It is funny what we assume about texts that are incredibly familiar to us. For years I have either hear or I have described this Matthew text today as “Jesus feeds the 5000.” This story is put neatly, like the wedding of Cana, into a list of the miracles done by Jesus. Then very clinically someone with a higher degree explains a theory on how Jesus could have preformed this miraculous feat. Did Jesus multiply the bread and fishes or was the miracle just an act of kindness amongst the throngs that Jesus revealed? How did he do it? This last question always translates into, “How will he do it again amongst us?”
What I have lost in this type of reading is something quite amazing. It is something that continues to transform my understanding of Jesus’ ministry amongst this crowd of followers and amongst this current congregation of followers. It even challenges my view of salvation. After reading this text again and again I am left with another uneasy question, “Who feeds the 5000?” Does Jesus really do it all in some hocus pocus manner and everyone stands around amazed at the power of this miracle worker? Another sign of Jesus’ greatness, oh well, yawn. Or does something else amazing happen that might transform our view of the world around us?
There is a command smack dab in the center of this text that I almost always pass over to get to the miracle. Did you hear it? It is a command that shakes and convicts my apathy or disingenuous personal spirituality. It is Jesus’ command to his disciples upon hearing from them that the people are in a desolate place and have no way to provide for their own food needs. Jesus’ command follows after their very practical advice to Jesus that he send them home or at least on their way so they can fend for their physical needs. This is where Jesus makes the radical and groundbreaking command, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat.”
YOU give them something to eat. In this command toward mutual responsibility our entire ideas of salvation in the US are constantly challenged as a people far too attached to experts. We love our experts. If you doubt this go to Barnes and Noble’s self-help or financial section. Ten effective steps to whatever our individual goal is laid out simply by this weeks guru of the month. These comfortable and comforting ways to make our individual lives better are ironically called progress. In an economy obsessed with productivity, returns on investments and progress it is no mystery that we wont concise explanations to get from point A to point Z. We do not want the messy involvement, give us a lottery, a painless existence, a happy experience. From Oprah to Suze Orman to Nancy Grace to Jim Cramer we scour our 900 cable or satellite stations for expert advice on maximizing wealth, spirituality and even justice.
One of my jobs as evangelist for East Tennessee Presbytery is to push you toward the Good News that is inefficient, sometimes chaotic, filled with emotions, time consuming, full of messy relationships and a very unmarketable view of salvation. Sound good? For far too long this efficient and concise view has dominate the Christian landscape. Everywhere we hear the clarion call for personal salvation and how to achieve “spiritual” growth in our individual lives. I am sorry to reveal that these individualistic forms of spirituality have more to do with modern marketing and US culture than they do with actual biblical practices. Individuation may be a psychological goal, but it is not the sum total of our spiritual goal together in Chattanooga.
So, what is salvation for us here in Chattanooga? I have heard this text multiple times and have only seen revealed the passing responsibility that we have toward salvation in our communities. Jesus does something and then we are given the strength to act. Salvation here though is a verb, salvation is something lived out. It is a command to us, “YOU give them something to eat!” To me this text reveals the frightening and prophetic words Martin Luther King Jr. once said. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
We are responsible for each other’s salvation. More than that the Gospels reveal that in being responsible for the poor, widow, orphan, prisoner and outcast we are actually meeting Christ himself. Our salvation is intimately and intricately interwoven in our community itself and how we react to that community’s most basic needs.
Because of our local history we are not afforded the luxury of ignoring the shortcomings in our community’s reaction to it’s neighbors. I live a half a block away from this church and I am across the street from rental property which had bricks hurled through windows in the early 1970’s because a young Presbyterian inter-racial couple moved into this neighborhood. This same couple was turned down by the sessions of local congregations to be married out of those congregation’s fears. We live a stones throw away from a celebrated pedestrian bridge that also was the location of one of the most notorious lynching cases in the history of the US, Ed Johnson. It became the only case in the history of our country where Supreme Court convicted someone of criminal charges, for ignoring their stay of execution and helping the mob. These are our history. They didn’t happen that long ago. They must be repented. They must be repented not only for a feeling of sorrow and regret, but to change so that we do not ignore the injustices that we are blind toward in our present moment. YOU give them something to eat!
I will tell you about the salvation that I work out with fear and trembling on an almost daily basis. My ministry Mercy Junction works in the Westside amongst section 8 housing talking about food disparities and housing inequalities. We have a community garden at Renaissance Presbyterian church where we give away food. We also plan to build a food pantry for the children that we work amongst so they do not go to bed hungry. It is nowhere near enough. On the Westside 1,700 residents are redlined where their is not even a food pantry. The only business in the community is a woefully inadequate convenience store and the nearest grocery story is over 1 1/2 miles away. The only news heard from this community is negative. Their is a mythology of violence that is perpetrated in the press for less than honorable reasons. 750 family units are slated to be closed in the next three years and the residents given vouchers for housing. This is being done at a time when 80% of Chattanooga’s rental stock is already filled. There are some estimates that say that in homelessness alone there are over 500 too little beds for our current population. The children are bussed to schools that have been denied the type of funding that we generally assume in this neighborhood. That is one of the reason for our neighborhood’s gentrification.
I bring these things up not to illicit guilt but to offer a challenge. What is salvation? Who is my neighbor? What can we do? It is not an answer I give, but a life we need to live. Individualism has been proven to a shallow form of salvation. It may make you feel better as an individual, but it does nothing to bring about the good works that James exhorts us to.
It is my challenge to you this morning to leave behind the childish narcissism if individual salvation. Look deep into you neighbor’s eyes and resolve to learn salvation with them. How will you feed them? How can they feed you? Christ’s command is still before us. YOU give them something to eat.