God Loves a Picnic

Jan 24, 2010 Sermon

Scripture: Luke 9:12-17

We have now had a couple weeks in a row of experiencing Jesus at extravagant dinner tables where wealth and power abounded.  In those stories, although they took place at a meal, the issue was not food.  Here the scene shifts.  We are thrown into the wilderness and scarcity.  In fact scarcity and not abundance was likely the fundamental reality for the people of the land.  Certainly not the lush banquets of the tax collectors or Pharisees.  How will Jesus’ treat the meal when there’s no meal to be had?  He has a picnic. 

I wonder if any of you know this song by Bryan Moyer Suderman?  I don’t remember if he sang it when he visited here and sang at the Shafer Baillie Mansion a year or so ago.  It’s on the album God’s love is for everyone.  I’m going to try to sing it with your help and Mike’s.

Chorus: God loves a picnic, yes God does, (3x)
                    Let’s all go to the picnic.

People fled from Egypt, yes they did, (2x)
Wandered in the dessert, yes they did.
God gave them a picnic.

People followed Jesus, yes they did, (2x)
Crowds and crowds of people, yes they did.
Jesus gave them a picnic.

We follow Jesus, yes we do, (2x)
And tell all our friends to come on too
And join us in God’s picnic

What Bryan’s song clearly illustrates is that there is a long and continuing history of God’s provision for God’s people, in which Jesus is a central part.  Jesus acted in history and we are called to continue to act as he did.

Luke is not just telling a story about Jesus feeding hungry people.  This is a provision story, one of many in the gospels (Jesus feeds a crowd a half a dozen times between the four gospels, not to mention the wine at Cana, and the great catches of fish).  This particular story is one that has strong echoes of similar stories not only in other parts of Luke but also of the prophetic provision texts in the Old Testament.  Of course the story that we heard read – the manna in the wilderness – is one – the story that Bryan refers to in his song.  This might be strongest in the religious memory of the crowd gathered or the readers of Luke’s gospel – and perhaps to us as well.  But there is another story in scripture that is almost exactly parallel to this one, that happens with the prophet Elisha and the ratios are a little different.

NRS 2 Kings 4:42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” 43 But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and have some left.'” 44 He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.

This strong connection to the stories of old speaks to who Luke is professing Jesus to be:  a prophet in line with the prophets.  But of course he is more.  This story of Jesus in the wilderness with the crowd – 5000 men, so maybe twice or more times that if there were women and kids – is sandwiched in Luke by the question: Who is Jesus?  What kind of person is this?
First it is Herod who asks, “Who is this, about whom I hear such things?”   ‘Such things’ being, presumably the good news that the 12 had been sharing in their travels, the healing they were doing, the healing and teaching that Jesus himself has already been doing and the talk among the people that Jesus was perhaps Elijah the prophet or John the baptist returned from the dead.

Herod’s question is not answered immediately.  It is followed by our story of the loaves and fish.  At least it is not answered straightforwardly.  I wonder if perhaps Luke answers it indirectly in the language he uses for the way Jesus shares the food. This is how Jesus takes and shares the bread.
“And taking the five loaves and two fish, he looked up to heaven, blessed and broke them, and gave them to his disciples, to set them before the crowd.” 
Now, listen to the words from later in Luke’s story in which Jesus is sharing a meal with his disciples before he goes to the cross:
“Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them.” 
And then these words from when the risen Jesus eats with two of his disciples when they share the hospitality of their table:
“When he was at the table with them, he took the break, blessed and broke it and gave it to them.” 
There are four key actions: take, bless, break, give.  A formula of sharing bread in which the Messiah reveals himself.  A messiah who shares food, who will suffer and die, and who will be raised and live to share a meal again with his followers.

So if this question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ asked by Herod just before the story begins is being answered indirectly by Luke through Jesus actions, it’s answered very directly and succinctly by Peter following this story.  When Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter’s answer is unambiguous:  “You are the messiah of God.”

A messiah who shares his bread and multiplies it.  Luke’s Messiah is a savior who brings good news to the poor and who feeds the hungry.  Although we are not using it, the lectionary text for this week is from Jesus’ first days of public ministry, when he stands in the temple and reads from the prophet Isaiah.  Marilyn quoted it last week as well.  
Luke 4:18-21  18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus is even now (in this story) fulfilling the prophet’s words, feeding the hungry with only a little. Luke points out in several places that the savior of God is on the side of the poor. Mary’s Magnificat: “God lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things.” Luke’s beatitudes, different from Matthew is saying not that the blessing if for the poor in spirit but indeed for the poor. And that it is not those who hunger for righteousness who will be blessed, but those who hunger who will be blessed and filled.

To follow this Messiah is to feed the hungry. Jesus disciples show care for the crowd when they come to Jesus asking to send them away to find nourishment. Although they believe it impossible, Jesus tells them to feed them with the means they have at hand. What?? With a couple loaves and fish? But wait, Jesus had already shown them that he could provide when the circumstances seemed impossible. When Peter and James are called from their life as fishers, Jesus provides for them fish and fish and more fish.

After that miraculous catch, of course Jesus’ famous words: Do not be afraid. From now on you will be catching people. And what do they find? They’ve caught the people. Here is the first wave of the curious, the inquirers. They are waiting to see if the claims about healing and the kingdom of God are for real. Waiting to see if Jesus is the new ‘Welfare King’, as Yoder calls him in the politics of Jesus. Waiting to be fed. Another impossible bind, and yet, the disciples find that they find that they can do it!

God loves a picnic. And God’s love for shared food does not end with the stories of provision in the gospels. It continued into the early church of Acts, where Luke writes of the first Christians sharing and eating together so that no one went without. This sharing was understood as sacramental. In a reality of scarcity the sharing of bread in Christian community was a miracle of provision.

And now? Bryan’s song sings its simple. We follow Jesus, yes we do. And tell all our friends to come on and join us in God’s picnic. On the MCC website, maybe some of you have read to the testimony of one local MCC worker who tells of people testifying, giving their lives to Christ, giving thanks to God for their lives, praying and worship together and sharing the food and water that they have for the welfare of the community. Weldon will have more to say about the profundity of shared bread and creating community when he speaks about his travel to Iraq.

But you know that we too are given myriad opportunities to live out the calling to share bread both literally and figuratively right in our community. I loved one commentary that said:

“The practice of hospitality gives witness to the power of the gospel to create community… Social barriers between rich and poor, native and newcomer are torn down.  By receiving outsiders at our table, we declare the power of reconciliation to a fragmented society.”

From the meals shared in each others’ homes, to bringing food to the food bank, to the simple but profound act of preparing and offering coffee to newcomers and old-times alike before worship in the morning. And God loves a picnic – whatever happened to the SMC/EMC church picnic?? We are called to a sharing of bread (and salmon?) that recalls a Messiah that takes, blesses, breaks and gives. A Messiah that enlarges community through the wonder of provision. Thanks be to God.