FEEDING THE FIVE THOUSAND
Preached by Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton, Liberia Partners' Summit, Alton Main Street UMC
November 15, 2012
Last Saturday night, I gave the benediction at the 5th Anniversary Celebration of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House (LBDNH). Persons bore witness to its century plus ministry to men, women and children requiring, food, shelter, education, spiritual guidance, love, support, understanding, respect and encouragement.
In a Jan. 10, 2012 article in The Current, Bill Kreeb, Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House Executive Director, reminded Bishop Palmer that "the LBDNH is the largest food pantry in the Tri-County Area…serving over 5000 families a month." Without the miracle of surplus food from regional food banks and others moved by the spirit of God and compassion, those 5000 families would not be fed monthly.
In our text, Jesus' disciples heard and claimed the call to feed 5,000. They, too, lacked adequate resources to feed the crowd. With God's help, they got it done. They praised God for that miracle. At the same time, Jesus' disciples learned so much more about tending human need.
Maybe the story of feeding the five thousand has something to teach us about our ministry in Liberia as "we seek to better coordinate and maximize our mutual efforts in evangelization, education, health care and economic opportunity in Liberia."
There they are; it’s the end of the day. Jesus is going strong. But the disciples are worn out. So Jesus’ disciples prevail upon him to take a break for two reasons. First, the purpose of this time away is for Jesus and his disciples to rest. However, Jesus’ compassion for others makes him vulnerable to workaholism. He is not taking his off day. Second, it’s supper time. So, the Twelve urge their Lord to send the crowd away to buy something for themselves to eat. Clearly, the Twelve did not want Jesus or themselves to take responsibility for feeding the huge crowd. Surprise, surprise, our Lord asks his disciples "to give them something to eat." Immediately, the disciples put a question to their leader. "Are we to go and buy 200 denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?" Our Lord does not answer their question but poses another. What do you have? Check the crowd and see. All his disciples come up with to feed a crowd of 5000 people is five loaves and two fish. That’s unbelievable that a crowd of five thousand has only five loaves and two fish among them. Nevertheless, Christ looks to heaven, blesses and breaks the loaves and fishes. 5,000 people are fed with food to spare, namely 12 baskets of leftovers. Just like God, right on time addressing human need.
Tonight, I celebrate the spirit of giving extant among various annual conferences across the connection. Like the gospel story, we praise God for the privilege and responsibility of doing ministry across the world. Ministry to and with our Liberian brothers and sisters has ignited our passions to love God and neighbor. Most of us have gifted the ministry with our financial gifts. Others have provided prayers, presence, and service. Clearly, our Liberian Partnerships address more issues than hunger. Tomorrow, breakout sessions will focus on Ganta Hospital, Construction Projects, Agriculture, Pastoral Support, Traveling to Liberia and/or Training Opportunities. Yet, the spirit of giving is a miracle over and against the human tendency to taking care of one’s own needs first and foremost.
Tonight, I celebrate this consultation. Jesus and his disciples suggest that partnering is a good thing. We’re better together. Better, how? Where necessary, we can avoid duplication of efforts. Better, when? Now that economic constraints are everywhere, a heads-up session on best practices will enhance our ministry. Better, where? Wherever we decide to focus, expand or limit our efforts. Let me encourage us to give our best selves to the task. Practically and theologically speaking, our major task fits well in the Wesleyan concept of "going on to perfection." Nothing that we ever say or do is so efficient, well done or together that it can’t improve. As we speak, Democrats and Republicans are working on how to improve their results in the 2016 Presidential and 2014 mid-term elections. Right now, various constituencies in The United Methodist Church are trying to enhance the way we "make disciples of Jesus Christ and transform the world." Wesley’s quest for perfection led him beyond his initial purpose of revitalizing the Anglican Church alone. It led him to caring and loving the neighbor all over the world. Few continents or nations have escaped Wesley’s Pentecostal fire and mission.
