Preached from the pulpit of Good Shepherd Church on August 3, 2014, by The Reverend Ellen L. Ekstrom:
8th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A
Do you remember the folk tale, Stone Soup?
A stranger enters a village on a cold winter’s night with a pot slung over his back; at that time of day, the place is deserted. He sets up a fire in the market square, finds a nice, smooth pebble in the snow and drops it into the pot, throws in handfuls of snow for water, stirs a couple of times, and . . . . nothing! Nothing but a bit of water and a pebble!
An old woman watches him from her window, as do most of the villagers, peering out from behind shutters and curtains, and while he stirs the water, he wishes aloud that he had a turnip to improve the flavor of the broth. The old woman she thinks she has a turnip past its expiration date somewhere in the vegetable bin, and there it is. She comes out, tosses it in the pot. He thanks her, adding that the perfect thing to compliment a stone and turnip would be a carrot, a few more vegetables. Miraculously, the old woman just happens to have a soft onion somewhere – the skin needed to be peeled back and the bad parts cut off, but it would do, wouldn’t it? And the carrots – well, her old pony won’t mind giving them up, there’d be more tomorrow. The onion is soon joined by a bit of meat from the butcher, a potato from the blacksmith, and some chicken bones for flavor – the ones you save to make stock with. Those came from the dressmaker. Neighbors come by when the good smell of broth simmering drifts through the village; they dig around in their kitchens and drop something they just happen to find in a cupboard or in a bag or barrel, until everyone gathers around to enjoy a wonderful, hearty, meal – all from a pebble and some water.
Somewhere in the story, did you hear Jesus whispering, “You give them something to eat?”
I used this folk tale because the characters and the plot reminded me of this morning’s Gospel. Perhaps the story itself was inspired by the miracle of the loaves and fishes; it’s an example of how God works by faith and action. The Gospel acts out some of the parables of hearing, seeking and growing we’ve shared over the last weeks – the loaves and fishes are like a mustard seed – a little goes a long way; they’re like leaven hidden in the loaf, the way the food increases in number; the Disciples fail to recognize the food hiding almost secretly in the midst of the crowd, maybe like that treasure in the field.
The stranger gets people to act by invitation and necessity. So did Jesus. He acts out of compassion and asks the Disciples to do the same. The crowds need not go away, Jesus says; the Disciples have food — they will share their supper with the crowds. When they opened up their lunch boxes and found five loaves of bread and two fish, instead of the great ‘Aha!’ moment it was the great, “Uh-oh.” They’d need more than that to feed over five thousand people. Maybe they scratched their heads and looked at each other – you know, that look when everyone in the conversation hopes someone else has the answer? One can only imagine what Peter was thinking – or saying.
Let’s give a back story to this scripture before we move on. This event follows the death of John the Baptist at Herod’s birthday feast – a bit different than the feast described here in Chapter 14. Jesus has spent the day preaching – perhaps one of the longest sermons ever offered, and, he’s been healing all those people. When he learns of John the Baptist’s death, he goes off by himself – and the crowds follow; they just won’t go home. Matthew’s text doesn’t state that the crowd was hungry and wanted something to eat, but it does say that the disciples wanted the people to go away and find their supper elsewhere. Here we have one of those moments when being disciples of Christ, of being members of the Body, seems utterly impossible or hopeless, and we look to the pragmatic, the logical, what’s in front of our noses for answers.
So Jesus tells the disciples not only what they do not want to hear, but what they cannot fathom:
“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
Rather than argue the point further, the disciples give Jesus the loaves and fishes. Jesus looked to heaven and took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, who in turn gave the bread and the fish to the crowds.
There was plenty to eat, everyone was fed, and there were leftovers.
This miraculous feeding is repeated in all of the gospels and that fact is evidence of the importance of this story to the early Christians as it should be to Christians now: it is the foretaste of the Last Supper and gives us elements of the Eucharist in the orderly arrangement of people, the prayer of blessing, the act of breaking bread and the distribution of the bread to all assembled. It is a call to community.
The Table has become more than just an outward and visible sign of Christ’s compassion. Fed at Christ’s Table, we the faithful work and serve in a world where sharing our resources, our ministries is one way to express our willingness to believe, to take chances against the norm and live and proclaim the Gospel.
What we should note here is not only the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, but the call to action and mission.
Jesus sent The Twelve out with authority to teach, preach, heal, to serve, and we see it at work as they distribute the bread and the fish. They are models for us as they follow the instructions Jesus gives – no matter how impossible it may seem. Perhaps the miracle is that when we trust in the love of God through Christ, completely give ourselves over to that love, we can make things that seem impossible very real in our lives and the lives of those we touch.
A stranger comes to town and invites the people to share a soup they make together – from very little comes an abundance of food and love. The disciples’ five loaves and two fish seem to be lacking in quantity, yet over five thousand people had their fill. No one was turned away. There is enough of God’s love to go around.
And now, my friends, I invite you to join me at the Table and you will have something to eat.
It is only a little bit of bread and wine, but it is so much more.