April 6, 2013
Exodus 16: 1-5
Mark 6: 32-44
Grace and Peace be with you; Grace And Peace.
So! A couple of Bible stories about food. Nothing too unusual about people getting hungry and then eating. Apparently folks did that back 3,000 years ago, and 2,000 years ago, pretty much like we do today. Except now bread comes from stores, and back then bread came from… well I guess there must be some explanation for where the food did come from in these stories. I’d like to invite you to read these stories from the perspective of how we understand parables. They may have more to say to us in our modern-scientific world as parables about how to understand our own current problems. We have made some changes in our agricultural system of private land ownership, government subsidies, and food processing and distribution systems, but some of the basic challenges of how to feed a large group of people may have a lot of similarities to the issues in today’s Bible stories. We may also learn a little about why one of our most important sacraments, Holy Communion, is structured the way it is.
Because food is essential for our survival as individuals and as a civilization, and because our spiritual life depends on understanding what is most sacred and important, our use of bread and wine (or unfermented grape juice) in worship is not mere coincidence. Christ is revealed to us in the sharing of a communal meal. The bread & wine represent the actual presence of Christ, the body and blood of Jesus. However, we may have heard the words of institution, the explanation of this ritual, so many times that we start to tune out, instead of thinking about what this can communicate to us about God’s presence in our lives today. So, let’s step back and look at these Bible stories about God feeding people, and explore what values and implications are contained in these stories.
When Moses was leading the slaves out of Egypt, they had barely crossed the Red Sea into safety from Pharaoh’s troops when they began to worry about how they were going to survive. They didn’t see any way to get food, and probably were not too sure how long Moses was going to be able to keep them safe. Then God told Moses that each day the Head of the household was to go gather the manna for the people in his tent, and to gather enough for each person to eat for one day. Except that on the sixth day they should gather twice as much. If they gathered too much on the first five days of the week, the extra manna spoiled and became filled with worms. But on the sixth day, the extra manna was still good when they saved the extra portion to eat on the Sabbath. This is the beginning of God giving the people instructions for how to survive and become God’s People. Of course, in the beginning the people did not just accept the instructions from Moses; they went out for more on the first five days, they tried to save some extra, and they even went out on the Sabbath Day, just to see if there was some manna out there they were missing! But they soon learned that Moses really had gotten the instructions from God, and each person really was only supposed to get enough for one person to eat each day. Maybe that was how God was teaching them to listen to Moses, maybe it was to remind them that they were dependent on God, maybe it was to make a point about each person being equal in the sight of the Lord. It clearly was not just to impress the crowds with a magic trick of making food mysteriously appear, because they received manna each day exactly like Moses had told them, for the forty years they spend travelling in the desert becoming a people that trusted in God and treated each other fairly. Taking more than their fair share or exploiting anyone was forbidden. Food was provided by God, but it came with restrictions about how it was to be used. They couldn’t gather extra and save it up to sell to other people they might meet in the future. They couldn’t order all the people who they didn’t like to do the work of gathering all the food for the rest of the group. They couldn’t ignore the rule about gathering twice as much on the 6th day, then pray super-duper hard on the Sabbath that they were really hungry and God should just send them a little extra manna, just this once, Pleeeease! No, they had to follow God’s laws about how to use this natural resource they had not created, planted, harvested, or produced in any way. It was there to provide enough for each person for one day, and it could not be used for any other purpose.
Now let’s turn to the story about Jesus feeding a crowd of five thousand men. Mark records this as happening immediately after Herod had killed John the Baptist. Jesus told his disciples it was time to go away to a place they could rest. But many people saw Jesus and the disciples leaving, and they told their friends, and if they could have, they would have posted it on FaceBook, but anyway, so many people learned their plan, that the crowds of people got there before the boat carrying Jesus and the disciples. So much for a quiet little retreat. But Jesus had compassion on the people, and he met with the people all day long until it was getting dark. The disciples suggest that Jesus should dismiss the crowds, say he is calling it a day, and everyone should go to the nearby towns and buy dinner. Instead, Jesus tells the disciples something that makes as little sense to them as Moses’ plan about gathering manna did to the people in the desert on the first day. Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd. The disciples had left for a quiet retreat, and didn’t have the financial resources to feed thousands of people on a moment’s notice. Jesus tells them to check with the crowd and see what sort of food the crowds of people had brought with them, & the disciples found only five loaves of bread and two fish. Then the gospel tells us that Jesus blessed the food, broke the loaves for people to share, and gave them to the disciples to share with the crowd. They handed out five loaves and two fish, and after all had eaten their fill, they gathered up twelve baskets of food that had not been eaten. They did not leave the extra food after each person in the crowd had eaten enough to be satisfied, they gathered up the left-overs. Why? Maybe so that we don’t have some little crusts of bread or pieces of fish that were saved after this miraculous event to show other people that, “I was there when Jesus did that thing to feed the crowd.” The scraps were not to be put in a museum or sold to the Romans, or whatever else people may have thought to do to make a profit off this event. And the scraps were not gathered up until everyone there had been fed. It wasn’t just for Jesus, the disciples, and the people who were sitting in the front row. The food was for all of the people. Jesus did not hand out a quiz for all the people to answer questions about what Jesus had said earlier that day, you know, if you correctly understood what Jesus’ sermon was about, then you got fed, but if you didn’t understand what the symbols in the parables were about, then you could watch everyone else eat. No, the food was for All the people.
