“But What Are They Among So Many?” John 6:1-21

It is no big secret that I enjoy cooking, and one of the things that I find challenging is coming up with something on the spot.   Last night, it was “clean out the fridge night.”   What do you do for two people with one serving of Zarda ribs?

My creative solution was “Zarda Carbonara.”   I pulled the meat off the bones, whipped up a simple Pasta with fresh pasta, Parmesan, and fresh ground black pepper and olive oil, tossed it all together and served with a salad and Viola’…dinner!   And not just dinner, but leftovers– again!

I’m not sure how that happens, but it does.  We experience it all the time in our own kitchens –food seems to multiply. 

It’s not miraculous, to be sure, but it happens, and it happens mostly because we underestimate what we have to work with in the first place!   What looks like too little, when combined with other things you find along the way, becomes more than you expected.

What we think we have to start with, ends up being more than we imagined in the end.

The miraculous feeding by Jesus of the multitudes is the only story that is included in all four of the Gospels.   The details vary a little, but the essentials are the same. 

You have one huge needy, hungry crowd. 

You have what looks like too little food to even begin the task. 

You have Jesus taking whatever they have at hand, breaking and blessing it, and serving it up.

And in the end, Voila’…always leftovers are gathered.

There was something very important about this event.  Something happening here that not one of the Gospel writers wanted us to miss, and what makes this story so hard to preach on is that it is self-explanatory.

What you’ve got never looks like enough for the crowd before you, for the task at hand.

Whatever Jesus takes in his hands, when you give it to him, he will bless and break and multiply and somehow make it work.

In the end, you’ll probably find that you’ll have some leftovers, and you’ll have to figure out just what to do with them.  

How this all happens is somehow always a mystery to us.  It is something that we just can’t explain. 

This story is as simple as that, and as hard as that for us to get, because despite all of our first-hand experience with this when we cook we are still reluctant to believe that this is how it really works with what we give to God.

            Despite Jesus showing us directly what happens when we place what we have in his hands, we still find ourselves usually vastly underestimating what we have to work with.

            It happens all the time.  I hear it all the time.   We talk about the needs of the congregation or the community and we start to talk about how to address those needs and the litany of “What are these among so many” begins.

“I have nothing, I can’t contribute.”
 “I’m too old for this sort of thing.”
 “I’m sorry, but I have issues.”
 “I’m too busy.”
 “I’ve already given, I’ve done my bit.”
 “We should let the younger folks do it.”
 “I don’t know enough about the Bible.”
We look at the challenges laid before us, in our community, in our schools, in our neighborhoods and in our churches and we find ourselves echoing the disciples.

Jesus’ point is clear: You give what you have, you place it in the hands of Jesus, and Jesus will take care of the multiplication and distribution issues.

The miracle, then, in this story is not just one about feeding.

The miracle is also about the opening of the imagination and faith of the Disciples.   “What are these among so many?” they ask, as if Jesus were going to agree with them.   As if Jesus was going to say, “Oh, is that all you have, five loaves, two fish, excuse me, I didn’t realize it was so small.”

Jesus knows that God is a lavish God.  A God who deals generously, who entrust much to each and every one of us.

Jesus knows, and comes to show us, that God is a generous God, a God of great abundance, of unlimited resources and means.

            Our God is capable of taking what looks wholly inadequate for the task at hand and somehow making it stretch to fulfill the need and then some.

But we’ve got to stop thinking, “We have nothing.”  

If the child in this story had not opened his hamper, and said, “Here Jesus, take my lunch!” – Nothing would have happened.   The opportunity to see a lavish God in action would have been lost.

This story begs for us to consider our own attitudes.  What do we believe about what is entrusted to us?   Do we believe that what we have is too little to share?   Is it too little to put into Jesus’ hands for a blessing and a breaking and a multiplying?

Which of us will be the child of God who will open his or her hamper and say, “Here Jesus, take what I’ve got!”    Instead of just lifting the lid and peeking inside and making the determination on your own, “I don’t have enough for myself?”

See, here’s the blessing we miss in this story.  How do you think that little boy felt afterward?  How do you think he felt when Jesus took what he had and made it go out to thousands?   Can you imagine him beaming with pride?

Do we ever think of the joy that comes when we put something into Jesus’ hands, and then wait to see what Jesus will do with it?

This story is not just about miraculous feeding.   It’s about the opening of the imagination and faith.

What do you believe?  What do you find yourself saying?   Doing?  Are you peering into the hamper of your life and saying   “What are these, my gifts, my abilities, my resources, among so many?”

Open the hamper to Jesus, and then you just wait.  It will happen.

If you open your hamper to Jesus, and say, “here, take what I’ve got…”you’re going to have to figure out what to do with the leftovers, because they will always be there.  

