In today’s scripture, Jesus is faced with great crowds. Two chapters before in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus fed 5000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. This time there are 4000 people and the disciples claim to only have seven loaves of bread. This feeding thing with loaves and fishes must be pretty important since it’s repeated. But the dim disciples don’t seem to get it. “How are we going to feed all of these people?” they wonder. We can see Jesus asking through gritted teeth, “How many loaves do you have?”
Scholars are quick to point out the significance of the numbers between these two stories: In the first story there are five loaves and 12 baskets of leftovers. In the second story there are seven loaves and seven baskets of leftovers.
The first story, being held in Jewish territory, has five loaves perhaps representing the first five books of the bible known as the Torah. The 12 baskets of leftovers represent the 12 tribes of Israel. The second story happens in Greek territory where the number 7 represents completion. With these two stories, we have the melding of the Jewish and Gentile peoples.
What we don’t remember from history was that Jews and Gentiles were bitter enemies. Their relationships were as toxic as say, Israelis and Palestinians of today. Or perhaps Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. They were even worse enemies than the Slytherins and the Griffindors. Paul’s statement that we repeat in our Affirmation, that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” is revolutionary language. It’s the language not only of inclusiveness, but also peacemaking.
And hear this, everyone is fed, the insiders and the outsiders, the good and the not-so-good, the children and the dogs, the poor and the rich, the Jew and the Gentile. Everyone gets fed. Ched Myers states that meal sharing is a test of social reconciliation and the 9000 passed the test.
Two months ago, I visited Ireland. In addition to experiencing great Irish music, hearing the lilt of the voices of the people we met, learning to say things like “brilliant” and “grand”, I heard about the history of the Irish people. On Sabbatical, I also had the chance to visit Scotland, Wales and England. Wales, Ireland and Scotland all had in common a struggle for control over their own sovereignty.
Their enemy was England, who outlawed the speaking of Gaelic or Welsh, who made it illegal for anyone but English to own land, who outlawed Scottish bagpipes and looked down on the simple farmers trying to eke out a living. The sting of being on the losing side of those cultural and economic battles are still present among many of the proud people of those countries. Our tour guide said, “In Ireland, we blame everything on the British. I’m not biased, just consistent.”
In Ireland, we learned about the great potato famine. This happened when a blight hit the potatoes grown by the vast majority of the Irish farmers. I can’t imagine a diet of only potatoes, but that’s what many people lived on. Without a fallback crop, the people lost their livelihood and many lost their lives. We visited Skibereen where hundreds of thousands of people tried to get what little food they could from the English who controlled Ireland. The land was dotted with mass graves of people starving to death. The English for their part, started feeding programs. But they were wary of giving people something for nothing. So in order to get food, they needed to work. They put the starving farmers to work making stone walls that line the countryside to this day. You can see them going up mountains, walls for nothing. Many people died on those dangerous and cold work parties. They call them famine walls. You can still see the shells of their old homes—roofs burned if the tenant farmers failed to pay the English their taxes, ensuring that the starving families could not stay in their foreclosed homes.
There was not only a blight that hit in 1845, but also one that hit in 1830 and another one even earlier than that. Each time, hundreds of thousands died and more fled. In 1840 the Irish population was 8.5 million. By 1851, the population was down to 4 million. Ireland lost over half of its population in a ten-year span. They either died in the famine, building the famine walls, or they left dear old Ireland and came to Americay.
The Donleys were part of that migration across the pond in the 1840’s. They came in through Ottawa before settling in Cleveland, Ohio. It occurs to me that our children are the descendants of people fleeing for their lives. The Donleys left during the famine. The Spitz family, Kim’s father’s family, left Austria and Hungary in the 1930’s. Those Jewish Spitz’s who did not make it to the US were all killed in the holocaust. So as we recover the stories of our ancestors, we recommit ourselves to never let such cruelty happen again.
Our tour guide gathered us in the shell of an old chapel in the Skibereen graveyard. He then sang a song about leaving behind a dear lass to sail to America. The dear lass is a metaphor for their homeland. Here’s what he sang:
From Derry quay we sailed away on the twenty-third of May
We were boarded by a pleasant crew, all bound for Amerikay
Fresh water then we did take on, five thousand gallons or more
In case we'd run short on our way to New York from Paddy’s green shamrock shore.
So fare thee well, sweet Liza dear and likewise Derry town
And twice farewell to my comrades bold who dwell on that sainted ground
And if fortune it ever does favor me, and if I to have money in store
I'll return and I'll wed the lassie I left on Paddy's green shamrock shore.
When he spoke about the famine, he got tears in his eyes and said, “you know. We don’t call it the famine here. We call it the great hunger. You see, no civilized society should have a famine. In the 1840’s there was enough food in Ireland to feed 19 million people. But the British chose to export the food rather than feed the people. And when the people starved or left, the British swooped in and took their land.” The mass grave in Skibereen has a headstone that says in part “the 9,000 coffinless remains are a chilling reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.”
That’s why a true Irishman would never drink a warm English bitter when there is a cold Guinness nearby. Hunger is what happened when the blight hit the potato crop. Famine is what happened when the leadership chose not to feed the people. Many people had wished when the Queen visited Ireland in May, that she would have apologized for the great hunger and the genocide, but she didn’t.
When I look at the gospel from this vantage point, the fact that the feeding of the multitudes happens, not once, not twice, but six times in the Gospels, means that we had better pay attention. And each time, Jesus asks nothing of the people he is feeding. He doesn’t ask nationality. He doesn’t ask loyalty. He doesn’t ask political party. He doesn’t ask income level. He doesn’t ask if they deserve it or not. He doesn’t ask to be paid. He just feeds them. But not only that, he instructs the disciples to feed them. Take what you have and feed them. Believe it or not there is enough to go around. His parting words to Simon Peter after the resurrection is “Feed my sheep.” Not once, not twice, but three times—one for each denial.
When U2 was in town a couple of weeks ago, Bono made a point of visiting with Somalian activists who were advocating for relief for their starving people. The Star Tribune and other news outlets have noted that the famine there could be avoided with a better set of policies that would better feed the populace. When policies fail to take care of the least of these then there is something wrong. Is that what Jesus was trying to emphasize in his miracles?
I like what Stephen Colbert said about all of this. "If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we have to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition, and then admit that we just don't want to do it." Which is it?
My friends, there is a lot of hunger out there and even in here. For some it is hunger for recognition. For others it is a hunger for truth. For still others it is a hunger for dignity or safety. Still others hunger for beauty and peace and rapture. And some hunger for food—in fact most of the world hungers for food. And what did Jesus do when he encountered the hungry? He fed them. And then he told us to go and do likewise.
Now we do a good bit through our participation in Loaves and Fishes, in our mission giving to One Great Hour of Sharing and various hunger agencies. We even lift our voices and join in the chorus of wishers and workers for a more just world. It’s a good start. But it is not done. It will not be done until all people are fed. All people have a place to live. All people live in peace. All wealth is distributed in such a way that no one goes hungry. All recognize that their enemy is God in disguise. That’s what God has in mind.
It’s audacious work, this taking of communion bread and drink. It’s audacious work, this praying give us this day our daily bread. It’s audacious work and blessed work that we never do alone. We are surrounded by a people and a history that sees through the deception of leaders and advocates for the poor and the outcast. That’s what we invoke when we take this revolutionary meal. That’s what the world needs: a transformed people who will act when faced with famine so that no one goes hungry. May it be so for all of us. Lest we forget, let us look to history and may it inspire and change us. Let us honor our ancestors and our descendants with a ministry and a life that feeds a hungry world.