Lurking in the Crowd

I was raised on dog stories—especially Thurber’s Dogs which my Dad delighted in reading to my brother and me over and over and over again.  By the time I got a dog of my own, I knew that dogs had a knack for seeing the world in ways quite different from us humans.   But no dog story I ever read or saw on TV prepared me for the world of my dog Tex.  Tex is a cattle dog.  A rescue dog.  A survivor dog.  A dog with an eye for anomaly.  Any change in his surroundings catches Tex’s eye.  Inconsistency.  Incongruity.  The fascinating detail.  Tex is all over it.  Life with Tex—particularly the long walks we take in my vain attempt to wear him out—has changed my way of looking at my world and my way of looking at the Gospel.

Tex draws my eye not to the five loaves and the two fishes, not to the blessing and the breaking of the bread, not even to the disciples and their vain attempt to disperse the crowd.  Tex draws my attention to the crowd itself.  All the times I’ve heard this story, all the times I’ve preached it, I’ve never really thought about the crowds.  I’ve taken them for granted.

Yet now I wonder “Is the miracle in this miracle story located in the loaves and fishes or is it to be found somewhere else?”  “Is there a miracle lurking there in the crowd?”

When Jesus comes on shore, a great crowd has already formed.   I wonder who was there?  Surely not the rich and powerful.  They were otherwise engaged.  Surely not the Pharisees or scribes.  They had better things to do than hang around and listen to an itinerant rabbi.  The people in the crowd that day were folks that others overlooked—widows, children on their own, day laborers, slaves, strangers in the land.   The sick, the blind, the lame, the deaf.  People ignored, cut-off, condemned for one reason or another.  Discards of their day.  We know that place, you and I.

Jesus looks at the people in the crowd, people harassed and helpless, and has compassion for them.  He plunges in, moving through the crowd.  Listening to their stories.  Hearing their complaints.  One-by-one he touches them.  The hard edges of their lives begin to soften.  His compassion wearing away their wariness and fear.

“It’s getting late,” the disciples say.  “Send them off to buy something to eat.”  “To buy something to eat?”  These folks don’t have the cash for that.  They’re strapped.  The world’s closed in on them.  All they’ve got is their hunger and their pain, and maybe if they’re lucky a shred of hope.

“You feed them,” Jesus says.  The disciples reply, “All we’ve got are five loaves and two fishes—not nearly enough to go around.”  Not nearly enough even to feed Jesus and his disciples.  And yet Christ’s compassion is contagious: the disciples hand what they have to Jesus.  He blesses the bread and breaks it and says again, “You feed them.”  That’s just what they do.  They pass baskets of bread and fish through the crowd.  Some how there’s enough to go around.    All eat and are satisfied.  Five thousand not counting the women and the children.  There’s more than enough to go around.

I think there were two miracles that day.  Two miracles lurking in that crowd.  The miracle that opened hardened hearts to Jesus and to one another.  And the miracle that happened when grasping, hoarding hands reached into pockets and to bags and pulled out bread to share with strangers.  As the people in the crowd shared what they had with folks who had nothing,  they opened up a window on a different world—one marked not by scarcity or fear or selfishness or holding tight—but one marked by compassion, generosity and confidence that there is enough to go around, enough for all and some to spare.

Are we so different, you and I, from those who gathered at that shore so long ago?  Are we so different from the people in that crowd?  Like them we live in a world marked by fear, a world where folks assume there’s never enough to go around.  Like them, we live in a place folks say  “Pull up the ladder, I’ve got mine.”  Like the world around them, the world around us is one of scarcity and fear and selfishness and holding tight.  A world where the rich and the powerful satisfy their wants while ignoring the needs of the poor and the powerless.

Like them, we come to a place—this place—where we meet Jesus.  We carry with us our longings and our dreams, our hopes and our deep fears, our hurts and shames.  Some come here to this place weighed down with pain or grief or deep despair.  Some come here hoping for a balm to heal memories of rejection, slights and hurts.  Jesus moves among us, rubbing his healing balm on our still open wounds, listening to our stories, hearing of our pain, offering us the promise of a different world and a different way of being in our world.

To us he says, “Come to the table of God’s love and compassion.  Come to the table set for you, the feast prepared for you.  Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.  Drink deep of the cup of forgiveness.  Eat your fill of the bread of compassion.  There’s more than enough to go around.  More than enough to share with those in need.  More than enough for all of us.” Amen


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