Text: Mark 6:37 (Jeremiah 1:4-9) W Christopher Maronde Ordination
“You Give Them Something to Eat”
In the name of the Chief Shepherd who calls, appoints, and equips under-shepherds to take care of the flock of God, dear brothers and sisters in Christ: It’s a genuine pleasure for me to be here to address you on this joyful day that we celebrate our Lord’s ongoing care for his Church by consecrating new ministers of his Gospel, and to lay hands and implore the Lord’s blessing upon one young man in particular as he takes a solemn oath to proclaim the whole counsel of God in all of its truth and purity, to rightly administer the Sacraments of the Church, to love and to care for the people of the congregations he’s been called to serve, and to adorn the office of the Holy Ministry with an upright and godly life. This is especially a pleasure for me, because it was four years ago at his wedding that I had the honor of lecturing Chris on the duties and responsibilities of being a good husband. Now, at his request, I get to read him the riot act about being a good pastor. It seems that when Chris is standing on the edge of making one of life’s really big commitments, he trusts me to have something worthwhile to contribute. I am humbled by this expression of confidence; I pray it’s not misplaced. I only hope that when the day comes that he makes what is likely to be his next really big commitment, that is, the purchase of a home, he doesn’t ask me to co-sign the loan.
The text I’ve chosen on which to base this message is from the Gospel of St. Mark, chapter six, verse thirty-seven. But before I read it, I’d like to spend a moment describing the context in which our Lord speaks these words. The setting is the mid-Galilean phase of Jesus’ ministry. He is at highpoint of his popularity. People are flocking to him by the thousands, drawn by his radically refreshing teachings and his ability to miraculously heal every form of illness and injury. The result is that in order to keep up with this steady flood of humanity, Jesus and his disciples are working overtime – really burning the candle at both ends. They’re keeping a schedule that allows them almost no time for rest or even to eat. After some weeks of this, Jesus sees that his men are physically and mentally exhausted. They can’t go on like this. No doubt Jesus feels the strain himself, and so it is that early one morning before sunrise when the crowds will surely begin to gather again, he pulls his men aside and says, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” It sounds good to the disciples. They load up the boat, and with Jesus aboard they set sail from Capernaum to a remote place on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Unfortunately, they don’t make a clean getaway. Some early risers observe what they’re doing and spread the word. So as the disciples blissfully sail toward a much needed mini-vacation, unbeknown to them, a vast crowd follows along the shoreline. No sooner have Jesus and the disciples come ashore at their supposedly secret hideaway, than they look up and see the multitude approaching. The hearts of the disciples sink. They look to Jesus, hoping that he’ll say, “Quick, back in the boat. We’ll head south.” But no. Jesus looks at the horde converging on them and sees that they are like sheep without a shepherd. They’ve come to him lost, confused, and afraid looking for guidance, for spiritual sustenance, for healing, and for his word of forgiveness. And he has compassion on them. He must, for he is the Good Shepherd who gives his very life for the sheep. There will be no rest for Jesus or for the disciples this day.
It’s about noon when Jesus begins to teach the crowd. With his words he fills their hungry hearts with truth from above. It is a veritable feast for their souls. And as the hours of the afternoon pass by, they listen to him enraptured by his insights and awed by the direct authority with which he speaks. And no one’s looking at their pocket sundials begrudging him the time. This is what they came for, and not one of them is disappointed.
Meanwhile, the disciples are growing more than a little concerned. They came to this out-of-the-way place to have a break from the crowd. So to begin with, they aren’t very happy that all these needy and insistent people have so rudely imposed themselves on what was supposed to be their time. But now, in addition to that, it’s getting late. Surprised by Jesus’ sudden departure and not knowing how far they would end up having to go, no one in the crowd thought to bring any food with them. So they’ve missed breakfast and lunch, and now it’s coming on supper time. The disciples (no doubt hoping to be free of the crowd at last) approach Jesus and tell him, “Look, Lord, it’s getting late, and we’re out here in the middle of no place. Send these people away so they can buy food for themselves in the surrounding villages.”
