Sermon on Matthew 14:13-21 for Pentecost +8 A, August 3, 2014
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Today’s texts about hunger and food got me thinking. One of my favorite afternoon snacks is a handful of nuts. They are full of protein, right? Great. But there is one thing I know for a fact, even before I pop them in my mouth: that as soon as I swallow, I will want more. I know that no matter how many handfuls I eat, I will always crave another. My hunger will not be satisfied.
This actually makes me mad. I feel manipulated. Indeed, I am being manipulated. People are profiting from keeping me hungry.
According to scientists who study the brain, we humans have pleasure centers that light up in an MRI scan when we experience something enjoyable. The big food manufacturers do a lot of research about this. Of course they do; they want us to buy more of their products. (see: the NYT review of How Sweet It Is:‘Salt Sugar Fat,’ by Michael Moss)
So now they know that there is what they call a “bliss point” at which we experience the maximum pleasure we can have from, for example, sugar and salt. They know how much sugar to put in to a soda or a cereal box to make us feel maximum bliss.
neuroscientists also know that there is no “bliss point” for fat. The more they put into ingredients, the more we like it. Add cheese, for example, to just about anything and we want more and more.
They now know how to manipulate levels of sugar, salt and fat in foods to make us continue to want more and not feel satisfied, just as the nuts I snack on do. The potato-chip slogan “no on can eat just one” turns out to be one of the most bold, public confessions ever made.
Eating without finding satisfaction seems to sum up much of life in the Western world. We have become experts in consuming more and enjoying it less. That seems to be how the world is set up to operate. It leaves us unsatisfied.
So, this morning we are asked to consider a radically alternative vision of how the world can operate. We read a Jesus-story that ends saying,
“And all ate and were filled (= satisfied)”
“All ate” means that no one went away without eating.
“filled or satisfied” means that what they ate was life-giving and nutritious.
This is the alternative we are seeking.
God’s people, people of faith, characteristically tell stories about meals; about eating together, about abundance in the midst of seeming scarcity, and about satisfaction. Nobody is hungry at the end. There is enough. More than enough. What a contrasting vision!
We tell the story of the Hebrew people who were slaves in Egypt, escaping into the wilderness, and how Moses prayed, and they were given daily manna to eat. The scarcity of wilderness was overcome by daily provisions from a common source. All ate, and were satisfied.
We tell stories like the one in which Elisha the prophet feeds 100 men with only twenty loaves of bread, and it was enough; there were even leftovers.
In the context of wilderness and scarcity, there is enough for all to eat and be satisfied. That is the faith story. That is the radical alternative.
Modern Scarcity and the Jesus Meal
Today, we live with abundance, and yet we experience scarcity. We all brought our own specific hunger with us this morning. We came with hunger: hunger for meaning in our lives, hunger for peace, for reconciliation of broken relationships, and hungry for a solution to our fears for the future. I believe we are here because we also sense a hunger for God. We are hungry indeed.
The story we read today is about an unplanned meal in the wilderness. The story is set as Jesus has gone there for a reason: to be alone. Why would he? We are not told, but other times in Matthew Jesus withdraws from the crowds for prayer. He knew his own hunger was spiritual and he nourished his spirit with practices like prayer and silence.
There could have been another reason for his withdrawal: danger. His cousin John the baptist has just been killed. Herod thinks Jesus may be John, come back to life. Maybe he will try again. The danger is real.
It is odd to consider that John was killed at a meal. It was Herod’s birthday bash. There must have been plenty of everything at that meal. No one had to ask where in the world they would get all the food needed to satisfy the guests; there was no scarcity in Herod’s palace.
But scarcity was a problem outside the palace, out in the Galilean wilderness. The way the story goes is interesting. Jesus wanted to be alone, but ended up with a crowd around him. Clearly, people were hungry for something that Jesus was offering. When he saw them, he had compassion on them.
But anyway, they have been there all day, now it’s supper time, and no one has planned for this.
All the disciples can think to do is to send the hungry people away. They understand scarcity for what it is. Let them each go find a way to solve their problem individually. Let them go to the local economy and get their needs met.
It’s a question of supply and demand; market economics – unless there is an alternative to market forces, even in the context of wilderness scarcity. Jesus believes there is.
Two Kinds of Taking
In Herod’s realm, the rule is “take what you can get.” As the agent of Imperial Rome, Herod Antipas of Galilee could take enough from impoverished peasants to build himself a lavish palace. I have walked though the ruins of that palace; it was huge and must have been opulent.
Outside in the wilderness, Jesus has an alternative which also begins with taking. He takes what he has on hand, he takes five small loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Then he does what Herod would have never thought to do: he looks towards heaven, and blesses the bread, and breaks it, and gives it away.
“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.“
Can there be true scarcity when God, the Source and Sustainer of the universe is present?
When Jesus turned to heaven to bless the bread in that prayer of thanksgiving for God’s provision, he was undoing the possibility that scarcity could have the last word. When God is acknowledged as the source of the bread, the only possible response is to give thanks, break bread, and give to everyone, so that “all may eat and be satisfied.”
The Christian Model
This is fundamental to the Christian world view in every way on every level. Our characteristic action is to come together, as we will do today, around a common table to share a meal. At that meal we will say the words that Jesus told us to do in memory of him at the last supper: take bread, bless it, break it, and give it to all that “all may eat and be satisfied.”
On a personal level, this means that we look to God for the satisfaction our spirits are hungry for. We practice the spiritual practices of a Christian, withdrawing for prayer and silence, just as Jesus did. And in stillness, we find rest, and peace, and the presence of God for whom we hunger. We taste and see the goodness of the Lord. We eat the living bread, and are satisfied.
On a wider level, we ask questions. We ask, who is at the table and who is not at the table? Why are they not at the table? Have they been excluded from the table? Who would Jesus exclude?
We ask, who is hungry? What are they hunger for? What is on hand that we can take, bless, break, and give away?
Today, we are surrounded by people who, like the unenlightened disciples, can only see scarcity. They tell us there is not enough so often that we believe it. They tell us we do not have enough to share. They say “send them away; they are on their own.”
But God has given us an alternative vision. We are here to tell the meal story of the people of God. We are here to look past wilderness and scarcity, and to look up to the One who provides. We are here to look at what we have been given with thankful hearts, to break it and to give it to everyone at the table, until all are fed. Giving becomes our characteristic spiritual response.
This is why there is an offering in every worship service. As an act of worship, as a response to God’s grace, we give away what we have been given.
This is why we have a Christian Service Center food pantry: so that we can give to people who are hungry.
This is why there is a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and a Presbyterian Children’s home. It is characteristic of Christians to imitate Christ: to take with thanksgiving and to respond by giving.
This is also why we give of ourselves in every way. This is why we do VBS: we see children around us hungry to know that they are loved by God and by us, and so we give.
This is why we open our doors to AA and ALANON, that those who are hungry to live lives of recovery from addiction may meet.
And this is why, when we look at the crisis on our borders: we feel compassion for the crowds, just as Jesus did. And we take what we have, we look to heaven and give thanks, and break it, and give it, so that all may eat and be satisfied.
And when we have given away the little we had on hand, what do we experience? Abundance. There were twelve baskets left over.
- One for each disciple.
- One for each tribe of Israel.
- One to keep giving out of for each month of the year.
There is not scarcity, but plenty, because, in the wilderness, someone
and gave it away.
And then all ate and were satisfied.