By The Rev. J.C. Austin
I have wanted my own backyard smoker for a long, long time, and last spring, I decided that I would finally get one. It took me awhile to find the right one, and then setting it up and getting it ready took some more time, and then finding summer days in Pennsylvania with no chance of rain took even more.
But eventually, I took the plunge about a month ago and smoked a pork shoulder from a fire of split hickory logs, the classic cut and wood choice for pulled pork barbecue. It took almost 10 hours from start to finish. I was pretty nervous when the thermometer indicated that the meat was finally done: ten hours of labor would be an awful lot of time just to turn a perfectly good piece of pork into its own charcoal briquette.
So I let it rest for about twenty minutes, then pulled it apart, mixed in the sauce I had made, and finally tried my first bite. And it was…delicious: spicy, smoky perfection. Seriously: if this whole pastor thing doesn’t work out, I think have a new plan B now.
But as I sat there, reveling in my success, I finally realized that I made one significant mistake: I was alone. That was intentional, to be honest; you see, I was afraid that I would mess up the first outing and I didn’t want to invite people over who would have to pretend that they liked whatever disaster I unveiled because they felt bad I had spent some much time on it only to produce something so bad.
But having improbably produced something wonderful on my first try, it was only me there to enjoy about five pounds of that delicious smoked pork. You see, the thing about barbecue, real barbecue, is that it’s irreducibly communal. There are all kinds of barbecue traditions in this country, but what they all have in common is the origins of barbecue as a community feast for a harvest celebration or Christmas or Independence Day or some such.
It is the ultimate “family-style” meal: everything about traditional barbecue encourages sharing, from the size of what is cooked, to the amount of food that is produced, to the length of time it takes to cook it, to the way it is served. And it’s not just the food at the end; the cooking process itself practically demands community, conversation, relationship, as you maintain the fire over the passing hours.
So in my fear of failing at the product of my first real home barbecue, I sort of failed at the truest and fullest essence of barbecue. I had produced barbecue that was abundant in quality and quantity, but instead of sharing and celebrating and savoring it all together with friends and family, I ate my fill and literally had pounds of food left over.
All I could do is divide it up into smaller portions and put them in Ziploc bags pin the hopes that maybe I will be able to share it with others another time. But that’s not today, so don’t follow me home after worship!
The story of Jesus feeding five thousand people is technically more of a fish fry than a barbecue, but the dynamics are largely the same. This story, this miracle, is irreducibly communal, and yet we usually still somehow try to reduce it to a collection of individuals instead.
But the point of this story is not just that Jesus met the individual needs of five thousand people. The truth is, miracles are never about simply meeting a particular need: the point of Jesus’ miracles always goes well beyond the immediate case to say something crucial about the nature of God and God’s kingdom that Jesus is proclaiming.
But even so, the feeding of the five thousand is something of an “optional extra” when it comes to Jesus’ miracles. Most of his miracles are utterly transformative for the individuals who receive them: those who were blind can now see; those who were paralyzed can now get up and walk; those who were afflicted by a disease are now healthy and whole; and in three cases, those who had died are now alive again.
But the five thousand people who have been listening to Jesus all day in this deserted place are not starving, they’re just hungry, the way you and I would be if all we ate all day was a piece of bread in the morning and it was now getting late in the afternoon and towards the evening.
Here, though, it’s not an individual in profound physical need, but a whole crowd that needs something less obvious. Mark tells us that, when he saw them, Jesus “had compassion for them,” because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
Mark is making it clear that Jesus did not look at this crowd simply as a loose group of individuals; he looked at them as a flock of sheep, a community gathered together for their own protection and well-being, and yet without a shepherd to do the protecting and caring. And so he steps in, teaching them…well, you know, a bunch of stuff.
No, really, that’s almost literally what Mark says: “he began to teach them many things” is how he actually puts it. The point is, the content of the teaching isn’t the point. The point is what Jesus is doing, not what he’s saying, and what he’s doing is gathering this ragtag, impromptu flock together and caring for them by paying attention to them and helping with what’s on their minds and hearts.
That apparently takes quite a while, because the disciples finally sidle up alongside Jesus and whisper, “you better tell them to head to the nearest village before it gets dark so they can find something to eat.” And Jesus stops teaching, turns to look at them, and says in an awkwardly loud voice, “you give them something to eat.” And when they protest that they don’t have anything like the resources needed to do that, Jesus asks the key question: “well, what do you have?”
