Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year A – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – August 6, 2017
There’s a Weight Watchers commercial and it features Oprah Winfrey saying “I LOVE BREAD!” And while I also love bread, the intensity with which she says it would make me afraid to ever suggest cutting gluten from her diet. Which I think is exactly the point of the commercial. She still gets to have what she loves – thanks be God! Around the world, almost every culture has its own version of bread. It is the very sustenance of life.
As such, food is a common biblical image for God’s divine mercy. The biblical writers must have also loved …bread… and food in general because time and time again the imagery of food is used to describe God’s covenant and relationship to the people Israel. God provides food during famine. God sends manna in the wilderness when they leave Egypt, not knowing exactly where they are going, but that God’s promise and presence will sustain them. God feeds prophets in the wilderness living out their arduous callings. God’s word and God’s law are poetically described like honey – wonderfully sweet to the taste. The faithful and righteous are called to share their food with the hungry and the poor. And religious festivals often center around having or not having food.
These themes don’t just stop in the Old Testament either. Jesus is born in Bethlehem or, as its pronounced in Hebrew: Bet-lechem which means “House of bread.” Later, Jesus even describes himself as the bread of life. In Acts, Peter sees unclean animals descending from heaven from a vision and he is told to kill and eat, symbolically showing that the gospel is being opened up to Gentiles, not just Jews. Likewise wine was not only the safest drink in the ancient world but was a symbol of abundance and celebration. Throughout Scripture, Israel is often compared to God’s precious vineyard, carefully planted and tended.
Yes, food and drink are typical ways of speaking about God’s mercy. But food and drink tell us something else about God’s mercy. God’s mercy is part of God’s covenant with God’s people. It is born of a relationship. God is the provider and one who nourishes us. We all eat alone sometimes, but our meals are richer and more joyful when shared with people we care about. God’s mercy is not meant to be an abstract concept. No, instead it’s about an intimate relationship into which we’re invited.
That’s what I think we skip over in this reading. We’re so focused on the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes, that we neglect what comes before it. Jesus withdraws to silence. He doesn’t just go another room in a house or take a walk. He gets into a boat and goes to a “deserted place.” He needs time alone in his grief after hearing that his relative John the Baptist has been killed unjustly by the powers that be. He needs time to wrestle with injustice and maybe even God’s plan. He needs time to connect with God and center himself once more in the abundance and grace of God.
But as he’s seeking solitude, he sees the crowds and in his compassion, he cannot ignore their needs, their suffering, and their desire to be seen, heard, and healed. And so he goes, meeting and curing them, which must have been utterly exhausting. The disciples see the potential crisis on the horizon. There are thousands of hungry people in a place with no food and so they tell Jesus that he should send them to the towns to buy food. He instead tells them that they should feed the crowds.
Their answer is interesting. “Jesus, we have nothing here…” Did they forget that in the beginning God spoke and created out of nothingness plants that yield fruits and seeds of every kind, waters teeming with fish, skies swarming with winged creatures, and everything that creeps upon the earth? They seemed to forget that out of nothingness and emptiness can come abundance.
But we’re not so different from them. How often do we say “I have nothing left to give”? How often do we feel like we have nothing that we can possibly offer? How often are we so busy running around that we forget to take a break and to make time with God?
Jesus seeks out the silence. He seeks time alone to be with God. To listen to God. To examine what is going on in his life and pray about what he’s experiencing. If Jesus, the Son of God, built that time into his schedule, why wouldn’t we?
Like those crowds that sought Jesus out for healing, for someone who would look upon with compassion, restore their dignity, and meet their every need, we, too, wonder who will truly see us. Who will meet our needs, heal our hearts and our ailments, and give us hope and joy for each day.
This story isn’t really about bread. It’s about the one who gives us the bread – the one who gives us sustenance. God offers the abundance we’re looking for. God offers the life we long for. God offers the daily provisions we need. But so often, we fail to see it or experience it in our own lives because we’ve managed to fill up every bit of our lives with work and activities. It takes time spent in relationship to develop an awareness of how God sustains and nourishes us.
I think we protest like the disciples: “we have nothing here!” “I want to serve, but I don’t really know how to use my gifts.” “I can’t pray now, God, I’ve got a lot going on.” “I want to spend more time with you, God, but work is really busy now. When it slows down, I’ll get back into devotions and reading Scripture.”
I struggle with this all the time. I’m even in a continuing education program on contemplative prayer. To be honest, I feel like I’ve failed because I’ve been really good at making excuses as to how busy I am or why I haven’t been sitting in silence every day. I want to. I try. But I… just… don’t. And I hate that.
But then I remember God’s word spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.”
“Come,” God says. “Don’t spend your time and your energy on things that don’t matter. Come feast on that which is important. Come spend your time in relationship with me. That will delight, refresh, satisfy, and sustain you. I give myself to you freely and I am always available to you. Listen to me and experience real life.“
The disciples thought they had nothing to work with. That they only had five loaves and two fish and that Jesus couldn’t do anything with that meager offering. But he did. As the Gospel says, “all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” Jesus makes such a feast that all are completely full – completely satisfied. And there are even leftovers!
Jesus can take what we have to offer, no matter how nominal it seems, bless it, and use it in our lives and for the good of others. As he had compassion on those worn out, hurting, sick, and hungry crowds even in his own state of exhaustion and grief, he looks upon us with tenderness and compassion. On the cross he becomes bread broken for a world starving for good news. And we see that out of our scarcity or even our half-hearted or misguided attempts to follow him, he can produce an abundance of good. Because it’s not about us or our efforts – it’s about him. Each week he reminds us of his miraculous ability to feed and transform us as we gather around that table of grace. We come with empty hands, aching to meet God and he shows up as bread broken and wine poured out for each of us. Forgiving us and showering us with the love that tells us he will strengthen and sustain us. Just as he has done for God’s people throughout the ages.
The first church service I ever went to featured a song that spoke to this text. I remember it because my best friend and her dad sang it as a duet during the Offertory:
Jesus has a table spread
Where the saints of God are fed,
He invites His chosen people, “Come and dine”;
With His manna He doth feed
And supplies our every need:
Oh, ’tis sweet to sup with Jesus all the time!
“Come and dine,” the Master calleth, “Come and dine”;
You may feast at Jesus’ table all the time;
He Who fed the multitude, turned the water into wine,
To the hungry calleth now, “Come and dine.”
So, come. Know the love and mercy of Christ as you partake of the feast he has spread before you. The feast where all are invited. The feast that points ahead to that day when all will be fed. The feast that strengthens us to go out, compassionately meet the needs of others, and invite all to dine with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.