Proper 12 (Year B)
July 29, 2018
By The Reverend Marilyn Zehr
Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”
Funny story, true story: As I write this I am at a large Church Conference as a “guest,” where on Sunday, I heard an inspiring sermon on the feeding of the multitude story as told by Mark. After worship and communion where we shared a morsel of the Bread of Life dipped in grape juice, we eventually found our way to the cafeteria for lunch. As a “guest” for a couple of days I had not purchased a meal plan and so was hoping to purchase a random ticket for lunch. There was confusion about my presence, some wanted me to just help myself to the food and come and sit down, and others made sure that I knew that if I helped myself there might not be enough food for those who had purchased the meal plan. Not feeling entirely welcome, and hungry, I excused myself and went in search of food elsewhere. I found the “coffee house” down the hall where a tiny group of people, 8-10, were listening to a woman make a presentation on the often hidden nature of chronic illness. The food at the coffee house was free, and I helped myself to a small serving of rice pudding and a scone and sat down and ate and enjoyed the connections I made in that tiny band of people on the margins.
The Bread of Life came to me in a woman named Leslie, and a woman with a chronic illness and a small serving of rice pudding and bread.
And I realized it wasn’t about the bread.
Yes, I was hungry, but I had wanted to be part of the group. I wanted to sit down and eat with the big group. But Life and welcome and food came to me instead in the smaller group. There I was welcome. There I was fed – body and soul.
If you read all of John chapter 6, you will notice that Jesus also says it’s not about the bread.
The story in John 6 begins by telling us that the Feast of the Passover was near, but Jesus was not in Jerusalem for the festival even though normally in John’s gospel that’s where Jesus can be found during the major festivals. This time Jesus takes the feast of the unleavened bread to the far side of the Sea of Tiberius. He takes the life-giving, life-saving ceremony of bread to the wilderness and to the people who follow him there. And in a radically hospitable act when there is no evidence that there will be enough food he invites people first to sit down. To be invited to sit down is to be told that you belong, that you are welcome and that your social and spiritual needs will be met along with your body’s needs. (I won’t comment on the fact that the Greek version of the text indicates that only the men sat down – I’ll save that for another exegesis).
How is this a wild lectionary exegesis of this passage?
When I wander through the fields of the land that I call home, I notice where the deer and elk feel safe enough to lie down. I see the evidence in the grass. I see the pathways they and the bears make through the acres of wild raspberry bushes. There is a lot of grass in that place and they make themselves at home there. They belong there and their social and spiritual and physical needs are met when they feel welcome and safe.
Animal and human and even the rest of the natural world share remarkable similarities. (For an engaging and accessible read of what we know about the inner life of trees and animals, see Peter Wohlleben, trans. by Jane Billinghurst, The Hidden Life of Trees, 2015 and The Inner Life of Animals, 2017). We need the food of life and it’s remarkable all the ways that the food of life is more than bread and more than the fruit of the vine.
All God’s creatures need to belong, to feel welcome and to feel safe. And the Bread of Life who came “down from heaven” had that effect on people and the natural world around him.
If Jesus crossed the sea, they crossed the sea to find him. Without Jesus, the disciples and the people who followed him felt alone and afraid. They thought it was their full bellies that made them feel “okay,” around him, but it was so much more than that. Even the sea allowed Jesus, the presence of YHWH, the presence of I Am, (in Greek, ego eimi, John 6: 20) to calm the waters and to walk on them.
It’s not about the bread. It’s about the Bread of Life. And wherever that presence may be felt – on the hillside seated on the grass, in the wilderness, on the sea, among the wild raspberry bushes, or down the hall in the “coffee house” – in spaces of Life where the whole needs of all God’s creatures for welcome, belonging and safety are met, there is the presence of I Am and there is abundance so that the leftovers can be gathered up and nothing will be lost. It’s not about the bread. It’s about the Bread of Life.
Marilyn Zehr is a 7th generation Mennonite settler, a Spiritual Director and a United Church of Canada Minister who seeks to be attuned to the Sacred through the earth and it’s creatures. Marilyn and her wife, Svinda Heinrichs, reside in the hamlet of Maynooth, Ontario, Canada and on a 64-acre piece of unceded Algonquin territory. This hilltop land that sustains and heals all who venture there was once on the shores of an ancient glacial lake known as the Shawashkong and now overlooks a vast river valley in the York/Madawaska River watershed. Follow our adventures on https://riseabove470.wordpress.com
Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in scripture, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.