These stories about God feeding all of the people are important; the values that are shown in how all the people are fed become the model for how the earliest Christians shared meals together as part of their earliest worship practices. Jesus had used the last meal with the disciples to make the point very clearly that the bread does represent his body, and the wine represents his blood. Jesus was showing that he is always with us. However, the stories of God providing food in the time of Moses, and Jesus providing food for large crowds of people far away from any restaurants or grocery stores, these stories also tell us another very important fact about who we see as having the power over how we live our lives. In the time of Moses, it was Pharoah who ruled the empire and controlled all the resources. In the time of Jesus & the disciples, it was the Roman Emperors who claimed to control all of the resources and power. But these stories of feeding people show that it is God who provides for our needs, who makes the rules, and who decides how much of the basic necessities of life people deserve to receive. The earth belongs to the Creator, and not to the political leaders or the banks, or the military. God does not simply provide for people, and then allow us to use God’s resources to oppress others, or deny them access to what we all need to survive. In our complex, globally-inter-dependent world economy, we can make policies that ensure that all people will have access to enough food to meet their basic needs, or we can allow “The Law of the Jungle” to govern our behavior, pretending that the only choice we have is to let the strongest and greediest exploit everyone else. And, really, these parables about food, are not just about food. It is about how we treat our neighbors, it is about economic policies, it is about basic respect for all of the people living in our communities. Food makes a great example, and we still use food today as a way of sharing with others in our community. Yet, the basic principle applies to all of the natural resources that God has entrusted to our stewardship. Whether the issue is clean water, clean air, or any other environmental example, do we acknowledge that God created these resources, or do we act as though we discovered them and can do anything we want with them? Our values are not something that we can lock up in a church on Sunday morning, and ignore the rest of the week; our values are shown in how our political leaders make budget priorities. Our values are shown in how we make and refine laws about business practices. Our values are shown in how we support programs that ensure the health and welfare of all of the people in our state and our country. One of the nice things about living in a democracy is that we do have the ability to communicate with our governmental leaders, and let them know that we value things like: educational opportunities from pre-school through universities, good roads, safe neighborhoods, safe food, bike paths, and all of things that actually make our society great for everyone. As Christians, we have the responsibility to publicize what works, like programs that have been effective in reducing deaths from firearms, and to hold our elected officials responsible for creating social systems that ensure the healthiest environment for all of the people.
Today’s Bible stories show us examples of how God intervened to demonstrate what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. It is our job to take the next step as intelligent adults who are responsible for creating a society where all the people have enough to eat. It is our job as Christians to listen to people who have different political ideas than we do, and work together to create a society where there is justice for all, not just for those who can afford to pay an attorney a week’s wages for an hour’s work. To do this we do need to educate ourselves about things like Senate Bill 136 that will go to a vote in the state senate this week with the title, “The Religious Liberty and Conscience Protection Act” , which allows health insurance companies and employers to refuse to cover any medical condition they choose, instead of maintaining the principle that health care coverage is based on shared risk and shared protection. Yes, we do live in a very complex society, which requires us to listen to many points of view, to understand very diverse perspectives on what programs will be the best to help all of the people. This is not easy. However, leaving Egypt to travel in the desert for forty years was not easy. I’m sure Jesus and the disciples deserved a little vacation time after John the Baptist was murdered, but instead they were confronted with an almost impossible challenge. And it isn’t easy for us to advocate for policies that will benefit our whole society instead of just those who can provide significant financial help to fund expensive political campaigns. The challenges we face in our society at this time may seem to be hopelessly overwhelming, yet the answer is the same as it has been for thousands of years. Our Christian values are based in loving God with everything we’ve got; all our strength, all our heart & passion and all our creativity & intelligence. And loving our neighbors, which means everyone. No, that is not easy. The only way we can do this is to have God give us the energy to make our world a place where justice rolls on like a mighty, ever-flowing river. To have God give us the energy to work for laws that protect our most vulnerable people from being exploited. To have God give us the wisdom to reach out to others who have different ideas and to create new programs & policies that make our communities healthy places for human beings to live.
God continues to feed us today. Not simply by handing us some bread, but by helping us to understand how problems can be resolved. By giving us the energy to work for God’s vision of Shalom. By helping us to understand that our religious values do matter in shaping how we treat each other. When we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, we ask the Living Christ to be present and nourish us. We remember how Jesus ate with sinners and those of low status in their society, as well as teaching in the synagogues and with the more wealthy and educated people of those communities. Our sacrament of communion is based on our participation with Christ in bringing about the kingdom of God. We acknowledge that we are all equal before our Creator, and we are all nourished by the Lord to live as God’s People.
Thanks be to God, Amen.