You Give Them Something to Eat
This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on June 6th, The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Feeding the Five Thousand
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.
“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I'd led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. On my walks in the neighborhood, I'd passed the wood-shingled building with its sign: ST GREGORY OF NYSSA EPISCOPAL CHURCH. Now with no more than a reporter’s habitual curiosity—or so I thought—I opened the door.
What happened a few minutes later is a mystery. I still can't explain my first Communion; it made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb, or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening—the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ,” a patently untrue, or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening—God, named “Christ” or “Jesus,” was real, and in my mouth—utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.
Why did Communion move me? Why did I feel as if I were being entered and taken over, completely stirred up by someone whose name I’d only spoken before as a casual expletive? I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told. But neither could I go away: for some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again. I wanted it all the next day after my first Communion, and the next week, and the next. It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table through my fear and confusion.
As I struggled with bread and wine and belief over the following year, it stayed hard. I began to understand why so many people chose to be [“saved]” “born again” and follow strict rules that would tell them what to do, for once and for all. It was tempting to rely on a formula … It was tempting to proclaim yourself an official Christian and go back to sleep.
The faith I was finding was jagged and more difficult. It wasn’t about abstract theological debates. Or even about political/ideological ones.
[The faith I was finding] was about action. Taste and see, the Bible said, and I did. I was tasting a connection between Communion and food—between my burgeoning religion and my real life. My first year at church ended with a question whose urgency would propel me into work I’d never imagined: Now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?
Filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized I was meant to feed people.
And so I did. I took Communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I'd experienced. I started a food pantry and literally gave away tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where I’d first received the body of Christ. I organized new pantries all over my city to provide hundreds of hungry families with free groceries each week.
This was the work Communion had brought me to. This was the bread of life.”
That was an excerpt from this book, Take This Bread, by Sara Miles, a self-described 21st century Christian. Raised as an atheist, she never predicted that she would be so affected by receiving Jesus through communion one random day she wandered into a pretty-looking church such that she would orient her entire life around the vocation of feeding hungry people in the name of that Jesus.
This is the power of the bread of life. Bundled up in its Covid-friendly, plastic wrap, the bread of life is what we call this. It’s Jesus offering himself to us because we are weary people in transitions and seasons of uncertainty that we don’t always choose for ourselves. Jesus offers himself in a real and tangible way that extends his saving grace across the centuries in the crumbs of bread, so that we might taste in our mouths the tangible life raft that his saving grace is meant to be.
Jesus knew we would be hungry. Hungry for bread, yes, of course. Always. But also hungry for something sure to hold on to when everything else seems to be unsteady.
Jesus offers us himself as heavenly food to give us the strength and the reassurance we need. But this food and this strength is not just for us to survive until the certainty arrives, it’s just enough strength and grace so that we can find someone with less strength and less grace in their uncertain lives to whom we can offer what has been offered to us. Jesus gives us just enough to be able to do this. Not enough to make everything better in our lives. This meal isn’t magical like that. Jesus gives us just enough so that we can keep putting one foot in front of the other, and, believe it or not, after he has given us just enough to do this, there is still more grace and more strength leftover to give someone who is struggling to find hope.
No scriptural image captures this more beautifully than the feeding of the 5000. When Jesus’ followers are tired, hungry and desperate and Jesus’ disciples come to Jesus asking him to make it all better by sending the crowds away to be someone else’s problem. But that’s not who Jesus is. He turns to his disciples, and he says “you give them something to eat.” Bewildered, I’m sure, the disciples scramble. The rustle up all the food they can find, five loaves and two fish, and they bring it to Jesus. And Jesus looked to heaven, blessed the small meal and broke the bread. And the food was passed around the crowd, each person getting just enough to give them energy to keep going, and more energy to keep spreading the word about this amazing man named Jesus. What was shared that day wasn’t just bread to fill bellies; it was also grace that grew hearts. This was the bread of life.
Folks, the times we are living in continue to be uncertain, in ways that each us know and feel in different ways. We sometimes feel like the crowds around Jesus who are hungry but don’t know where to turn. We want answers to our problems. We want a sense of normal to return. But it is to us, in this uncertain state, that Jesus says, “you give them something to eat.” We are both the you and the them. We are the hungry ones and we are also the ones who are being empowered to help feed. We are like Sara Miles, hungry and longing for bread, and also filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of the body. With Jesus’ bread of life, we are meant to be fed and to feed.
I didn’t get us to this point in the sermon without having a loaves and fish invitation for you. Our church has been asked to feed people this summer. Children, mothers, fathers, teenagers, senior citizens; everyone and anyone who needs a meal. We will be able to do this at no charge to the community. Simple sandwich fixings have been generously provided by the Joshua Project, but here’s the thing: the food won’t serve itself. We need 5-6 people each Wednesday of the summer starting June 30, from 11-1:30 to serve this meal to the community. I have, on faith, said that our church could cover Wednesdays. Now, I could stand up here and ask you until I’m blue in the face to volunteer to help serve summer lunches, but I think it’s much more convincing to let Jesus himself do the asking: “You give them something to eat,” Jesus says. Jesus fills our bellies and our hearts with the bread of life so that we might do the same for others.
You know what would be incredible? Is if each one of you volunteered for a shift, or two, or three. And that we had so many volunteers that we could, as a church, say, hey, you know what? We’ll help cover Mondays, too, which doesn’t yet have a church to cover it. It would be incredible if we let Jesus turn the hunger we have for stability in our own lives into a life raft for someone else. Talk about loaves and fish.
This is the table where we find the bread of life. Sustenance for the journey through the unknown. At the table we find our purpose. To bring more people to the table. The table where lunch is served. The table where bread and grapes are served. The table where grace is dished out in portions that are much too large and at the same time, just right.
Grace and Peace,
Pastor Anna Blinn Cole