And that’s when Jesus answers with the words of the text: “They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
“You give them something to eat”: Oh, I would like to have seen the expression on their faces when he said that. As it is we can only imagine their mouths hanging open as they stare at Jesus in stunned silence, trying to decide whether he’s joking or if he’s completely lost his mind. When they do manage to speak, they sound like the voters’ assembly of the typical Lutheran Church. Forget about the logistic problem of finding the food required, they jump straight to the far more important issue: how much it’s going to cost. “Why, Lord, it would take eight month’s wages to provide everyone in this mob with a single mouthful.” They are certain it can’t be done. They simply do not have the means to feed so many people. At least, that’s what they think – and to the extent that they are thinking in terms of their own natural abilities, they are absolutely right.
“What have you on hand?” Jesus asks. After a very short inventory, the answer comes back, “All we’ve got are five loaves of bread and two small fish.” And mind you, we’re talking about five of those little round pita loaves and a couple pickled herring. It sure doesn’t look like much. Indeed, “What are these among so many?”
And yet, in the hands of Jesus and blessed by him, this seemingly insignificant serving becomes yet another feast for the multitude. The disciples distribute to all as much as they want. Their baskets seem to have no bottoms. No matter how times they put in their hands, they find that there’s still more there to give. All eat their fill and are satisfied. And twelve basketsful of leftovers are gathered up by the disciples and returned to the Lord.
It is indeed an impressive miracle that proves the divine power of Jesus to create; but if that’s all we took away from it, we’d be missing the main message. With the miracles of Jesus there is always a teaching point, a lesson to be learned that is illustrated by the miraculous sign. And in this case it’s not hard to figure out. In the not too distant future Jesus will be heading to Jerusalem, there to be arrested, condemned, and crucified – his life the ransom for the sins of the world. On the third day he will rise and appear to his astonished disciples. He will explain to them again God’s eternal plan of salvation – and this time they’ll understand it. And before he ascends into heaven, he will commission them to go forth declaring the forgiveness of sins and eternal life in his name.
He will make them his under-shepherds. He will commit to them the care of his flock. And his charge to them will be the same as the one he gave them on that remote beach on the Sea of Galilee: You give them something to eat. And what have they got in their picnic baskets with which to perform this colossal feat? The same as before: five loaves of bread and two small fish. What do I mean? Ask any Jewish person living in the first century what the number five stands for, and without hesitation he’d answer, “Five stands for the Pentateuch, the books of Moses; that is, the Word of God.” And by extension it refers to the entire Scripture. And that makes sense: bread and the Word of God are closely linked in Scripture: man lives by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. And the two small fish? Well, let’s go with the two fleshly means by which Christ nourishes those whom belong to him: the Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. That’s all the apostles had with which to feed a multitude. And by God’s grace and the blessing of Jesus they did it. And so did those who followed them, who for twenty centuries have been feeding the flock of God with nothing but five loaves and two small fish.
Today, Chris, Jesus hands that little boy’s lunch to you, points you at the congregations you have been called to serve, and says, “I have some sheep here without a shepherd. I want you to take care of them for me. You give them something to eat.” Now, to the best of my knowledge, there aren’t 5000 of them (not yet, anyway), but it’s still a daunting task that he lays on your shoulders. And if you look inside the basket you’ve been given with which to do this job, it appears impossible. What are these among so many? Like the disciples and the prophet Jeremiah you may think, “I can’t do this.”
