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John 6:1-15 "Sharing Our Bread"

Take a moment with me and step into this scene.  You are now a first century Galilean. Its pay day so you stop and buy a few barley loaves and while you are at the fish market, you hear the growing fame of Jesus, the carpenter from Nazereth, who confounds the Pharisees with unconventional but plain wisdom, and who reportedly heals the sick.  He is only a few  hours walk from your little town of Capernaum, so maybe it is time get your blind uncle Bartemeus and check the story out.  You would probably take about five loaves of bread and a couple of dried fish, enough for a grown person to eat for about two days, to last through the journey.  After all, it seems that every other person you know is going to take the same journey, and there is not a McDonalds between Capernaum and Tiberias. 

 

When you arrive at the hilltop from which Jesus is preaching and healing, it is quite a sight. 
There must be 5000 people trying to see him.  That is the most people you have ever seen in one place.  Herod’s new amphitheatre in the Galilean capital of Tiberius is supposed to hold 7000, but it hasn’t been filled yet.  This little hilltop has temporarily become the second largest city in Galilee.  There are people from all over – farmers from the hill towns, fishermen from little villages, a bunch of construction workers from Tiberius, who are mostly immigrants from North Africa or Syria.  They are not kosher, I better steer clear.  I’m getting hungry, how about you?  I don’t know about sitting down to eat though, I bet some of these poor souls are hungry and don’t have anything.  I don’t want to share and run out, or be impolite and eat in front of them.  And many of them are Gentiles and I can’t eat with them.  I think I will wait for awhile and see what everyone else decides to do. 

 

Just as your stomach is really starting to growl, you are within earshot and can hear Jesus talking about food with one of his disciples.  That fisherman seems to be explaining to Jesus how many days wages it would cost to buy food for everyone.  Like you could buy enough food out here in the country side.  Most of the folks out here can just feed themselves let alone this crowd.  Wait, something is happening, some kid is giving Jesus a basket.  It looks like he has about five loaves and two fish.  Wait, that’s what I’m carrying.  Oh, now everyone is sitting down, Jesus is motioning for us to all sit.  He’s praying (fold your hands and be quiet!)  It looks like they are giving the bread and fish to a few poor wretches up front.  That won’t go far.  So what happens now?  I’m hungry.  Hey buddy, where you from?  Sepphoris, hey my mother is from there.  You want a little bread?  Oh, you’re good.  (Turning to the other side.)  How about you?  Oh, you’re OK too? You like you could use a little bread, here take this.   If that kid could share, we can give a little too.  Eat up everyone!

 

Cut!

 

My version is based on biblical exegesis and one simple idea.  It starts with a simple question.  Do you think 5000 people would go off into the country side and the only person to make any provisions was a small boy with his five loaves and two fish?  The author of John tells us the people were following Jesus for healing, not because they were starving.  They were likely poor and in need of their daily bread, but that doesn’t preclude people carrying some provisions if they are walking a few hours from home.  I am making the case that the real miracle here isn’t necessarily creating lox and bagels without pre-existing matter, but rather - it is a wonder that a wary crowd of strangers could come together in trust and community; and share what they had.  They moved from a sense of scarcity and selfishness to a spirit of sharing and abundance.  This miracle should perhaps be renamed from the multiplication of the loaves, to the miracle of a small boy’s open-hearted sharing. 

 

I have preached on this passage before and some people have found it disturbing, even disrespectful of Jesus to challenge the notion that he multiplied bread ex nihilo – from nothing.  We can’t go back to the security camera to see what really happened and even John’s Gospel is vague as to the precise moment of the miracle.  If Jesus defied the laws of science, I’m fine with that.  (After all, doesn’t Wonder Bread defy nature by never molding?!)  But he remains my Christ if he did not magically produce bread.  To those who want a literalist interpretation of the Bible, I have two simple points.  1)  There is no place in this passage where the Gospel writer says bread was created from nothing.  The communal sharing explanation is just as possible.  2)  What miracle does the world really need now?  The miracle we really need is for people to stop living as if their neighbor is just part of the crowd.   We need communal ideals that don’t leave some starving and others hoarding.  We need a biblical faith that challenges excessive inequality and upholds a wise stewardship of our resources.  That would be a miracle worthy of a messiah.  The feeding of the 5000 is the symbolic act of communion, the living out what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.” 

 

That message certainly fits John’s message, since he makes the point that it is near the Passover.  Passover is the celebration of the liberation of the people from slavery in Egypt.  John is picking up the common theme from all four Gospels that Jesus is the new Moses.  Jesus is on a mountain for this event, further linking Jesus to Moses, the Mt. Sinai law giver who structured and new community based on love of God and justice for the people. 

 

You are probably wondering, “How does this speak to us today in the 21st century?”  (I thought you would never ask.)  I am going to take two weeks to answer that question.  This week I want to share a few thoughts on making sure we have a global community with enough bread for all.  Next week I will look at the spiritual component, where Jesus says he is the bread of life, and we will share communion together.

