Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sermon: A Boy and his Lunch

The Trumbull Congregational Church, Trumbull, CT
July 26, 2009
“Radically Inclusive Love”
John 6:1-21

"There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" (John 6:9)

John Mark was an inquisitive child. He lived with his parents and his three brothers in the small fishing village of Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. John Mark was only 9-years-old but he was much more adventurous and intellectually curious then his three older brothers.
His mother sensed this, which is why on this fine morning she let him linger in the garden studying a butterfly while his brothers went on ahead to help their father with the morning catch.

John-Mark was fascinated by things that were out of the ordinary.
Most likely because he and his family were Gentiles living in a village that was predominantly Jewish. He knew what it was like to be different.
His family had moved here from Damascus before John Mark was born, after his father who was a fisherman by trade traveled to Capernaum seeking work. Even on the open sea, his father was a Gentile among Jews but he was happy, and that’s all that mattered.

Having sufficiently studied the butterfly and with the morning fleeting by, John Mark ran into the house, grabbed the lunch basket his mother had prepared for him and his brothers, and set off skipping down the road to join them by the seaside.

Before he arrived at the dock where his father normally anchored their boat, he noticed a commotion that had arisen on the shoreline. People were piling into boats and running up the road that skirted the seaside, chattering on about some prophet who had set sail with his followers and was last seen headed to the deserted shore on the opposite side of the Galilee.

John Mark had a sense as to who it was they were talking about.
It was probably the same prophet who had lured two local fishermen, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, away from their boats and their livelihood. Causing them to cast down their nets and leave their poor father to fend for himself.
John Mark had seen this prophet in the village quite often, and rumor had it that he had cured a man who had an unclean spirit living within him, and he healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law when she came down with fever.

Now John Mark was as open minded as they came, but casting out demons, and healing the sick? Come on!
John Mark had seen this supposed prophet-preacher up close - (what was his name again, Jeshua?) - and he looked like an ordinary man.
There was nothing special about him.

Besides, why would someone who had powers like that be living in Capernaum?? Why not just conjure up a castle and a bevy of servants and live the good life in Damascus or Antioch?
Why spend your nights sleeping on the ground, and your days talking to a bunch of dirt-poor fisherman in a back-woods place like Capernaum??
It just didn’t make sense.

And to top it all off, what this prophet was best known for was stirring up trouble in the local synagogue. John Mark didn’t attend synagogue himself but he had heard the older boys in town complaining about this heretic who was always getting into arguments with the local rabbis - challenging their beliefs and answering their questions with questions of his own.

Having been schooled by his father in the nuances of philosophy, John Mark loved a good argument as much as the next boy, but when it came to religious beliefs you either believed or you didn’t…right?
If your beliefs were different from the majority of those in your faith tradition then why stick around and argue with them?
Why not just go out and start your own religion? Build your own temple, pray to your own God?
It just didn’t make sense.

But with all the commotion going on by the seaside that day, John Mark let his curiosity get the best of him, and before he knew it he was running along the shore road, his lunch basket swinging beside him, making his way to the deserted place on the far side of the sea.

By the time he got there, there were already thousands of people gathered on the hillside overlooking the shore, about 5,000 men plus women and children, John Mark estimated. He was always good with numbers, in fact his father relied on him to calculate the day’s catch based on how many nets they had cast and filled.

The prophet Jeshua was standing in a boat on the shoreline. With bated breath John Mark watched him step out of the boat and walk up the hillside with his 12 followers in tow. John Mark waved to Andrew and Simon Peter but he didn’t think they saw him.
Once they reached the top of the hill, Jeshua signaled for his followers to sit down and then he leaned over to say something to the one named Philip.
John Mark could not hear what he was saying so he quickly pushed his way through the crowd to get himself within earshot of the action.
Using his lunch basket as a battering ram, he quickly found a way to make the tightly packed masses move aside and let him through.

John Mark poked his head through the front of the crowd just in time to hear Philip say to Jeshua,
“Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little."

Bread? Why did they need to buy bread? John Mark wondered.
They weren’t thinking of feeding all these people were they? Are they crazy? These people had followed Jeshua on their own accord. If they were stupid enough to come all the way out here without anything to eat then let them suffer the consequences. Let them find their own food.

As he thought this, John Mark instinctively tightened his grip on the basket that his mother had lovingly packed for him and his brothers that morning.
It was getting close to lunchtime and his father and brothers were most likely bringing in the mornings catch right about now.
They would be expecting John Mark to be there on the shore waiting to deliver the 5 loaves and 2 fishes that would sustain them for the remainder of the day.

