Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills O’ God that we may love and serve you, today and always. Amen
When I was a little girl, spending the summers with my grandparents was a time I would anticipate with great joy all year long. One of the reasons was because, along with all of my cousins, I would go to Bible school. We’d run through the fields to the Parish Hall across the lot from the church. It was where all of the church functions had been held for generations, a long, one room building with a kitchen in the back. We’d don aprons to cover our play clothes and settle ourselves on the little chairs arranged in a semi-circle to hear what craft we were going to do that day. Now to be clear, we had to sit quietly and listen to one of the grown-ups (who was usually one of my many Aunts), tell us a Bible story and then we’d talk about it for a little while, sing a Gospel hymn accompanied by Tennessee Ernie Ford on the old record player, followed by singing John Jacob Jinglehammer-Schmidt, and THEN we could do our craft – a craft that somehow related to the Bible story we’d just heard..
I actually remember the morning we heard this story in Bible School — the feeding of the five thousand. I wish I could tell you I remember it because of some deep spiritual lesson I learned that day – but I can’t. I remember this story because that day’s craft involved stenciling a few words on a piece of slate and then filling in the letters with paint. We had two choices for what we stenciled onto the slate….words that said, ‘God is Good’ or, ‘God is Love’. My favorite cousin chose ‘God is Good’ and I picked ‘God is Love’. I chose it instead of the ‘God is Good’ phrase because God is Good is how our grace started before meals and I can remember thinking that we said that all of the time — and I loved my Gramma with all my heart and I always gave her the craft we made….so the ‘God is Love’ phrase seemed right……and it must have been because Gramma hung my completed stenciled slate on her bedroom wall where it stayed for many years.
Last week I ended the sermon by asking all of us to think about how we might finish the sentence, “The Kingdom of God is like….”. And I thought about that throughout the week, often in the context of preparing this week’s sermon. The images of that idyllic time when I was so little going to Bible School and being surrounded by God’s love manifested through my family’s unconditional love was one of the images that I kept seeing when thinking about how to finish that sentence – Images summed up in words stenciled on slate: God is LOVE.
But I hadn’t picked that phrase to stencil so long ago because I learned that “God is Love” from this Bible story – maybe the older kids did, maybe they got it, but I didn’t. The connection between God and Love, or at least the realization that the manifestation of God’s love, was an important lesson in Matthew’s version of this Gospel story, came to me many years later. It took me those years before I understood that Jesus’ feeding of the hungry, tired people streamed out of his deep, profound compassion for them.
While I was in the Holy Land, I visited the two places identified as the spot where Jesus performed this miracle and while they were both beautiful, lush locations on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, they were each a very, very far walk away from any of those villages mentioned in the reading — where anyone, much less 5K plus people — could find food. Jesus didn’t make them leave and troop back to find far off villages that would have taken hours to reach in the dark. And he didn’t let them go without – he didn’t leave them hungry. He had compassion for them ……. and the word compassion in Latin is often translated as “to love with” and that is what we see Jesus do – to love with. That is why one of the choices I had to stencil from this Bible story so long ago was, “God is Love.” ………. To love with ……. Jesus, through his actions, not just in words, loved those hungry people who had come to listen to him.
In last week’s sermon I quoted Warren Carter’s reminding us that,
‘If a person is well adjusted in a sick society, corrupting is the only path to wholeness.” And isn’t Jesus’ behavior shown in this Gospel reading a wonderful example of how Jesus used love as a transformative agent – a corrupting agent if you will — in a society ruled through foreign, oppressive occupation. Jesus’ behavior manifested love. He again shows us how to love, how to transform, which he does in his short ministry over and over and over. Feed the hungry. Give rest to the weary. Care for the widow. Remember the lonely.
This miracle of Jesus turning a few loaves of bread and some fish into enough food to feed 5k plus men, women, and children is the only miracle story to be found in all 4 of the Gospels. While the notions that “God is love” and that we should emulate Jesus’ manifestations of that love are central points in this Gospel story, they are not the only important points in these few verses. And, it is important to remember that this is a story about many things but it is not a story of a picnic any more than the Last Supper is a story of a dinner party for friends. Jesus heralded our communion rite when he took the fish and bread that day. And while some of the facts are presented a bit differently in the various Gospels, they all 4 make a point of foreshadowing our sacrament of communion. [Jay use your fingers] Bread was taken, blessed, broken and given. Each Sunday when we prepare to receive communion, as a community, not just as a personal action, but rather as a group of Christians, those same four very important elements are taking place. Listen and watch for the 4 elements beginning with my setting of the altar and not ending until the last people have received communion. [Jay use fingers] Bread will be taken, blessed, broken and given –— all part of our Holy Communion today.
But there is another point in this Gospel, one that I admit I missed for a long time; in fact, it wasn’t until I was in formation for the Diaconate and was studying what it truly meant to try to be a servant that I noted this, up to then, missed point. We are so accustomed to hearing “Jesus feed the 5 K”, that we can miss that in all 4 versions of this Gospel story, Jesus isn’t actually who feeds the hungry, although that is a little vague in John’s Gospel…..In the other 3, the synoptic Gospels, it is clear that he tells the disciples to feed the throngs of people. In other words, he calls the disciples to service. The disciples perform the act of feeding after Jesus gives them the blessed bread and fish.
And in our own time, after all have received the body and blood of Christ and the altar has been restored, we too are called to serve, just as the disciples were called. Just as Jesus called his disciples to service when he told them to get and give the bread and fish, we hear that call echoed in our post communion prayer, part of which is: “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do — to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”
Earlier this week, I mentioned to Deb Hay, our parish administrator, that I was having a difficult time finding a way to end this sermon. Without knowing what I was preaching, she said, “Tell them to remember God, to be nice to each other, to take care of themselves and to have a really nice day.” We laughed…..but then I thought about what she said and realized she was right. She had summed up the message of God’s love and our directive to go forth to love and serve the Lord as faithful witness. That was the ending. Because that is what this Gospel is about. It is about God’s love, Jesus’ manifestation of that love and about us, caring for one another as Jesus commands us.
We each of us have our own gifts that we can access to be a witness of Christ and gifts that support us in loving and serving the Lord. Or to put it in the words of that sage Deb Hay, “Remember God, be nice to each other, take care of yourself and have a really nice day!.”