In the early nineties my brother Paul, a corporate banker, took a job with the Sheik of Abu Dhabi that required him to move to the United Arab Emirates with his wife Barb and two young children. It was there that he was introduced to desert camping: packing up the family in their SUV and heading out to toboggan down the sand dunes and enjoy a picnic lunch. I suppose camping is not the right word for these adventures because you definitely did not want to get caught out in the open overnight.
Paul told me of one occasion when five or six families were out for the day exploring and they took a wrong turn or extended their picnic too long. They suddenly noticed that it had gotten later than was safe for a bunch of Europeans who were unprepared for the harsh conditions that came with nightfall. Fortunately, one of the families included a U.S. army veteran. Once it had become clear that play time was over and something needed to be done to avoid serious trouble, this fellow changed from ‘one of the guys’ to ‘the man in charge’. He pulled out his map and compass – this was before we had universal GPS – and plotted out the shortest way back home. Everyone else followed as he led the convoy of vehicles back to safety.
This is far from the scariest example of what it is like to be caught unprepared in a desert place, but it comes to mind for me whenever I hear this familiar story that was read for us this morning. Here in B.C. most of us know that if you go into the wilderness you need to be prepared. You need a compass, a knife, a fire starter, some food and water, and a satellite phone helps too. But if we don’t have those things, it’s nice to know that someone in our group does. In this story, Jesus plays the same role as that soldier did in my brother’s adventure. He is the one who knows what to do in the case of an emergency. He is the one we turn to when we are in trouble. He is the one that we know will get us out of the fix we find ourselves in.
Some of you may recall a sermon I preached around Christmas time one year where I suggest that for many people Jesus is a kind of James Bond figure. By that I mean that we look to Jesus as someone we can turn to who will rescue us from our dilemma. He will guide us home if we are lost. He will feed us if we are hungry. He will cure us if we are sick. He will destroy our enemies if we are under threat.
Today’s story can be heard as one that affirms that image of Jesus as the saviour, the one to whom we can turn in time of trouble. Whether our dilemma is life threatening or merely a matter of missing a meal, Jesus will come to the rescue.
Last weekend, Heather and I attended the National Spiritual gathering of Indigenous ministries of the United Church. In some ways this is like an annual meeting, similar to the yearly gathering of B.C. Conference. It’s not just ministers and staff people, but includes lay people who represent the various ways in which Indigenous people participate in the life of the United Church of Canada. Altogether, I would guess there were 100 or so individuals gathered to celebrate, pray, talk, eat and tend to the business of being church together.
On the morning of the third day, a musician named Leonard Sumner gave us a break from all the talk that comes with such meetings. He provided an hour-long concert of songs and stories. Leonard is a rapper who combines hip-hop and country music: quite a unique musical style. One of the stories he told happened just outside Thunderbird House, which is a native centre in Winnipeg that provides support for the indigenous community, including those living on the streets. Thunderbird House is, you might say, one of those institutions that has been inspired by the same sense of responsibility to care for others that lay behind Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand.
Leonard was just hanging out on the front steps one day, talking with some friends, when someone who, judging by appearances, was living on the streets and having a pretty hard time of it. This fellow approached him and asked if he had a cigarette. Now Leonard doesn’t smoke, but he remembered that a friend of his who did had left a packet of cigarettes in his car and so Leonard got that packet of smokes and gave the whole thing to the fellow who had asked.
Without even lighting up one cigarette this street person said thanks and scampered away to where a group of other homeless people were hanging out. Leonard watched as he distributed the contents of that package among all his friends. When he had told this story, Leonard concluded by suggesting that perhaps people living on the streets embody the traditional practices of indigenous cultures living in situations where resources are scarce and the practice of sharing is necessary for survival.
I encountered that custom myself when I arrived in Prince Rupert 12 years ago and was shocked to discover that there was no fresh salmon available in grocery stores. When I asked someone why, in a town built on the fishing industry, there was none for sale, I was told that it was hard to sell salmon when everyone had a freezer full. “How can I get some?” I asked. “Make friends,” I was told. And indeed it wasn’t long before I met people who would drop by with a fresh salmon after being out on the water.
The crowd that followed Jesus would have been made up of indigenous folks from Palestine. Peasants and farmers and tradespeople whose economic well-being was never far removed from starvation. They were people who relied on the kindness of strangers to share a little water and a crust of bread as they made their way around their territory.
In the gospel of John this story of feeding a crowd of thousands begins with a small boy who had with him five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus takes those morsels and feeds the whole crowd. Some interpreters have pointed out that the boy shared what he had rather than hoarding for himself in anticipation that there would not be enough in the future. Rather than taking responsibility for preserving himself by accumulating food, he trusted that there would be more come along in the future and recognized that today he had more than he needed.
Much like the fellow who gave away the cigarettes to his friends rather than keep them for himself, the generosity on the part of the boy may have come out of a cultural tradition of sharing in times of plenty and in times of shortage. Jesus recognized that though there appeared to be a shortage, everyone could be fed if what was available were distributed to all, rather than kept by those who had the foresight to bring a meal with them. If a young boy had the foresight to bring along a meal, then surely others in the crowd must have a crust of bread and some meat or cheese that they had brought from home. Jesus’ role was not to provide a miracle by swooping in and rescuing everyone like James Bond, rather his role was to set the example of sharing and start the ball rolling.
Wendell Berry, whom Sojourners magazine described as a poet and a prophet, has spoken about our need to give strength to one another rather than wait and pray for someone to rescue us. What is required is not that we be rescued from above when we are in need, but that we share the strength and the resources that God has given us to care for each other.
“And we pray,” the poet says, “not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.”
Rev. Dr. John Burton reserves all rights © 2017. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.