Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Mark 6:30-44 Feeding the Five Thousand
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.
There are multiple versions of this story. It is one that is in all four of the gospels and there is a second, very similar story in Mark. Whenever I come upon a Bible story that is either shared in several books or repeats something said multiple times in other places, I figure that the story either must be a very important story in helping someone understand God or Jesus OR that story represents something people aren’t great at remembering. So, it has to be repeated, often. I learned that from my colleague Rabbi Erica Asch. If a story or idea is repeated, it might mean that we need to be reminded of it because we keep forgetting that it’s important. I think this story might be both... it’s shows us something important enough about Jesus that every Gospel includes it and it is something that we might forget about, so we need to be reminded. Yes, I know the Gospel writers didn’t sit down together and decide who would tell what story for maximum affect. Regardless, we should probably take the gift of the reminder despite the fact that it was not intentionally curated to be given.
So what does this miracles story remind us about Jesus that is so important that every Gospel writer shares it and Mark shares some version of it twice? In his commentary on this text, Ron Allen calls this story “a model and an assurance.” Jesus has an idea of what the Kindom of God will be like. Stories like this one show us what some of the characteristics of the Kindom are and show us Jesus modeling for the disciples how to do what Allen calls “put[ting] the qualities of the Realm of God into effect.” At the same time, Jesus is demonstrating that the things that they need to enact the Realm of God into the world are already in the world. Allen says that Jesus is demonstrating that “God has already provided the resources for doing so.” Allen argues that the disciples are being asked to take what God has provided them and act on it. This sounds like something we might consider doing as well. What has God provided us? And, how do we act on it?
It might seem odd to thing of the kindom of God as something we might do rather than a thing that just is or a place that we might go. Allen, and other scholars I have read, argue that is just what the Gospel of Mark thinks about the Realm of God. It is kind of a place but it is mostly a way of being in the world that can exist right now. Allen calls Jesus an “agent of God.” Agent here is being used both to mean a representative but also a force, the way yeast is an agent in bread. According to Mark, Jesus himself was both evidence of the rising of God’s kindom in the world and one who showed others how to partake in it. The Kindom hadn’t come yet. But, the world was in transition, somewhere between the world that was and the world that is to come. Miracle stories like this one were what Allen calls “mini occurrences of the Realm of God” ... moments where observers could see something about what the Kindom of God will be like and invitations to exhibit the qualities of that Reign right here and right now.
In every version of this story, the miracle happens in the wilderness. We shouldn’t understand wilderness here to be devoid of people. Wilderness is rarely devoid of people unless people have been actively kept out. No, this wilderness is full of people. The people we learn about are the people who came there looking for Jesus. Maybe you’ve founds Jesus in the woods. You would be in good company. These folks went to the wilderness to Jesus and learn from him. He had just come from a time of intense teaching in the area where he grew up. Many people whom he had grown up around refused to believe his teachings or signs because they had a pre-conceived notion about who he was and they couldn’t break out of it. He had also sent out the disciples to teach and heal people. Empowered and invited by Christ, they were able to enact a lot of the reign of God... healing people right and left. But, despite that experience, they are still gonna be worried about feeding everyone. They are still going to be surprised when Jesus can do it.
Jesus and the disciples are in the wilderness because they need a break. They had done all the preaching and teaching. And, also, Herod the king had killed Jesus’ cousin, John. John was the one who helped make way for Jesus into the world. He had also annoyed powerful people. Powerful people can be dangerous when challenged. The verses just before today’s reading share that Jesus’ disciples had just buried John. So, Jesus took them to the deserted place, the wilderness, to rest. As you well know, just because you need the rest, that doesn’t mean the work has stopped. The work... the people... followed Jesus and disciples into the deserted place. Maybe this is the lesson we can take today... miracles can and do happen when you’re tired. And, being tired and being in mourning can make it hard to really see what resources you already have and how you might use them creatively for the Reign of God.
Jesus just says “Give them something to eat.” In that moment, the disciples, tired and worn, had no idea how to do that. All they could see was what they didn’t have and not what they did. It’s like they had forgotten that Jesus had already empowered them with the qualities of the Reign of God. If they can cast out a demon and heal the sick, surely, they can feed hungry people. Too bad in this moment, they forgot. And, Jesus had to show them once again. “How many loaves have you?” Five and two fish. You never know how much will be enough until Jesus shows you. Jesus said that this was enough for him to work with. The disciples gathered people together and Jesus blessed the food and they fed everybody. And, there was food to spare.
Here is what I hope you hear and remember: You... we... already have the resources of the Reign of God at our fingertips and inside of us. Even when we are tired and even when we mourn, we have 5 loaves and two fish. And, that is enough for Jesus to work with. May we be grateful for this reminder. And, may this reminder help point us to where Christ is calling us next.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Ron Allen provided some excellent preaching resources as part of our Stewardship material, “From Bread and Cup to Faith and Giving.”
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.