Sorting Out Fantasy and Reality

By Walter Brueggemann

(Fourth Sunday of Easter)
(Psalm 103; I John 2:18-29; Mark 6:30-44)
We have this wondrous story of Jesus transforming the wilderness into a place of nourishing plenty. Jesus radically disrupts how the world was thought to be. The wilderness, the “deserted place” in the story, was where there was no viable life support system. He thought he was going there to rest, but he was met by a big crowd of those who were drawn to him. They believed he would indeed disrupt their failed world, though they knew not how.

Jesus does not disappoint them. He was moved with great compassion when he saw the hungry crowd. He had his stomach turned by their need. He engaged their hunger, because they lived in a false world without resources. His disciples accepted the barren wilderness without resources as a given; they wanted the crowd dispersed. They tried to protect Jesus from the need of the world. But Jesus scolded them and tells them to do the food for the crowd. But they are without resources. They say, “We do not have resources to do that,” only puny supplies of bread and fish. They accepted the scarcity and force of the wilderness; the crowd may have expected food, but his disciples have no such hope. They have no such hope, even though they traveled with Jesus and had watched him work.

But Jesus jerks them to attention. He tells the crowd to sit. He disregards his weak-hearted disciples with their feeble notion of scarcity. He takes the puny supply of bread and the puny catch of fish. And then, without fan-fare, he utters the four big verbs that are the center of the church’s life:
He took the bread and fish;
He blessed the bread and fish;
He broke the bread and fish;
He gave the bread and fish.

You want that again? He took, he blessed, he broke, he gave. He enacted a Eucharist right there in that deserted place for the hungry crowd without resources. They all ate. They were all filled and satisfied…five thousand men…plus women and children. And, we are told, they finished with a surplus, with bread enough for all the tribes of Israel…twelve baskets! Fini! Thanks be to God! The world is transformed; the wilderness has become a place of abundance by the force and presence of Jesus in the midst of need.

Well, the text is assigned for the day. And I am invited and paid to exposit it for you. The story is a fantasy, the kind that the church enjoys about Jesus, the kind of miracle that is given without explanation:
-We try to explain it as best we can. They all pulled out their lunches, and shared more than enough. But the text does not say that!
-Or we say it is a retelling of the manna story of the Old Testament that is itself only an older fantasy narrative.
-Or it is a creation of the later church in order to anticipate the later sacrament of the Eucharist, as the Jesus Seminar might say.

In any case, the story is not credible, because we measure it by the story that we know better. The one we know better is true; contrasted to that, this one is a silly fantasy for nice romantic church folk. The story we know better, the one we live out each day, is about scarcity. There really is not enough food to go around. There really are starving people in Africa and in Philadelphia. And because the story of scarcity is true, we hustle to get ahead, or to stay even, to make sure we do not run out of money or bread or oil or security, to make sure we and our grandchildren will have enough, to make sure the US has enough power to protect our food and oil supplies. We work and work in the rat-race to stay even, to make sure that our kids succeed.

And we limit and ration. We limit access because there is not enough. We limit food and health care. We limit grace, cutting out those not qualified, excluding those who are not like us. We live in anxiety on endless Orange Alert, knowing that we must fend off others to protect ourselves. And I am invited and paid to tell you this fantasy that does not square with our society and our way in it, and the story we have come to believe about ourselves.

Well…take a deep breath…and consider this: the reason we are here this morning together is to entertain the radical thought that the story of abundance enacted by Jesus is true. The story we tell about scarcity is a fantasy. It is not a true story. It is a story invented by those who have too much to justify getting more. It is a story accepted by those who have nothing in order to explain why they have nothing. That story is not true, because the world belongs to God and God is the creator of the abundant life.

So we meet to sort this out again. If we were not here together, we could adopt the story of our society and live out our lives in anxious rat race the world puts upon us. But here we listen to this other story. And when we hear it, we say, “Praise to you, Lord Christ.” Praise to you, Lord Christ, for giving us a better story. Praise to you, Lord Christ, for a true story. Praise to you, Lord Christ, for a story of abundance with twelve baskets left over. Praise to you, Lord Christ, for your transformative verbs, “He took, he blessed, he broke he gave.”

The abundance that Jesus performs in this narrative is not a simple, safe church sacrament. It is the performance of a new narrative of the world, a narrative of well-being, satisfaction, abundance, and surplus. And when we place our hearts and our imagination and our faith in this story, the old narrative of scarcity turns out to be a fantasy.

In this dramatic act at the table, we see that the story of Jesus’ feeding has deep implications for us in the church and, eventually, for us in the world. It invites us to bask in God’s shalom. It invites us to act out that abundance, to perform abundance in the neighborhood with generosity and hospitality. It summons us to new policies, new money management, new relationships grounded in God’s endless giving. It urges us to new policies that allow for sharing with all of the needy and the vulnerable who are in the scope of God’s compassion.

So we do this sorting out. Some of us are so set in the scarcity story that we will take this as church fantasy. Some of us will be grabbed by the story of God’s blessing, and tilt in fresh ways toward the world toward the neighborhood. Some of us will be unsure and in wonderment, and will continue to sort out. But all of us are invited to be children and practitioners of this other story. The Gospel is not a fantasy. It is the true story of God’s world. That is why we say with our will and our faith and our life, “Praise to you, Lord Christ.” And then we act it out in ways that disrupt our society, even as he continues to disrupt our world of scarcity with his abundance.