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Feeding 5000 Men

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, May 06

Feeding Sunday
John 6: 1-15

Feeding the 5000! I know what some of you are thinking. Obvious choice for a text on a day when we celebrate our feeding ministry and connection to the Outdoor Church! Obvious interpretation too, right? The problem with preaching on a story like this is that we think we know what its about. We think we get the point that Jesus calls us to feed and, when our hearts are in the right place and by the miraculous grace of God, somehow there’s always enough to go around. True enough, but there’s so much more to this story than that.

When I found out I’d be preaching this text on this Sunday, I thought to myself – “oh goodie!” You see, a few years ago, I came across an interpretation of this story that pointed out something I had never before seen. This is partly because I and many of you now take a well-founded pride in reading our so called inclusive language versions that allow for a certain degree of ‘deliberate mistranslation’ of the original Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. I’m a big fan of inclusive language but sometimes it can obscure important ways of understanding what the story is all about.

Case in point! Instead of saying “so they sat down, about five thousand in all,” what the actual Greek says in verse 10 which I just read is: “So the males sat down, about five thousand in all.” Clearly, the inclusive translators cry ‘foul’ here and so they cheat to change “males” to a nicely neutered “they”! No harm done, right? We might wonder then why in Mark’s version of this story, the original meaning comes through, even in our New Revised Standard Version pew bibles. You see there it’s written “Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.” What’s more, earlier in Mark’s narrative, we find another important clue that John leaves out: “So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties”. Picture it: 5,000 men, sitting down in groups of 100’s and 50’s! Are you with me so far?

Here is where the Episcopalian priest, Martin Smith, who first introduced me to this interpretation, really started blowing my mind. Smith asks: “Why did five thousand able-bodied males converge on Jesus when he had sailed over the Sea of Tiberias with the twelve into the uninhabited hill country?” He then invites us to imagine “what this would look like to Roman intelligence officers, if they could have done an aerial reconnaissance. First,” he writes, “they would have been very aware that the feast of the Passover was near in which Jews celebrated their liberation from Egyptian oppressors. Jewish insurgents often launched their rebellions just before Passover when feelings were running especially high about the shame and misery of being under pagan occupation. Secondly, the gathering was in the wilderness, which, as we know from the Jewish historian Josephus, was the traditional mustering place for rebels, out of range of military surveillance.” But wait. It gets even better.

“Flying over the hillside,” Smith continues, “we would look down and see five thousand men, not just milling around but, according to Mark, drawn up in strict formation, in groups of fifty and hundreds…. Our Roman security officers flying overhead would have recognized instantly what these formations signified. This was a militia of five thousand able bodied males assembling in platoons. …. As soon as we have grasped this, we get the full force of John’s concluding verse. “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” This was an attempt to muster an insurgent rebel force and to compel Jesus to assume military leadership.”

Remember that next time someone tries to make a bad joke about stretching the meal! These guys didn’t come hungry for bread, at least some of them were hungry for blood too!

As Smith later points out, the story of the feeding of the 5,000 men is, at heart, a temptation story. The men want Jesus to assume authoritative rule, to seize power over as opposed to a power with, to resort to time tested methods of political gain, like slaughter, plunder and other violent tactics as the most efficient way to bring about God’s kingdom of justice and peace to earth. What this saber rattling sentiment covers up of course is a collective sense of fear and powerlessness. These guys wanted Jesus to take their problems and solve them all because they didn’t know what else to do!

I wonder if and how we might relate to these feelings? Not to the demand for a military coup so much but more to that sense of powerlessness against forces that are larger than us. I wonder if we can relate when we are passing through Harvard Square or standing in line after church and when we come face to face to face with a person that is homeless and hungry. Indeed, “they” are not just around us. In some cases they are us! Feeling the pressure of this powerlessness and maybe even guilt start to rally around our hearts, the question quickly, almost automatically, becomes “what can we do for them?” Jesus himself asks it as to test them: “Where can we buy bread for these people to eat?” but he knows better. He knows he can’t solve their problems by commanding those makeshift troops to go into action and to violently take back their share from the Romans. Instead, he cuts through the “us and them” thinking and instead of giving them answers, he poses a question and the invitation. “What do we know? How can we act together?”

