I sat on the couch one night this week and turned on the television to relax and to watch the Mets play baseball. I realized that I had not watched any TV for almost a month and what I call my “commercial immune system” had grown weak. The first commercial followed some poor guy around at a wedding reception whose hair was starting to thin on top. He was all alone on this joyous occasion and only a fellow bald geek would talk to him about boring things. But there was hope for him thanks to the miracles of Rogaine that could replace his hair and restore him to the ranks of fully human. Now my hair isn’t really thinning, but someone mentioned a few weeks ago that they thought my hairline was starting to recede upwards on my forward. Of course that hadn’t seen me for 15 years. And people have been remarking that I’m getting more grey hair. I’m moving toward middle age. Perhaps its time that I think about cutting my hair a different way or evening coloring it so it doesn’t show the grey.
While I briefly dwelt on these thoughts, the commercial switch to the Mountain Dew commercial where the biker runs down a cheetah to get his soda back. There ad campaign has targeting the bungee-jumping, sky boarding, snow boarding, thrill seeking crowd, adventurous 20-somethings. Never mind that drinking Mountain Dew will probably drastically shorten your life span, it’s the image that counts. Since I was already dwelling on sliding into middle age, I started thinking that I’ve grown too soft and comfortable. Maybe I should start weightlifting again or take up scuba diving. I don’t take enough risks. I need to do something that puts me more out on the cutting edge of life. And before I could finish these thoughts, a commercial for online stock trading came on. My thoughts quickly changed from an adventurous life to the reality that James will be in college before we know it, Social Security may be gone when I retire.
Thank God the baseball game came back on and pulled me away from this litany of self-doubt and worry. As the Mets came up to bat, I told myself, “Your hair is just fine. You have always wanted to be gray and dignified. You live a very interesting life, serving a congregation that is on the cutting edge of city life. We have been prudent with our assets and we can trust that God will help us work out the future.” My advertising immunity was back in place. 21st century advertising doesn’t just sell products. Its not there to help you make rational decisions about what you need. Today the TV ad grabs hold of your brain, sucks it in and plays on all your insecurities and tosses you back out saying, “Get a life loser.” And it does all this in 30 to 60 seconds.
Now I bet you are wondering what in the world this has to do with Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes and miraculously feeding 5000 people. Isn’t this passage about the compassion Jesus had for the poor? Perhaps this sermon should be about the persisting hunger in our world that could so easily be wiped out if we only had the political will.
One in ten US families cannot afford to buy the food they need for good nutrition on a regular basis. That’s 11 million children and 19 million adults. 841 million suffer serious malnutrition worldwide. The UN World Development program estimates that basic health and nutrition needs can be met for about $13 Billion. Feeding the hungry is an important part of following Christ, but doing justice is not the main theme of this passage.
Isn’t it about Christ’s mysterious, miraculous power that will help us overcome the problems we face in the world? Or it could be preached as an example of teaching the disciples the power of faith. This is a great opportunity to preach about the power of faith and the need to trust God with all of our problems, but faith is not the main theme of the passage.
I’m most interested in what happens after Jesus feeds 5000 people. They want to make him king. Now that is no small desire in a little outpost ruled by the powerful Roman Empire.
We might think Jesus would be happy about this. After all, we admire people who can draw a big crowd and deliver the goods, but Jesus is apparently not flattered by all this. Jesus has uneasy thoughts here, probably because of a very important spiritual experience he had in the wilderness. Remember Satan’s temptation to turn the stone into bread? The temptation was not just appealing to the hunger Jesus felt in the wilderness. Many commentators on scripture point out that it was a temptation to have a primary focus on humanity’s material needs. Here’s the bigger potential problem. When mob makes you King the mob rules you. They want Jesus to be king because of what Jesus can do for them.
Now let me get back to my point about commercialization in our lives. The question I ask myself and all of you think about is this: Has our consumer culture taught us to approach God as consumers rather than disciples? In other words, are we Christians because of what we can get out of it, rather than because we want to truly know this God who created us? It has become common to hear a Gospel of health, wealth, and prosperity in our country. I actually saw televangelist ask the audience to place their wallets on their TV sets! “I want to heal your wallet! We can laugh at this because it is so absurd. Yet in more subtle ways we all slip into being a Christian to get our needs met. Sometimes we think we have struck a bargain with God. We are good then our business will prosper, or we will have career success. We will never have health problems if we just obey the 10 commandments. It becomes just another way to try purchasing inner peace.
It’s easy to fall into trap of those who are trying to make Jesus the earthly King. The crowds question is “Jesus what will you do for us?” But the prior question for us is “Jesus, who are you and why are you here? What is your mission? What will that mean for my life?” That’s the problem I have with celebrities and athletes who thank God for success and touchdowns. I saw a rap star who received an award for an album where he talks about slapping women around and he thanked God for all his achievements.
We all have needs on the surface. Some are basic, such as food, clothing and shelter. Some are more abstract, like self-worth, security, success. Jesus knows we have these needs. He knew 5000 people were hungry and he fed them. He knows we all come to worship with unmet needs. But the miracle Jesus performed wasn’t just about feeding people bread and making their hunger go away. It was a sign that points to something greater. Later he tells his disciples, I am the Bread of life. It hard to preach to hungry people. They need to be fed. But feeding people isn’t the end of justice. The next step is inviting them into a community, bringing them into full participation in the life of God.