Every year, there’s an ecumenical thanksgiving service held in St. Cloud, Wisconsin, just before the Turkey Trot fundraiser for the local food pantry. I was invited to preach this year. I made a hash of it, to be honest. It was early, I was tired, and not in the right frame of mind to prepare on Wednesday, let’s just leave it at that.
In any case, the text was the story of the feeding of the 5,000 from Luke. Surprisingly, it’s not in the lectionaries, though the parallel accounts from Matthew and Mark appear. That’s a shame, because it’s worth hearing. Luke gives it a spin not found in the other gospels. Luke opens the chapter with the story of Jesus sending out his disciples on their first mission trip without him.
Now, understand what’s going on here. In chapter 9 of the story—not even halfway—Jesus already knows he will go to Jerusalem and die there. He has been causing a ruckus with his ministry. The religious leaders of his day worked off a transactional model: You come, you pay a little something, you’re released from your sin and guilt, you go on your way, until the next time you screw up. But Jesus says, “Yo, this is whack. You make people pay for their suffering? You make them pay to receive God’s blessing? No way, man.” Instead, Jesus gives thanks to God for God’s goodness. God provides the healing in gratitude. Then the healed give thanks.
Gratitude, in other words, is the engine of grace, mercy, and healing. It is the mode of our participation in the life of God. This is enough of a challenge to cause the people to abandon the religious leaders in favor of Jesus, creating a power vacuum. There’s only one of him, after all, and many people. Between the need to spread the workload and Jesus’ intuition about how his challenge to the existing religious leadership will end, he knows the situation cannot hold for very long. So he sets to work training the disciples to carry on his ministry after his inevitable death.
It was a common enough practice for teachers to send their students out in those days. The Cynics, for example, would wander the landscape, carrying only the bare necessities: a hat, a coat, a walking stick, a wallet. They would offer a class on their philosophy, and the audience would give them a few coins for the effort. Jesus says to his disciples, “You don’t even need that much. You’re better than that.” So off they go, famously, with no cloak or staff or purse. Unlike the philosophers, they take no money for their teaching. They depend solely on the generosity of the people they encounter to house and feed them, and they don’t shop around for a better deal. If they receive no hospitality, they just keep moving along. They live in utter dependence and gratitude, get it?
Their journey, like Jesus’, is a success. In fact, they create an even bigger stir than the man himself! They create such a ruckus that word starts to get back to the latest King Herod. Some people say Jesus is Elijah or some other prophet, back from the dead. And Herod says, “Huh?” Other people say Jesus is John the Baptist returned. And Herod says “Didn’t I kill him?” Some people say, Jesus is this hot young prophet all on his own. And Herod says, “I think I want to talk to this guy.” He wanted to meet John, too.
Jesus is smarter than to accept that invitation, so he scoots out of Herod’s turf and calls the disciples back to debrief. They’re in the middle of telling him how great things went when the crowds show up. Jesus says, “let’s roll with this.” He teaches and heals all day, until at last the sun is going down and the people start to get hungry.
The disciples say, Maybe we should break this up so the crowd can get themselves something to eat. Jesus responds with three of the most challenging words in scripture: “You feed them.” To which the disciples say: “Umm.”
All right, Jesus asks, what do you have? Five loaves of bread and two fish, comes the answer. Bring them to me, he says. In language deliberately reminiscent of the Lord’s supper, he takes the bread, he give thanks for it, he breaks it, and gives it to the people. He gives thanks, GET IT?
You know the rest of the story: there’s enough to feed 5,000 men, with plenty left over. (And you thought your mom fed an army yesterday, and the fridge was stuffed with the remains.) What you don’t know (unless you’re a New Testament scholar) is that this story recalls one from 2 Kings, where the prophet Elisha feeds 100 prophets with 20 loaves of bread.
You see what’s going on here? Jesus is a far greater prophet than Elijah or Elisha, according to Luke, because of his grateful reliance on God. In fact, immediately after this story comes Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, and the chapter continues in the same way, carefully balancing indications of Jesus’ greatness with his commands to humility, hammering on the point that these aspects are one and the same.
When the disciples learn to imitate that grateful reliance, they are able to work even greater wonders than those who have gone before. The story of Jesus feeding the crowds was so beloved by the early Christians that it was told and retold: six times in four gospels! Until Constantine, the loaves and fish were a far more common symbol of the faith than the cross.
But the point I’ve been working toward, the whole point, is this: what makes it possible to feed that crowd, to feed the hungry in our midst, is the same grateful reliance on God that Jesus exhibited. It’s not about being the greatest again, being the biggest and the best and the wealthy with the low low taxes. It’s about cobbling together whatever meager resources we can and trusting that God will do the rest. Gratitude and trust are inextricably bound together. Gratitude and trust are always a challenge to the powers that be. Gratitude and trust are what make it possible to respond to the sly commandment, “You feed them.” Gratitude and trust are what make it possible to live the life of faith. They’re what it’s all about, man.
So go, live in gratitude and feed those who need it. Then eat some turkey. God knows you have enough of it to go around.+ + +