As the day wore on, His disciples came up to Him and said, “This is a lonely place and it is getting very late; send the people off to the farms and villages round about to buy themselves something to eat.”

We all know the story, I’m sure.  We just heard it as the Gospel this morning, and we’ve heard it before.  In fact this same story with only minor changes of detail appears not only in Mark, but also in Matthew, Luke, and John.  All four gospels include the account of the miraculous feeding of the 5000.  And it seems as well that this story from the life of Jesus was a favorite one in the early Church.  The loaves and the fishes is a frequent motif in Christian art of the first few centuries.  It stood for Christ - the one who feeds the hungry.  And it points in particular to the Eucharist, the Mass - another miraculous meal where Christ presides and the hungry are fed.

The account in Scripture presents us with an outright miracle, and unfortunately for many people that is a “take it or leave it” situation.  If you like miracles and believe in them, you “take it.”  If you don’t like them and disbelieve, you “leave it.”  Well, I like miracles, I think they’re terrific actually, and I’ve seen a number of them.  But I want us to get beyond this impasse of opinion and personality.  We’ll leave “miracles” for another time and another sermon.  This morning I want us to think about this miracle - this feeding of 5000 - for there are things to notice other than simply the element of the miraculous.  Let’s look for meaning.

The first thing is so obvious we may neglect it, but it is important nevertheless.  This miraculous act of Jesus takes place in the context of a meal.  It is, in fact, a meal.  Food: fish and bread.  People gathered together to eat together.  A meal. 

And have you ever considered how important meals are in Scripture and in the ancient world ?  Many of the dialogues of Plato take place at meals.  The first miracle our Lord performs is at a meal - the wedding feast at Cana - water becomes wine for a feast.  And in the Old Testament, the most solemn religious act enjoined by God upon His people was a meal: the eating of the Passover, which recalled and celebrated God’s deliverance of His people, the Jews.  Think also of the many sacrifices which the Bible records. These were often the occasion for  feasts, for meals.  The promise made by God to Abraham - the beginning of election and sacred history - this too took place at a meal.  Sarah prepared food for the three angels who spoke for God.  And throughout the Gospels - the culmination of that history and of the promise to Abraham - we find Jesus stopping at people’s homes for a meal, or attending a feast.  “The Son of Man comes eating and drinking,” He said.  And, of course, here we are today - performing one of the two rituals He commanded.  And what is it ?  A meal. And let’s not forget the promise He makes to His disciples about the world to come is that they shall eat and drink with Him in the kingdom of God.  The future, heaven, another meal.

And so, you see, meals and the imagery of meals are very important in Scripture.  One might almost describe the whole of Biblical history as a series of meals punctuated by battles.

For many of us in today’s world the full force of this imagery is lost.  It’s one of the strange reversals of material prosperity that you and I rarely experience a meal as did people before us.  For example, how often are we really hungry when we sit down to eat ?  At times, isn’t it only the force of habit or the time of day that sends us to the table.  Or, if we do happen to be hungry, we eat only to make the hunger go away.  One dashes to some fast food place or raids the refrigerator to “grab a bite to eat.”  And, many of us eat alone.  Even in families we eat alone.  A sandwich here, a sandwich there, until all the individuals of the family are fed.

Among the ancient Jews and in the mind and experience of the Bible, a meal was something significantly different.  To understand it you must imagine yourself ravenously hungry and sitting down to a small meal.  (For most people there wasn’t much food.)  And afterwards, your hunger relieved, you can then feel the energy and vitality of God’s bounty once again giving you strength.  Food, a meal, meant life, meant vitality in a very direct way.  Or, on the other hand, you must imagine yourself at a party, a feast - a celebration, something special, lots of food, even meat.

And so you see, in the Bible the meal is a very powerful and important aspect of life itself.  It meant that you wouldn’t go hungry and starve and die.  It meant, as well, a festival, a celebration, an occasion of meaning and joy.  There were none of these in-between meals.  No grabbing a bite to eat.  A meal meant life.  And it meant joy and fellowship.

And so let us return to the Gospel.  Jesus had led His disciples away to be by themselves and to rest.  But the crowd would not allow it.  He led His company to a “lonely” place - as Scripture has it - έρημος in the Greek, “desolate,” “empty” - somewhere removed and remote.  Some anticipated this and got there before them.  Others followed.  And Jesus looked out over them.  It was a lonely place and they were a lonely crowd - aimless, scattered, like “sheep without a shepherd.”  And His heart went out to them.

Think now of the end of the story: it is no longer a lonely place: there are five thousand people there, seated together, not wandering around, all enjoying a meal.  And they are no longer “sheep without a shepherd,” for they have now the Good Shepherd.  And that shepherd has caused them to be fed.  A scattered, lonely crowd in a lonely place becomes a community.  Brothers and sisters now, together at a meal.  That too is part of the miracle.  That, in fact, is the major miracle in the story.  And that miracle repeats itself again and again.  We call it the Church.

Dear people.  The world is a scary and a lonely and a hungry place.  Even in a crowd the loneliness can kill you, and the hunger is for something more than food.  But you and I have a Shepherd, and we are His flock.  His heart goes out to us and He leads us out of the loneliness into communion, into community,  into the fellowship of His holy Church.

We are the sheep and Christ is our shepherd, and He brings us here to a meal - this time a real meal - a meal of festival, a meal of joy and fellowship and life, a meal for those hungry in spirit, a meal which celebrates the love and the power of God.

We are the sheep and Christ is our shepherd.  And at our end He will again lead us, my brothers and sisters, through a lonely place. Death. ( Dying is the one thing we all do alone. )  And He can lead us because He has been there Himself, And having led us through, He will take us to the feast of eternal life in His Father’s Kingdom.