Lent 1 + Sunday, February 21, 2021
I’ve noticed something this week, something in the familiar story Katie’s read, that I’d not noticed in all the years I’ve read this story and loved this story and preached this story in church. Loaves and fishes, right? You come to believe it’s pretty simple, once you get the headline. Loaves and fishes. But I noticed something this week. And I suppose that’s one of the gifts in the bible, as it is in all great literature really. There’s always another surprise. If you’re willing. There’s always another perspective. If you’re watching. The grace of God shines through these sacred texts—especially through the gospel—like sunshine through a crystal. And we see new patterns each time we come close. Fresh truths are illuminated if we keep our eyes open and our hearts tender and alert.
So I want to share with you what I’ve noticed. But first, let’s just review the outline, the contours of this story; there’s a lot going on here. Mark’s gospel moves quickly. Jesus is building a movement and he’s always in motion, and always teaching on the fly.
So the disciples return from their own mission, from days of teaching and healing and stirring up trouble with all their loving and touching and anointing among all kinds of people in all kinds of places. Jesus has cut them loose, told them to try their hand at the good work of gospel ministry. And they return from that mission, and Jesus invites them to spend some quiet time, with him and one another. In a deserted place. Space for reflection. Time for prayer. In a deserted place.
So they take a couple of boats, row across the lake, and head out for a place like that. Some peace, some quiet, some time for talking these over, processing and enjoying one another’s company. But the same crowds that have stayed close, the same crowds that have sought Jesus out wherever he’s been: they hurry to follow. They’re tired and worn down by the banality and greed of the empire. They’re weary and restless and aching for any hope, any kind of hope whatsoever. And they’re hungry, they’re very, very hungry. And Jesus sees them waiting on the shore, as his boat pulls in; and Jesus has compassion for them. His heart, always his heart, breaks for them.
So it goes like that. They hang out. Jesus teaches some more. And it grows late. You remember this part. The disciples start to worry. It’s an out-of-the-way kind of place, and they don’t have many provisions on hand. Maybe it’s time to send the crowds back to their villages, back to their fields, somewhere they can scrounge up some food for themselves. But Jesus turns the question around: he asks the disciples what kind of resources they have, or what’s out there in the crowd. “You give them something to eat,” he says. “You give them something to eat.”
And when the disciples do some checking around, when they figure what they’ve got are five loaves and a couple of fish from the lake, Jesus organizes the crowd of people into groups in the field. And he gives thanks to God, and he blesses the loaves, and he blesses the fish, and wouldn’t you know it? The disciples feed thousands that night, thousands of hungry friends. Not only that, but there are baskets, and baskets, and baskets of broken pieces left over, and fish too. This abundance is God’s way. This abundance is God’s design. This abundance is the wisdom of God in a world shaped by mercy, spirit and radical generosity. What Jesus teaches the disciples that day is to see it, and to trust it, and to lean into it. They’re to be agents of this abundance, ambassadors of this abundance, prophets of possibility and grace in an empire peddling scarcity as sacred law and political ideology. The countercultural path—the gospel way—is abundance. Abundance is the wisdom of God. And you and I are called to be agents, ambassadors of this abundance. That’s our calling.
But there’s still another piece to this story. It’s not always included in denominational lectionaries; but Katie read it this morning. Did you catch it? Jesus sends the disciples back in their boats, to the other side, and takes some time to himself, goes up on the mountain to pray. But the disciples don’t get very far on their trip across the lake—before a heavy wind blows up; in the text Mark calls it an “adverse wind.” An adverse wind, a storm that whips up against them, a storm that causes them to strain at the oars, and worry for their safety. An adverse wind.
And, of course, over generations, preachers have speculated about it. Was the wind simply God’s way of testing the disciples? Was the wind another opportunity for Jesus to prove his power, his creative control over every situation? I think you have to read the story carefully to see where Mark’s going with that “adverse wind.” With that storm that threatens the little movement Jesus has created around generosity and abundance.
