They Were Satisfied – John 6:1-14
Is it worth the waiting for,
If we live till eighty-four,
All we ever get is,
Everyday we say a prayer,
Will they change the bill of fare,
still we get the same old
There's not a crust,
Not a crumb can we find,
Can we beg can we borrow or cadge,
But there's nothing to stop us from getting a thrill,
when we all close our eyes and imagine.
Food, glorious food,
Hot sausage and mustard,…
Too many Americans sing the hopeful refrain of Oliver’s orphans, “food, glorious food, hot sausage and mustard…” Among our assorted human needs, food unites our experience. We all need nutritious food. While the need for food unites us, the availability and types of foods we consume separate us. The orphans in Oliver grumble they only eat gruel. Too many Americans could also sing, “everyday we say a prayer, will they change the bill of fare, still we get the same old McDonalds, Taco Bell, Doritos or Fruit Loops.” And they dream “Food, glorious food.” Nutritious foods are scarce in the poorer neighborhoods of our country. The freshest fruits and vegetables line the shelves of Wegman’s and Whole Foods but are non-existent in the bodegas of poorer communities. Churches throughout the country explore new ways to invite neighbors to their church tables. Faithful communities expand their age-old soup kitchen, and pantry missions adding fresher food opportunities and healthier food options. Many churches utilize their lands gardening to produce fresh foods for shelters, and food banks. Some organize urban gardening sessions to teach their neighbors how to grow their own vegetables. We could easily do that.
The distribution and sharing of food is central to our faith. The earliest church crowd worshipped at the temple, afterwards, they gathered in homes to share a meal (Acts 2:46; 5:42). In Acts 4, a crowd of 5000 folk heard Peter and John preach. I imagine the preachers shared Jesus’ living parable of the loaves and fish. The crowd went home and they shared their resources ensuring that all were satisfied. Feeding church folk and feeding neighbors is central to the Christian way.
So, was the feeding of the large crowd, a miraculous buffet – a supernatural magnification of a couple of pounds of fish and bread to hundreds of pounds of food? Or, was the feeding of the large crowd, an amazing tribute to the miracle of sharing – the first, huge, church potluck? The interpreters of scripture debate taking sides supernatural versus scientific, miracle versus metaphor. While agreeing that scripture’s miracles transform our lives, they argue over their means. Was Lazarus in a coma or really dead? Did the Red Sea defy gravity dividing upward and apart or was there a tidal wave? Haley’s Comet or stationary star over Bethlehem? So, does the little boy’s Po-boy meal prove that Jesus’s power defied the laws of material science? Or did other boys, girls, wise mothers and fathers in the crowd pull out private stashes of snacks and share?
Speaking of potlucks, did you realize that church potlucks are under attack? In Wisconsin, churches cannot hold more than 12 public food events a year without a restaurant license. In 2001 Indiana passed a law requiring nonprofit groups to hire certified food handlers, in effect banning potlucks. In Minnesota, potlucks are exempt from food safety inspections only if the food is not prepared in the church kitchen. On August 1, 2011, the Minnesota State Legislature passed the “Church Lady Bill” requiring at least one volunteer who prepares food for large church events to attend training and to educate the other church cooks. The motivation for the bill starts with a sad story of a bad batch of Church fed meatballs. 16 people fell ill because of E. coli bacteria within the meatballs. Tragically, 73 year old, Carolyn Hawkinson died. The widower and food poisoned Church members sued the meat distributor, Nebraska Beef. They argued that the bacteria came to them in the meat. Nebraska Beef counter-sued the church blaming an unsanitary church kitchen. The cases were finally resolved. The court dismissed Nebraska Beef’s case against the church. Nebraska Beef settled out of court with the families paying them an undisclosed amount. The gospel bird (fried chicken), molded Jello salads, green bean casseroles, pasta salads, homemade cookies, pecan pies, cupcakes, mint-infused ice tea, and coffee are central to our faith. Whether you buy an item from Safeway or Fresh Fields to bring, make it in your kitchen, make it in the church kitchen, or purchase it at KFC - the act of sharing food with faithful friends is central to our community. We joke that all we do is eat together; it’s true and it’s good. Our meals tie us to a long, rich heritage. The early church’s worship and mission centered on meals together. I don’t know of any looming, legislative danger to church potlucks in Maryland. So, friends, let’s eat together. Do, of course, be careful to bring safe and if possible healthy options to the potluck in honor of Nancy Clark’s retirement next week?
Jesus noted the crowd’s hunger wanting them all to be satisfied. Jesus then demonstrated against food insecurity, demonstrated against food castes and witnessed to the holy, goodness of feeding each other. The Gospel food of John’s miracle was barley bread and salted fish, the food of the common person. Everyone ate from the same metaphorical table. The divisions of society were torn down and everyone ate together. It is anathema to consider the crowd on the meadow dividing themselves by class for the meal. There wasn’t a five star meal section, and a McDonalds section, nor Balducci’s or bodega sections. They ate together, the same food.
Swedish missionary Beda Wennerqvist wrote about her relationship with a young Zulu woman Nomampo Lutuli. They lived in what is now the South African province KwaZulu/Natal, in an imperial society structured under British authority. The British men held prominence, the British women followed in privilege and the local peoples fell last. Beda, a Lutheran, started her missionary service in 1892. She was the head of the missionary compound’s children’s home. Nomampu, a motherless orphan, ran away from her father seeking to become a Christian. She found her way to the missionaries and after she was baptized, she lived with and cared for the 26 girls residing in the children’s home. She also prepared the meals for Beda. Beda wrote that Nomampo, “always knew her place”; “obedience, faithfulness and humbleness.” The ladies spent evenings together: often praying together; Beda taught Nomampo to knit. But the British structures would not condone their eating together.
Beda’s journal includes entries where she laments, a deeply painful sin committed by Nomampo, she says that she, “fell from grace.” Nomampo was punished for eating British food. She had been ill and while ill Beda provided for her from her table. I imagine Beda has little skill in preparing Nomampo’s traditional meals, so she fed her British foods. After Nomampo recovered it was discovered that she had acquired a taste for the bread and fruit of Beda’s larder. The evil act was continuing to sample the verboten British fruit. Considered, no longer a good enough Christian to relate to the children of the school, she was dismissed.
Jesus calls for us to “feed my sheep” - that is each other and our neighbors. Let us continue to potluck. Let us continue to enjoy the Lord’s Supper. Let us continue to eat in each other’s homes, to provide meals to those who suffer with difficulties, to enjoy cakes when we celebrate and to give of our abundance to those who need it. Help yourselves to some of the fruit of my garden during fellowship. We continue Rainbow Place meals, Sophia House meals, advocating through Bread for the World, and let us explore church vegetable gardens, and ways to ensure that our poorest neighbors eat as well as we do. Jesus commands, “Feed my sheep. Feed my sheep. Feed my sheep that all be satisfied.” Feed them food, glorious, nutritious, life enriching food. Amen.
 Karin Sarja. “Can the Subaltern speak? Or Who is Sharing a Meal with Whom?” – Swedish Missiological Themes, 97, 4 (2009)