July 31, 2011 The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
you feed the hungry
Roy W. Howard
On Friday while congress was arguing over how to manage the debt crisis, the Washington Post drew our attention to another crisis much more severe than the one we are facing as a result of our leaders inability to find a common ground for the common good. That is bad enough. But much worse is the fact that “more than 12 million people are at risk of death and starvation in the Horn of Africa. Even if they do not perish, young children are likely to suffer the lifelong effect of malnutrition, including poor brain development.” Willam Mosely, who write the essay went on to say that the current crisis in in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia – the Horn of Africa – is man made, and not merely the result of drought or climate change. “Just as death from exposure is not an inherent result of cold winter, famine is not a natural consequence of drought. Simply put, the structure of human society often determines who is affected and to what degree.” (William G. Moseley, July 29, 2011, Washington Post) What’s the connection with our text?
We know that food is basic to life; when one is hungry, there is nothing more urgent than satisfying an empty belly. Which is why the gospel story of Jesus and the disciples feeding the 5000 is so instructive.
It begins in a lonely place where Jesus has gone to grieve the death of his cousin John the Baptist. As is so often the case, the crowds find him because they want what only he can provide. Watch what Jesus does.
He sets aside his own grief,
goes out to the people,
has compassion on them
and heals the sick.
When the day is finished, he is exhausted, along with everyone else. This is when things get interesting! The feeding of 5000 people with a little bread contains the same combination of offering and transformation. Let’s look again.
It would be so much easier at the end of the day for Jesus to follow the reasonable advice of his reasonable disciples (who undoubtedly are tired and hungry themselves.) The disciples are only trying to be helpful and doing the most reasonable thing possible given the circumstances. Send the crowds away before it gets too late and they can find a shelter and some food in a nearby village. Not unreasonable advice; after all the disciples have counted up the loaves of bread and took a rough guess at the number of people. One might have said, “You do the math, Jesus, it doesn’t add up. Send them away, so you can get some rest, too.” How can you or anyone else satisfy the hunger of all these people? We would never be as callous – out loud anyway – with the masses wandering across borders in the Horn of Africa.
Jesus didn’t send the hungry away. He never does. Undaunted by the magnitude of the need – 5000 people and only 5 loaves! – he simply does the compassionate deed with whatever he has at hand. This is the miracle of compassion that his followers are invited to repeat. Take what is at hand – at little of this and a little of that – and give it away to God’s hungry people, believing that God will do wonders with our offerings.
Jesus takes the small things at hand, like cup of water and loaf of bread, and does what compassion calls for at the moment. He refuses to be overwhelmed, either by his own need for comfort or the urgent needs of the people. Instead of anxiety about not having enough, he looks upon the face of human hunger and does the next right thing. Christians might wonder whether this question will be on the final exam, “what did you do when faced with human hunger?” It seems to me that once again we are faced with that question on the Horn of Africa and the solution is not simply giving aid although that is certainly one next right step.
Jesus took what was given – five loaves and two fish – and blessed it, offering it to God in gratitude. Then he proceeded to break what was given so that it could be multiplied. The first action is the taking of what is given, the second is blessing it, then breaking it and finally giving what is broken for that all may have something. Nothing is left behind and no one is left out. In then end, all are satisfied. How did it happen?
Albert Einstein famously said, “The way I see it you have two ways to live your life: the one as if no miracles exist and the other as though everything is a miracle.” To be open to the miraculous is to be open to impossible things becoming possible. It is a stance toward life that is fundamentally hopeful. One that places confidence in God always, and is especially confident when all other sources have run out. Einstein’s comment begs the question, what is a miracle?
When IRA issued an apology for its history of violence, commentators described it as a miracle. Was it? A mother asked a well-known preacher to make her disabled daughter walk again. When the pastor replied, “ I can’t” the mother said, “well then what good are you?” In the search for a physical change, she dismissed the miracle of life in the relationship itself? Just what is a miracle?
Each of these instances, even the one rejected, contains some human offering which can be transformed into something beyond what was thought possible. An offering of ourselves becomes the vehicle for the miraculous to occur. I suspect something of the miraculous is needed across the Horn of Africa, not to mention Capital Hill.
Did the miracle in the gospel occur, as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, when the meager basket of bread and fish was passed among the people and they dug into the pockets to add the secret bit of bread that had brought along the journey? By the time the baskets had been passed around, had people taken enough to eat but also put a little back in to share with others because that seemed like the only right thing to do?
I don’t know how miracles occur but the gospel tells us that when faithful act boldly, sharing our resources with others, miraculous things begin to happen. Trusting in God and acting with compassion, scarcity can and often is transformed into abundance.
We might take this a step further and call this the Eucharistic life of
taking what is given – the whole of our lives,
blessing it – the joys, frustrations and sorrows alike,
breaking it – allowing ourselves to be broken open in compassion and
sharing the pieces – offering our lives and our gifts to others.
But there is more to the story. The human body can exist for only so long without food. Yet, we know that material abundance is not enough. There are other hungers that are as urgent. In each of us, there is a hunger for connection, for meaning, for beauty, for love.
Saint Augustine believed that underneath all human hungers in a desire for God. Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in Thee, he prayed. The temptation is to satiate ourselves with junk foods – quick fix superficial relationships, endless entertainment, consumerism – that keep us going, even transform (or malform) us, but can not satisfy the deepest yearnings of our hearts for God.
Nowhere is the generosity of God’s love shown more clearly than at the Lord’s Table where the hungry children of God are fed. There we relive Jesus’ actions when he took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to the disciples to share with the hungry. We are invited to do the same. Our actions in the world addressing the hungry flow directly from God’s action toward us in the eucharist. Now wonder Calvin wanted a weekly service of holy communion.
We might consider the same knowing that the hungry still gather around the Lord’s Table with open hands and open hearts, remembring Jesus never turned the hungry away. He fed them generously until all are satisfied. No junk food – He is bread of life. Given that all may have life.