Little did they know that John Mark was miles away from where he was supposed to be, having impulsively followed a preacher man who used parlor tricks and fancy words to convince others to do his bidding.
A so-called prophet whose own followers couldn’t agree on who he was or how his words and actions were to be interpreted.

John Mark didn’t know much about the Jewish faith, but what he did know is that there didn’t seem to be much consensus on how to interpret the words written in their sacred texts. They were arguing even now.

Off to John Mark’s right there was a group of men who called themselves Sadducees, who saw the written law of Moses as the only law, and rejected any oral traditions that grew out of the law.
They were convinced that Jeshua was a false prophet because he kept insisting that God would resurrect the dead. Resurrection was nonsense, and this Jeshua character was blasphemous for even speaking of it.

To John Mark’s left stood a group of Pharisees, who unlike the Sadducees took the law of Moses and used it to devise an ever increasing amount of rules and traditions to keep the faithful in line.
If you stepped out of line the Pharisees were the first to call you on it, and Jeshua was always stepping out of line.
He preached a form of Divine love that was overly inclusive and far too radical to come from the one true God.
God loves tax collectors and prostitutes? Jeshua was a heretic for sure.

Then there were the Zealots, who very nearly came to blows right there on the hillside that morning as they discussed how to lure Jeshua into their fold. The Zealots were political revolutionaries who believed that the only way to overcome the oppressive rule of Rome was to overthrow those in power using violent means if necessary.
The Zealots believed that Jeshua was sent by God to be the leader of their revolution, as he preached a message that was subversive and laced with anti-Roman rhetoric. Jeshua was the savior, the cosmic soldier who would lead them to power with a sword.

One group that was equally despised by the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Zealots, were the Samaritans. They were outsiders, interlopers from the north, who practiced a watered down version of Judaism and were unwelcome in the cities and villages of Judea.
No one would even get near them on the hillside, and disdainful looks came from all around.
But the Samaritans liked Jeshua; he was a Jew who treated them as equals and he spoke to them with love.

Finally, there were the more common adherents of the Jewish faith.
Jews who went to synagogue on the Sabbath, followed the law of Moses and honored the traditions passed on in their communities.
They too were tired of Roman rule, but they were just as tired of all the infighting that went on within their faith.

Jews needed to stand together, not tear each other apart, and Jeshua just may be the one to unite them. They believed that Jeshua was a King - the Messiah that God had promised them. A King who would bring them together, lead them to freedom, and reinstate their standing as God’s chosen people.

With all the religious arguments going on on the hillside that morning, John Mark couldn’t understand why the first words out of Jeshua’s mouth had to do with food.

Perhaps Jeshua thought if he fed the masses, they’d actually listen to what he had to say.
Then again, Jeshua was always going on about the need to feed the hungry and give to the poor, maybe he was just demonstrating what he wanted others to do. Leading by example.
John Mark had also heard that the people who followed Jeshua would often have meals together and break bread in his name, maybe this was just his way of indoctrinating them to the practice.

While John Mark pondered the possible explanations for Jeshua’s sudden preoccupation with food, he noticed that Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, had spotted him in the crowd and was headed in John Mark’s direction.

“What do you have in the basket?” Andrew asked.
“Just a few pieces of bread and some fish,” John Mark stammered.
“Just enough to feed me and my brothers,” he quickly added, as he moved to hide the basket behind his back.

Andrew quickly snatched the basket and looked inside.
“Come with me, boy,” he said.

John Mark obediently followed Andrew.
He could not disobey the command of an adult and admittedly he was fascinated with the idea of getting closer to the man named Jeshua.

Andrew approached Jeshua, and with some weariness in his voice he said, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?"

“Make the people sit down,” Jeshua said, and then he took the basket from Andrew and he opened it.

“Oh, come on,” John Mark thought to himself. “That’s MY lunch AND my brother’s lunch. What are we going to eat if Jeshua gives our food to all these people?”
John Mark was all for feeding the hungry and giving to the poor, as long as he and his family didn’t go hungry in the process.

Then Jeshua reached into the basket, took the bread and gave thanks to God, and then he passed the basket amongst the people.

The crowd pushed forward, with those in the second and third rows reaching in desperation to get their meager share before it was gone.
Those in the back row knew that there was no hope that they would eat that day.

John Mark just stood there. His lower lip began to quiver.
What had he done?
His family wasn’t rich. His father worked hard to catch those fish.
His mother worked hard to bake that bread.
Now because of his curiosity and his stupidity he had lost the only meal they would have that day.

As the people continued to pass the basket and he saw the five loaves, and then the two fish being broken apart and dropped into waiting outstretched hands, he felt the tears begin to sting against his cheeks.

