“You Give them Something to Eat”
How many times have you heard someone comment that the potluck suppers are the best thing about coming to church? At least one person made that comment to me after the lovely potluck we shared before my induction last week.
And I get it. Those meals are pretty great! Home-cooked food… wonderful variety… so many different flavours and textures, and surprises in every mouthful… followed by an amazing array of delightful desserts! And all for the low price of showing up, and maybe bringing along your favourite dish to add to the selection.
As a minister, of course I’d rather hear that the best thing about coming to church is the brilliant sermons or the thoughtful prayers, but I can’t deny that food-sharing in Christian community is actually a really important part of what we do together, and perfectly in line with our faith.
The Gospels are full of stories about Jesus sharing meals with his friends and disciples. And the “feeding of the 5000” is one of the most famous of his miracles. It is a wonderful miracle! All they have is five loaves and two fish, but somehow they manage to feed the crowd of thousands! And when the people are finished eating, they pick up twelve baskets full of leftovers.
Traditionally, we would imagine bread and fish magically appearing to fill the baskets up as they are passed through the crowds – an absolutely miraculous multiplication taking place through the powerful prayer of Jesus.
But some contemporary interpreters have tried to make sense of the event by imagining a different kind of miracle. Five loaves and two fish were offered, and the disciples began to share them around. And as they did so, others began to join in the spirit of generosity. They got out their supplies and their picnic lunches, and added what they had to what was becoming a kind of potluck supper.
And “miracle of miracles” there was more than enough for all, just like our experience at church suppers so often!
I don’t think it really matters how it happened though. The main points of the story remain… First, it is God’s will that hungry people be fed. Second, disciples are called to step out in faith and be part of providing that food, even when it seems impossible. And third, with God’s help, the people will be filled, and there will be more than enough for all.
You know, when food banks began to be established in cities and smaller communities across our country, many of those involved in them hoped and expected that they would be a temporary measure. They didn’t plan to establish permanent institutions because they thought there would come a time when everyone would receive enough income through employment or social assistance or pension plans to get enough food every month.
But unfortunately, that has not happened. If anything, things have gotten worse for many people in our cities. Incomes have not kept up with rising rent, services, and food costs, and the need for free meals and food banks seems to be ever increasing.
With a little online searching, I learned this week that there are quite a few places to go in Regina for a free or low-cost meal, and I was able to download a local “Street Survival Guide” for Regina, which I know will come in handy when people start asking me for advice and help in times of need.
In the back of the church, I noticed that we have a bin for collecting food for the Food Bank, and I expect that this congregation (like other Presbyterian churches) regularly supports both local and international ministries that provide emergency food, agricultural support, and other programs that increase food security for those who are struggling.
Perhaps it goes without saying that it is God’s will that hungry people be fed. But if we need any reinforcement for that conviction, today’s readings make it abundantly clear. Jesus says, “No, don’t send the people away to buy their own food. Let’s give them something to eat right here and now. What have we got? Let’s get started!”
Actually, Jesus doesn’t say, “WE will give them something to eat.” He voices a command to his disciples. He says, “YOU give them something to eat.” And so we are challenged also… reminded by this story that if the hungry people are going to be fed, it is going to be because we made an effort to feed them. It is going to be because we trusted God’s provision enough that we could give something away without worrying whether there would be enough left over for ourselves.
Of course, Jesus’ attitude about feeding the people flows directly from God’s own provision for the people that we read about the Hebrew Scriptures. The great story of the Exodus from Egypt shows that God had compassion on the Hebrew people, desiring to bring them out of slavery, providing sustenance for them through the wilderness, and guiding them into a land that is described as “flowing with milk and honey.”
Later, even though God’s people turned away from him and worshipped other gods or idols, the steadfast love and mercy of God meant that they were never cut off completely, and God kept on offering them both forgiveness and abundant resources.
This morning’s passage from the prophet Isaiah is a message from the Lord to the People of Israel in exile. Although they have been struggling in Babylon for a while, and they are feeling cut off and far away from God, God is calling them back again and offering them abundant food and drink:
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
I love that passage! Whenever I read it or sing about it in one of the hymns of our faith, I always picture something like a farmer’s market. I see the tables overflowing with vegetables and fruits, meats and cheeses, loaves of freshly baked bread, and home-style pies and pastries.
In my mind’s eye, there is a farmer behind the table, calling out to the people passing by: Ho! Are you thirsty? Hey! Are you hungry? Come and get some food! It’s all free! Just take what you need, it’s on me!
And I imagine those tables never getting empty… like the platters on the dinner table at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books that are constantly and magically replenished. No matter how many people come to get some food, there is always more!
Of course, the prophet’s invitation to “Come, buy, and eat without money and without price” is not simply about free food. It’s an invitation back into relationship with the God who will provide for all our needs through his abundant love, and mercy, and grace.
We don’t have to make up for what we’ve done wrong. We don’t have to earn our way back into God’s good graces. We don’t have to pay… because God’s mercy is being freely offered. We are assured of that through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The good news is that the invitation is given to us again and again, and God’s love for us is steadfast, and God’s mercy is everlasting. It’s LIKE a platter that is always full, so that even after everyone is filled up, there are still leftovers galore!
I am sure that many of you come to church Sunday after Sunday, or perhaps even just once in a while, in order to get fed. And I don’t just mean fed with occasional potluck suppers and lunches. You come to receive spiritual nourishment as well, and hopefully you find it here.
Obviously, as your minister, one of my main tasks will be to plan and lead worship services that will feed us all spiritually. Together with our church musicians, and the Worship Committee, the Session, and other lay leaders, we will search the Scriptures for good news – for words of hope and encouragement, consolation and joy – and we will strive to share them with you in hymns and songs, prayers, and preaching, and sacraments.
And it won’t be difficult. I mean, it always takes work to write sermons and design services. But it won’t be difficult to find the good news to share… because God’s Word is absolutely overflowing with it! No matter how many sermons are preached, there is always another one available, even on the same text. And no matter how many songs we sing, there is always a new one or a new hearing of an old one that has the power to touch our hearts and assure us of God’s presence and love.
But the Gospel story also challenges us ALL to be a part of the work of feeding one another spiritually. Jesus told his disciples, “YOU give them something to eat,” and we, as contemporary disciples, are ALL called to participate in that feeding as well.
So, when you come to worship or to participate in other church activities, I invite you not only to focus on how you might be spiritually fed yourself. But consider how your presence, your prayers, your gifts, and your contributions might provide spiritual sustenance to someone else.
Perhaps it will be through your musical offering, your Scripture reading, or some other participation in worship leadership. Perhaps it will be through a ministry of hospitality and welcome – greeting others as they come to church, or providing coffee and a place of conversation and care after the service. Perhaps it will be through a willingness to listen to someone who is struggling. Perhaps it will be through your openness to talk about your faith – to share your hopes and your fears, your faith and your doubt – with someone who also desires to follow Jesus with their life.
With this kind of feeding, we also need to have faith. We have to have faith that we will have enough time, and attention, and care for those who are searching for God and trying to understand Jesus. We have to trust that God will give us the words to say, the patience to listen, and the generosity to share our lives with others.
We cannot guard our meagre resources for ourselves, or even for our little church community, but we need to keep reaching out beyond ourselves to share our spiritual food with others.
Let’s not wait for the next potluck supper to share our spiritual food with the hungry. And let’s not wait to take a generous helping for ourselves, for God has provided us with more than enough for all.