Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
The Gospel we just heard makes me think about an air-conditioned church. Too much of a stretch? Well, here is my rationale: this gospel is packed full of important lessons that you and I need to have preached—instruction about some core principles that facilitate our spiritual journeys. In addition to that we find that there are really two stories here—one on land and one at sea.
Unfortunately, July weather does not lend itself to exploration of all that is in this passage so I’m going to zero in on one concept: feeding the crowds. And in all seriousness I hope that one day we don’t have to truncate our worship and our preaching in the summer because of the absence of a cooling system. From my mouth to God’s ears (and maybe the vestry’s ears as well).
In her sermon last week, Mother Louise talked about our need to get over our distaste for a word called “evangelism” and to recover our calling to proclaim the good news of God’s unconditional, reconciling, healing love to all people. Then she referred to a sermon preached during our recent General Convention and the sense of urgency raised by it about what the landscape of Christianity might look like if only those with extreme and fundamentalist views are actively and aggressively engaged in evangelism while progressive and moderate believers simply expect people to come to us without any effort on our part.
The result of such a failure to evangelize is evident, for example, in comments made this week by Pat Robertson who said that he is praying for the demise of the Episcopal Church because of the affirmation made by General Convention that we are a church that welcomes all people and where there are no outcasts. What mean, vile rhetoric. Who wants to be a member of a church that spends so much of it’s time preaching hate, and builds its foundation on praying for the demise of other religion? We have a very different message to offer and we must get it out there because people are starving for it.
Turning to the subject of hunger, I’d like us not to get stuck on the mechanics of what is going on in this Gospel today—the question about how to feed so many people or how five loaves and two fish were sufficient to feed thousands of hungry people with leftovers in great quantity. I’d like us instead to be aware that the Gospel stories tell us over and over about the volume of people who came to Jesus. Read the accounts in all four Gospels and you will see that his ministry was to the crowds—not even to a few hundred but to thousands. The language is very clear—Jesus was there for the multitudes.
And I think that’s important information because we can so easily settle in to the mindset of small church thinking. It goes something like this: “We’re happy with the way our church is. The church is nice and full on Sundays. If people need to find us, they know where we are—we don’t need to spend energy and money to get the word out. After all, we found our way here.” There is an inherent problem with this line of thought: it is diametrically in opposition to the mission that Jesus gave to his church and the Gospel today is just one example of how he has demonstrated what that mission is to be: it’s about feeding the crowds.
The meal he gave them that day—the meal he sets before us this morning—has a much deeper dimension than just the satisfying of our hunger. It is an invitation to bring to him our neediness in all the forms that may take, especially those parts of ourselves we believe may never be of value to anyone else—just like those five loaves and two fish which of themselves were inadequate but when blessed by Jesus were enough to feed people with abundance.
What the miraculous feeding that day—what the weekly feeding here at this table gives us is hope; hope that we can be better persons, hope that life can be richer for us, hope that we can make a difference in what is a broken, divided, world, hope that we will never face any storm without God being present in it along side of us.
A rabbi tells a story about how, as a young boy, he and his family were prisoners at a Nazi death camp. They were given barely enough food to survive—some water, stale bread, and a spoon full of lard each week. Despite the harsh conditions, his family continued to observe Sabbath, somehow managing to scrounge around for a candle and a little food.
Every week they faithfully said their Sabbath prayers and pronounced the Sabbath blessings in the midst of a concentration camp. One week there was no candle. So when it was time for the meal, the father took some of their precious lard and molded it around a string, lighting a makeshift candle. He began to lead his family in prayers and blessings.
The son was enraged. When the prayers were over, he confronted his father. “How could you do that? How could you waste what little lard we have to make a candle?” His father answered: “Son, without food we can live for several days. Without hope, we can’t live for a single hour.”
Jesus fed those multitudes of people who followed him everywhere with more than just bread—he fed them with hope. And that is the main course on the menu he has asked us to serve up in his name. Because we are faithful to his commandment to love, the story goes on.
The story is not over and we get another taste of it today in the holy food and drink we share. It is our turn to sit down on the grassy plain of the mountainside. We are the crowd now—hungry for healing, reconciliation, and hope. The bread we share is a part of the abundance that comes from those twelve baskets of leftovers and there is always sufficient and more than enough and no one is ever turned away or need leave hungry. The challenge implied for us in the Gospel is this: will we feed the crowds—or keep the food for ourselves?