And a large crowd followed Jesus. Who were they? Jesus had gone to the ‘other side’ of the Sea of Galilee, from the Jewish side to the Gentile side. This was a crowd of those ‘other people.’ And they followed him because of what he was doing for the sick. This was a crowd that was curious, wondering, and hoping. And this was a crowd made up of many, each with stories, and heartache, and needs. They weren’t in the temple, or in the city, or at anyone’s home—they had come to the edge.
Jesus came as companion of people pushed to the edge. Jesus reached out his hands and welcomed the least and the lost. Jesus became vulnerably close to their distress. Jesus entered their loneliness and desolation with compassionate presence. Jesus sought out those easily forgotten, those rejected, dismissed and violated, and his heart ached with how they were treated. Jesus’ love knew no boundaries, and so he traveled to those on the far borders. Jesus love reached and embraced and yearned to feed.[i]
Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people?” Philip said, “We don’t have enough money and wouldn’t even if we all worked for months.” And then Andrew said,
“There is a small boy in this large crowd . . . with barley loaves.”
Barley was understood to be for animals. Only the very poor ate animal food. And the boy had two fish. Fish caught in the Sea of Galilee were no bigger than sardines.
John wrote in his gospel, there was a great deal of ‘grass.’ Jesus invited them to sit in the green pasture, there beside the still water. Jesus took —the 5 barley loaves and the two fish. He valued them, blessed them, and gave thanks to God for them. And there in the shadow of Passover, Jesus fed them. There was enough food for all, in fact there was more than enough, 12 baskets of leftovers. The crowd was fed, young and old, poor and rich, men and women, Jew and Gentile. That place of scarcity became the place of abundance. The Shepherd fed the sheep.
We don’t know ‘how,’ but we do know ‘who.’
In the Sacred Text, God is the one who feeds, and who is known in the breaking and the sharing of bread. When manna came in the wilderness, when Abraham and Sarah fed the three strangers, when the widow fed Elijah, when the disciples ate with the stranger on the road to Emmaus—God’s living presence was made known to those struggling on the edge of life. They were nourished in body, mind and spirit.
When the people saw this, they prepared to take Jesus by force to make him king. Then Jesus withdrew, and went away to the mountain by himself. Being king in the way they wanted was not his calling. Perhaps it was tempting to please them and be given such power. But instead Jesus slipped away– from the crowds to solitude, from the busy-ness to stillness. Even the disciples went elsewhere. Jesus had just poured so much of himself out in the feeding. In the stillness, Jesus could sense hunger and exhaustion, just like all the others pushed to the Edge. Jesus went away—to rest and to pray. Jesus abided in his Father’s love, as the Father’s love abided in him. [ii]
Richard Rohr wrote, “For Jesus, prayer seems to be a matter of waiting in love, returning to love, trusting that love is the unceasing stream of reality. Prayer isn’t primarily words; it’s an attitude, a stance . . .” [iii] Prayer is the flow of loving union with the Divine.
The writer to the Gentiles in Ephesians wrote from jail, from his place on the edge to theirs. “I pray you may you be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit. . . May you be rooted and grounded in love. . . and have the power to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”[iv]
And so just as we are called to go and serve with Jesus. So also, we are also called to withdraw and be filled with Jesus. John Wesley believed that God’s grace was known both through works of mercy and works of piety. He understood works of mercy, to include activities like feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the sick. Works of piety included prayer, worship, studying scripture, and of course, singing hymns.
Perhaps going deeper in one, strengthens us to go further in the other. The more we pray, the more we can serve. The more we serve others, the more we come to know needs to pray. We listen to our neighbors on the sidewalk, we care for growing children and aging parents, we go to work and wonder how to make things better, we listen to the news and wonder what we can do about it. We realize we have at least some barley, and a few small fish to share. And we give them to God, and mysteriously they get multiplied. Small boys and even Jesus get hungry. So do we. We get depleted and exhausted. We find ourselves as those ‘other people’ in the crowd. And during nights such as these with so many needs in our homes and church, nation and world . . .many of us find ourselves wondering how we will feed all these people. What is our calling? From whence cometh our strength? And we hear Jesus, the companion of those pushed to the edge say to us, “Come to the green pastures and the still waters.”
The deeper our roots draw from the soil of God’s love–the more fullness we have to be present. The more our inner being is renewed, the more courage we have to take risks and reach farther. When we only receive, we get full and stagnant. When we only give, we get so depleted we can hardly function.
Martin Luther said [v],
“I have so much to do, I must pray.”
He would begin each day with 2-3 hours of prayer. Richard Rohr and his staff pause for 20 minutes of silent meditation together each afternoon at 2:00 p.m. Imagine that.
I like to pause in the morning, after my husband has quietly slipped off to work, and the kids have been fed, lunches packed, and hopefully everyone and everything driven to school, and some dishes and laundry moved around— but before I leave for work. I sit for a moment. In the winter I light the fire, and in the summer, sometimes a candle. I play the instrumental music that my sister also meditates to in the morning, hundreds of miles away. And I take some deep breaths. So many tasks and needs whirl in my head. I try to return to my breath, and consciously breathe in Union with Divine Love. Rest in love. Trust in Love. Sometimes I have time for three breaths, sometimes I take 30 minutes. Always I am too busy for this, and too busy not to breathe. And then throughout the day, I try to continue in that breath prayer. And when inadequacies come, I intentionally return. When I don’t know what to say, or do—or even if . . . I can breathe.
When it’s time for me to write a sermon—then that same music I play, candle I light, and deep breathes I take. I gather the notes of my readings and ideas. I spread an empty sheet of newsprint across my dining room table and get out the colors–and I a pause between fear and trust–praying that God again would feed, and I might have a morsel to share with you. I start in the center of what I have most received in the text and what I most want to share with you, and then I radiate from that center first drawing and then typing.
Last fall Jim and Jean Kocher approached me in the sanctuary. Jim asked me what I was going to preach on next, and I started talking but soon stammered and rambled. Jean listened and then leaned in to me. Unspoken, but known to all three of us was that it was Thursday night and I was overwhelmed. “Alice, go home to your table and get out the colors, and it will come.” She was telling me to go back to my prayerful place and to trust. Her words comforted me. I would be fed, so that I could feed again.
It is as important for us to hear that Jesus fed the 5,000, as it is to hear he withdrew to a quiet place. It is as important that we come to know ourselves as both people who have something to give, and people who hunger in need. We have too much going on not to eat, not to breathe. May we open to the flow of Divine Love nourishing us deeply. . . and flowing through us fully. May we find our true selves in the giving and receiving of Healing Love. May our breathing and our praying and our living be as one. Amen.
[i] “People Pushed to the Edge,” Joyce Rupp, Prayers of Boundless Compassion.
[ii] John 15
[iv] Ephesians 3:16-19
[v] Richard Foster, Celebration of Disciplines.