Let me be more specific: the days will soon be upon you when you are weary from dealing with needy and persistent people. They will be staggering under the load of their guilt and Satan’s accusations. They will be reeling from life’s tragedies and sorrows: the death of a loved one, a suicide in the family, the break up of a marriage, the loss of a home in a fire or a storm. They will be facing hard times: the dread diagnosis of cancer or some other life threatening or crippling illness, the loss of job, an extended drought or widespread flooding that threatens their livelihood, the next financial crisis (whatever it happens to be). They will be struggling with strained relationships, with addictions both physical and spiritual, with disappointments, with misconceptions, with problems too numerous to name. They will come to you lost, confused, and afraid looking for guidance, for spiritual sustenance, for some way to make sense of it all. And you’ll be sitting there in your study on a Saturday evening staring blankly at the appointed Scripture readings for the next day, which don’t seem to have anything to do with what they’re dealing with, wondering what in the world you’re going to say when you stand in the pulpit tomorrow.
And believe it or not, that’s only part of the problem; because you’re also called to be the shepherd of the other part of the flock that won’t come to you. They’ll tell you they’ve heard enough already, or that church services (and in particular your sermons) are too boring, or that they have better things to do on Sundays, or that you’re too young to know what you’re talking about, or that they’re deeply offended by something you did or said (actually, they won’t tell you that; somehow you’re just supposed to know), or they’ll say that know more about the Bible than you ever will (and some of them, by the way, may be right). And yet the Lord Jesus commands you to give them something to eat too. (I know it’s not a very Lutheran thing to do, but can I get an “Amen” from the pastors seated up here?)
All of this makes the task Jesus has assigned you seem that much more impossible. And this will lead to what may be your greatest temptation. You’ll look at the slim pickings in your basket, the fives loaves and two small fish, and think, “Maybe what I need to do is put something else in there to stretch it.” You know: a few jokes, some heartwarming stories, a little chicken soup for the soul; maybe add some pop psychology, a serving of syrupy stuff about your best life now, and, ooh, and a heaping helping of practical advice: ten biblical principles for building stable relationships, Jesus’ seven secrets for business success, and arrive at your own Promised Land in just forty days of purpose. You might as well put sawdust sweetened with saccharine in there. You’ll get more volume, sure. You may even tickle a theological sweet tooth or two; but you will not nourish God’s people that way.
They need something else. They need Jesus. They need the holy life he lived for them. They need his sacrificial death on the cross. They need his cleansing and forgiveness. They need his body and blood. They need the power of his resurrection. They need the guidance of his Holy Spirit. And all of that is found only in the fives loaves and two small fish. Put the passage of Scripture you are working with in the hands of Jesus. Let him bless it. And it will become a feast for a multitude every time. And not just for a multitude, but also for the weary sinner oppressed by guilt who comes to you privately, the individual sick and infirm members you visit in the hospital or nursing home, and the couple whose marriage is this close to failing, who sit on opposite ends of the sofa in your study spitting venom at each other. They don’t need your charisma or your rugged good looks. They don’t need the programs and innovations you come up with. They don’t need your carefully cultivated “pastoral leadership” abilities, your grand vision for the church, or your “missional focus” to set them aflame (whatever that means). They need Jesus Christ and him crucified.
And so do you. In order to feed the flock Jesus has commended to your care, you must first let him feed you. Like Jeremiah, you won’t have anything to say until the Lord stretches forth his hand, touches you, and puts his words in your mouth. So it’s critical that daily you heed Jesus’ invitation to “Come with me by yourself to a quiet place.” Open the basket containing the five loaves and two fish and dive in. Rewash yourself in Holy Baptism by repentance and remembering your union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. Eat your fill of the five loaves – and don’t worry: the basket has no bottom. The supply is endless. Doing so, with the Holy Spirit’s aid, you will uncover the fabulous feast laid on the Lord’s Table that will both fill your hungry soul, and strengthen and equip you to serve it to others. Neglect to do so – try to fulfill your calling with your own strength and abilities – and you will burn yourself out and fail the people you are called to serve.
One thing’s for sure: you’ve got the right name for the job. Maybe your parents were prescient, for as I’m sure you know, Christopher means Bearer of Christ. Chris, my fellow brothers in the ministry: the people of God are hungry. They are hungering and thirsting for the righteousness of Jesus Christ. You give them something to eat. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!