Tonight, I celebrate the way in which The United Methodist Church has raised millions of dollars for Imagine No Malaria and helped the whole of Africa including Liberia to reduce the scourge of malaria. I celebrate the millions of dollars we raised for the Central Conference Pension Initiative and helped the whole of Africa including Liberia to increase the retirement income of faithful pastors during their golden years. I celebrate the focus on Liberia preceding my arrival in Illinois Great Rivers Conference. "Food, scholarships, rebuilding churches damaged or decimated by civil war, combating malaria and salary support have been our focus. And yet, we might not have been involved in Liberia at all had not the Rev. Dr. Timothy Bias, then pastor of Peoria First UMC taken the conference floor in 2004 and asked Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference to begin a partnership with God’s people in Liberia. In my view, Timothy pleaded with divine concern and it struck a responsive nerve.
Most importantly, I celebrate the spirit among you that takes on mighty challenges knowing it’s gonna take a miracle to accomplish them. Liberia and our worldwide mission require more food, scholarships, training and medicine than the resources we possess. Sometimes, we feel caught like the disciples who our Lord asked to feed the five thousand on a one time basis. To feed that crowd, the disciples estimate it takes 200 denarii -- the equivalent of the eight-month salary of a laborer -- to buy bread for the crowd. They do not have the money. But God takes what they do have -- five loaves and two fish -- blesses and breaks it then feeds 5,000 with food to spare. God keeps working miracles among those willing to take what they have to Him requesting that God multiply it for the good of His children.
So why do we persist? Why do we keep on keeping on when the 5,000 these days require sustenance daily, 360 days a year, not just once? Answer: because God requires it; because human need requires it. Hence, our work in the world is never done.
A pastor who followed me in the first church I pastored in Chicago taught the children a mantra every disciple ought to take to heart. "Repeat after me," she’d say. "We are St. Luke’s children and we can do anything with God’s help." With God’s help, we can create an even more dynamic partnership in Liberia.
In all our valiant efforts to feed the hungry, provide scholarships and mosquito nets; raise money for salary support, construction and agriculture projects and a host of other human need, ad infinitum; this gospel story urges us to do more. Do not neglect the human soul. Do what Jesus does. Feed the soul and body. Note how Christ provides spiritual substance in this miracle story.
"As he went ashore, he saw a crowd, and he had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, 'This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late. Send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat." (Mark 6:35-36)
Five thousand people of various races, creeds and colors spent most of the day getting their souls fed by the one who called himself "the bread of life." Unfortunately, the gospel writer does not tell us what Jesus taught the crowd of 5,000 like the Sermon on the Mount. That is unfortunate. To know why the crowd listens to him all day would be instructive for all of us. Nevertheless, one key sentence tells the story. It is an "action" that speaks louder than words. Our Lord sees the crowd adn is moved with compassion. Why? because they were like sheeop without a shepherd. They were going in circles...Lost.
We know that scenario, e.g., a child without its mother, a people without a leader, a prodigal son, daughter or parent estranged from family, a group of people rejected or neglected by society, men, women and children caught in the damaging throes of civil war, a people living on the wrong side of the track or folks just plain poverty stricken. Our Lord sees hundreds of people in the crowd that fit these descriptions and has compassion on them.
And what is compassion by dictionary standards or perception? "It is concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others." To grieve over, be sorry for or suffer with. Radical compassion goes the second mile. Not only does our Lord have compassion for this motley crowd with no shepherd, he spends all day with them. Jesus "takes action to help them." He treats them with respect. They are somebody. He loves and cares for them. More importantly, he teaches them how to live fully and faithfully in the circumstances in which they find themselves. What’s the point? They are hungry for the living bread.
A retired Baptist pastor serving as an associate at Peoria Bethel where the Rev. Dr. Rose Booker-Jones is the senior pastor, made the point with two words. As we entered the pulpit for the 101st Anniversary Service, he turned to me and uttered two words "I’m hungry." Though I did not respond, I knew what he meant. He needed to hear a word from the Lord that would help him on the journey. And he expected me to be the vessel to deliver it, with God's help, of course. That remains the daunting task for these Liberian partners. Take care of the body. Yes. Feed the hunger in their souls. Yes, a thousand times. Remember, Jesus spends most of the day teaching the crowd and feeding their souls. And he spends very little of the day performing the miracle to feed 5,000.
