Through the written word and the spoken word, may we hear the Living Word, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
This week our readings come from Proper 12, Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary. The reason that is of any interest outside of being really into lectionary patterns, is that this week begins what is jokingly referred to as PANecost, or BreadTide, but is truly known as the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse. The Gospel lesson from John serves as both a beginning and an end. First, it is the climax in the buildup of the last several Sunday’s Gospel from Mark. It serves as the dramatic high point in Jesus’ early ministry. It’s also the beginning of what we will continue to explore for the next four weeks after this.
We will have the opportunity to exam what Jesus being the bread of life means in relation to salvation, to the Eucharist, and to our call as followers of Christ. But today…John’s telling of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus takes those five barley loaves from the little boy, and the two fish, and feeds the multitudes, the crowd gathered. Now, it’s tempting, so very tempting to take the easy road. The slow pitch, and talk about feeding the hungry. But, that would be phoning it in a little more than I’m comfortable with. We already have many ministries here to reach out to those in need. And as a congregation, I would say we aren’t necessarily a crowd that needs to hear about the importance of feeding the hungry. There is something else though I think we can talk about from this story. Something that I struggle with, I think most people do; something that I don’t have any easy answers for. I only have questions, confusion, consternation, and lots of harrumphs. When we look past the very basic elements of an act like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering those who are in need, we find something deeper, more elemental to the emotional and physical actions we take. Something that, as a society, over the years we have lost more and more of, mostly to fear. I’m referring to hospitality.
Now I realize that here in the South, hospitality is a little more present than the world I’ve come from. It’s a little more expected and a little more a part of the fabric of polite society here. But I think there is that formal type of hospitality and then there is the type of radical hospitality that Jesus shows us.
Let me offer a couple examples from the book Practicing our Faith, by Dorothy Bass. A catholic priest was telling a gathering of friends about a time when he arrived in Israel late on a Friday afternoon, just as everything was about to shut down for the Sabbath. Public transportation was no longer available, and the house where the people were expecting him was fifteen miles away. So he picked up his suitcase and started to walk. He did not get far before a family saw him and invited him to spend the Sabbath with them. He accepted their invitation, and they all had a wonderful time. When Saturday evening came, he found his bus and went on his way. After the priest finished his story, a Jewish friend said that he had had a similar experience while traveling through Spain as a young adult. One night, he got off a train in a village that was already asleep. A little frightened, he approached the only lighted place. It turned out to be a monastery, and the monks received him gladly. After his departure, he discovered that they had quietly slipped some coin into his pocket as he slept.
In both of these stories, we get glimpses of ancient traditions sustaining ways of life that shelter and nourish people, ways of life ready to receive strangers who are passing through. The hospitality these two young men received came from communities structured with hospitality in mind. In each of these places, hospitality was more than an individual act of kindness – it was sustained by a way of life. What would happen in our society today if young men like these were wandering through? Perhaps they would be fortunate and find a safe place to rest. But they, or others not so different from them, might not. Is there not a crisis of hospitality in our society? It is tragically evident in the existence of a huge unhoused population, in the widespread hostility to immigrants, or those that we like to label as ‘different’. But it affects almost everyone in less noticeable ways as well. A stranger smiles, and we might be instinctively cautious of their motives. In our retreat from hospitality, we find that even friends and relatives sit at our tables less often than they used to.
I am no stranger to this myself. As an example, I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker. I saw many of them on my drive across the country to Arkansas. I’ve seen them around here too, as I drive around this area, to Batesville, to Little Rock. After all the history of people being hurt by those using kindness as a trap, do you think I’ve ever stopped? No, I haven’t. And that’s why I say I don’t have any good answers, because the fear that is so basic to our survival, so instinctual to react to the horrors, darkness, and evil we hear of occurring in our world gets the better of me. I’m not saying I’d ever encourage anyone to stop. And yet, that is the same fear that we hear in the disciples’ voices in our Gospel lesson. Philip says, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” How many times have we argued with ourselves about giving money to the person on the street when our rent or mortgage is due, or donating to organizations helping those less fortunate when we are struggling with our own bills. How many of you have thought of just inviting them in to your own table? I’ve certainly thought about it, but I’ve never actually done it. My favorite grace, I take from the Celtic Daily Prayer book that the Northumbria Community publishes. It’s entitled the Shabbat Grace. It says Bless, O Lord, this food we are about to eat; and we pray You, O God, that it may be good for our body and soul; and if there be any poor creature hungry or thirsty walking along the road, send them into us that we can share the food with them, just as You share your gifts with all of us. Now, granted, this grace is a little wordy, and not as easy to memorize, so I don’t use it as often. But, I want to think that the words are eternal, that I really mean it now and always. Because when we set aside our fear, our assumptions of scarcity, that is when we encounter fully the Grace that is God, that is Jesus Christ and the kingdom that is offered to us.
Instead, most of the time, that assumption of scarcity is what is most prominent. We have to be always ready to give of ourselves, and give abundantly trusting in that Kingdom of God at hand. To trust in that abundant grace. In the tenth chapter of John (10:10) Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” That is precisely what Jesus shows us in the feeding of the five thousand. Is this not, if anything, life abundant? Now, granted, this isn’t a ‘water into the choicest wine’ kind of situation. As I said previously this understanding of Grace is not a prosperity Gospel…far from those misguided teachings. The feeding of the five thousand is with barley loaves, which, at the time of Jesus are not the delicious manna of heaven. We’re not talking about artisan loaves from Grandpa Harps. This is rough bread, the bread of the poorest people. But not only is there enough to feed the people gathered to their fill, but twelve baskets of leftovers. Remember, this is just after the disciples return from their going out. This is still the time and point when Herod’s kingdom is failing to even so much as feed the people. God’s abundance breaks out in the midst of perceived scarcity. That is what the Kingdom of God is like. Grace is more bread than you can even eat, when it seems like there won’t be enough, and to have so many baskets left over. And it really stands out to me in John’s telling of this story that Jesus himself feeds the people. In the other tellings he sends the disciples out with the food, but here Jesus, after telling the people to sit down in the grass, feeds them himself. Some scholars will point to this as the moment of institution of the Eucharist for the Gospel of John, as there is no institution narrative in the last supper for this Gospel. So here these people are sitting out on the abundant grass, it probably is waving in the breeze coming off the Sea of Galilee, and being fed in the abundance of the Kingdom by Jesus. ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.’ We’ve heard that somewhere recently, right?
Somewhere in all of this confusion, consternation, in the midst of not having the right answers to the really tough questions, is God’s grace, is Jesus Christ showing us abundance. Take that with you this week. I can’t in good conscience tell you to pick up hitchhikers, or invite the people flying a sign in to your home, because I haven’t conquered that fear yet myself. But I can encourage you to think about abundance, about grace, about the hospitality of the Kingdom of God and our way of Christian life that sustains such a practice. Go out into the world with Grace and abundance in your heart, break bread with others, that there might be more than you can fill yourselves with. Give thanks to God always for the grace that is given us. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Take up your cross, go, follow Christ and live in the abundant Grace of the Kingdom of God.