 

Many churches enact the feeding of the 5000 through the regular participation in community dinners, food pantries and other support services.  While I was operating a homeless shelter in Poughkeepsie, every night of the year a volunteer group came in and served a meal for 60 people.  It happened through rain, sleet, blizzards and even floods.  The caring commitment of 35 volunteer groups was amazing, almost miraculous.  Similar efforts exist all over the country and religious organizations are the backbone of this massive effort.  In these difficult economic times we are discovering the limits of charitable actions and must think about the bigger picture of why so many people do not have enough food to eat, without food stamps or other supports. 

 

I want to make three brief points about the economics, politics and environmental issues we face when trying to stop hunger.  1)  Our global markets for food are broken and do not efficiently provide nutrition for everyone.   For nearly a decade, the United States has been a net food importer, while relatively poor countries in Latin America are net food exporters.  http://grist.org/article/us-about-to-become-net-food-importer/

At the same time, 40 percent of the corn produced in the United States in 2011 was burned In our gas tanks, and this is has been subsidized with tax money.   http://www.forbes.com/sites/henrymiller/2011/06/07/ethanol-subsidies-dumping-corn-in-the-ocean-would-be-a-better-idea/2/  During the same year, the world food price index went up 30 percent.  For you and I this means higher prices at the grocery store and restaurants, and shifting budgets.  For billions of people in the world living on less than $2 a day, it means disaster.  The Arab Spring was largely a big food riot in the most arid countries in the world.  If these policies are not changed we will be plagued with great instability.

 

2)  Most of our food supply is controlled by six very large corporations, and they are profit machines for investors, not humanitarian organizations.  Here’s one simple example from the NY Times this week.  The USDA was promoting meatless Mondays for school and corporate cafeterias.  The goal was to reduce the unhealthy intake of meat and the environmental impact of factory farming.  Big Agriculture now rivals Big Oil in environmental destruction.  A few complaints by the Cattleman’s Association and an Iowa House Rep. killed a simple and wise health advisory immediately. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/26/us/usda-newsletter-retracts-a-meatless-mondays-plug.html

 

3)  Global climate change is diminishing our planet’s food producing capacity.  The Midwestern drought and Westerns wildfires should be seen as a potential humanitarian catastrophe in the coming year and a wake up call to urgently address all parts of our broken global food system.  We can begin now in our own lives.  Yes, keep supporting local food pantries.  Also, get involved in the local food movement.  Eat local produced food and try some Meatless Mondays.  Northampton, and many of you, are already on the forefront of what our nation needs to do in lifestyle changes.  We also need to be informed advocates for dramatic political change.

 

If ever humanity needed a miracle of manna from heaven or the multiplication of 5 loaves and 2 fish, now would be the time.  Miracles don’t need to defy science, but they do need to defy broken economic, political and environmental systems.  I believe in miracles because I believe hearts can change and justice can be done.  I believe the feeding of the 5000 was a miracle, a miracle of building community and encouraging equal sharing.  And I believe the messianic call of the Great Commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, is the essential spark of humanity’s spiritual and political evolution.  

 

 

 

 


Mark 6:14:29 "Herod's Kingdom"

This is my first sermon at First Churches, Northampton. I hope to be a regular writer again now that I have settled at a full-time church position.

 

Today we begin a holy conversation. That may not be apparent since I am the one with the microphone and doing all the talking. However, preaching should always be a conversation, and what happens on Sunday morning is really a discussion starter for Holy conversation during the week. The other six days my job is to listen – I listen for what you all have to say, I check the pulse of the world around us through everything from the Hampshire Gazette to dozens of blog sites, and I prayerfully attend to the scriptures and the ancient wisdom of our faith, and most importantly, I try to heed the promptings of the Holy Spirit and hope to bring a good weekly discussion starter to all of you. After worship, you will then move the holy conversation forward, entering into dialog with me, bantering with your neighbor and perhaps even a quiet exchange with God on your own. Preaching works best when it is a Holy Conversation, where we each do our part to engage. I give you 15 minutes (some weeks maybe 20!) to get the ball rolling, and you take it from there while I listen and get ready for the next round.

 

This conversation is also wider than what we do. This is why I follow lectionary in preaching, and its three year cycle of scriptures that gives us the proper readings for Advent, Lent, Easter and so on, and exposes us to most of the Bible. This keeps me from my pet topics and forces me to wrestle for a message. It also means we are entering the Holy Conversation with thousands of other churches who are taking up these passages at the same hour as our little tribe here.

 

  I must confess that the jumping off point for starting our Holy tete-a-tete was not what I would have selected. The beheading of John the Baptist would not be my choice for the first day on the job as chief conversation starter. I’m sure you would all let me off the hook and tell me I can skip the lectionary this week, but I have found that taking the easy road has not lead to good preaching. The road less traveled is often what makes our conversation Holy. So here our banter begins, with Herod and John the Baptist’s head on a platter. (With religion and politics!) Herod was a fairly typical Roman lackey who was more concerned about gaining favor in the Roman court than with his people. His main ambition seemed to be building cities as monuments to himself and even starting a city from scratch, naming it after his Roman master Tiberius to curry favor. The most popular modern portrayal of Herod comes from Jesus Christ Superstar, where Herod is played like a character straight out of la cage a folles, sarcastically taunting Jesus:

 

You are the Christ, yes the great Jesus Christ. Turn my water into wine, walk across my swimming pool.

