Sermon Archives

Sunday, August 2, 2020
Proper 13 (Year A)
The Reverend Walter Brownridge, Associate
Give them something to eat

May I speak in the name of our ever-living, ever-loving, and ever-leading God. Amen.

Bread, bread for the life of the world; on the face of it, this is a miracle to gladden the devil’s heart it might seem, a trick with bread, an act of spiritual power with endless political potential. All it takes is a hungry crowd stranded in a lonely desolate place, the desert, and fed with food from nowhere by Jesus. The public, at this point in his life at least, cannot get enough of Jesus and because of their craving for his words, his touch, his presence, they find themselves starving in the desert. Faced with their need, Jesus produces a meal for the masses.

But wait a minute. Is this the same man who, only a short time ago in the desert, after his baptism, refused to feed himself by similar means when he was famished, in his famous temptation from the devil? Has he finally succumbed to the devil by, in effect, turning stones into bread? No. No. No way. You see, the difference here is in three ways, three forms between what Jesus did and the gospel we heard today and in what happened earlier in his temptation in the desert. Three reasons: First purpose. Second, the specificity of Jesus’s actions and thirdly, the ultimate meaning of Jesus’ life, his ministry, his message.

Purpose. Jesus, particularly in John’s gospel, and this feeding, of course, this feeding miracle is in all four of the gospels so it’s really important for us to remember that, in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am that living bread, the bread for the life of the world, in fact.” Today in Matthew’s gospel, it’s a little bit simpler, but it’s the same symbolism. You see, that is Jesus’ purpose, to be the living bread, the bread for the life of the world. And equally as important as Jesus’ purpose is the motivation for the reason Jesus acts in this case and not before. The reason is not self-preservation or political advancement. The motivation for Jesus in today’s gospel is simply compassion. You see, that is a recurring theme in Matthew and, in fact, in all the gospels, but particularly expressed in Matthew is that Jesus’ actions flow out of Jesus’ compassion.

And now the specifics of the actions today. There is the reality of being stuck in the desert and the reality of the disciples saying, “We’ve got to do something, Jesus.”

And Jesus, his really only words in the text are, “You feed them. You find them something to eat.” This is a sign that when Jesus acts, he is acting in partnership with the disciples in providing this bread. Jesus takes what meager things they have, a few loaves of bread, a few fish. He turns to heaven, giving glory to God, knowing that whatever he does is rooted in his relationship as part of that divine Holy Trinity, and then he prays. He blesses in an act of praise and thanksgiving, not in some magical ritual, but in a true and honest praise and thanksgiving that what is being done is offered up to the glory of God for the life of the world.

And that gets us to the third and ultimate meaning of this miracle, which is deeply rooted in symbolism and even in Old Testament theology that Jesus, it’s his Bible, remember. Jesus, in commanding the disciples, “You feed them. Okay, give me these loaves, give me this fish,” Jesus is echoing, too, the theme that Elisha, the prophet, in commanding his own disciple, “Just take this little bread and we’ll be able to eat forever.”

You see, the first symbol is, of course, of bread itself, representing nourishment, representing life. Jesus recognizes that while we may not live on bread alone, as he told Satan, without bread, we cannot live. That’s what Saint Augustine said in one of his famous sermons, and Jesus expresses that yes, the people need bread to have life. So Jesus feeds them, offers them bread and fish yes, but more deeply, more symbolically, Jesus, as he will do later in his passion, his passion, he offers himself. And who does he offer himself to? To the glory of God, but also for the people, the people present in that desolate place. But they are symbolic of all the people of the world. Jesus, as another great theologian would say, “In the Eucharist, it is done for the life of the world.” Jesus offers himself for the life of the world. And so his church, his bride, the holy church, we offer Eucharist continually for yes, the life of the whole world.

You see, it was not for himself that Jesus does this miracle, as Satan wanted him to do. It was not for him to gain some kind of political power or favor. Jesus acts in this case because it was for the people to live. You see, being in the desert, being hungry, being thirsty raises profound questions for anyone. That’s why Jesus went to the desert. The desert raises these questions about the ultimate meaning of life and of identity, of security and of sustenance. The Hebrew prophets and poets, when they wrote in scripture, they would talk about the difficulty in the desert. Psalm 78 has an important text that’s part of our context today. A rebellious and unbelieving people lost in the desert, that’s what’s happening in Psalm 78, rail against God and say, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? We’re doomed.”

Well, Matthew answers the question today. Yes, God can. God can and will spread a table in the wilderness when we participate with God. So what does that mean for us today? It means it calls us to prepare a table, varieties of tables in the wilderness to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to give clothing to those who are ill-clothed, to house those that are ill-housed, and especially in this time of pandemic, to care for those who are diseased and to make sure that our society cares for those who are ill. We, in fact, must do more than just provide daily sustenance for people. But we must ask the deeper question. Why are they hungry? Why are they thirsty? Why are they ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed?

Famous Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara, who lived from 1909 to 1999 and he was Archbishop of Recife in Brazil for 20 years, 1964 to 1985, he was known for his care and compassion for the poor. And he challenged the then Brazilian military dictatorship for their callousness to the people. His famous quote was, “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. But when I asked, ‘Why are they poor,’ they called me a communist.” It wasn’t about politics that Dom Helder was acting. It was about compassion, and that leads me to my final point today.

This past week, we said goodbye to John Robert Lewis, and he, in fact, gave us his final words, his farewell address, in the New York Times. He called us that yes, together we can meet the challenges of our time, the ills and evils of our day. John Lewis’ life of service, courage and compassion calls us to live yes, with those better angels and yes, to provide for the least, the lost, the despised, the poor, the racially oppressed and all those in need of God’s love. And here’s the point: John Lewis was no super, plastic saint that you can put on a pedestal and say, “We have nothing in common with him.” He was an ordinary man who yes, did extraordinary things, but that was because he allowed himself to partner and be used by God.

He understood Jesus’ command, “You give them something to eat.” We do so like Jesus, not for ourselves, but we do so, we act for this, the glory of God and for the life of the world. Amen.