Summer Days: Picnic
Maybe you’ve had an experience like this: you are exhausted. It has been a long week at work. Some things have gone wrong. And all week, you’ll been looking forward to a quiet Saturday at home, where you can sleep in and spend down time alone or maybe with your family or closest friends. But you’re just going to hang out. No agenda. No schedule. No plans. And then, there’s a knock at the door. Or the phone rings. And suddenly, that time for rest and relaxation has vanished. And it’s not even that whoever interrupted your time is not a friend, a person you enjoy. It’s just that you were so exhausted, and you so needed a break. Has this ever happened to you?
That’s what I imagine when I hear the opening of our text today from the gospel of Mark. The apostles have gathered around Jesus, and they tell him all they had done and taught. See, he had sent them out to preach and teach and heal on their own. He’d told them to pack lightly, stay where they were welcomed, and shake off the dust where they weren’t. They’d been sharing the good news about the kingdom of God. And they’d returned, and wanted to tell Jesus about everything they’d experienced. Not only that, but Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist, had just been executed by Herod, beheaded. It is in the context of these events that Jesus says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” Mark tells us that it was so crazy in their lives that they didn’t even have time for a meal. They need this time away. So they get in a boat and head out to a place they think will be deserted. But the crowds are paying attention, and realize where Jesus and the disciples are headed, and hurry on foot to greet them, so that by the time the boat arrives, Jesus and the twelve are greeted by a crowd of people in their supposed-to-be-deserted place. You and I might respond to this in any number of ways. I can imagine my groaning, my shoulders slumping, and the feeling of being overwhelmed, spent.
Jesus, we read, has compassion for them, because they’re like sheep without a shepherd, and he immediately starts to teach them many things. That word, compassion, is my favorite Greek word. The Greek is splachnizomai, and it means something to the effect of your guts are tied up in knots with the level of concern you have. You are physically moved with emotion for the person you’re considering. In the gospels, this word is used frequently to describe how Jesus feels about the crowds. In fact, this words is used more times about Jesus than in others instances combined. When Jesus sees people, his guts twist with the deepness of his concern. His response, despite his clear need for some rest and renewal, bowls me over. I’m not convinced I have the same response all the time!
Nonetheless, Jesus teaches late into the evening. The hour is late. And the disciples, who, you’ll note, have not been described as looking at the crowds with compassion, come to Jesus and tell him to send the crowds home to get some dinner. They clearly are not feeling the twisted guts thing. I think of classic movies that are about life in high school, and inevitably, there’s some scene in the cafeteria where the new kid, or the nerdy kid, or the kid who people have suddenly decided to hate enters the cafeteria and tries to find a place to sit down. And one by one, you see them rejected by different groups of people. Maybe there’s one table of misfits that will let them sit down. Maybe eventually they make their way to the cool kids’ table. But the message is pretty clear: in school, which table you sit at, where you eat, is extremely important. Was your school like this? Maybe my high school wasn’t quite so dramatic. But still, in junior high and high school, everyone mostly had a table that they always sat at. There was very little movement between the tables. People generally sat with the same set of people every single day.
See, for better or worse, we learn early on in life that who you eat with is important. Who you eat with is an intimate act – it suggests relationship, affinity, similarity between you and your table companions. I’ve mentioned before I think that one of the things people get so upset about in the gospels is who Jesus chooses to eat with. The religious folks are always complaining and grumbling that Jesus eats with sinners and low-lifes! And if he eats with them – well, maybe that means Jesus has something in common with them. Maybe he likes those people. Maybe he even loves them. And the religious leaders, in all their dignified ways, essentially react like kids in movies about high school: “Ew, gross!”
I think we’ve learned to expect this reaction in the gospels from some of the religious elite. They usually seem to be arguing with Jesus about things like this: who is in, and who is out, and according to what set of rules – theirs, or God’s. But I don’t think we expect the same reaction from the disciples, Jesus’ inner circle, his closest followers. Still, where Jesus reacts with compassion, the disciples can’t wait to be back in their own group. It’s one thing to preach and teach people. But when they want to sit down to eat, they want to be back in their own group.
Jesus isn’t having it though. He says to them, “you give them something to eat.” The disciples respond, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread to get them food?” Notice, the text does not say that they don’t have 200 denarii available among them. For perspective, later in the gospels, the costly perfume Mary of Bethany uses on Jesus is valued at 300 denarii. Both are high sums, to be sure. But we get the idea it isn’t really the cost that’s bothering the disciples. It’s the effort. They want everyone to just go home now. They want to be on their own. They’ve dealt with the crowds like Jesus wanted, but dinner time? That’s going to be just the group of them, right? Jesus and the 12 cool kids?