“Touching the Hem”

I caught a little bit of a documentary on Paul McCartney the other day called “The Love We make.”   It was a simple black and white movie chronicling the concert for 911, where the director follows him, his interaction with other musicians, friends and fans.   In several scenes, the camera sits on the floorboard of the limo shooting up as Sir Paul gets in and interacts with fans, signing autographs through the window, and then taking off.   He gives direction to the driver.  “Go faster, turn here, let’s see if we can lose them, …. No…turn here…let’s see if that did it… no… I think they’re in the cab behind us…..”       

            A portrait in miniature of what it is like to be celebrity, and to be hounded at every turn.. 

            Is this what it was like for Jesus?   Hounded wherever he went?   Pressed upon at every turn, no time for himself, not even to catch a sandwich?  Demand upon demand, need upon need, no leisure at all.

No wonder he urged the disciples into the boat, and tried to find a lonely place for himself and for them. 

The crush of people, the overwhelming needs, the constant attention – it’s all too much for anyone.  “Come away” Jesus says, “rest a while.”   No place to go where people aren’t grabbing at him, even for a touch of the hem of his garment, to get the healing they want and need.  

There was a day when I looked at this text with great envy — and a little guilt. 

Look at what happens when Jesus comes to town!   Look at the crowds that he gathers   Look at the press of people to meet him and hear about him!

My church doesn’t look like that.

I used to beat myself up about that.  Why is it that people do not flock here to find out about Jesus?  

Is it my preaching?   Have I not introduced him as I should?  Am I not dynamic enough, or sincere enough, am I too heady or too simple?

Is it the style of service, the language used?  The music?  

Maybe the problem lies in the facility, or in our location, or maybe it’s the kind of coffee we serve after worship!

Maybe the reason my church doesn’t have hoards of people clamoring to get in is because our ministry isn’t really effective, or attractive, or faithful.

Oh, how the pressure of this story weighs upon us. Why can’t we pack them in like Jesus did?

Then it hits me.   

I’m not Jesus, and neither are you… any more than you or I are Paul McCartney.  No crowds are going to chase us down, or flock, or press upon us because of who we are.

It may be that we have an unreal expectation, to pack them in, but in that moment of feeling the pressure to do so I do begin to understand what this Gospel lesson is all about.

This Gospel lesson is not so much about me comparing my ministry, my church to what Jesus was able to accomplish. 

This Gospel is about what Jesus tells all of us to do when we are faced with what seems to be insurmountable pressures.

“Come away…rest a while.”  He says.

That is so counter intuitive to the American experience. 

When things are going badly, when the pressure is on, when things aren’t meeting expectations, we above all other people seem to be compelled to DO something, even if it is wrong!  

Come away?  Rest?  Jesus, the world will fall apart if I don’t do something and do it quick, it’s all over! 

That is what we are tempted to believe, and that is exactly what makes Jesus so hard for us follow.

“It’s just not fun anymore.” I can remember my dad saying about farming as he stared into the pile of regulations to be met, the bills to be paid, and the government paperwork to be filled out for planting and subsidies and soil conservation.   At such times he needed to go out in the field and just “be.”   Cut a few weeds, walk the fence line checking for loose wires.  It was not really productive time, but somehow the feel of a pliers and time spent by alone got him back in touch with what he loved about the farm.

I think that is what Jesus advocates here, when the pressure is on.   It is time to re-examine why you were sent out, why you are called to do what you do.  As the crowds or demands tug at your hem, step away for a bit.

So, where do you feel the pressure in life to “do” something?

Maybe it’s in your job.  Maybe there are too many things to handle, too many demands.  

Maybe where you feel the pressure is in the ending of employment.  Retirement is nearing, investments of every kind are down, will I have enough to retire comfortably or will I have to keep working, and at my age, what can I do?

Maybe the pressure for you comes from the demands of family, of roles and expectations.  That suffocating feeling that comes from plans and dreams put on hold because of life circumstances, children, job changes, moves, children or grand children coming home again, re-entering your life at a time that you thought would be your own.

Whatever the pressure may be, you know it by what it does to you.  

It makes you feel out of control.

It makes you feel powerless.

It makes you feel like with any little nudge, one way or another, things could go really sour, really bad, get really ugly, and the panic wells up inside you.

You want to DO something really bad.  Throw yourself into the work, into the retirement planning, into the family, the situation, fix it quick so that you can make things better.  And now, in the face of every fiber of your being screaming “do something!” you hear the counter-intuitive call of Jesus.

“Come away,” Jesus says, “Rest a while.”  

That is what you really need to do.

Now, there are a couple of things you need to know about this matter of coming away.

