Feeding the Five Thousand: What happened to the leftovers? 

So the feeding of the five thousand is a pretty well known story: Jesus miraculously multiples five loaves and two fish to feed a massive crowd. It’s a Sunday School classic. But here’s my question: what happened to the leftovers?

We learn from the story that, after everyone had eaten their fill, the disciples collected twelve baskets of leftovers. But even if those baskets were lunchbox-style things, that’s still a lot of food going to waste. Those leftovers may have been binned, I guess, or the disciples might have dived in next time they felt peckish. Or, as I’d like to think, they took those baskets into town and helped people out – after all, there were plenty who lived hand to mouth at the time. The same conversation can be had about a couple of other miracles: John 21’s miraculous catch of fish, for instance, or the feeding of the 4,000.

That last one gives us a hint as to where we can go with all this. It’s a parallel story to feeding the 5,000 but this time there are seven baskets left over. This isn’t a coincidence – the twelve original baskets represent the tribes of Israel, while the seven baskets represent the gentile nations. These miracles are royal metaphors, the Messiah inaugurating a different Kingdom, a Kingdom in which, among other things, the hungry would be fed. These baskets existed because everyone had eaten their fill.

So. Today millions face starvation in South Sudan in a world where obesity kills more people than hunger. It’s a problem if you retrieve perfectly good food from a dumpster but we accept it being thrown away in the first place. Food waste is something we need to tackle; what we eat – or don’t eat – is a justice issue. From a Christian prespective, the blessings we receive should always be used to also bless those around us; the edges of our harvest should always be up for grabs. It’s one of the ways we show which Kingdom we’re living for.

It’s easy to hear the great old stories of faith and miss the finer details, details which nevertheless point to how applicable they are to life in the here and now. We ignore them at our peril; we’re blessed to be a blessing, and even our leftovers can be sacred.

Stations: Judas

 

Judas – The Departue by Ghislaine Howard

 

As Jesus kneels praying the prayer of his life, another man pulls on his jacket and prepares to commit treason. His name, his deeds, even his payment have become icons of treachery and Betrayal,  and although his motives remain murky, their outcome remains the same – no-one ever names their baby ‘Judas’.

He walks through Gethsemane at the head of  a mob, and every betrayal in history is pulled towards this point; every lover who slept with a best friend, every fifth columnist trading secrets, every CEO who raided the pensions of his employer, every knock on the door in the middle of the night as an informer puts down the phone, every parent who returned the love of their children with cruelty and abuse. Betrayal comes to us so easily, and sometimes we convince ourselves that it’s for the greater good; maybe Judas though that provoking a confrontation between Jesus and the authorities would be for the best, maybe he felt a Messiah who loved his enemies could only be a fraud, maybe Judas simply believed himself to be the hero in his own story.

Or maybe he was just in it for the money. It’s hard to say.

Loyalty, however, that’s something else. It takes work to be loyal, to resist the temptation to take the easy way out, to just follow orders. It’s hard not to become a monster if all your life you’ve lived among them. I can’t say I have sympathy for Judas, but I’m also not convinced he set out to become history’s greatest villain; in some ways he’s the banality of evil, selling out the Son of God for silver then hanging himself when he couldn’t handle the guilt. It’s an all too human act of betrayal, with all the terrible consequences that entails.

But wait, listen to what Jesus says: “Do what you came to do, friend.” He looks at his betrayer and calls him ‘friend’, an act of grace and maybe even forgiveness just before the mob closes in and the swords are drawn. And that one word, ‘friend’, sits at the heart of the story, the idea that Jesus welcomes us back, the idea that the everyday betrayals we see all around us could, in the shadow of the name ‘Judas’, be prevented, could even be forgiven, even if the consequences are rightly about to hit us like a freight train.

Judas takes his silver and walks away, but we stand in his footsteps, decisions to make. Do we take the money and run? Or do we take the harder path, steadfastness on the road to the Cross?

Stations: Gethsemane

Despair stings sharply in the middle of the night. The darkness, void and yet full of fear and uncertain futures, is a claustrophobic absence of light, never ending,  a mockery of eternity.

The journey towards Calvary begins, in some ways, in Gethsemane. Knowing what’s to come, Jesus retreats there to pray, even as the despair begins to bite. He knows that things will end in violence, in pain, he knows that one of his friends is now on his way to commit the ultimate treason, and so he walks through the garden, praying from the depths of his soul. He wipes his brow and the back of his hand feels wet with blood. This is sorrow; this is despair; this is stress and anxiety and fear and all the things we’re told that, as good Christians, we shouldn’t be faithless enough to feel. That dismissal, that abandonment, is just another blow; too many of us sleep, like the discities,  and miss the agony of those before us, the stories of worry and fear that surround us.

Still Jesus prays, desperate prayers, desperate for a Plan B. He knows what’s coming, knows that he’should about to meet the Cross and the nails, the scourge and the punches of men just following orders, the disappearance of those who’d been at his side for three years; now his prayers bounce off the ceiling, or at least a canopy of leaves. Later he will find strength to take the next step, and the next, and the next, the walk of a condemned man towards his execution. But let’s pause here, in Gethsemane; don’t sleep, don’t turn away, don’t theologise. Pause and reflect, reflect on the spiritual suffering of a young man weeping in a garden alone, reflect on how this is also the suffering of God in some ineffable way, reflect on how God now weeps with us and knows us in our darkest times.

