Will you pray for me? Lord, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
When in the first part of the twentieth century, Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted to convince their Russian compatriots to throw their lot in with their project, they promised it to the people along with peace and land. When in 1215 the framers of the Magna Carta created the foundations for modern government, they felt their project would not be complete without a reference to its sale and availability. It was said that a Roman Emperor who wanted to stay in power need only provide it and circuses to have the love and support of Rome.
Throughout most of human history, if you could control it, you would control the people. Make them believe that you controlled it, and they would crown you. Give it to them when they were starving, and they would worship you.
No human creation has been more widely culturally significant, or significant across more cultures, than bread. Since the first middle easterner first mixed flour and water and baked it over 11,000 years ago, it has been for most of the world our staple food, the basic thing that kept most of us alive most of the time. Anthropologists rank its discovery among the turning points of human history, one of the great moments when we stopped merely surviving and started to build civilization. You might say its discovery is the discovery of our humanity: any animal can dig food out of the ground or pluck it from trees or catch it on the leg, but it takes a human to make bread. You only have to smell it baking to know in your gut that our relationship is deep and old, and at the heart of our humanity.
So you understand why what happened with Jesus was such a big deal. You understand why the story of the feeding of the multitude is the only miracle story that shows up in all four of the Gospels. You understand why, when God has wanted the people to know that she was with them not just as creatures, but as humans, God has used bread. Over and over and over again, when God has wanted to remind the people that they are human, and beloved, and not alone, God has done it with bread and prophets.
That hungry 5000 on the hillside that day, they remembered it. They knew about God and bread. John makes a point of telling us that the Passover was near that day; you see, he wants to be sure we know that the people were already in a remembering mood. Jesus fed them all with a mirable of bread, and they looked at each other and said, “We know this.” “We know this. Don’t you remember when we were slaves in Egypt and God sent Moses to take us from that place and lead us dry-shod through the sea and through the desert to the Promised Land? Don’t you remember how, when our children were starving to death in the wilderness, God rained manna, God rained down bread from Heaven and Moses taught us what to do, and we knew we were not alone? And later, don’t you remember when a man came to Elisha in the Temple, and how he had five barley loaves in his hand, and how Elisha used those five loaves to feed a hundred people, and we knew we were not alone?
They sat there on the hillside, all full, and said: “Here’s what we remember: when the people are starving, and think they always will, and then are filled with bread. When the people are alone, and wandering, and suddenly find the bread of Heaven raining down on them, and bellies are filled, when that happens, here’s what we know: it means there is a prophet in our midst, and God has not left us alone.” They sat there with a gutful of miracle, and they looked at Jesus, and they said, “We remember this: we are not alone, and he is the one.”
Partly, this story is just about giving food to people who are hungry. Partly, this is just a story about getting food into empty bellies. Partly, it’s a story about what we’ll celebrate and bless in this very worship service in a few minutes. In a few minutes, we’ll receive your offering of money for the mission of this church, and a portion of that money will go to feed hungry people. We’ll bring that money forward, and like Jesus, we’ll thank God for it, and send it out into the world. But that’s not all we’ll bring. We’ll bring forward what we’ve received so far this week from our ongoing rolling food drive, and we’ll thank God for it and send it out to the Allston Brighton Food pantry. And that’s not all we’ll bring. We’ll bring forward this year’s second harvest from our edible churchyard right out front, and we’ll thank God for it and send it out to the Women’s Lunch Place. And let me just tell you that while bread may be the most basic of all human foods, in a city feeding program, fresh organic vegetables are much harder to come by.
We’ll bring all those offerings forward, and just like Jesus, we’ll thank God for them and send them out. And if that doesn’t do the trick, we will keep gathering food and growing food and collecting money and sending it all out again, and again, and again, and never stop until all the people are filled. And we’ll do it because Jesus did it first.
Make the people believe that you control the bread, and they will crown you. Which is just what they tried to do with Jesus. They remembered the stories about prophets and God and bread, but they tried to crown him anyway. But here’s the thing: the bread that they ate, that perishable bread, the bread for their bodies? That was only part of the story. The food is only part of the story. The rest of the story is Jesus himself. The rest of the story is about God always sending prophets bearing bread, and sometimes about God himself standing right there among the people and looking them in the eye and saying, “You are not alone.” The rest of the story—the real story—is the Bread of Heaven standing right in front of them, ready to break himself open for all that is broken in the world.
The story is about consumption of food; the real story is about communion with God. This is a story about communion. Which is why Jesus declined the crown, and gave the glory to God, and told the people that the bread of heaven is about food for the body and food for the soul.
God looked down and saw a world at war with itself. A world where some children die quickly of starvation while others die slowly of obesity. Where black professors are arrested by white policemen in their own homes and everybody’s left wondering what went wrong. Where kings and princes and mayors still cannot be trusted to avoid corruption, where only God knows how many people move through every day not knowing that they are not alone and that there is more to life than what the corporations and the governments tell them. God looked down and saw it, and said, “I will go to them. I will go to them and I will break my very self open for them, and I will fill their lives up with me, and I will send them out to offer the bread of heaven to any who will take it.” That’s the real story here: communion.
Every week at the Jazz Service, we celebrate communion together, and any who wish it, no matter who they are, are welcome to receive. And that’s good, but this past Thursday, we decided it wasn’t good enough. This past Thursday, we decided not to wait for the world to come to us, but to take the bread of heaven right out into the world. So we made a big sign that simply said, “hungry?” with a question mark after it. And after we blessed the bread and broke it, as we were feasting inside, we sent some of that bread out to Boylston Street. Two of our members, Rory Razon and Heidi Ward, went out into the rain and stood there next to that sign offering the bread of Heaven and the cup of salvation to any who asked. They stood there with grace, free for the taking, and do you know what happened?
Well, we didn’t feed five thousand. Only two people took it and everybody else, confused by our cryptic sign, thought we were offering a free sample from the grocery store.
But we tried! We did our best, and now there are two more people in the world that know that grace is free, and God is here and in love with the world, and they are not alone. Even Jesus had to start somewhere.
What happened on the hillside in the Galilee that day was about filling hungry people’s bodies with bread, but it was also about filling hungry people’s souls with the very presence of God. It’s the same work we’re to be about here at Old South.
We will continue to gather money, and grow produce, and collect cereal, and send it all out to feed a hungry people. We will continue to do it until everyone has enough to eat to fill them up for every day. But that’s not enough, because even a Roman emperor can do that. If all we do is feed people’s bodies, then we will have consumption without communion, and programs without ministry, and we will make consumers instead of disciples.
So we will also do what Jesus did: we will offer the world the Bread of Heaven, which rains down free and breaks for all that is broken. We will feast here on Jesus’ good bread, and then we will take it out. We will go to Boylston Street, and Boston, and beyond, and we will offer it to any who hunger. And if we don’t happen to have any bread, we will offer them ourselves. We will tell them that they have a purpose, holy and high. We will tell them that grace is free, and the God who stretched the spangled heavens, the very Creator of Heaven and earth, is in love with them, and we will tell them that they are not alone. And we will go, and go, and go until no one hungers and the whole world is filled with God.
Here’s what the five thousand remembered on the hill that day: when the Israelites were lost and starving in the desert, God sent Moses to fill them up with manna. When the people in the Temple were lost and hungry, God sent Elisha to fill them up with just five loaves. When the five thousand on the hillside were lost and hungry, God sent God’s own heart to fill them up with five loaves and two fish and a world of grace. And when Boylston Street, and Boston, and the world were lost and hungry and God wanted to fill them up and tell them they were not alone, God sent us. So be it. Amen.