DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!
Nestled in a quiet spot just a stone’s throw from the northwestern corner of the Sea of Galilee is a place called Tabgha. The name actually is a mistake, because it’s a distortion of the Greek word for seven springs. Though five only remain today, once long ago seven springs converged in this place and flowed into the Sea of Galilee (The Holy Land, The Land of Jesus, Palphot, p. 32). . . . Tabgha was the second stop on the Holy Land pilgrimage I was on in March. And maybe because it was just day one, I was overwhelmed emotionally to be walking in the very same places one called Jesus of Nazareth had walked. We weren’t scheduled to stop at Tabgha. We were on our way from the Mount of Arbel, where one can look out over the Valley of Doves and see the fifteen mile trek Jesus would have taken to get from his hometown in Nazareth through the fishing port of Magdala, the thriving city of Mary Magdalene, to the Sea of Galilee and the twelve miles around it where Jesus spent the majority of his time in public ministry. We were heading from Mount Arbel to Capernaum – the city where Jesus made his home in Peter’s house for at least half of Jesus’ three years of ministry. And after that we’d make a stop at the Mount of the Beatitudes from which those beautiful words were preached. Words like “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. . . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:3-4, 6).
I had never before heard of Tabgha and as it was the first church building we were visiting in the Holy Land, I wasn’t so sure what to expect. Our tour bus was parked in the lot next to all the other tour buses and off we went. At Tabgha – the site where only five of those seven springs come together today to flow into the Sea of Galilee – German Benedictine sisters now live together in a monastery and host a guest house. They are ready to greet the millions of pilgrims who come to this site each year. Heading past a fruit stand selling samples of pomegranates – the fruit of Israel that since ancient times has been known to symbolize abundance. Walking by that sweet smell, you go through a large stone gate in order to enter a simple courtyard. Above the chatterings of the crowds of pilgrims – many from lands in this world that speak languages we can’t understand – you can hear the flowing water of the springs in the courtyard of Tabgha. Because a pool is in the middle of the courtyard and in it huge koi fish swim. A fish pond: something I didn’t quite expect in the courtyard of a church in the Holy Land or anywhere else for that matter. As one silently enters the sanctuary, the focal point of the chancel area is a simple stone table built over a rock. Before the rock is a mosaic in the floor which dates from the Fourth Century. The mosaic depicts two fish on either side of a basket holding four loaves of bread. The name of the sanctuary you have just entered is called the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish. The rock under the altar table is the presumed site on which the fifth loaf was placed by Jesus before he lifted it up, gave thanks to God, broke it, and gave it to his disciples to give to the hungry crowds that unexpectedly had stayed through the dinner hour just to remain close to Jesus in that deserted place. Whether your post-modern mind believes in a miracle of 5,000 men plus women and children being fed that day by just five loaves of bread and two fish, you can’t really sit in the quiet of that sanctuary and not contemplate the incredibly abundant ways God provides.
Tabgha. It’s a place in which all were nourished.
Every gospel writer includes this story. One even has it twice with some variations. For very good reasons the early church saw this story – this act of all the hungry gathered being abundantly fed – as a part of their experience of Christ that had to be included. . . . I’ve read some interesting thoughts about this classic story we call the Feeding of the Five Thousand – though it had to be way more than 5,000 once you count up all the women and children who the gospel of Matthew claims were present too with the 5,000 men. I was telling some of you at Home Book Club the other night, that one commentator reminds us that the Roman Empire hailed itself in Jesus’ day as the breadbasket of the world. It claimed to be the one to feed the masses (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3; Jae Won Lee, pp. 311, 313). Though what we know of the Roman Empire in Jesus’ time and place was that the masses were not being freely fed – especially in Israel. The Temple leaders of the day were in cahoots with Rome – they kinda were forced to be if they wanted their nation to continue. They became the wealthy landowners to whom the peasant masses were indebted (The Last Week, Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan, pp. 41-54). People like Jesus and his family simply had to work land that no longer belonged to them in order to get the food they needed for that day. It was the same powerful system that had just beheaded John the Baptist, word of which drove Jesus out to this deserted Tabgha place. Followed there by thousands who were being crushed by the injustices typical of occupied lands, Jesus had compassion on the crowds. Freely he ensured they were fed. Nourished in that place in a way that mirrored the kingdom of God he had spent so much time telling them about in parable after parable that taught of an uncontrollable reign that will grow from the smallest mustard seed into the greatest haven for all; that will spread abundantly from the tiniest bit of yeast expanding the flour into vast amounts of dough. One commentator writes of this miraculous feeding that “The traditional expectation of God’s final rule at the culmination of the ages is that it will be universal and all inclusive” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3; Jae Won Lee, pp. 313). All those people being freely fed was a sign of God’s kingdom in their midst, yet to be fully realized. Not the powers of this world or anything else of it for which we might strive, but the compassion of Christ ensures that all are freely nourished.
