Sunday Week 17 Year B

I have to admit that I was taken by surprise by today’s gospel. We’ve been following Mark’s story for so long that I, reading ahead, was all ready for the feeding of the five thousand. So homily in head, half-prepared, I opened the book and found not Mark but John. The church, in its wisdom, aware that there isn’t enough of Mark to share among the Sundays of Ordinary time, inserts at this point four weeks of John, John meditating on broken bread. You almost can’t see the join. Both gospels are telling the same story of a miraculous feeding but all the details are different. Gone are the sheep without a shepherd from Mark. Instead the crowd follows Jesus because they have seen the signs. Gone is the Jesus who, moved by what he sees, sets out to teach the people at some length. Instead an enigmatic, almost reserved, figure breaks bread in the desert. Gone is the challenge to the disciple to take what little she has and in its breaking and sharing discover an abundant blessing God. Instead a commanding Jesus tests the crowd and the disciples with a question and a sign. And, sad to say, gone is the homily I had prepared. Instead here I am rambling about the homily that I am still preparing. But ramble with me a little longer and let this be a preamble to the next three weeks in which John himself unpacks the meaning of this gospel. I hope you like bread because you’ll have it in abundance!
John puts the familiar picture of the feeding of the five thousand in a skillfully chosen frame. And I want to pull back the focus from the picture to look at the frame. The frame is a careful construction of signs and the seeing of signs. It is fashioned from the heart’s hunger and the quest for satisfaction.
The crowd comes after Jesus, John says, because they saw the signs he worked for the sick. But he means more than just that the crowd wanted healing. A deeper hunger drives them into the desert after this wonder worker, a hunger for deliverance, for freedom, for political change. They want done with these Romans who occupy their land, they want a leader, they want the Messiah, they want a sign that God has returned among the people, they want a second Exodus. God knows the histories of the time are thick with messianic candidates who took their crowd of followers into the desert to show them a sign of God’s promise and blessing on their cause. God knows the same histories tell of crushed rebellions and crowds cut down like grain by Roman blades.
So it’s a risky quest the crowd is on to follow Jesus to this place, and so close to Passover with its reenacted sign of freedom from slavery. Is he the one? Will there be a sign? And Jesus gives them a sign. Stepping into the sandals of Moses, Jesus provides food in the desert — the bread of the poor taken, blessed, broken, given — enough to satisfy any hunger, enough to convince any doubter. Simple food, in abundance, overflowing.
It is a sign—an obvious sign—but a sign of what? To the questing crowd it’s a clear sign that they have found their liberator, their leader, their king. But Jesus turns his back on this meaning by running from kingship back to the mountain. But there was a sign. In some ways the next three weeks ask— a sign of what? What is the hunger being satisfied by the bread from heaven?
It ought to be a sharp question for us, brought to this place once again to see the sign of bread taken, blessed, broken and shared. It ought to be a sharp question for us when slavery is once again in the news. When the bread of the poor is denied them. When strangers are unwelcome in the land. When the sick die alone and the living want to die.
For John the Eucharist is a sign thick with politics. It ought to be for us. To come to this table is to seek to understand a sign — more, it is to take part in a sign that we do not understand, that defies our expectations, that satisfies hungers we didn’t know we had but leaves others gnawing. What we do here goes beyond these walls or it goes nowhere. But where it goes is only to be found by going along. The invitation at this table is not simply to be fed. It is an invitation to be food. When we take the broken bread of God to ourselves we say Amen to being ourselves taken, blessed, broken—yes broken— and given to others. Think twice about that Amen. Think three times. But come and join the sign and be the bread of the poor.