Posted by on Jul 29, 2018

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“You Give them Something To Eat”: Jesus hosts a Workshop in Participatory Sabbath Economics

2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145; Ephesians 3:14-21; Mark 6:30-56

Sunday, July 29, 2018 – The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost

Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory

Cameron Fraser

The Convenience store chain 7-11 made the news twice earlier this month, I wonder if anyone noticed?

A particular franchise in the North End of the city was named the #1 Slurpee Store in all of Canada. There is still some work to do as on the same day it was announced by 7-11 that Manitoba is the Slurpee Capital of the world (a title it has now held for 19 years running).

Perhaps though, more of you noticed the much more serious story that came out one week earlier, that the 7-11 in the North Central neighbourhood, on Dewdney Ave was closing. This has perhaps larger implications than one might immediately notice, because this is a neighbourhood that has been without a grocery store for 18 years, and while 7-11 is not the perfect site to purchase healthy groceries regularly, for a community with limited mobility compared to others, this is significant.

Murray Giesbrecht, the Executive Director of the North Central Community Association, is not alone in referring to his neighbourhood as a food dessert.

Today, our readings offered up much food for thought, or at least thoughts about food.

Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures in the book of 2 Kings is the Lectionary’s accompaniment for this text, but it might very well have been this from Isaiah:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,

   come to the waters;

and you that have no money,

   come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

   without money and without price. 

I want to leave that there along with the news about the 7-11 in North Central, perhaps to simply dance around the back of our mind, perhaps inviting some connections of our own thoughts, because this passage, perhaps more than others articulates what we might call a Biblical ethic of food sovereignty — that access to food is a human right, not a commodity.

More on that to come, but I think worth naming at the outset of pondering today’s reading from Mark, which is one that tends to be one of the better known episodes in the Gospels (the 4 books narrating Jesus’ life and ministry that begin what we in the Christian Tradition name as the New Testament).

This is often quoted at church potlucks or suppers, when folks as me about Open Table (our periodic Dinner Church service — stay tuned for fall 2018 dates to be released mid-August) I am often asked if people sign up in advance so we know how many people will come of whether it is more of a ‘loaves and fishes’ strategy.

This episode, and I am hesitant to title it yet, because that tends to colour how we view the significance of the action, appears in each of the 4 Gospels, and specifically in Matthew and Mark, there is a second instance of a crowd being fed, once on each side of the Sea of Galilee.

Today from Mark we heard the first feeding story, this one happening on the side of the Sea of Galilee where the population is primarily Hebrew speaking — this is sometimes referred to as ‘the Jewish side’ which I avoid given that Judaism as an established religion is still many years away.

Now we heard this read as a singular episode, but scholars are fairly convinced that the original audience of what we call the book of Mark would have been used to hearing it (it emerges from a pre-literary society) as one whole story, and by the time this remarkable thing happens with a huge crowd and little food, there have already been 3 instances of questions around food/eating which I think are worth noting.

First, Jesus and his followers are criticized for who they eat with, earlier in the narrative they share a meal with what the text names “sinners, and tax collectors”.

Second, Jesus and his followers are criticized for not fasting as do the disciples of John known as the Baptizer, and thirdly, and of note because of the connection to bread, Jesus and his disciples are walking through fields where they pluck heads of wheat and eat them. They do this on the sabbath (the seventh day) which is being interpreted by the religious/legal elite who do the criticizing as a time in which work is prohibited — to which Jesus replies — the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.

Now if we in Christian Communities think of Sabbath at all, we likely think of it as a religious practice engaged in by our siblings in Jewish Traditions – setting aside the time from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown as sacred time in which no work is done, and this is a fine connection, albeit incomplete.

In the Hebrew Scriptures (and incidentally in the teachings surrounding the practice today) Sabbath is actually a pre-modern equivalent to a principle of economic ethics and in fact first appears in relation to food, to feeding a community, and to bread (specifically to bread from heaven in the Exodus story of manna in the dessert).

I think therefore, that this has implications for how an original audience would have understood the story we heard today — and I realize that I may be making a number of unfamiliar references, but will hopefully tie them all together in the next page and a half of this sermon!

So, we have these 3 moments of eating, all controversial, and all placing Jesus in opposition to certain interpretations that exist in his moment of the community’s ancient traditions, specifically, placing within a perspective that the needs of real people, particularly those who hunger, come before compliance with any religious or purity code.

And these themes will be in the minds of the audience by the time they arrive at the portion we heard this morning. Jesus and his followers are in a deserted place, or at least they are trying to be in one, but in fact are joined by a huge crowd and it is said that Jesus has compassion on them because they are like “sheep without a shepherd”.

Many sermons on this subject which emerge from Christian Traditions who hold that Christianity is to be understood as superior to, replacing, or fulfilling what is deficient in Judaism, take this phrase to mean that the Jewish people of Jesus’ time (again, recalling that this is a problematic term) are not being served by the religion of the day, and so Jesus will be for them what their existing faith could not or would not.