“They were utterly astounded,” the story says, “for they did not understand about the loaves.” Isn’t that something? “They were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves.” In other words, the story says, the way of the loaves is the key to the journey itself. Let’s say that again. The way of the loaves is the key to the journey itself. Until we understand what Jesus is doing with the loaves, with the fish, with the crowds, with the disciples; until we grasp what Jesus believes about abundance and creation and the divine economy of grace; until we lean into that gospel, we’ll be straining at the oars, fighting adverse winds, and missing the point. Jesus isn’t a wizard. Jesus isn’t a superhero. Jesus is a gatherer of loaves, a lover of fish, a practitioner of blessing and sharing and justice. And we are agents of this abundance, prophets of holy possibility. That’s us.
The empire will blow back, over and over and over again. Don’t be daft, the empire says. Scarcity is the way of the real world. Worry for your future, the empire says. You can never have enough. Protect your borders, the empire says, gate up your communities. For the outsider’s coming, he’s always coming for what you have. An adverse wind indeed. Howling to keep us up at night.
So you see, this isn’t a story about Jesus’ superhuman powers. It’s a story about discipleship, a story about Christian formation. That’s why it belongs here, with us, on this First Sunday in Lent. It’s a story about the way of the cross: the very human practice of ministry, solidarity and abundance in a world made not by Fortune 500 CEOs, and not by Proud Boys insurrectionists, and not by Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham or naysayers in congress. But a world created in love, a world fashioned and designed and imagined into being by a God of extravagant love and holy abundance. Abundance, indeed, is the wisdom of this particular God. Communion is the practice of those who would covenant with this particular God. Not scarcity, but abundance. Not greed, but communion. If only we have eyes to see it, and ears to hear it, and hands to gather it and give it away.
But here’s that other piece, that new piece for me. Here’s the detail I caught, the detail I’d missed all those other times. Jesus is grieving. Go back and read Mark 6 in its entirety. Jesus is grieving. His mentor, his teacher, his cousin: John the Baptist has been killed. And in a particularly terrible way. And we know Jesus was devoted to John, maybe even a disciple of John before he set out on his own. John initiated Jesus into a vision of the radically loving, boundlessly merciful God, into a vision of the kingdom of God. On earth, as in heaven. Jesus has lost a friend, a soulmate. And now Jesus grieves. John’s sudden death shakes Jesus to his core.
|Jesus Weeps, Malcolm Guite|
So I think we enter the story right here, where Jesus is grieving, where his little community is in anguish, where they’re withdrawing for just a bit to weep together, to talk to one another, to pray around their losses.
And isn’t it telling, isn’t it notable that just here, in all this grief, we get this vivid and evocative story! Isn’t it stunning, sisters and brothers and siblings of Jesus, that just here, in all this grief, we get this story of divine abundance, holy abundance, and human partnership, human blessing and surprising sufficiency! I think God wants you and me to hear this story in our own context, in our own moment, in the traumatic setting of our own history and crisis. I think God wants the church, our church, to know that the path through all this is the same path we’ve always known in the church. We will heal together as we practice holy abundance together. We will make a new path into a new world together, as we cherish the earth, the land, the fields and the skies together, as we remember that all is God’s, as we bless and lift and offer every gift back to God, as we dedicate our lives and energies to communities of blessing and economies of grace and partnerships that dismantle oppression and celebrate communion.
So John’s sudden death—at the hands of bigots—has to shake Jesus to his core: this loss has to pierce Jesus’ heart with sorry and absence and all the grief you and I know in our own seasons of sadness and mourning. But the Spirit shines in this morning’s text just the same, even through these many tears; the Spirit shines with the reminder that the way is prepared for us, the way through this exile, the way through this pandemic, the way home. It won’t be easy. We’ll face to some stiff winds in the process. But we know this way. It’s the way of love and blessing. It’s the way of rising loaves in so many kitchens, and fish gathered gratefully from so many seas. It’s the way of fearless advocacy and disciplined organizing. It’s the way of living light and gentle on the land, a way honoring one another and sharing earth’s many gifts. It’s the way of prayer in the morning, and thanksgiving at day’s end.
And here’s the thing. You don’t have to do this alone. You don’t have to shoulder this practice, this responsibility alone. That’s not how it works for us, that’s not how the church bears the gospel promise. It’s not just about you. We are many members of the body of Christ. We’re in this work together. You play your part. You offer your gift, your passion, your prayer. You gather your loaves. I’ll gather mine. And together, many members, one body: together we will inaugurate a new day of blessing, a new moment of reconciling love, a new feast of holy abundance and grace. Together.