In the name of the holy Trinity, one God.
When I was a child in Ireland in the 60’s, my mother had a credit account at the butcher’s, the baker’s, the pharmacy, and the grocer’s. Each shop was small and specialized, and didn’t offer a wide array of choices. The advent of supermarkets changed our shopping habits, and when I came to the US and walked for the first time down a store aisle solely devoted to varieties of breakfast cereal, I was flabbergasted.
Much more recently, I have learned the term “food desert”- a neighborhood, typically in a city, where there are no choices at all, where the only place within walking distance where you can buy food is the 7-11 or the tiny ethnic market. Both of these – the cereal aisle of 100 choices and the food desert – co-exist in our nation. And something about that seems wrong to me.
The passage we heard from Matthew’s Gospel picks up just after the death of John the Baptist. You might remember that he was imprisoned by King Herod for telling truth to power, and subsequently murdered in jail when Herod’s teenage stepdaughter demanded John’s head as her reward for entertaining the king’s guests. We know that Herod hesitated but then gave in because he was unwilling to lose face in front of his powerful friends. The prophet was killed, essentially, on the whim of a despotic ruler in order to preserve his fragile ego.
What a terrible waste of a life. No wonder Jesus wanted to go off on his own to grieve the senseless loss of his cousin. The juxtaposition of these two stories is significant. Herod throws a lavish feast for the rich and powerful, with an outcome leading to death; and then Jesus throws a party for hungry people and offers them abundant life.
The miracle of the loaves and fishes is very familiar, and with good reason: the story is told six times in the four Gospels. It’s the only miracle told by all four Evangelists, and Matthew and Mark both thought it was good enough to tell twice. It is clearly one of the most important stories about Jesus that we have.
Jesus wants to grieve in peace, but the crowds won’t leave him alone. They are hungry, starving for good news. They are oppressed, afraid, voiceless, ruled by leaders they cannot trust, regarded as barely human by the occupying forces, seeking a word of comfort, of encouragement, yearning to be fed w
ith God’s word, God’s love. And, by the way, they are people of color.
And Jesus, even in his grief, cannot deny them. He is the word of God incarnate. The whole purpose of his life on earth is to embody God’s love. He is moved in his very being by the needy people before him. He has compassion for them – you might remember a few weeks ago when our preacher talked about that word compassion, and how the original term means a twisting of the guts, a visceral compulsion to reach out in solidarity to those who are suffering. Jesus cannot help but love these people.
But evening comes and the shadows lengthen, and the disciples realize that they have a huge problem: five thousand men, plus women and children, in a deserted place, as dinner time looms. They are in a food desert, not even a Quik-Mart in sight. How are these people going to be fed? Send them away, they tell Jesus. This is beyond us. But Jesus shocks them with his response: YOU give them something to eat.
Oof: that one landed right between my eyes. YOU give them something to eat. YOU take care of these crowds in food deserts both physical and spiritual, these people who cannot feed their families with a full-time job, these people who are hungry to hear God’s word and feel God’s love. YOU offer hope to those who suffer from injustice, YOU offer comfort to those who fear losing their privileged place in the world.
The disciples turn out their backpacks and come up with a few snacks. Jesus takes the bread and blesses it in front of the crowd. Perhaps he uses the words of our Psalm: Blessed are you, Lord God: “the eyes of all look upon you and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.” As he reminds his listeners of their relationship to God the open-handed giver of all good things, they think of what they have in their pockets. How can it be right to eat my picnic when the person next to me has nothing? And a miracle happens, and people are fed, community is created, and God is present.
When everyone pitches in, when we all empty our pockets and open our hands to pool our resources, there is plenty for everyone. Some of you have donated your COVID subsidy to the church or to other non-profits, because you don’t need it. Some of you have made special donations with the money you could have spent on vacations or eating out.
Loaves and fishes. This is the true miracle of faith, when human beings overcome our fear of scarcity and our tendency to hoard, and instead share freely what we have with those who have less. Our national myth of rugged individualism has corrupted our sense of communal responsibility. It is act
ually a blessing to have enough to be able to share: that’s where we are blessed by God, not by building bigger barns like the rich fool in Luke’s Gospel. In the wealthiest country in the world, people go to bed hungry. This is a scandal and a sin, but it’s one that we can mend, if we work on it together.
If we were sharing the Eucharist today, this Gospel would be an obvious lead-in to the sacramental part of our worship. As it is, we are fed by God’s word alone in this season, while we witness the growing hunger of our neighbors in the face of an ever-worsening economic catastrophe. What can we do with our meager resources?
Perhaps we have more
than we realize. We have a rich and vital community, coming together online
every day of the week to pray, to read Scripture, to learn and grow together.
We have a depth of tradition on which to draw, teaching us that all are
welcome. We have hearts for service and for generosity, demonstrated by those
who donate clothing and who regularly make gifts to our pastoral needs fund. We
have 100 people who want to learn how to dismantle the injustices of racism. We
have much to offer to this hungry world.
“You give them something to eat,” says Jesus. Yes, let’s do that. Let’s
share what God has given us, and we will all be blessed. Amen.
August 2 2020
The Very Rev Penelope BridgesYou Give Them Something to Eat