July 26, 2009, The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
One of the realities of human life is the internal push and pull between selfishness and generosity. It is the tension between looking after #1 and contributing to the larger group in order to live. Humans are social beings. We exist because of each other and we only survive as individuals if the group does. For the group to live we cultivate virtues of generosity, compassion, kindness, thinking of others first. These are, you will note, some of the key components of virtually every religion. But we also cultivate our own personal lives. This is not a bad thing until the balance between the two gets out of proportion, that is, when the individual’s wants and demands and self-centeredness becomes more important than others’ legitimate needs. It is a tired and familiar truism that American culture has an over-developed individual ethos that is costly to us all. But the struggle is universal and eternal. It is also local and current.
Here is my personal example of how this dynamic is played out in my life on an all too frequent basis. I have lived many, many places in this world and have always been around dogs, but I have never lived in a place where so many people disregard leash laws in my entire life. If you ever want to see the uncensored me complete with profanity and wrath come on a walk with me some day in the south Eugene hills. Just the other day in my own condo complex I had yet another encounter…my third actually with this same woman and her two dogs. There is a trailhead in one of our parking lots that Raleigh and I were heading towards. As we crested the hill and without any chance to prepare this woman’s dog came running straight at us, barking and attacking. I know dog language, maybe not fluently but pretty well, and this wasn’t play; this was “get off my turf”. My dog was on leash. This one was not. Raleigh reacted to protect us and the other backed off for a minute. As I was trying to refocus Raleigh on me and get us to the trailhead I yelled at the woman to get her dog under control—without swear words at this point. Of course, I heard the old song and dance of her dog being friendly and that somehow her lack of control of her beast; her violation of not only city, but condo complex leash laws; and her lack of ability to see how terrifying it is to have a strange dog run at you full-tilt were all my fault. I was the jerk, you see. To me this is a small but classic example of the pull between sense of community and selfish behavior that can’t think beyond one’s self. It’s a microcosm of the larger disease in our culture of me first others last. It’s a spiritual cancer and it is deadly.
The story today is a poignant and pointed teaching on how we are to live together as community. Community comes first as both Jesus and Elisha teach. Our religious sense does many things, but one of its fundamental tasks is recalling and constantly shaping us as communal creatures living for the good of each other. In both stories the feeding of the people comes first. And the essential pattern I see is that if we start from that place of generosity and mutual concern then even with limited resources God will help us see the way to provide enough. God’s abundance is always there, but we won’t be able to access it and receive it until we get ourselves to that place within our own hearts and minds. If we aren’t there we will be blind and deaf to what God is offering. This theme is repeated again and again in Scripture.
So let’s look at this story of the feeding of the 5000 in more detail to see if what I am suggesting maps on to it. Last week in our reading from Mark we skipped over the feeding miracle. This week we go back and hear it, though from another Gospel entirely—the Gospel of John. We meet again this compelling Jesus who sees a crowd of hungry people and responds with compassion. The whole emphasis is on what we are to do, not on what they are to do. For instance, the question Jesus poses is not where are they going to buy enough bread to feed them selves (which is probably how we would be more likely to phrase it), but where are we to buy bread for these people to eat. That is the question Jesus asks.
Next, we meet the boy with 5 loaves and two fish, which is quite a bit of food for one small lad. The sin in us would prompt us to eat our fill first and then out of the leftovers give to the hungry. This pattern is encoded in our societies. It helps, it surely does, but it also can neatly avoid the deeper questions of injustice and structural impoverishment. Once again Jesus teaches us by example. First the food is given out to all; it is shared with the community first and no one goes hungry. The first truth is that all deserve their daily bread, that God created a world that can satisfy the needs of every living creature if we but share it rightly. This is love. Not sentimental words we say, but tangible things we do. The starting point is a communal ethos not an individual one.
The risk of this story is to take the miracle and spiritualize it: Jesus gives us spiritual food that nourishes our souls and that is the point of the story. Yes, it is the point, but only a portion of the point. Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 is prefiguring Holy Communion: gathering at table, blessing food, sharing food and being filled. But Jesus did not look at a crowd with growling stomachs and offer them lovely spiritual thoughts to chew on. He gave them real bread, real fish, real food. And this real food is spiritual food and spiritual food is real food. They are not separate realities, but faces of the same reality. That is what sacrament means—that the daily is also holy. Real food that nourishes our bodies also nourishes our souls. To share bread with another is to share life, to share our common humanity, to share time. It is to cultivate a holy soul that is feeding on compassion and kindness through the very act of breaking bread made of flour and water and salt. Both our bodies and our spirits grow. The spiritual and physical realities are intertwined, inseparably so.
One of the worst religious cruelties and heresies is the presentation of Jesus offering spiritualized food. If you are starving feed on the words of Jesus and know that in heaven things will be better is often how it goes. Such religion is hollow, a parched desert. It will not do. Such arguments have been used for centuries to keep the poor in their “place” and replace the living, challenging call of Jesus with empty phrases and religiously sanctioned neglect and contempt.
To see a very immediate version of this, even though couched in secular terms, look to what is happening in Honduras. Do not be distracted by the red herring of the referendum vote. Look to the underlying role of power and money. About a dozen extremely wealthy families rule the nation along with several large international corporations with huge interests in and control of the economy. One of the key reasons most Hondurans, 70% of whom live in poverty, and many experts and observers give for the coup is President Zelaya’s decision to increase the minimum wage from $157 per month to $289 per month. And while this will be hard for smaller business, and I realize that the economic issues are complicated, it can be weathered and there are answers that work. More importantly it forces a look at the larger structures and demands that shape poverty and wealth, in Honduras and in America and all over the world. It is a challenge to start from a communal place of mutual respect and dignity. And it really is about food, providing people who work hard every day the means to purchase enough food to satisfy the hunger of their families each night. It really is about a stance that starts in how do we feed each other in real time. We do it here in many ways and from those acts come the seeds that help move us from charity to a new heaven and a new earth.
Jesus was emphatic that heaven is coming into the world now, the world we inhabit, and it looks like a place where all have food and health and shelter and water and abundant life. The task isn’t to make Jesus a temporal king, but rather to absorb his teaching so that we live this way with each other and shape our societies to do likewise even in societies that are multi-faith and secular. It is common ground.
The communion meal of Jesus is a radical expression of love in that it says there is a fundamental worth to each person that is eternal and sacred, and we see this when we create a community that feeds everyone first regardless of the ways we divide and sort ourselves out as better and worse, rich and poor and so on. It was counter-cultural then and it is counter-cultural now, for that pull of selfishness is always there. I experience it in myself every single day.
In Holy Communion during worship we are shown again most clearly that the spiritual Body and Blood of Christ is also material bread and wine. We are reminded each week that spiritual food and real food are one unity. We are reminded each week that feeding a hungry stomach and feeding a hungry soul are inseparable. If not, we would pantomime eating bread and drinking wine. Yet we don’t. We eat real food and in that eating consume both spiritual and physical nourishment. Feeding the rest of the world and creating societies where people have enough food is merely Holy Communion writ large. Imagine the whole world daily celebrating the Eucharistic feast!
Jesus today is very clearly reminding us that those of us who look to him as our savior, as that compelling figure, are called to shape and continually reshape our lens into a communal focus. We are to see ourselves as part of the “we” before we worry so much about the “me”. He is drawing us more and more into that communal and social vision of the kingdom in which we too as persons will thrive. It is a counter-cultural starting point to be sure, but we are also assured that he will be there to feed us in all ways—real food and spiritual food. Just as he feeds us every Sunday at this table. May we embrace taking that table into the world for that is precisely what he has empowered us to do.