How often do we long for someone to tell us “what we can do for them so that we ourselves don’t feel so powerless in the face of staggering needs in our community and world? Jesus doesn’t fall into the trap; he doesn’t want to be their king. He doesn’t want to tell them what to do. Instead, he wants to figure it out with them. He knows that they and he are hungry not only for real bread of physical nourishment, but also for the bread of solidarity, the bread of possibility, the bread of shared agency, the bread of feeling that no matter how hungry any one of them is, none will be satisfied until all have a share, together. In essence, he’s saying “we all get hungry” and in so doing he turns the dynamics of power and powerlessness, of rescuer and rescuee on it head!

This not so obvious interpretation offers us an enormously helpful reminder on this, our Feeding Sunday. It’s not just about a hunger for loaves and fishes, or for bologna sandwiches, though it is that. It’s also about a hunger we all feel for the power to make a difference, to have right relationship, such that its never “us feeding them” but “us feeding us together.” When we seize hold of too much power to start changing things for others, we are liable to a.) burn ourselves out and b.) unintentionally disempower those we are trying to serve. On the other hand, when we start to despair in our powerlessness, or worse become apathetic toward social needs, or when we start pointing fingers at others whose problem it is to solve, we ignore our own appetites and our own responsibility to be partners in change. This is why the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization of which we are part abides not only by the Golden Rule but the Iron Rule as well: don’t do for others what they can do for themselves! Ultimately, this story of feeding the 5000 changes the script from one of expected and forceful domination to effective and thoughtful collaboration. In the face of all those men, Jesus turns to a little boy! In the face of all that testosterone rising up wanting to charge the mountain, Jesus says: sit down in the grass. He does this in order to build a new kind of power, not just with men but with children and women as well. He wants to build power with the hungry, not for hungry, which means that we need all to recognize a hunger within ourselves. What’s more, he wants us building power with God, and he ultimately wants us to learn to trust as Smith says, “that our world, God’s world, has more than enough, it has thrilling superabundance. On condition that we cooperate by changing the agenda from…. overpowering, to feeding! ….[Indeed] Acting in trust creates an amazing quantity of leftover!” Only when we aren’t overpowered by our powerlessness, or our lack of agency, or when we don’t overpower others by “doing for them” can we come to find that we are all hungry!

Imagine that! Imagine trusting in our shared agency such that we never feel powerless in the face of staggering needs? Imagine trusting in our shared hunger that we all can have an equal place at the table and that we all have gifts to bring – men, women, children, homeless and housed, hungry and well-fed. Imagine acting with trust in our capacity for all of us to give and share what we have, whether food, or money, or time or talent. Maybe the question for those of us who are well fed is this: for what are we hungry and what will truly satisfy us in the face of our own powerlessness? We might just have to be reminded to chill out and sit in the grass until we figure it out, until we can get a better sense of what acting in solidarity is all about, until we can know what it means to act with and not for others, to speak with and not for others!

Unfortunately, when we think of thrilling superabundance these days, we tend to think of wealthy elites, not the abundance of God’s love. I was reminded when choosing our hymns for this Sunday of the “thrilling superabundance” we witnessed last summer when over 2 billion people tuned in to watch the Royal Wedding. My 10 year old Nellie and I were among them. Sure, we got a little swept up in the majesty and excitement but I almost had to laugh out loud when I heard them begin to sing a version of a hymn at the close of the service that will be our closing hymn for today. Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer! Seeing that regiment of rich royalty and establishment soldiers singing the verses was the height of irony, especially with the throngs lining up in the streets, and all the aerial cameras taking in the views, all of them knowing full well that the royals were about to set out into a day of utterly exclusive banquets and receptions! They all belted it out together:

Guide me, O thou great Redeemer, pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak but thou are mighty, hold me with thy powerful hand.
Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven,
feed me till I want no more! Feed me till I want no more.”

Its almost haunting isn’t it, when we imagine the loaves that wedding could have bought, the thousands of hungry mouths it could have fed, the crowds of hungry people standing outside the castle. It’s tempting, isn’t it, to think they – the kings and queens of superabundance could solve it all by opening the gates. Indeed, the feasts and banquets many of us participate in on a regular basis should be no less haunting. Our tummies, mine especially, like to get confused over what will truly satisfy. We may think we want the abundance that they have, and so the “us and them” confusion is perpetuated!

Only when we learn, hungry and well fed, together that God is the source of true abundance, will we be able to feed 5000 and so many more! Only when we act, hungry and well fed together, and bring all of our gifts to the table, will we truly taste that bread of heaven, abundant enough to feed not just me, or them, but we and us. In fact, when we sing the hymn at the end of the service, why not try out an inclusive language version. Not bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more! But bread of heaven, feed us until we want no more. Amen.

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