The story from scripture is a familiar one. It’s a reminder that wonderful things are supposed to happen when two or three or fifty or 5000 are gathered. God is there and we see each other with new eyes. In the scripture, Jesus is faced with great crowds. Two chapters before, 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. I think if the 5000 first year students in campus housing that gathered here for Welcome Week. I think about the food service logistics of all of that. I think about the thousands of others who have newly arrived in this neighborhood. Our little picnic here is a small way of extending a welcome. It’s what Jesus did. And it’s what we do too. It doesn’t matter how much we have, there will always be enough for everyone.
This feeding thing with loaves and fishes must be pretty important since it’s repeated six times in the Gospels. 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.
How might we extend welcome to our new neighbors? What new insights will they bring us? What new aspects of God will they show us, will we show each other?
What we don’t remember from history was that Jews and Gentiles were bitter enemies. 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. We are to break down the barriers that divide us.
And hear this, everyone is fed, the insiders and the outsiders, the good and the not-so-good, the children and the elderly. Everyone gets fed. They don’t even need a U Card or a state-issued ID. Ched Myers states that meal sharing is a test of social reconciliation and the 9000 passed the test. That’s good news.
I would like to share a poem by Catholic Priest and social activist Daniel Berrigan.
Communion by Daniel Berrigan
Sometime in your life,
hope that you might see one starved man,
the look on his face when the bread
finally arrives. Hope that you
might have baked it or bought it
or even kneaded it yourself.
For that look on his face,
for your meeting his eyes
across a piece of bread,
you might be willing to lose a lot,
or suffer a lot,
or die a little even.
When I was growing up, we had a clam bake right around Labor Day. It was a chance to get together with family. To play in the tall grass of the family farm. To dream about the new year to come. To tell the old old stories of the past. It was a big picnic. We were in casual clothes. We weren’t putting on airs. We were our authentic selves. The selves that God sees, not necessarily the selves that we want to put on.
There’s something about a picnic that helps us see who we really are, who we are called to be. It’s a time for us to let loose a little bit. Let the grass tickle our toes, see things with a wider eye. Experiment with food.
I thought about those times this past week as our family gathered in a Cleveland hospital around my ailing father. His family was there, either in person or in spirit. Most of the time we were just silently around him. But our minds went back to unfinished business, to memories of us all in our younger days. We admonished each other to tell each other the important things while we can. My mind went back to an easier time. Times that we gathered together and ate good food—experiments from each other’s kitchens. We ate and laughed and flew kites and roasted marshmallows over an applewood fire, and ate watermelon and spit the seeds at each other. There was something wholesome and other-worldly and primal and naïve about all of that. And yet it is what I still yearn for. I still wish for that simpler time. I know it’s not realistic. Life is way too complicated. There are wars and rumors of wars. There are assignments to be done. There are deadlines to meet. There are ends to stitch together. What I can do is remember that I that we follow one who makes something out of nothing. One who gathers people, has them sit on the grass, and then watches the miracle happen before them. It’s not about the multiplication of the loaves and the fish. It’s about the multiplication of the individual lives into a community of love, support, accountability and beauty. That’s what the church is in this world. And it all started at a picnic.
So, sit with someone you don’t know. Tell a story from your past. Dream together about what the year will bring. Tell of the miracles you have seen. Who knows, you may well be the miracle Jesus has in mind.