Table Graces

Matthew 14: 13-21

“Blessed are you, O Lord, for you give us food to sustain our lives and make our hearts glad.”

If the number of times that a story about Jesus appears in the gospel is any measure of its importance, then the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes has to be very significant. Twice it appears in Matthew and Mark, once in Luke and once in John, each time in a particular context. But in every telling, before the food was distributed to the crowd, Jesus began by giving thanks to God. Then taking the food, he looked up to the heavens, blessed and broke the loaves of bread. And then he gave it to his disciples to share with the people.

In many homes, before a meal, a prayer of grace is offered to God for the provision of food on the table. Sometimes daily, sometimes on the occasion of a special meal.

“Bless us, O God, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from your goodness, through Christ our Lord.”

The feeding of the five thousand carries the echo of other stories in the Bible. One concerns Elijah who at the time was lost and alone, another is the story we heard earlier about the Israelites in the wilderness, hungry and complaining, and God responds, saying to Moses, “I’m going to rain bread from heaven for you…” And the people are given manna to eat. Both of these stories from the Old Testament take place in the wilderness, and it’s interesting that the setting for Matthew’s story occurs in what he describes as a “deserted place.” In all of these accounts, God’s provision can be understood as both a reality as well as a metaphor for what it is that as human beings we require in our lives: substance for both body and spirit.

“Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.”

It is worth noting that the actions of Jesus in feeding the crowd of five thousand have direct correlation to his actions at the last supper with the disciples in the upper room where: he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them – giving a sacramental quality to the meals his followers share together.

Every year on World Communion Sunday, people in churches all around the globe, from east and west and north and south, gather in worship to be fed at the Lord’s Table. Whether it be in a cathedral in some large city, a white clapboard church out in the countryside, a four pole shelter in a village in Africa, a storefront church along a city street, or an auditorium of some mega church, multitudes of people come and receive a meal blessed in the name of the One who sustains life by his gracious power.

“God is great and God is good, and we thank him for our food. By his hand we all are fed; thank you, Lord for our daily bread.”

At the opening of today’s scripture reading, Jesus is trying to get away from the crowds that have been following him. He boards a boat to go off to a place where he can have some peace and quiet. But it is not to be. As he comes ashore, there is another large crowd waiting there for him, seeking his healing and hungry for his teaching. Tired and hoping to have a chance to relax, it would have been natural for Jesus to have gotten back in the boat at the sight of this gathering — you and I know how it can be when our children or our family or the people we work with keep after us and won’t let us alone.

Even so, Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the crowd, his heart went out to them and he “had compassion for them.” Compassion was central to Jesus’ ministry. Time after time, he responded to the human needs he encountered, almost always with patience, understanding and grace, sharing God’s love with every person who reached out to him.

“Creator of the universe, you give us this gift of food to nourish us and give us life. Bless this food we pray and the hands that have prepared it. May it satisfy our hunger, and in sharing it together may we come closer to one another and you.”

< When the hour was getting late, Jesus’ disciples came up to him and said, “It’s really nice you’ve helped so many people today. But it’s been a very long day. We need to send these people on their way so they can get something to eat in one of the villages down the road.”

< It was the practical thing to do. And a sensible solution to a problem in the making. The disciples knew it was getting to be time for dinner by the growling in their own stomachs. So they figured the crowd needed to be told to go on their way so that they could be alone with Jesus to eat the food they had brought along.

But Jesus said to the twelve, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” One can only guess at the reaction of the disciples to Jesus’ command. “Can you be serious, Jesus? Look at how many people are here for God’s sake. Thousands! We hardly have enough food for ourselves, just a couple loaves of bread and a few dried fish.”

T.S. Eliot said once that there are two types of problems in life. “One kind of problem,” he said, “provokes the question, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ The other kind poses a subtler question, ‘How will we behave toward it?’”

The disciples thought they had the answer to the first question of what to do – by sending the crowd away. But Jesus chose instead to answer the second question, asking the disciples to bring the meager amount of food they had to him and telling them to give it to the crowd. And Matthew tells us, “All ate and were filled.”

Now in the history of biblical interpretation, some have seen the story of the feeding of the five thousand as a miracle that happened just as it was described – the loaves of bread and fish multiplied and there was enough for all. Others have imagined a symbolic meal in which each person ate a tiny portion, thereby foreshadowing the heavenly banquet to come. But then there were others who saw the multiplying of the few bread and fish as a miracle of unselfishness. It is this interpretation I prefer.

The thinking goes like this — The crowd had come to this deserted place to meet Jesus and they took along some food for when they got hungry. (Like you and me when we’re going on a hike in the woods or getting ready for a long bike trip.) And like the disciples, the people in the crowd had every intention to keep their own food for themselves.

But, having seen Jesus so willingly ready to share the little he and his disciples had, they were touched by his generosity. So much so that as the baskets were passed along, they took their bag of food from under their robes and gave away some of it in the basket for those who didn’t have anything to eat. And after the baskets had been passed to everyone, there were even leftovers.

