Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 136:1-9 [23-26]
Romans 9:1-5 [6-13]
And they all ate, and were filled: and they took up that which remained over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
Iím not a very adventurous eater, although I do try to experiment when I travel. Iím not terribly fond of crab, but I ordered crab cake when I was on the Chesapeake Bay last year. I was sure to have beignets when I was in New Orleans (not that it was a sacrifice.) I eat cheesesteaks in Philadelphia (again, not a sacrifice.) I ate asparaberry shortcake when I traveled to the Asparagus Festival in Stockton California. It is exactly what you think it is: asparagus and strawberry shortcake. It is fun to discover the local food and test it, especially if it is something that you donít think you like. In Charleston, my quest was to have a dish of shrimp and grits.
I am not a fan of grits. I donít really like the texture and there is nothing compelling about the flavor. Like noodles, grits are best used as a foundation for something flavorful. The only thing that makes them even palatable is too much cream, butter and cheese. However, I was encouraged to find a place that serves shrimp and grits, just to try it and experience southern cuisine. I went to a recommended restaurant, much too expensive so I chose to go for lunch, and ordered the seafood grits with lobster sauce. It was very good. The seafood, which included shrimp, scallop and lobster, was perfectly cooked and the lobster sauce was delicious. The grits were fine; Iím sure they were outstanding to someone who likes to eat them. They were creamy and not at all gritty. I am glad I tried the dish, but I donít need to order it again. I am sure that I liked it because it was prepared by a master chef in a restaurant that promises high quality food. I would have been disappointed by the dish if Iíd tried it at a chain restaurant or a buffet.
Now, I really like buffets. There are always plenty of choices: several types of meats, overflowing side dishes, multiple offerings for desert. The salad bar usually had many vegetables, fruits and prepared salads to fill any desire. At a buffet you can fill your plate with as much fried chicken as you like while avoiding the mushroom soup. You donít have to eat what you donít like and you can eat as much of your favorites and you want. The hard part of the buffet is that there are usually too many things that look too good to pass up. You begin with a heaping spoonful of each item until you realize you are only halfway through the line and you have no more room on your plate! You want a little of everything, but even then there is too much food to eat. How can you pass up the soft ice cream even though youíve already tried the chocolate cake, the peach cobbler and the cherry pie, not to mention the banana pudding? It never fails: we walk (roll) out of those all-you-can-eat buffets complaining of being so stuffed that we can barely make it to the car.
Now Iím hungry.
The key to getting the most out of a buffet is to make sure that you take just a taste of each type of food, but that is really hard. A bite of cherry pie doesnít look like very much, and how do you take a small portion of chocolate cake? Our eyes always deceive us. A small taste of anything never looks satisfying, so we pile more on the plate. As we eat we realize that we could have taken half as much food and been more than filled. The advantage of a buffet is that we donít have to choose just one item off the menu; the disadvantage is that we overindulge.
Sometimes it is better to have a simple meal with few choices. We can pay a fortune for that fancy lunch or be presented with a buffet of delicious food, but sometimes the best meals are those that are shared among friends. I think I might even enjoy grits if they were prepared by the hands of someone I love. We donít need high quality food or an overabundance of choices to be fed. We simply need food to fill our bellies and nourish our bodies.
Jesus and His disciples certainly did not know what it is like to be faced with so many choices and an overabundance of food. They couldnít pop into the local Country Buffet for dinner or even run to the grocery store for food to share. Even if they had these options, how could they possibly have served a grand buffet or gourmet meal to five thousand or more people? They couldnít.
And yet, I wish Iíd been there and I suspect it would have been the best, most satisfying meal I could ever eat.
Even though the meal began with the meager ingredients of stale bread and not quite fresh fish, God never does anything lackluster. Remember the wine Jesus made out of water at the wedding at Cana? It was the best wine the steward had ever tasted. Iím sure the same was true of the food Jesus served to the crowd on that hillside. They ate and were satisfied. There were so many leftovers that they filled twelve baskets. Both the wedding at Cana and the feeding of the five thousand show us the miraculous and abundant grace of God, and both serve as a foreshadowing of the greatest meal: the Eucharist.
We think about those fancy lunches and those unending buffets, but isnít the best meal we eat the simplest? Isnít the best meal the one we take at the Table of our Lord Jesus Christ, where we receive His body and blood which nourishes and strengthens us in body and spirit? That tiny piece of bread or wafer and that sip of wine will never fill our bellies, but it does something even greater. In that meal we proclaim the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are filled with heavenly peace and joy; we are forgiven and sanctified by His grace. The twelve baskets on that hillside remind us that the meal goes on; it does go on, every time we gather around the Lordís Table.
