Feeding the 5,000: Not Just Another Church Potluck
There are key differences between these church suppers and Jesus' version of a church supper in Mark 6. First, nobody brought much of anything. Hence Jesus' orders to his disciples "You give them something to eat" (v. 37). At his orders, the disciples scout out the resources in the crowd. They are meager: Five loaves and two fish, wrapped in paper, pulled out of the pockets of a couple of cloaks. Jesus' version of "Let's begin with the table on my right and each table go to the buffet" is "Sit down in groups of hundreds and fifties" (v. 39). He then looks up to heaven and, in a manner reminiscent of the Eucharist, blesses and breaks the five loaves of bread and divides up the two fish.
Part of the message of the passage may be that we may have a few crusts of bread in our pockets we hadn't remembered were there. In other words, there may be more resources in a given situation than we realize. Joni Mitchell warbled that insight in her classic, 1970 song "Big Yellow Taxi."
Don't it always seem to go,
that you don't know what you've got till it's gone.
You pave paradise and put up a parking lot.
She's right. Sometimes we underestimate other's value and contributions only to realize them after the fact. We consign elderly relatives to the "has been" bin, not realizing the rich resource of wisdom their stories can yield for us and ours. We dismiss our current circumstances, thinking the grass will always be greener in another place, job, relationship, or church. Perhaps we underestimate our gifts and ourselves. But what if, within the confines of our situations, within the gifts and abilities of people around us, within our own life stories and buried family heritage, there were untold riches, untapped resources of wisdom, energy, and inspiration? Then, the message of this passage would be "Cast down your buckets where you are" and find human resources you didn't realize were there.
That's a helpful message, and true in many cases. But the more pressing message of this passage focuses on God. God can do a great deal with a little bit. It focuses on Jesus as source of rest, leadership, and nourishment. Church suppers bless food that is present and waiting on the table. Jesus' supper blesses food that is not present and still satisfies the hunger of an overflow crowd. I've never felt the compulsion to demystify the miracle stories. I have no desire to demote this miracle to a "See what happens when we all share" motif. I think it's more of a "See what happens with a little when the power of God is behind it." With age has come a degree of wisdom. I now realize how little one person can accomplish in the big scheme of things. This is liberating knowledge. I also realize how important that little bit can be. That is motivating knowledge. That is the work of God.
Jesus blesses, not several tables groaning under the weight of the bounty we have prepared and brought, but five loaves and two fish. Jesus' version of a church supper—this "Lord's Supper"—is a demonstration of grace: God doing in and through us things we could not do on our own steam; God moving mountains with faith the size of a grain of mustard seed.
"Cast down your bucket where you are" may help us discover resources we didn't realize were present in our situations and in us. "Cast down your bucket where you are" is sure to help us discover the presence and power of God at the depths of our experience. This is the Lord's Supper, not just another church supper. Cast down your bucket where you are.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.