“Surprised by Bread” Sermon for 7.26.09
2 Samuel 11.1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.1-21
Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
From this morning’s Gospel: “He said to them, ‘It is I: do not be afraid.’”
Today we heard about two huge miracles performed by Jesus. Which is the huger? Would you rather have to feed 5,000 or walk on a stormy sea?
Let’s start with feeding the 5,000: What actually happened and can we believe it? Are we supposed to? There are those who see it as a parable of unselfishness: after the boy donated his picnic, everyone else was moved to share as well. I like to imagine their surprise at his naïve generosity and their desire to emulate it. That would be a miracle—both wonderful and God-pleasing! We aren’t even told the boy’s name or his age. Maybe he had gone up to Andrew and tugged on his sleeve. Maybe he spoke with Jesus, exchanging words that the boy never forgot. This is one of those tantalizing Biblical mini-dramas that offer real food for thought. We can never know the far-reaching consequences of a seemingly small gesture. I know that God loves such moments and loves us as we—sometimes unwittingly—offer them.
The story can also be a paradigm for the radical hospitality of social justice: a commitment, like that of our Lord, to work for Bread for the World, to insist that in Christ’s kingdom come to earth there is enough for all. I spent some time at our sister Methodist Church on Clinton Avenue in Kingston this week and was moved and energized by the throng, some fifty strong, that gathered at the Soup Kitchen for their midday meal. The kitchen staff is from the community, the blessing was said by a young girl probably in middle school, and the pastor not only greeted the people by name and spoke to many as her parishioners, but invited others to come to church.
But the Town of Esopus United Methodist Church practices radical hospitality and radical energy as well. You are once more preparing yourselves to feed and delight the town with the Apple Festival, and to support your church in so doing. I can’t wait to be part of it: 500 home-made pies! Breakfast and dinner! And last year, you carried on despite personal grief and loss. As one committee member said, with a kind of surprise, “We never know how we do it, but the next year, we do it again!” No one can tell me that such energy and devotion is not driven by faith.
Each of these readings can be justified. As I studied it this week, I realized what in the story made these readings possible. In the three other gospels, the disciples worry about feeding the crowd and suggest that Jesus send the people away. And in these other accounts, Jesus is busy either curing the sick or teaching the crowd for whom he feels loving concern.
Jesus is not on mission in the same way in John. The spotlight here is rather on the way Jesus takes charge of the feeding. He is the one who challenges the disciples by asking where they intend to buy bread for the crowd. I’ve been there with Philip: “No way we can afford that, not if we save for six months!” Andrew starts to see a solution. He has noticed the boy with the loaves and fishes—but he rejects it: “What are a few loaves and fish among so many people?”
Jesus neither sends the people away, nor ignores their needs. He calmly asks the disciples to make the people “recline,” as if for a banquet. He does not use the ordinary verb for “sit.” They get to recline on green grass, almost as though Jesus wants them to remember the green pastures from the 23rd Psalm. In gestures that anticipate the Eucharist, he takes those few loaves, gives thanks over them, and distributes them. We shift from calculations and worries about quantity—many/few, enough/not enough—to the quality of the feeding and are told that the people are satisfied. Here again, they might remember the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Last but not least, we are reminded of Moses feeding his crowd in the wilderness. Manna was provided, but if not consumed that day it became wormy. But Jesus’ flock gets to take leftovers home. We can imagine their surprise. Or perhaps by that time, the people simply understood their meal as a royal gift and understood as well that nothing from His meal need be wasted. I can see why they wanted to make him King. There must have been a special bond among those who had been there. I wonder how many of them realized that the bread and the fish that had been distributed were just the start and that Jesus’ bread could continue to surprise them.
The miracle of this story is not the miracle of multiplying these small resources. It is the miracle of feeding in a Eucharistic way. Satisfying as the Eucharist satisfies, as love satisfies. The miracle is that Jesus takes a small loaf and uses it as a sign of his unity with these people. He makes them one. This unity would exist if the crew were 5 million or 500 or 5. This is the divine surprise—that the numbers aren’t the point. The unity is.
With this fundamental understanding of Jesus’ sacramental action, anything and everything else can follow. And it does in the next episode when the disciples try to cross the Sea of Galilee. This is not simply another miracle. It is an extension of the feeding that the disciples have just witnessed. It is a revelation of what made the feeding possible.
Exhausted by the heavy sea and then even more terrified by the appearance of Jesus walking across that sea to them, these disciples are told what the crowd cannot yet understand. Jesus identifies himself to them with the same words that God had used to reassure Moses: “Say to the Israelites, I AM has sent me to you.” Here Jesus says, “It is I: do not be afraid. The one who satisfies the needs of so many vulnerable people will also protect you.” The story concludes with all we need to know: the boat reaches shore safely.
What happened inwardly to the disciples during that experience? Did they fully hear that the voice speaking to them was the voice of God? Did they grow closer to one another and to Jesus? As we read the story, do we realize that this is the voice that will satisfy us, that we can hear and trust and rely on?
The passage from Ephesians urges us not to be tossed and blown about in our faith. There is a clear command here. We are to grow up “in every way into him” who knits and joins us together into one body. And there is a promise as well. Christ is the head of this body. As we listen to his voice, this body of which we are a part will grow and build itself up in love.
Like the nameless people on the hillside, we can increasingly understand that the bread distributed is only the start. Jesus’ gifts will continue to surprise us and the world. They will challenge the way the world makes its calculations. The bread and the wine that we will partake in communion next week powerfully unite us with our Lord. But every day we can be surprised and changed by God’s presence among us, by God’s desire to feed and save us from harm. The ongoing miracle is that we belong to Him and through Him to one another.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, you were the insignificant one who lived and died to give us a new way of numbering our fellow human beings: you called a negligible number of women and men to be your first followers; you blessed the five barley loaves and two small fishes of a boy for the feeding of a multitude; you gave significance and value to the one over against the ninety and nine; you promised your presence to the two or three who gather in your name: Continue to surprise us, teach us to do our arithmetic with you. Amen.
(Prayer adapted from John Carden’s A Procession of Prayers)