I can believe this because it is surprising how much there is to go around when we share what we have with open hearts instead of holding on to it with a closed fist. Sharing what we have creates a circle of blessing.

“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of all creation, for you bring forth bread from the earth, and give us the fruit of the vine.”

According to the most recent report from Bread for the World: thirty-one million Americans now live in hunger or on the edge of hunger; one in five people in a soup kitchen line is a child; thirteen million children live in households where meals are routinely skipped to make ends meet. Hunger in America is a big problem. Almost overwhelming. Realistically, what can we ever do about it?

< Many of you know that one of the agencies our church supports with its Outreach is the Good News Community Kitchen. The Good News Kitchen, which is located in North Roger Park, serves a meal every night of the year to whoever comes through their doors. Every September, we have a sign-up in the Culbertson room for individuals and families to volunteer at the Kitchen on the 2nd Monday of every month. Then on the scheduled Monday, food is bought and taken to the Kitchen where it is cooked and prepared; and after the people have eaten their fill, the volunteers clean up. Last year with the help of people from our church, the Good News Kitchen served over 56,000 meals to an average of 120 hungry people each evening.

“You give them something to eat.” On days when people off the street come into our church and ask for help, we listen and respond by giving them – not money – but a certificate to buy food at Jewel.
“You give them something to eat.” Every October our church has “Food Packing Day” at which we collect hundreds of bags of food that are distributed to a number of the agencies for distribution to families in need. Our church supports many other agencies in the Chicago metro area that feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and provide job training.

Our church is a part of the circle of sharing.

“Give us grateful hearts, O God, for all your mercies, and make us mindful of the needs of others, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

When Jesus arrived in the early afternoon, many in the crowd were there hoping to be healed. And he walked among the crowd with his disciples, laying hands on them and saying things they needed to hear.

Did you know that in the city of Chicago, there are just two clinics that provide free health care to uninsured individuals without financial means? Our church gives its support to CommunityHealth, the largest volunteer staffed free medical facility in Illinois. It has 400 volunteers and 100 physicians from Chicago area hospitals who help to provide care to more than 6,000 patients annually.

There are other examples of how our church and its members serve the needs of others. Some of you volunteer for the Outreach Benefit or the Christmas Bazaar or the Rummage Sale, which significantly increase the amount of funds we give through our Outreach. Some of you serve on boards of agencies and organizations, giving of your time and expertise to help the less fortunate. Some of you take on the essential tasks of raising funds so that there is money for agencies and schools to continue their good work. Most of you write a check to the church, which in part goes to Outreach that ministers to the disadvantaged. I could go on, of course. I mention all this to make clear the point that there’s a variety of ways that members of our church make a difference.

It isn’t an option that as Christians we be concerned and committed to helping address the needs of the world. It’s an essential part of who we are and what we are called to do by Jesus.

“Lord Jesus, be our guest, our morning joy, our evening rest; and with our daily bread impart your love and peace to every heart.”

The goodness and grace of a meal shared is unforgettably told in the movie, Babette’s Feast, based on Isaac Denison’s novelette. The story is set in a grim fishing village on the North Sea coast where there is this dwindling congregation of elderly people who are followers of a stern Calvinist pastor called, Dean, who is now dead. The little congregation continues its worship led by Dean’s two aging daughters, who are sweet and generous in contrast to others who are generally dour and faultfinding. Into their lives one day, Babette shows up. She is a refugee from the Paris uprisings in the middle of the 19th century. She hasn’t a penny to her name and the two sisters take her in as a cook and housekeeper. They have no idea that Babette was once a celebrated chef in Paris.

Babette settles into the drab village life. Years pass until one day she receives a letter with the news that she has won the French lottery. At that very time, the sisters and little congregation are planning a celebration to honor the hundredth birthday of pastor Dean’s birth. Babette shocks them all with an extravagant act of generosity, insisting she spend her fortune on a sumptuous meal for the celebration. In a place where people were accustomed to meals of dried cod and watery soup, her gracious offer is viewed with suspicion. There are many raised eyebrows as the food for the feast comes in off the boat.

The power of the story turns on the fact that Babette’s gift of sharing transformed those around the table… stony faces were softened by smiles, eyes sparkled self-consciously with the taste of delicious food, and hearts opened as the meal was eaten.

At dinner the night of the banquet is a retired general from the Danish army who had once been a suitor of one of the sisters. Near the end of the dinner the general rises to make a speech. “Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together,” the general begins, “righteousness and bliss kiss one another.” Then pausing a moment, he continued, “We have all been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and shortsightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble…But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite.”

Abundant grace. And the disciples “took what was left of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”
“Thank you, God, for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you, God, for everything.”

< When we take from what we have and share it with those who have not, it is blessed by God.

“Bless our hearts, O Lord, that in the sharing of our blessing of bread, we may hear the song of the universe.”

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.