It might just be the case that the early church needed this story so much so that it’s in all four gospels and twice in one, so that they wouldn’t lose hope in the midst of their daily struggle. Many of them were forging new lives by following this Way of the Risen Christ. They were going to be rejected by a society that was living according to very different principles. Some of them no longer would have the support of family that believed otherwise. Some of them would be hauled in front of local authorities, and even the Emperor himself, to defend the crazy ways of peace and justice and love to which they had fully committed themselves as followers first of the Risen Christ. Certainly they experienced days when they were deeply hungry. If not literally for bread on their tables, then surely craving the kind of nourishment that would feed their hungry souls as they sought, in that context, to follow faithfully. Maybe they needed each other to know that through the disciples, Christ assured abundant nourishment. . . . It’s key that in the feeding of the 5,000 story, it’s not the hand of Jesus that gives the food to the hungry. Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives to his disciples who in turn pass out the fish and loaves to the hungry crowd. In other words, the early church might just have been reminding one another that we have the job of feeding the hungry. Even when we disciples whine that they need to be sent away, as the first disciples do in Matthew’s telling of the story. Even when we claim we have nothing, as do the first disciples of Matthew’s story who in fact have something but just are discounting that the five loaves and two fish that they do have would ever be sufficient to feed others. More than just a comforting lesson of God abundantly providing, this story also challenges our discipleship. One commentator asks us to wonder: “In what ways have we been given blessed nourishment and failed to pass it along to people in need?” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3; Dock Hollinngsworth, pp. 311).
It’s a way this feeding story still speaks to us because we live in a world full of those who hunger. I know we’re Americans who have so much food that many of us have to be on strict diet and exercise regimes just to keep healthy. And I applaud our efforts as a congregation, and as a denomination, to feed those whose bodies literally are hungry because they do not have the food they need for the day. What I wonder about too is how we are doing at feeding the souls of the masses around us each day? What about their spirits? What about those longings within that will not be satisfied by anything else? . . . Does what we do here in worship provide nourishment to anybody? If you were listening a few minutes ago to Emily tell of the Church Assessment Tool, it’s some of what we hope to learn from your completion of that tool. How are we doing at nourishing the spiritual yearnings within? How are we doing as a community of faith in feeding the hunger in us and in those beyond this congregation who crave connection? A sense of belonging in the circle of God’s family that satisfies that deep ache within. How are we doing at ensuring that all are freely, abundantly nourished?
It would be beautiful, wouldn’t it, if this place was a place like Tabgha – a place where all are nourished. A place in which all would tell of their experience of the incredibly abundant ways that God provides. We might already experience it as such. We might already feel all our deepest cravings satisfied here among one another. So much so that we’re out there in the world each day freely nourishing the languishing spirits of those who cross our paths. . . . We might be those who feel a hunger for something more. A craving for food we’ve not yet tasted here that will do more than just sustain us on our journeys, but will turn our personal hungers into cravings for others to be filled too. So that when we come to eat around this Table, the bread and fruit of the vine in us rumble in our bellies until all are freely fed. . . . Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we all went from here like those 5,000 men, and even more women and children, went from Tabgha that night filled – nourished abundantly through the hands of the disciples by such an amazing God!
Let us ready our minds and hearts, let us open our spirits and prepare our bodies. Gathered around this (the Lord’s) table, let us all be abundantly fed!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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