A similar phenomenon occurred last Saturday night. As stated earlier, I attended the 5th Anniversary Dinner of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House. Quite frankly, they served two meals. The first was a wonderful array of meats and vegetables, salad fixings and rolls. I didn’t need that huge slice of chocolate cake. But I inhaled it. Then, we were fed again. The main speaker and the honorees served us food for thought. And we consumed it, mind and soul. Each speaker talked and taught about the Neighborhood House located in East St. Louis, Illinois. They had compassion and respect for their city which possesses a reputation like that of first century Nazareth. Knowing the horrible reputation of Nazareth, one man asks a legitimate question, "Can any good come out of Nazareth?" East St. Louis has been confronted with that question for years.
In response to this bad reputation, special guest speaker and KMOX-TV personality, Mrs. Carol Daniel, appealed to her audience to take back the true concept of neighbor. She railed against the concept of neighbor based purely on self-interest. In essence, "You'll be my neighbor if you do what I want. If you don't, you won't be my neighbor." Conversely, Carol declared that the ministry of Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House and a lot of folk in the community embraced the concept of neighbor that I saw directly related to the Good Samaritan story in Luke 10:25-37. The compassionate neighbor is one who helps those in need. One translation, they do so in despite the reputation of a city voted one of the most dangerious in the nation. That concept of neighbor is alive and well all over the city. Where such spirit was not evident, Mrs. Daniel challenged the community to move to that level.
I sat next to Mrs. Mary Rhodes, retired employee of the Neighborhood House. She served for 30 years. Now 76, and living on a small income as a result of working at Lessie Bates, Mary admitted to an occasional second thought. Had she not sacrificed herself for her children, a better retirement would have been hers. But a better retirement income could never compare to the tremendous blessins received for her dedication and commitment to the children and families of East St. Louis. Over and over, children now grown up, express undying gratefulness to Mrs. Rhodes for her ministry to them. Many fo the are making positive contributions to East St. Louis and beyond.
Furthermore, Mrs. Rhodes secured a million dollar grant for a building still enhancing the ministry of Neighborhood House today. Despite occasional second thoughts, Mrs. Rhodes intimated that her work with and sacrifices made for all God's children are the best things that ever happened to her. What they said to Mary about her 30-year ministry was food for her soul, better than the deliciously prepared banquet meal.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee was the last honoree. In her brief remarks, she taught us a lot. First, she gave honor to God for all God had done for her. God took her athletic and academic gifts and and graces, the discrimination and disease, the tragedy and poverty of her growing years, the bad reputation of the town that birth, blessed and broke and multiplied her gifts till she became and remains one of the most gifted female athletes in Olympic history.
Second, an elderly woman and likely long time resident of East St. Louis stood up and complimented Jackie for her constant acknowledgement that she is a native of East St. Louis. Jackie credits her family and community, the church and the schools plus as the village that raised her up despite the reputation that belongs to her city. Can any good come out of out of Nazareth? You know the answer. Jackie came out of East St. Louis. And Jesus came out of Nazareth. Last but not least, Jackie said, I have to give back for what so many have done for me. I’m not standing alone; those who fed me; those who clothed me, those who provided financial support along the way. My dear mother, my teachers, my coaches, so many others helped me. I do not stand alone. "I got to give back." Last Saturday night, Jackie Joyner-Kersee taught and fed old and young alike with the word. And she taught me. Something like that happened when Jesus shared the word with the crowd supper time.
Jesus fed the 5,000 twice that day, soul and body. However, his "wonderful words of life" were the best food. People ate to the full. "I am the bread of life," said our Lord in John 6:35. "Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." One songwriter puts this appetite in plain English. "Oh the world is hungry for the living bread; Lift the Savior up for them to see. Trust him, and do not doubt the words that he said, I’ll draw all persons unto Me." Liberian partners, I commend these words to you. Amen.