This, right here, is actually the pivotal moment in the story. The disciples respond to Jesus’ challenge with a classic reaction of scarcity. But Jesus responds to their challenge with what leadership consultants today would call an “asset-based approach.”
We generally approach most problems and challenges with a liability-based approach: what is wrong that we need to fix? What is missing that we need to get? What do we stand to lose if we can’t solve this problem? What do we not have enough of? All of those are different versions of the same approach: focusing on scarcity, on what we don’t have that we need or want more of.
Jesus, however, takes an asset-based approach: what do we want to accomplish, and what do we have that could help us do that? The focus then is not on scarcity, but on opportunity and possibility; how can we use what we have to do what we want or need to do? What Jesus wants to do is keep this community, this flock of people, together, for their own well-being. The disciples look at the crowd and say, we have to break these people up and send them away, we can’t feed them with what we have.
But Jesus knows that these people need to be gathered together, not scattered apart; and he knows they are hungry for more than food, that they need not simply to fill their stomachs but also their hearts by being in relationship with him and one another. And one of the best way of building relationship, of building community, is to eat together.
A few years ago, in coordination with Canada’s 150th birthday, a food corporation created a campaign called “#EatTogether,” calling on Canadians to do just that: eat together, not simply feed themselves when they are hungry.
They created a surprisingly powerful video for the campaign which opens with a woman returning to her apartment building from work with some groceries sticking out of her bag. She stops at the reception desk in the lobby of the building, where the receptionist is typing away on his phone while listening to headphones, never looking up to greet her.
She shakes her head and turns, almost running into two of her neighbors who aren’t looking where they are going because they, too, are looking at their phones and listening to headphones. She crowds into an elevator with a whole group of people immersed in their phones; she is the only one who looks around. Sighing slightly, she watches as all the neighbors on her floor get off the elevator and enter their apartments down a long hallway, never looking up from their phones.
She enters her apartment and slings her bag down on the counter, looking over to her teenaged daughter, who is immersed in a laptop with headphones on and never looks up. She drops her bag in frustration, taps her finger on the counter for a moment, and then looks up in sudden decisiveness.
The next thing we see is a view from the hallway, where the woman and her daughter, now without headphones, are carrying two tables through their front door and planting them in the hallway with a group of chairs. They spread a table cloth over both, set plates and silverware on one, and then place their dinner in the middle of that one. They look at each other with smiles of anticipation.
Soon enough, a family of three comes out of the elevator, carrying takeout for their own dinner. The woman and her daughter motion them to the table, which they happily accept, and the group of five begin sharing each other’s food and a lively conversation, family-style. Then two men stick their head out of their apartment door, see what’s going on, and pull their own table and food out to join in.
And it snowballs from there, with more and more individuals, couples, and children joining in until the collection of tables stretches all the way down the long hallway, piled high with roast chicken, crusty bread, Thai noodles, spaghetti and meatballs, hummus and falafel, paella, salads, wine, and so on. Plates are passed; stories are told; laughter is shared; meaning is made.
Finally, a little girl crawls underneath the whole length of the tables to come out at the end, runs down the hall, and knocks on the last door on the left. The door opens and an older man answers. She takes his hand to bring him to the table, but he pulls away and goes back inside. The rest of the group watches this sadly, but the girl simply waits expectantly.
And after a few moments, the man appears with two large sausages strung together and a bottle of wine, which he holds in the air like trophies, smiling, as he accompanies the girl back to the table while everyone claps and cheers his arrival, and they all sit back down together and return to the feast.
What both the commercial and Jesus understand is that authentic, open, abundant community among neighbors is precious, even holy; it requires deep intentionality, not by inviting them into our space but going out where our neighbors are and connecting with them there.
But such abundance, such community, happens not in extravagant, well-coordinated moments that manage to catch people’s attention for a moment; rather, it grows from taking what we have and entrusting Jesus to do something extraordinary with it, satisfying the most elemental hungers we have as human beings, which are at least as much about our minds and hearts and spirits as they are about our stomachs.
That is the point of feeding the five thousand: it is not about simply filling the bellies of a big crowd one afternoon, but about proclaiming the essence of community in the kingdom of God that Christ inaugurates, a kingdom which does not merely fill our stomachs for a day, but creates an ever-open and ever-expanding community of family-style faith where abundance is shared; where everyone’s deep stories are told, and heard, and honored; where laughter and tears, joy and grief, are held together; where deep meaning is made through our relationships with Christ and our neighbors, and where there is always more than enough food and more than enough room for all of us, all of us, to be welcomed and filled and satisfied.