The miracle of hospitality (Mark 6: 30-44)

The crowd should not have been there.  They had been out among the people – it had bee a busy and exciting time.  The disciples had returned from their mission and they were eager to tell Jesus “all they had done and taught.”  Mark’s gospel introduces King Herod  to us, by way of that horrifying story of the execution of John the Baptist, as an intermission between the sending out of the disciples (as described in Mark 6: 6-13) and their return – but this mornings reading sees them safely back and ready to talk about what it all means.

Jesus has not been idle.  People continue to seek him – there is much coming and going – this happy reunion of the teacher and his pupils in chaotic; they can’t even find time to eat.  So Jesus suggests a brief retreat.  They go away to a deserted place, for Jesus knows the value of time apart, and surely they will need to process what has been happening since the day that Jesus sent them out with “authority over unclean spirits…”.  They went out with nothing but the shoes on their feet, and a staff in their hands and the power of God in their lives.  There are going to be stories to share.

But this deserted place is too easy to find.  The crowd sees them go and follows and the gospel  tells us that Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus sees a need in this persistent crowd, and does what he does best; teaches them many things.

Interesting, isn’t it; that while the quiet get-away was Jesus’ idea, he is the first to break the silence – he is the one who suggests that the disciples engage the crowd.  Jesus knows the difference between work and rest.  He knows the value of  ‘a time apart’ for the restoration of body and soul.  He hasn’t played a trick on his disciples, but he does have a lesson for them…for us.

Much of what we treasure about this particular incident from the life of Jesus  is the ‘miraculous’ multiplication of food.  Clearly this is the work of the power of God – clearly this is evidence of Jesus divine nature; so go the arguments.  But this is also a lesson in compassion.  Often, when we consider this miracle story, we forget the terms of engagement – Jesus recognized the people’s need – for guidance; for comfort; for sustenance.  He had compassion for them, and compassion is the catalyst for the miraculous.

“It’s getting late, Jesus.”  “We’re a long way from town, and there’s not much food here.”  “We’d really like some time to ourselves, teacher; can’t you send them away?”  Without answering any of their objections, Jesus sets a challenge before his students: “You give them something to eat.”  He knows they have food enough for themselves.  The crowd is to large to consider calling the local take-out place.  Jesus had previously sent the disciples out dependent on the hospitality of strangers “take no food, no bag, no money…”  Now, he asks them to show hospitality to strangers.  They are baffled.

So Jesus shows them how.  ‘Sit them down…’ ‘Give thanks…’  ‘Share what you have…’ and not only is there enough, there is much more than enough.  5000 men (and who knows how many women and children…)  twelve baskets full of left-overs!  It’s an astonishing thing…but the real lesson is not easily understood.

Later in the gospel (while caught in a storm on the lake) we are told that the disciples don’t get it.  They are “astounded” folks who “did not understand about the loaves [because] their hearts were hardened.”  You might wonder; “what’s not to understand?  Hungry people were fed with a trifling amount of food!”   But who among us really understands something so wonderful?  Even if we try to imagine clever solutions to “explain” the mystery of the excessive generosity of God, we miss the point.  The miracle isn’t in the food; and the parallel isn’t found at every church supper or funeral lunch where there always seems to be ‘just enough’.  The primary need for these ‘sheep without a shepherd’ was not food – it was fellowship.

Yes, we meet for meals because we need to eat.  Even in this place of abundance we recognize that food is essential to life.  But when we meet for meals – whether a wedding feast or a funeral reception, it is more than the egg salad sandwiches that satisfy.  Significant events in our lives are marked by meals – some simple, others more elaborate – where we offer and receive hospitality; where we share sorrow and joy; where we encounter the same miraculous power that “fed” five thousand men that day.

The disciples are baffled – not because everyone is fed (though that is a puzzler…) – but because so many were welcomed.  When we make room at the table for one another, we are meeting in sacred space.  When we share even a n ordinary meal, we are likely to learn something about one another.  We build community, we learn patience, we share experiences, we offer support and encouragement – these are miracles too.

So it is important that so many miracles of Jesus seem to revolve around food.  And it is not a accident that such small provision as two fish and five loaves is somehow more than enough.  God’s hospitality is like that.  The Kingdom of God is like that.  The act of breaking bread together – in small groups – in multitudes – is a miraculous, sacred act.  We honour that in the celebration of communion, and at picnics.  We make the same miracle at funeral lunches and wedding suppers.  In our gathering at table, it is the gathering that feeds us – we need the companionship, the support, and the conversation; the food, often enough, goes cold on the plate.

“Where two or three are gathered” Jesus promised to be present.  That is the miracle, every time.  Praise God for that joyful, sustaining presence, that meets us here, that welcomes us to the Lord’s table, that shows us what hospitality is.  Amen.

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