The disciples are worn out. You remember that last week they had been sent off by Jesus–two by two–to learn how to do ministry, to preach, to teach, to heal. It was trial and error work. Mark’s gospel reports that they were pretty good at it, but I have a suspicion that he’s exaggerating. Any of us engaged in any kind of ministry knows things go very differently from the way we imagine they will. The people who encourage you the most at the outset disappear once you begin your ministry. The ones you think you are helping seem strangely aloof and even ungrateful. The project you try to get going gets criticized by someone who wouldn’t think of doing it himself. The people who volunteered to help don’t show up. You imagined a church full of people who were finally in a place they could call home, but making that happen is taking longer than you like. Yes, real ministry is humbling.
The good news is that we still train priests the way Jesus did: throw them into the water and see if they swim or sink. When I was a deacon in a small Orthodox parish, I accompanied the pastor and the choir to a local nursing home during the Christmas season. This was one of our annual ministries, so I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary. While we were preparing to finish up our concert, a sweet looking old woman in a wheelchair, suddenly said to the priest, “I know who you are. Get away from me!” If you’ve ever seen the movie “The Exorcist”, you know the voice! The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and the room became silent. Our priest, however, remained calm. He walked up to her, laid his hand on her forehead and, despite her squirming around in her wheelchair, gave her a blessing. Instantly, she became quiet, her facial muscles relaxed and she became the sweet little grandmother she had been before the episode. I will never forget that event.
As a new pastor, it’s not uncommon to get phone calls from the archdiocese on a regular basis: What did you do recently? Why did you do it that way? What went right? What went wrong? What will you do differently next time? All of this is designed to make us realize we aren’t as good as we think we are.
Real ministry is stressful like that, so that’s why God invented sabbaticals. Jesus knew his disciples needed a break as much as he did, so that’s why he says, “Let’s go to a deserted place all by ourselves so we can chill for awhile.” And that’s exactly when the crowds showed up. You know how it is. You haven’t had a night out in months. You finally get away, the waiter arrives with your hors d’oeuvres , and your date suddenly has an episode of projectile vomiting right there at the table. Or the baby sitter calls and your kid’s got a fever. Or better yet, you’ve planned a vacation for six months, you’re packed and ready to go when your dad calls and says that your mother is having bypass surgery tomorrow. Always, just when we think we have given all we have to give, there is one more thing.
I think Jesus knew that better than anyone else. Tiger Woods is still one of the most sought after persons in the world—he gets mobbed on the golf course, and I saw on CNN that a reporter even followed him into the men’s room with a mic, trying to get some kind of sound bite for his news station. Jesus’ crowds were the same. They chased him and pressed in around him. They wanted to hear from him. They needed direction: they were like sheep without a shepherd. And finally they needed something to eat.
Jesus had compassion for them, which is a very important thing to know. This is why he is the Redeemer, and we are just associates: Jesus had compassion for people even when he was feeling completely spent. This means Jesus has compassion for us when we are spent. Compassion: “a feeling of deep empathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by suffering or misfortune, accompanied by a strong to desire to alleviate the pain or remove its cause.” To put it simply, Jesus feels and has experienced what we do, and wants to help us. That’s the meaning of compassion.
So Jesus begins to speak to them and eventually, he realizes that his talk has gone on way too long—not like here at Holy Redeemer, where they are always just the right length—and the disciples had had enough. They said, “Look, Dude, it’s late, send them to Kroger to buy something for themselves to eat.” If nothing else, they at least have to be admired for their honesty. We see hungry, needy, sick , homeless people, war victims, children with AIDS– far more than we can stand. Sometimes we get angry—why can’t someone do something about this?! Sometimes we simply want to turn off the TV and hide. And now, as then, Jesus says just what we disciples really don’t want to hear: “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples complain–like we complain–”What can we give–there are 5000 men plus wives and children here! Give us as break! All we have is five loaves of barley bread and a couple of dried fish.” “Bring them here to me.”
Then he does something that’s very instructive for us. He has the crowd break up into groups of 50 or 100. Now it’s no longer a crowd. It’s a cluster of communities. What’s Holy Redeemer Parish? We have about 30 official members, but only 15 ort 20 here most Sundays. We recognize when someone new walks in and takes a seat. It’s like the show “Cheers”, where everybody knows your name. There is no anonymity of the crowd here: we know each other–or at least can know each other! Jesus is giving us a model of what a church is supposed to be like, even if membership swells into the thousands, it will only be home for people if they know that they are known and loved for who they are.
Jesus feeds them. He takes whatever they have—5 loaves and 2 fishes–looks up to heaven, says a blessing, breaks the bread and gives the pieces to the crowd. And all were filled. Whatever else this story means, it is the precursor of Holy Eucharist–”Jesus took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat, this is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Regardless of our theology about what Eucharist is, whether it is symbol or literal, or a combination, the message from Jesus is the same.
Jesus solves the problem of human need by giving himself, and that’s the model he passes to us. When we are exhausted, stressed out, and have nothing more to give, he takes what we have–that is, he takes who we are—and increases and multiplies it–so that there is enough. You see, anything we have is enough when it is offered in simple love. However much it is broken, however much is too exhausted, however reluctant we are, Jesus multiplies it. And in the process we find ourselves multiplied, turned into real disciples after all. We never did need to be perfect, we just needed to be open to imagining the next best version of ourselves.