forgives, but most importantly, it feeds. Thanks be to God. Amen.