The journey starts here, more in despair than hope. How like so many of our own journeys; how like so many of our gardens.

Ash Wednesday: The Ashes of our Crosses

There are too many Swastikas around nowadays.

I never thought I’d need to say that; I grew up at a time when Nazi iconography was frowned upon, so seeing the resurgence of the Swastika as a symbol of white nationalism and hate is a shocking reminder that these things never really got away, they just get rebranded.

My instinct is to fight back, to deploy a better symbol aso a gesture of defiance and hope. As a Christian, that means the Cross, but something stopped me from blithely suggesting we all bring out our crucifixes. Because, blasphemous as this is, we’ve made our symbol of love and grace, hope and redemption into something problematic. The KKK used burning crosses as an act of terror; now branches of the church are complicit with politics and attitudes that actively destroy lives. In doing that we’ve turned the cross into a mechanism, a banner, something to get us into heaven, something to march under so we can be sure we’re comfortable before we get there. The idolatry of our anger and fear conspire to turn the Cross into a heresy of terror.

I’m scared we’ve neutered our greatest symbol. I’m scared people see our cross as yet another form of oppression.

So. Ash Wednesday.

Traditionally this year’s ashes come from the burning of palm crosses blessed in the previous twelve months. Even this is a picture of resurrection – there are ashes today, but Easter’s coming soon. And I can’t help but think that, this year at least, we need to let our use and understanding of the Cross pass through the fire.

We need to repent.

We need to face up to the ways in which we’ve co-opted Jesus and his cross into our culture wars.

We need to ask forgiveness of everyone we’ve driven away from God

Many churches now do public Ash Wednesday services where anyone can receive the ashes on their forehead. But wouldn’t this be a great time to wear the ashes ourselves as a public act of repentance for the sins and the mistakes of the church? To start rebuilding a few bridges into the communities we’ve marginalised?

Sometimes the most powerful outeach starts with a “sorry”.

The Cross was once a means of humiliation and execution, but it was transformed by Christ into a symbol of love and grace, and when we lose that we’re just another Empire. The “foolishness” of the Cross isn’t intrinsic, it’s granted by the transformative sacrifice of Jesus. Lose that, lose the love and grace, lose Jesus and the Cross becones nothing. The Church becomes nothing.

Ash Wednesday is a time to confront our past, our mortality, our mistakes, our sin. In a world where Swastikas and their ideology are resurgent, we need to utterly reject our silence, our apathy, our tacit support, rejecting the politically symbol we’ve made of the Cross and rediscover the true love and mercy and justice of Calvary.

Let us reclaim Christ’s Cross and, in doing so, pray for redemption, for transformation, for the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to come.

(This is part of a conversation which started, I guess, here.)

Shrove Tuesday: The Party’s Over

Traditionally Shrove Tuesday represents the last day before Lent, a time to wolf down all the food from which the devout would fast over the coming 40 days. The tradition of eating pancakes stems from this, as does Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the end of the Carnival season that runs from Epiphany through to Lent. The message remains the same even if the traditions are radically different: we’re heading into a time of repentance and absolution, so drink up, it’s closing time for a while. The party’s over.

But there’s an issue here. We’re comfortable, we’re well-fed and warm, we don’t want to surrender anything to Lent, at least nothing that actually costs something. And while this is true for us as individuals, it’s exponentially true of the church as a collective. We stand at the edge of our forty days in the wilderness, eating our pancakes and watching the technicolour dancing, reluctant to join Jesus out in the desert. Because we know the temptations he faces out there in the scorching, hungry heat, and we’re ever so concerned that we’ve already given in to every. Single. One.

There’s a danger, this close to the Cross, of getting greedy – greedy for power, greedy for influence, greedy for status. And even though we’re standing at the edge of Lent, we don’t want to give these things up; we think they’re going to build the Kingdom, so much so that we don’t stop to think about why Jesus rejected his temptatons so roundly. Instead we walk the corridors of power, thinking we’re changing the world when instead the world is changing us, a city on a hill, yes, but one decorated with barbed wire and machine gun nests. We say our King is on the throne but maybe, just maybe, he’s still being crucified outside our walls.

Lent offers us the opportunity to let go of things that hold us down. Sometimes we say that’s chocolate or cigarettes or Twitter, but collectively they’re more insidious habits – complacency, injustice, idolatry, riches, self-righteousness… Maybe this year, as the world trembles, we need to take the next forty days seriously, we need to be transformed by Lent rather than coopting it for our own agendas.

The food is eaten, the party’s over, and we’re faced with two potential destinations – our palaces or the desert. One will keep us safe, even at the expense of others; one may allow us to meet Christ in the wilderness. The choice we make affects not just us but everyone around us, so as the music of our carnivals fades, may we hear the whispering of the Spirit, showing us the way to go.