First of all, lest you think that this is just a license to slip off by the lake, the “coming away” Jesus prescribes is time with him!   It’s not just vacation time!  

It is time spent in the presence of Jesus, and bringing all of your concerns, troubles and fears to him. 

It’s time in conversation with God to hear what God has to say about who you are. 

It’s time to Be, not to Do. 

Important time to hear what God has to say about you, and what God says is that you are loved and worthy and capable and a delight in his eyes.  That’s what you need to hear when you feel pressed upon from every side.

That is not to say that you could not spend time in Jesus while you’re at your camp, or on vacation, or simply in a quiet place, in the tub, or the spa.   You can, it’s quite possible. 

The larger question is will you?   Will you be intentional about seeking Jesus in your time away? 

The answer to that question of “will you” come away with Jesus is important, because the other thing you need to know about this “come away” invitation is that it does involve a going back. 

No sooner is Jesus off the boat than he is crowded in upon once again.  He’s set upon at every turn, people reaching for just a touch of his hem. 

After time away, the pressures will find you again.  

The demands of life will present themselves again.  

Will you be ready to face them secure in who and whose you are because you have spent time away with Jesus this week?

This is an invitation from our Lord, not to be content with little escapes from the things that press on us.

“Come away.”   Jesus says,  “Rest a while.”  Rest in my love.

Rest in the promise that I am with you always.

Don’t be content with trying to escape life’s pressures, learn how to deal with them, handle them, and find joy in them. 

You can only do that if you’re well rested in me, Jesus says.   Amen.

Your Head On A Platter


It is a tale of two failures.

            The Gospel lesson today opens with a tough reading to preach on, but I honestly can’t remember a story where if I put up just two images side by side everyone in the congregation would “get” the connection.   On one side, I would put Caravaggio’s Beheading of John the Baptist, and on the other a picture of Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, and the Penn State Administrators.

            Two perfectly awful stories, separated by 2000 years, and yet the connection between them crackles like lightning arcing across the millennia.

            In the Gospel today we have a story that drips with sex, poor judgment, questionable morals, and the desire to save face above all else.  Herod chooses to abuse his power, destroying the innocent’s life rather than go back on his own intoxicated rant to give “anything” to reward the lewd dancing of his own daughter.

            In the news this week, a story that drips with sex, poor judgment, questionable morals and the desire to above all else save face and protect a juggernaut football program and coaching legacy.  The Penn State scandal is story of a college administration choosing to abuse its power and to allow the destruction of the lives of innocent young people rather than to expose its money makers to the scrutiny of investigation and justice.

            A tale of two failures, and in the wake of it, suffering and injustice.

            From time to time people will ask me why they should study the scriptures or bother with the bible.   What could the dusty happenings of some backwater middle-eastern provinces possibly have to do with life today?

            It’s myth.

            It’s just a story.

            It happened so long ago, and people were different back then, naïve, easily impressed with a man with a gift of enigmatic gab and the ability to do slight of hand with loaves and fishes. 

            What could the bible possibly have to do with “real life?”

            But then a Gospel lesson like this comes up and you begin to understand. 

            You don’t read the bible to mine it for witty sayings and pithy comments. 

            It is not meant to give us practical wisdom on day to day life, or to be some mystical tome that if memorized correctly makes your life turn out richer, happier, and better.   

            It does have some elements of all of that if you want to choose and cut and paste only the parts that you like, to be sure.

             But that is not the bible’s true intention, nor is it the reason its authors would want you to read it.   They have something else, something more holistic in mind.

            No, you read the bible because this is a story that reveals the truth about us.  It is a story about who we are, and what we are capable of, both in terms of much good, and much evil.   You read the bible to see yourself in there, good and bad, and to discover what God is up to in the midst of all of it, all of life and history and the future.

            Mark puts this story here to serve a literary purpose in his gospel.  

            This story stands as the “bridge’ between the commissioning and sending out of the disciples last week two by two; and their return which we’ll hear next week.   So on one level, it is kind of “filler,” but not just any filler.  It is a story of failure sandwiched between successes, the sending and the return, which is very much like our lives really.  

            We don’t go from grand success to grand success. 

            We inch forward, and fall back, and stumble on things that make no sense to us whatsoever, and shake our heads at it all.

            This story makes no sense to us whatsoever, plopped into the Gospel like this.  You or I might have left it out, labeled it as too unpleasant to include, but Mark is insistent that if you are going to understand what the Good News of Jesus Christ is all about, you have to know about this too.

            It is meant to answer two specific questions, and to really make sense of something that nags at us all.  

            First of all, Mark wants to answer the question that he himself set up by the way he begins his story of Jesus.   John comes preaching repentance in the wilderness.    John point to Jesus, and then the reader wonders, “whatever happened to John?”  