Instead, Jesus orders them to gather what food the crowd has. They come up with five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus gets everyone to sit down, and he takes the food, blesses it, and passes it out. And we read, “all ate and were filled” and there were twelve baskets of food leftover. This story of the feeding of the 5000 is generally counted as one of the miracles of Jesus. Scholars debate: Did Jesus multiply the food? Did he just inspire people to share what they had with them? What’s the significance of the event? I think there’s a lot of interesting things we could discuss here, but maybe first, we need to understand what we think about miracles. Miracles are events that cause wonderment. Surprising events that are welcome and not easy to explain, considered the work of God. To learn more, we turn to a scholarly source: E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.
If you aren’t familiar with the book, or have forgotten it, Charlotte’s Web is about a pig named Wilbur who is the runt of his litter. He is saved from death by the pleadings of a young girl, Fern, who raises him herself. When he gets too big, he goes to live on a farm, where he again faces death – they want to eat Wilbur, if you can imagine such a crazy thing! He is saved by the handiwork of a spider named Charlotte, who weaves words about Wilbur into her web. Fern’s mother is very concerned about everything, and goes to see the doctor, which is where our excerpt begins:
“It’s about Fern,” [Mrs. Arable] explained. “Fern spends entirely too much time in the Zuckermans’ barn. It doesn’t seem normal. She sits on a milk stool in a corner of the barn cellar, near the pigpen, and watches animals, hour after hour. She just sits and listens.” Dr. Dorian leaned back and closed his eyes. “How enchanting!” he said. “It must be real nice and quiet down there. Homer has some sheep, hasn’t he?” “Yes,” said Mrs. Arable. “But it all started with that pig we let Fern raise on a bottle. She calls him Wilbur. Homer bought the pig, and ever since it left our place, Fern has been going to her uncle’s to be near it.” “I’ve been hearing things about that pig,” said Dr. Dorian, opening his eyes. “They say he’s quite a pig.” “Have you heard about the words that appeared in the spider’s web?” asked Mrs. Arable nervously. “Yes,” replied the doctor. “Well, do you understand it?” asked Mrs. Arable. “Understand what?” "Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider's web?" Oh, no," said Dr. Dorian. "I don't understand it. But for that matter I don't understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle." “What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle – it’s just a web.” “Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian. Mrs. Arable shifted uneasily in her chair. “No,” she replied. “But I can crochet a doily and a can knit a sock.” “Sure,” said the doctor. “But somebody taught you, didn’t they?” “My mother taught me.” “Well, who taught a spider? A young spider knows how to spin a web without any instructions from anybody. Don’t you regard that as a miracle?” “I suppose so,” said Mrs. Arable. Still, I don’t understand how those words got into the web. I don’t understand it, and I don’t like what I can’t understand.” “None of us do," said Dr. Dorian, sighing. "I'm a doctor. Doctors are supposed to understand everything. But I don't understand everything, and I don't intend to let it worry me.”
Maybe Jesus helping everyone to get fed isn’t the miracle in this story. Or at least, the specific nature of how it happens isn’t the part we need to worry so much about understanding. After all, today I mostly find it amazing that in a world that has more than enough food, somehow people are still going hungry. If what we describe is nothing more mysterious than people being moved by Jesus to share that they actually had more food than they first wanted to admit to share with others, than that’s no small welcome act of wonder in and of itself. If we could be moved by Jesus to start seeing how much we have, not how much we lack, I’d call that a miracle. If Jesus changed our lives so that our impulse was to share instead of keep, to open our hands instead of grasping tightly, I’d call that a miracle. But the miracle for which I give deepest thanks in this passage is that Jesus sees us with such compassion, again and again. That despite our giving God many reasons to be exasperated, we follow a Christ who gazes upon us with such love and hope as to be twisted up in knots over it. That’s a miracle. And if in our following of this Jesus, we can learn to look with the same compassion, with the same love, the same hope, so that we’re making room at our lunch tables, and opening the doors of our heart to those who are knocking: that would be a most welcome act of God in our lives. Fortunately, we serve a God of all kinds of miracles. In fact, these welcome surprises of God happen so often, I think our biggest danger is in failing to recognize them when they happen. Thankfully, God invites us to participate in miracle-making, giving us front row seats to the amazing things God has in store. “But Jesus answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’” Amen.