In fact that line “sheep without a shepherd” is another reference back to the story of the formation of the people of Israel in the dessert following their release from slavery in Egypt and the appointment of Joshua to lead the people after the time of Moses — so while it is right that the people are not being well served, it by the existing religious form and it’s leadership, not the essence of the faith itself, and in fact, Jesus is here (and I will suggest throughout this episode) calling people back to their formative stories and practices not from them to a new faith.

So the crowd is in the dessert and Jesus is teaching. It grows late and his inner circle of followers come with a concern that the day grows late and that the crowd should be dispersed to go and buy themselves something to eat from the surrounding villages.

A few pieces of context are worth remembering here.

First, Jesus’ audiences are primarily the rural poor, many of whom are displaced from their subsistence farming or fishing practices due to new Roman imposed laws demanding that catches and harvests be taxed and then sent away either to the cities of Israel where the rulers set in place by Rome live, or off into the coffers of the Roman Imperial war machine and its quest to increasingly expand the Empire.

So these people have no money to go and buy food, which is why Jesus looks at them (and perhaps by extension, to us the contemporary audience who still live in a world—and even city—full of hungry people) and answers—you given them something to eat!

I think it here that it right to offer thoughts about how we refer to this story—most often as Jesus feeds 5,000, which he really doesn’t. Jesus instructs the disciples, and oversees their feeding of 5,000.

The capacity of the community is assessed—five loaves, two fish.

The community is re-organized—groups of 100s and 50s.

Bread (and fish) are taken, blessed, broken, given, and then served—and if your mind began to draw parallels to the act of communion or the eucharist, I think you are responding exactly how the author/composer of Mark wants to you to (although perhaps in reverse, which we will mention shortly).

Everyone eats. Everyone is full. No one is hungry.

We of course know that this is not the case in either the world nor city in which we live.

We previously mentioned the Hebrew Scripture story of manna in the dessert, and it is worth noting the similarities to this story.

Moses (a shepherd to shepherd-less sheep) has lead thousands of Hebrew slaves, freed after centuries of brutal labour and violence in Egypt, out of the land of their captivity into the dessert (the same setting for our story) where they have nothing to eat.

God promises Manna (a Hebrew word for what? or what is it?) which falls from the sky, enough so that all may eat, as long as the following—no one takes more than they need, no one tries to accumulate more than they need for any given day, and that restraint be shown, specifically that none be collected on the sabbath (the first mention of the term).

Everyone eats. Everyone is full. No one is hungry.

A man came from Baal-shalishah (which incidentally is a delightful word to say), bringing twenty loaves of barely bread. A notable detail because this is the first grain to sprout, which means that these loaves were theoretically heading for ritual offering as in the practice of Shavout.

But here is a story wherein the needs of the people trumps the letter of religious law, recognizing that the religious ordinance is not for itself of itself but to remind the people of the gifts of harvest and its ability to support the people.

Everyone eats. Everyone is full. No one is hungry.

Bread from heaven—manna—what is it?

I believe that all of this is creating a cosmology, or an idea of how the world works, that the fruit of earth is gift, and is sufficient for the needs of all.

I began with a quote from Isaiah about coming to buy food for no money. Later in that same passage it reads…

For the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

Everyone eats. Everyone is full. No one is hungry.

I have spoken about my hesitance to title this narrative from Mark about Jesus and disciples, a hungry crowd and 5 loaves with a side of fish — it’s most commonly called a miracle of multiplication.

I think we can read it as such. There are also those who are convinced that what really happens in this story is that when the crowd sees some people willing to share their bread, that those who out of fear of scarcity had hidden their food bring it forward and add it to the feast — which one could also call rightly miraculous — turning an attitude of scarcity into one of abundance and generosity is not an easy task—nor is the community organizing (sit down in groups of 100s and 50s) that facilitates it.

My hesitancy is for us to label this a singularity and not a call to the community of Jesus to look around where there is hunger and give them something to eat.

Everyone eats. Everyone is full. No one is hungry.

To end, we mentioned Jesus’ action of taking, thanking, blessing, giving, and distributing as mirroring the communion or Eucharist meal—but that’s not 100% accurate—this story comes first, the Eucharist/Communion comes later, so we should not read the Last Supper back onto this to find its true church meaning, but perhaps we should read the Last Supper in the light of this—that the table is a reminder and a re-commissioning us to a ministry of abundance and compassion.

Everyone eats. Everyone is full. No one is hungry.

Not yet. Not with urban food desserts and global crises of food sovereignty. Not with produce in Northern communities costing upwards of $75 for a watermelon during the summer.

Everyone eats. Everyone is full. No one is hungry.

Not yet. But it’s in our DNA as the Christian Church.

Don’t send them away. You give them something to eat.

And in life, in death, in life beyond death.

God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.