And then something strange began to happen.

The basket continued to be passed along the hillside, eagerly grasped by the twentieth, and then the thirtieth, and then the fiftieth person. Soon one hundred people had dug their hands into the basket and brought them out again with bread and fish overflowing their grasp.

How could this be?

The tension in the crowd soon turned to giddiness.
Waves of laughter began to erupt as people followed the progress of the basket in amazement.
One man yelled to a friend as he reached into the basket, “Hey Bartholomew! Isn’t that the same fish that I just ate?”

The anxious fear that had descended upon the crowd when the small basket of food first began to circulate, was gone.
The fear that there would not be enough to go around, was gone.
The fear that the Sadducees, or the Pharisees, or the Zealots, or the Samaritans would take more than their fair share leaving nothing for anyone else, was gone.
The belief that one group or one person was somehow more or less deserving of reaching into the basket, was gone.

Suddenly John Mark understood why this prophet teacher known as Jeshua was so preoccupied with food.
Food was what sustained them.
Without food they could not live.
Yet food was a scarce commodity.

By giving the people an abundance of food Jeshua had shown them how much of their fear, and mistrust, and desire for power over others, came from a feeling of scarcity.
The feeling that there is not enough to go around.
When the scarcity was turned to abundance all of the people’s fears slipped away, and were replaced with joyous cooperation.

Could the same be said of love? John Mark wondered.

Did people fear, and mistrust, and exert power over others because they believed love was a scarce commodity?
Did they believe that love was so scarce they had to hold on to it, or hoard it, or withhold it from others to ensure that they would never go without?

What if there was enough love to go around?
What if love existed in abundance?
What if love could be passed along in a basket with each person reaching in and taking their fill, and passing it along to the next person without thought of who it was they were passing it to?
Nothing would be held back, no one would be denied, no one would go hungry, in a world of abundant love.

When we hear this story today, we wonder:
Did Jesus really perform a miracle when he fed 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and two fishes?
It can be argued that as human beings we too have the power to feed all who are hungry. Yet because we haven’t yet figured out the logistics of how to do it, or shown a willingness to pool our resources, we continue to act out of scarcity rather then abundance.

But ensuring that no one is starved of LOVE does not require logistics, or pooled resources. We don’t need to figure out how to grow it, store it, or truck it to areas where it is scarce.
It costs us nothing to give, and it is priceless to receive.

So why do we continue to hand out our love in small portions; acting out of scarcity rather than abundance?

Why do we love God, and our ourselves, and our families, and our friends with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our strength, but our basket comes up empty when it comes to loving someone who has wronged us,
or someone who holds a religious or political belief that conflicts with our own,
or someone who comes to our country - legally or illegally - speaking another language and using valuable resources that were meant for our own?

When we claim the name of Christian it means we’ve chosen to walk with Jesus.
That means we no longer carry that basket on our own,
Our hand is on one side of the basket, and Jesus has his hand on the other.

If we hold this image in our mind, we’ll see that when Jesus extends his love to someone, we must extend our love as well. Even if that person is someone that we just can’t conceive of loving.
We have to resist the urge to snatch the basket back and say,
“I’m sorry Jesus, my love just doesn’t stretch THAT far.”

"I can’t love a prostitute, I can’t love a tax collector,
I can’t love a criminal, a sex offender, a drug addict, a political tyrant, or a cowardly martyr who straps a bomb to his chest, killing hundreds of innocents in the name of God.
My love just doesn’t stretch that far."

But this is where we get confused.
Jesus didn’t say that we had to approve of the behavior of others in order to love them.
And here’s the big secret - We don’t even have to LIKE the people that we are called to love.

There are always going to be people who get under our skin or rub us the wrong way. Just as there will always be people who exhibit behaviors that our society doesn’t condone.
We’re allowed to dislike each other. We’re allowed to hold each other accountable for our actions.
If someone has broken a law, we can seek restitution, offer rehabilitation, and place limits on their freedom to keep them from doing further harm.
But it is our LOVE for those we dislike, that keeps us from doing harm in return.

If we love someone we wish them no ill will.
We don’t delight in their misery, we don’t seek revenge,
We don’t inflict pain as restitution for our own pain,
We don’t ask God to enact divine judgment upon them.
We simply pass them the basket, just as Jesus passed it to us.

The Pharisees were right. The love that flowed from Jesus was radical in its inclusiveness.
And try as we may we rarely come close to showing that same radically inclusive love for others.

But with Jesus our small acts of love spread much farther then we could ever imagine.

Just as John Mark saw his meager lunch gain the power to feed thousands,
the love that we show others has the power to change the world.

And that my friends, is miraculous!


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