Do we really think of the Eucharist as the best meal? We all have stories of those moments when we enjoyed a fancy lunch or an overwhelming buffet. We can tell stories about meals weíve had with people we love. ďDo you remember the timeÖ?Ē stories often include descriptions of food. We can all tell stories about incredible pot luck dinners weíve experienced at church. You know the type: there never seems to be enough food, and yet in the end everyone leaves full and satisfied. Yet, how often do we talk about the sacramental meals we take at the altar? Do we even really think about communion as a meal? We wonder how something so simple, so small and so free can have any value at all.
Isaiah writes, ďHo, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.Ē How could the water, wine or milk be any good if it is free? Sadly, for many, the Eucharist really does not have much meaning. Iíve even been in the midst of worship planning where some have suggested that we should not do communion because it takes so much time. They think it would be better to fill the hour of worship with catchy tunes and video clips and then serve real food at a potluck in fellowship hall after the service. They havenít realized that the meal of God is worth far more than tuna noodle casserole. With these words from Isaiah, God invites us into a relationship of trust. He has enough. As a matter of fact, everything is His. We donít need to pay because He doesnít need our money. He offers us everything we need out of His abundance, asking only that we believe, Ďbuy,í His Word. He invites us to dine with Him and presents a foretaste of a feast that we can never even imagine.
In todayís story, it seems as though Jesusí miracle is wasteful. He miraculously fed thousands of people with a hearty meal of fish and bread. The story doesnít tell us what happened to the leftovers, we just see that God is radically generous. He meets peopleís most basic needs, but He also does so with incredible extravagance. When it comes to all His gifts, we see in this story how there are always leftoversósomething to share. His blessing goes on and on and on. He blesses us with amazing gifts, some spiritual some very mundane, but all are meant to be shared. Our joy, our resources, our spiritual gifts are given in far greater quantity than we will ever need. In Christ we can be radically generous, too, sharing the love of God with the world.
We often get confused about what we need and what we desire. We need to eat. We desire more than a bite of every good and wonderful thing on the buffet. We need, even more, the Bread of life. We need Jesus Christ who fills us with more than food. He fills our hearts with the desire for the truly good things in life. He was sent from heaven to live, die and rise again to new life so we can freely live in the love and glory of the Most High God. It costs us nothing to partake in the bread and wine which is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and in that meal we will be more than satisfied.
In todayís epistle lesson, Paul was addressing a difficult questionówhat about the Jews? Paul was a Jew and he loved his people. He knew the blessings of being one of Godís peopleóthe adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, and the promise. Yet, he also knew that they were missing something: Jesus. It was a hard quandary for Paul, to know the people he loved did not know the assurance of faith in Christ, but also knowing that they were beloved of God. How do we deal with this dichotomy?
Paul wished that he could give up his salvation for the sake of his people, but we know that this is not a possibility. Only Christ could provide the salvation for the whole people. Paul could only live in hope, but hope is a solid foundation for our life of faith. In hope we will have the courage to go into a place and share the Good News of Godís mercy and forgiveness despite the dangers we face. Jesus had no time to mourn the loss of His cousin or to settle His own fears of what might happen. He took Godís grace to others.
As we look at the world we often wonder how God is going to manage to fulfill His promises. The chaos and confusion is overwhelming. Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. Things do not happen according to our time and expectation. We have plenty to fear and to worry about as we go through our daily living. Yet, God is faithful and His promises are true. We don't live in fear or worry because He has promised us something greater than this world beyond this day. God does have mercy: mercy and grace gets us through all our difficulties. We might think that the word of God has failed as we wait impatiently for everything to be completed. Yet, there is still work to be done, people for whom God's mercy has yet to be revealed.
There is enough. The overflowing baskets of bread after the meal with the five thousand shows us that Godís grace goes on and on. He can make five loaves and two fish feed thousands and He can make the ministry of twelve men go on for millennia. It continues with us today. We still eat that bread and we still hear Godís Word. We are strengthened for the journey and given everything we need to share with others. There are too many who do not yet know Christ. It is up to us to share Him with them. God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy. He will forgive those whom He will forgive. He will give life to those whom He will give life.
Like Paul, we can hope for those who do not yet know Him. They might be our own people, our own family and neighbors. They might be complete strangers we meet at the buffet line. They might be people in foreign lands who hunger for bread and well as for Christ. For us, the promise begins at the font, but it continues regularly as we join in the feast that God lays before us at the Lordís Table. There we will be renewed and restored to go out into the world to invite those family members, neighbors and strangers to dine with us. The meal may seem sparse, but in faith it is of more value than the fanciest lunch and more abundant than the best buffet. It is there we meet God in a very real and tangible way and proclaim the life, death and resurrection of the One who gives us true life, eternal life, life in the presence and the Kingdom of God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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