 

Since the Gospel lesson portrays him as one who liked to party hard and enjoyed lavish dances, this may capture some spirit of being Tiberius’s sycophant by the Sea of Galilee. But while he partied, his subjects labored. Jews under Herod were nearly in the same role as under Pharaoh a few centuries before, building monuments to enhance the legacy of the super-rich. Rome was just smarter about it, calling people tax payers and employees instead of slaves. Herod strikes me as an ancient version of Donald Trump, a vain man with a stupid comb over, who unfortunately invades our politics with his self-enhancing rhetoric. Herod was also a living in an ancient reality show, stealing his brother’s wife, who was also his niece and named Heroditus. Fortunately Trump hasn’t had a wife named for himself, a Trumpina or Trumpette, but I bet Trump would be jealous of Herod’s power, because then instead of saying “You’re fired,” he could say “Put his head on a platter.” (This seems to be where reality TV is headed.)

 

There is more to the conflict between John and Herod than a prophet denouncing yet another licentious Roman tetrarch. I think John was savvier than to risk his neck over something so common. I believe it is the consequences for the people that matter to John. Herod was playing a dangerous game. When Herod fell head over heels for Heroditus, he divorced his first wife, and the price was much higher than mere alimony. Herod’s first wife was the daughter of the king of Nabataea, a strong rival to Herod’s eastern border in modern Jordan, who had his capital in the famous cliffs of Petra. Herod’s first marriage was a political affair encouraged by Emperor Tiberius to settle a land dispute between Herod and Areteus IV of Nabataea. You break the marriage, you break the deal. Several years after John was beheaded, Areteus invaded Herod’s kingdom in a war that was disastrous for the people of Galilee and led to Herod falling out of favor and being sent to exile in Gaul. John, who baptized in the Jordan, which was the boundary between the kingdoms, fully understood the consequences of Herod’s folly.

 

Herod may have finally received what he deserved but not before hundreds of people were killed in battle because of his whims. This is a Shakespearean level tragedy about the fate of selfish rulers and their hapless subjects. In our times, we hope that democracy will counteract the folly of corrupt and foolish leaders, but increasingly our future is being dictated by the agendas of wealthy self-interests. Bill Moyers may be our John the Baptist, warning us to the dangers of moneyed interests in our politics. His weekly broadcasts shine light on the Herod- like figures in our midst. There is not enough time this morning for me to launch into a rant about the dangers of Citizen’s United decision by the Supreme Court, or on banksters, the Koch Brothers and money in politics. Let it suffice for me to say Herod lives. We are in his Kingdom still.

 

How do we live, as followers of Jesus, in the Kingdom of Herod? Jesus and John the Baptist struggled with this question as well. In the Gospel of John, the story is told where John sends a messenger to Jesus, asking if he is truly the messiah or should he search for another. From prison, it may have looked to John that Jesus was not being radical enough. Jesus was preaching, teaching, healing and telling parables, but John may have been wondering when Jesus was going to claim the messianic role and set the world right in a big apocalyptic moment. John wanted to see the baptism of fire and the coming of the new age. Perhaps he thought, “I want a messiah, not this stuff.”

Jesus sent his own message, quoting to John the message of Isaiah 61:

"Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.

 

  I hear Jesus telling John that there are many ways that the Kingdom moves forward. Justice does not always roll down like waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream. Signs of God’s work are not always in the dramatic world-changing events. There are times when the God breaks into our lives, healing our relationships, giving of courage to take on hard things, or in some cases to endure with dignity the things we cannot change. My urban ministry professor, Bill Weber was fond of saying, “The Kingdom of God comes in inches, and we are called to celebrate every inch.” In my previous work with homeless people in Poughkeepsie, I reminded my staff to celebrate every time someone chose to go to rehab and get sober, everyone who graduated from the program and got an apartment, every person in our parole re-entry program who got their first job after incarceration, whatever goal was achieved, celebrate it as a sign of God’s presence.

 

  Justice and peace need to be done at the micro-level and the macro-level, in our hearts and attitudes, in our relationships, in the kind of community we form in our church life, at City Hall and Congress and in the structures of society where Herod still reigns. We too will experience the blind receiving sight, perhaps when we ourselves are ready to look at things afresh. We shall know the deaf hear, when we little attentively to what is really going on around us. The leper is cured when we offer our healing love to those who are outcaste. The poor hear good news when we are willing to speak truth power as John the Baptist. We are called to the visible hope of the invisible Kingdom of God. So let us celebrate every inch we can claim from Herod! Amen!