Isaiah 55:15; John 6:113; Matthew 14:1321
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: The One God. Amen.
There are two different feeding narratives in the four gospels. In one of the feeding narratives which appears in all four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the number Jesus feeds is 5,000. In each of these Gospel accounts, Jesus went to a deserted place on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. In Matthew and Mark one finds the second feeding account, this time Jesus feeds 4,000, but this feeding is also on the other side of the lake in a deserted or lonely place. I have always found it tantalizing why the feeding accounts always took place on the “other side of the lake” in a deserted place. The “other side of the lake” refers to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, directly opposite of the holy places the church remembers today as the site of Jesus’ ministry.
There is something else that is tantalizing about the geography. On the side of the Sea of Galilee where the feeding of the 4–5,000 took place, we are in the geographical area outside of the boundary of ancient Israel. In other words we are in ancient Syria, outside the land of biblical Israel. The River Jordan, which has always been the political boundary, runs into the Sea of Galilee from the north and continues south as the River flows out of the Galilee and creates the border on its way to the Dead Sea. Throughout time the River Jordan has always provided the political boundary of the land.
It is not a coincidence that Jesus’ miracle of feeding the 4–5,000 takes place in such a venue. After all when Jesus called his disciples, the first disciples he called, Andrew, Simon Peter, James and John, he called them from Bethsaida, which is located on the “other side” or perhaps more technically correct, on the eastern side of the River Jordan. Jesus’ healing and feeding were not only for his people, the Jews in the Galilee, but for those Gentiles who lived “on the other side.” So often when we think about Jesus’ ministry along the coast of the Sea of Galilee, we do not appreciate the subtleties that geography provides for us in those feeding and healing narratives. It is in those subtleties, I would argue, that we can learn a lot about Jesus’ ministry. If we stop for a minute to think about this, of course, this makes a lot of sense.
The fact that the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes occurs more times in the Gospels than any other story testifies to the importance that this feeding event had for the early Christian community. Many scholars see the feeding of the 4–5,000 as a pre-shadowing of the Eucharistic feast that we will celebrate this morning, but there is one big difference between the feeding of the 4–5,000 and the Eucharist. In the feeding, what was important for the early Christian community is that Jesus ate fish with his disciples. There was no sense of sacrifice in the feeding narratives that plays such an important part of our Eucharistic liturgy. Instead Jesus joins in the feast, eating fish with those who came to hear him speak and those who came to be healed by him. In other words the feeding of the 4–5,000 was truly a time to have a meal together. Much to the chagrin of Jesus’ disciples who wanted Jesus to send the people away and not to feed them, Jesus feeds the multitude with five loaves and two fish.
Today as we hear more and more about the world’s hunger, I suspect each of us must ask ourselves questions about the challenges the Gospel poses for us living in this 2008 world. A week ago last Thursday 650 Episcopal and Anglican bishops attending the Lambeth Conference walked from the Houses of Parliament, across Westminster Bridge to Lambeth Palace, in solidarity with the Millennium Development Goals. These Goals focus on the elimination of poverty and at the center of poverty is hunger. One of the things the bishops heard is the devastating impact that hunger has in first world as well as in third world countries.
Archbishop John Sentamu, archbishop of York, wrote an editorial in The Times of London just hours before he joined the Lambeth bishops as they walked across the Thames. Archbishop Sentamu in an article entitled, “The Church’s inward-looking agonizing is trivial with millions still dying in abject need” said, “The walk is a public pledge to redouble the Church’s efforts to work toward total eradication of poverty.” “The real disgrace is that, for the first time in history, our generation has a genuine opportunity to eradicate extreme poverty, yet we seem so slow to get on with it.”
It is here that the Gospel for today is so important. Jesus goes to the other side of the lake. As a Jew, Jesus moves out of his “comfort zone” into Gentile land. While it is absolutely appropriate for the church to see the feeding of the 4–5,000 as a pre-shadowing of the Eucharistic feast, the setting of the Gospels concern is that Jesus ate with the people. He was concerned that the people who had come to him were hungry, and despite what Jesus’ disciples urged him to do, Jesus fed them. Jesus fed the people “outside the land.” He fed the Gentiles.
Think how incredible that feeding was in the first century and even today in the 21st Century. It is never difficult for a person to take care of his/her own family or tribe, but it is much more difficult to feed the stranger, someone who is different than I am. How difficult it is for the Israeli to feed the Palestinian, or the Palestinian to feed the Israeli. How difficult it is for the Russian to feed the Georgian. How difficult it is for Americans to feed the illegal immigrants from Mexico. It is human nature to take care of one’s own tribe, but Jesus goes to the other side of the river and feeds the Gentiles. That is certainly what we would today call “generous spirited Christianity.”
Jesus challenges us to go to the other side. Jesus challenges us to move out of our comfort zone. For those of us who live in Northwest Washington, we are challenged to go to Southeast Washington and Northeast is called to go to Southwest and vice versa.
If you walk through the staff kitchen here at the National Cathedral on the first Friday of every month, you will see Cathedral staff members preparing hundreds of sandwiches for Martha’s Table. If you have ever attended the Sunday 10 am Folk Eucharist here at the National Cathedral you know all about Martha’s Table because every day that remarkable organization provides a daily meal for 1200 homeless families and individuals in Washington, 500 daily meals and snacks for the 300 low income or homeless toddlers in their daycare and after-school learning programs. Last year Martha’s Table served 558,000 meals and snacks. That is a lot of sandwiches and soup! And two of the four stops that the McKenna’s Wagon from Martha’s Table makes is in Northwest Washington, the supposed wealthy area of this city. Jesus went to the other side of the lake and a miracle took place—5000 were fed.
Let me share with you a letter that I received while I was Secretary General of the Anglican Communion. The letter came from Benjamin, a priest from the Anglican Church in Uganda. The reason Benjamin wrote to me is because his people did not have enough food to eat. They were hungry. His parish is in fertile land, but instead of the drought they suffered two years previous, this year it was rain. Benjamin wrote,
“because of the rain all of the plants are rotted. We lost cassava, potatoes and groundnuts. The millet which was harvested was too little for all the six months. Many of our people are desperate and have nothing to eat.”
Benjamin also sent me a newspaper clipping whose headline read: “Death swells as famine food runs out.”
Jesus went to the other side of the lake. How do we respond to the Father Benjamins of this world? How do we respond to the people in our nation’s capital who will have no food to eat today?
At the Sea of Galilee there is a marvelous church that was built on the foundation stones of the fifth/sixth century Byzantine church that commemorates the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. Just in front of the altar is a mosaic of brilliant colors. This famous mosaic shows a basket of four loaves of bread with two fish, each fish being placed on either side of the basket of bread. Why did this ancient mosaic have only four loaves, not five as the account in today’s gospel reads? In the history of the Church there are various interpretations as to why there are four, not five loaves. The dominant interpretation that most scholars accept is this: that you, that is each one of us, is intended to supply, to be, the fifth loaf of bread. God wants us, each of us, to be taken, blessed, broken, and given as the fifth loaf…to be that fifth loaf in Washington, Chicago or San Francisco; London, Delhi or Harare; Cairo, Tehran or Polynesia. The ancient mosaic on the floor of the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes is our story. It is a story about you, it is a story about me.
How willing am I to go to the “other side of the lake” to be the fifth loaf of bread?
In the Name of God. Amen.