August 10, 2015

The Ministry of the Meal


[Note: No audio is available for this sermon.]

Text: John 6:7: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

We come again this morning to the story of the most famous dinner party in human history, the feeding of the multitude. It is the only story about the life of Jesus that appears in all four of the gospels, which gives it a kind of authority and importance that invites closer attention from us. And even though we’re in the lectionary year in which we usually hear from the gospel of Mark, this morning’s reading gives us the version of the story from the gospel of John.

When the same story appears in each of the foundational texts we have for the life and ministry of Jesus, we can get a sense of the purpose of each of those authors, of the things they think are worth our paying attention to, by comparing what is similar and what is different about each version of this story. John’s retelling of the feeding miracle runs pretty much like the other version of this story, but it includes a few small details not mentioned in the other three versions, details that give us some idea of what John might have thought was important about the story.

One of those small details appears at the beginning; one appears in the middle; and one appears at the end.

The first is a little detail that situates the story within the calendar of the Jewish year. John’s version is the only one that mentions that this little story unfolded in the lead-up to Passover. It’s that little fact that seems to start the action of the story: “Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip...”

Why would this be worth mentioning? It’s a question worth considering. John’s gospel was probably written for an audience that was not Jewish—or, said differently, for an audience of people outside Jewish traditions and culture who were interested in the message of Jesus. They needed occasional pointers about Jewish things, exactly because it wasn’t the world they came from.

Of course, it may be that John was just trying to tell a Gentile audience something about the timing of the story. But it seems more likely that he was trying to relate something about the idea of Passover to the story he was about to tell. To those outside the Jewish tradition, Passover was something very distinctive about the Jewish people; it was a time that they shared in both retelling and reclaiming the story of how they became God’s own people.

And they did that, of course, by carrying out the instructions Moses had given them way back in Exodus, instructions about a specific meal to share.

It turns out that there is something very significant, something that demands our attention, about the meals God instructs us to share. The Passover, the feeding of the multitude, the Eucharist meal—all of them both make us who we are and tell us how we are meant to be in relationship with God and with each other.

That seems to be the reason for this little detail. It’s there to signal that the story we’re about to hear tells us something about who disciples are supposed to be. Philip starts out being a very practical, hard-headed, cost-conscious member of the group around Jesus; he ends up simply doing what Jesus asks him to do, feed the people with what he has to work with. And when he simply stops worrying and starts working, the seemingly absolute constraints of his scarce resources no longer limits what he, and the rest of them, are able to do. When they act in faith, instead of in fear, they get done what God needs them to do.

The second small detail comes in the middle. One of the most familiar details of this story is the grocery list; five loaves and two fishes. But in every other version of the story, those ingredients simply appear on the scene. Here, they are provided by someone who isn’t one of the disciples; “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.”

He isn’t one of them; he hasn’t been traveling them; he isn’t even old enough to be taken seriously as an actor in the drama. He is the last person they should be depending on, or even paying attention to. But he provides the essential material for the whole story. The least likely person ends up contributing the most essential thing.

John is teaching us something here, too, about how the community of disciples is supposed to work. We will always prefer being in the company of people we know, people we like, people who think like we do, worship like we do, are generally part of our tribe.

But to do the thing God wants us to do, we need to be prepared to look for the gifts of everyone—people we’ve known a long time and people who have just arrived, people we respect and people we don’t yet know well enough to easily trust. The story is not just about being generous and faithful in generosity; it’s about being generous in including and accepting new people, new ideas, and new possibilities.

The last added detail comes at the very end of the story. Only in John’s gospel do we get a sense of how the five thousand respond to the experience of this mass meal. The text says that something like an uprising happens, one in which this multitude wants to “take him by force and make him king.” Jesus senses this, and rather than take advantage of the gratefulness of the people he’s helped he simply withdraws from the scene.

It’s a little harder to imagine here what John felt important to communicate by including this part of the story. Certainly one thing is clear; when you answer God’s call by giving people actual help, actual sustenance, they will respond, and they will respond positively.

But it also seems as though John means for us to regard that with caution. Jesus had in that moment an opportunity few would-be leaders would know how to forgo. Certainly none of the twenty or so people running for president now would have spurned the adulation of a great crowd who wanted to take them by acclamation and make them king.

All of this fills out and enriches the work we do when our ministry is done by means of meals. We do that quite a bit in this parish. We have fellowship meals in three groups for nine months of the year. We serve breakfast here on the first Sunday of the month. We have a couple of all-parish gatherings during the program year, and three community cook-outs during the summer. We serve lunch at the Monday lunch program on the fifth Monday of any month there is one, and that pretty much always means four lunches each year.

Taken all together that’s well north of forty meals that we put on in some way or another every year. And that’s not counting the get-togethers that happen between us just because we end up in each others’ houses from time to time.

We are pretty serious about the ministry of the meal around here. In fact this very day, this afternoon, a group of volunteers from our collection of Newton churches will be descending on into the basement to prepare lunches for the B-Safe program for the coming week.

That work alone makes an illustration of the points John makes through his small added details in this feeding story.

This meal does tell us something about who we are and how we are meant to be in relationship with God and with each other. Serving a meal is an expression of what is supposed to be a distinguishing characteristic of our Christian community or any Christian community; we serve others, and especially those who have less than we do. And just as important, by sharing the work of doing it together we offer a public witness to what it is we believe, and who it is we serve.

Engaging in the work of not just this meal, but the community of young people it serves, brings us into contact with just those whom we are only just meeting, we haven’t yet come to know, and yet who hold the key to our future—who bring what is essential for the whole of the story to come. They are like the young boy in the story who brings the ingredients. But instead of bringing the food in this story, what they are bringing to the community of disciples is the future itself—if we will be wise enough, and faithful enough, to let them offer it.

And then there is this business of adulation and acclamation. It’s not likely we face a great deal of danger there. It’s not likely  that either the kids in B-Safe or the neighbors who hear about our work will start beating down the door to our churches.

Even so, there’s a wise caution in the story. We are always eager to see that the work we do has impact, that it makes a difference in the world. When we see that result we want to believe that it speaks well of us. But like my old boss used to teach me, “never believe your own press.” Our task is to answer to the challenge God sets before us to the best of our ability: that’s all.

If it works, then it works to bring people to their own relationship with that same God—which may or may not be in a way we see. That’s not our task. Our task is to feed the hungry, whether they are hungry for food, or companionship, or acceptance, or community. And it turns out that the task is the reward—not anything that might come as a response to it.

Meals are important matters in the ministry we do. They teach us how to serve, how to connect, how to put others first, how to meet real and basic needs. They are a form of ministry that every one of us can take part in. And they bring us together with folks who expand our understanding of what the church is, how it works, and who it includes. Amen.