            This tells us the story of John’s tragic fate, and a bit more.  For this story also gives us a preview into what lies ahead for Jesus. 

            When you tangle with the world, you can expect the world to do what it does best.

            It is curious that people will sometimes say about a subject or situation, “That’s too political for church”, or will want to separate out politics from faith.  That is a concept that is foreign to the writers of the bible, because the truth of the matter is when God’s Kingdom comes near, the rulers of this present age do everything they can to hold on to their own power.  The witness of the Gospels, over and over, is that politics and faith are enmeshed in ways that we cannot begin to pull apart.

            John sits in jail, for speaking the truth.   Herod sits in an impossible situation.   He can’t let John go around publicly criticizing the King and his peccadilloes.  But Herod also recognizes that John in righteous, a man of God, and so does fear him and loves to listen to him, though what John says perplexes him. 

            So it is with those who talk about the things of God, they are both amusing, and annoying.

            You cannot talk about Justice, loving the neighbor, peace or judgment without irritating the state or the powerful on some level.  The Gospels themselves are political statements.  They proclaim a Kingdom that Jesus comes to announce, a Kingdom that is not of this world, and that does not hold the same things as being valuable.  When ideologies collide, this is what happens.  

            People get locked up.   People get silenced.   Circumstances conspire that spiral out of control.   Righteous prophets get jailed, or beheaded on the whim of a king not wanting to look bad.  

            Or, little boys suffer because everyone is afraid to question or confront the juggernaut.

            This is how the world is.  Mark will not sugar coat it for us, because is it precisely this kind of world that God wants to step into and change. But, let there be no illusions that things will change easily, or that the righteous will not still suffer, or that once Jesus comes everything is just going to be “hunky-dory.”

            Here is the truth about us, we are capable of much good, and much evil, and often the evil comes when we are least expecting it. 

            It comes when we get caught in a bad place.

            It comes when we get hung up between our own actions, and our words.

            It comes from the malice of others, or our own malice toward someone.

            It comes by way of holding grudges, or from the hands of those who hold a grudge, do what they shouldn’t, ask what they have no right asking for, and who end up placing everyone in impossible situations.

            That’s what this world does…. Best.   The world loves to serves up heads on a platter.

            This is the truth the scripture tells us, that Mark wants us to understand.  

            Yes, there is no greater one born into this world than John the Baptist Jesus himself will say, but that doesn’t mean the world gives you a break.   

            Serving up heads on a platter, that’s what this world does best and no one is spared from that, no matter who you are.   Not John, not even Jesus, and yes, not you!

            Here’s a little Art History thrown in, because this artist understood this truth deeply.   The name is Carravagio, the master of contrast, currascuro, light and dark.  Carravagio often painted images of biblical scenes with memorable power.   It is also his signature that when he depicts a biblical scene like this, he does a self portrait.   Do you know which character here depicts Carravagio?

            That’s right, it is his head on the platter.

            I’d like to think that there was more to his commentary than just capriciousness.   It is an understanding that if there is one to be identified with in the biblical story, it is not the one who comes out on top, but the one who suffers at the hands of this world.

            It is for this one that Jesus comes. Not always to spare him from his fate, but to change the world that lets this happen, that makes this happen, and that allows this to happen, over and over again.

            A tale of two failures, separated by 2000 years, and yet not a thing has changed except this: the Kingdom of God has come a near.

            Herod will have his undoing, but this is not a story about that.   The “good news” in this story is found in two little noticed details.

            The “good news” in this story is found in the musing of Herod as he hears about Jesus coming on the scene.   In the midst of much speculation about who this Jesus might be, Herod is certain.  “It is John the Baptist come back from the dead.”  It is his moment of realizing that you cannot get rid of God.   God will come at you with the conscience, and will not let injustice go unnoticed, and unaddressed.

            The “good news” is also found in the arrival of John’s disciples, who come to take the body and attend to it.   This is what the Kingdom change.  None of us are forgotten or forsaken or alone.   Even when the world does what it does best, we have each other.  God gathers and gives the gift of community, of disciples, of church, of those who do not care what others think, but who act instead on what God would have them do.

            Sometimes that is to bind up the wounds.

            Sometimes it is to bury and grieve and remember.

            Sometimes it is to celebrate victory over what this world has done, and to see a glimpse of God’s Kingdom in our presence.

            It’s not much, but it can be everything to the one who feels lost, alone and forgotten.

            A tale of two failures and in them we see a hint of a victory to come.   That is what the Gospel reveals to us this day.  It is a tough thing, but a real thing.   The scriptures would give us nothing less.   Amen.