Sunday, August 3

Sermon: Room at the Table

Sermon preached at St. Elias Christian Church
And Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler
August 3, 2008
Yr A, Proper 13 (18)
Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
Preacher: The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell

+++

In today’s gospel story, Jesus goes to a quiet place to withdraw, after Herod has killed John the Baptist. It’s easy to understand why Jesus wants to be alone after the death of his teacher John. But the crowds follow Jesus, eager to hear his teachings. Later in the evening, the disciples join Jesus, and urge him to dismiss the crowds, to send them home for their supper. They just don’t have enough food to feed such a large crowd. But instead the crowd and the disciples witness a miracle.

This story appears in all four gospels. It’s a story about God’s abundance, about having more than we dreamed possible and sharing it freely and equitably.

This story is also about our very human fear of scarcity, of not having enough. The disciples fear there’s nowhere near enough food to give to the huge crowd that’s come to hear and see Jesus. The disciples are almost in a panic. How are they going to feed everyone, given their own meager resources, how little they have?

But Jesus has a different level of faith. He says to the disciples, How much do you have? Five loaves and two fish? Well, break it out, and start distributing it. And, amazingly, there is enough for all. Enough for 5000 men, besides the women and children who are with them.

The loaves and fishes story shows us something about God’s arithmetic. For God, there’s always enough to go around.

We humans, though, often operate from a scarcity mentality. We can feel panicky that there’s not enough, so we’ve got to take what we can get. The law of the jungle is often uppermost in many people’s minds. It’s a matter of survival. Having enough. Getting ahead at work. Keeping up with the Joneses. More toys, a bigger house, a fancier car. It’s a dog eat dog, world, right? So be a dog that eats, they say.

But this is not God’s way. For God, there’s enough for everyone. Enough food, love, compassion, enough of what we need. A place for everyone at the table. Today’s passage from Isaiah shows us a God who wants to feed those who hunger and give drink to those who thirst, even if they have no money. Psalm 145 reminds us of God’s mercy and goodness. This is a God who gives people their food in due season, who opens His hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing, watching over those who love him.

Some scholars say that when Jesus blesses, breaks, and gives the food to the crowd, in today’s gospel, he is foreshadowing the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. At the Eucharist, millions of people around the world are fed each day. Jesus, -- blessed, broken, and given for us -- feeds the multitudes. Today’s gospel story also foreshadows the Heavenly Banquet, which we hope to experience in the next life. At the Heavenly Banquet there is more than enough of what we need. There is room for everyone at the table. (pause)

In our world today, here and now, there is enough food for everyone. There’s no reason people should go hungry. There is room for all at the table, if they could only get to the table. It is a question of equal access to the table. It’s also a question of how, as a global community, we distribute the resources we have.

Why are people hungry? Not because of a food shortage. According to an organization called the Hunger Project, people go hungry when they are denied resources, opportunities, and education to improve their situation.

What exactly is hunger? I mean, how do we define it? The Hunger Project people define hunger not only as severe famine caused by a catastrophe like drought or war, but also a “silent, day-by-day killer that takes the lives of 20,000 people every day, three-quarters of whom are children under the age of five. More than 850 million people live in chronic, persistent hunger.” (thehungerproject.org)

Who are these hungry people? Statistically most of them are women and children. Most of them live in Africa and South Asia.

What is the key to ending hunger? The Hunger Project has a rather surprising answer. They believe the key is…empowering women. They say “…when [women] have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, they are key change agents in setting the agenda for development. Once women serve in positions of leadership at any level, they focus on basic issues - nutrition, sanitation, education, health and income generation.”

The Hunger Project calls it “a tragic irony” that on the one hand, many cultures hold women responsible for all the key actions required to end hunger: family nutrition, health, education, food production and - increasingly - family income. Yet, on the other hand, the laws, customs and traditions of many cultures deny women the resources, information and freedom of action they need to carry out their responsibilities.

Oxfam International is another organization seeking to end worldwide poverty and famine. This organization shares the same view as the Hunger Project: oppression of women is a leading cause of hunger, and empowering women is key to overcoming it. Women need to come to the table, both as people who eat, and as people who have a say in their lives and those of their children.

According to the Hunger Project, women often eat last and least, even when they are pregnant and nursing. Undernourished women give birth to undernourished children, and the cycle continues.

In some cultures it is traditional for women to prepare food, serve it, then eat only after the men have eaten. Depending on our culture, this may be something we saw our grandmothers or mothers do, or maybe it’s something that still happens in our families today. No matter what our cultural background, we can see that coming to the table is often a different thing for men than for women.

In today’s gospel story about the loaves and fishes, we read that there were women and children present, though we don’t know how many there were. In first century Palestine, only the men would have been counted. The gospel says there were 5000 men who ate. It’s not entirely clear whether the women and children present got to eat too, but it looks like they did.

I hope that they did. The God I believe in would have wanted that. The Jesus I see in the gospels respected women and children as well as men. Jesus does not appear to take a chauvinistic/sexist view of women when he speaks with the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, or the other women he encounters. And anyone who says “Suffer the little children unto me” –meaning, “bring them to me” does not seem like he would want to keep food from the mouths of children.

Today’s gospel story shows us God’s love is miraculously abundant and generous, even when resources seem scarce. Is this sense of abundance active in our own hearts? Can we help create in this world a foretaste of that heavenly banquet, where there is room for all at the table? Can we have enough to eat share some of our resources with those who are chronically hungry? Can we help them become self-reliant and self-sustaining? The Hunger Project’s website has some suggestions for some things you and I can do, and it is worth checking out.

We all feel the pinch when we go to the grocery store or the gas pump. We’re all affected by the rising cost of oil, turmoil in the Middle East, the banking and housing crises, the rise and fall of the stockmarket. To one extent or another, we all worry about having enough. But for most of us, our worries are small compared to the worries of people just trying to get their daily bread and feed their children.

I think Jesus gave the crowds food because they needed it. He didn’t say “All you need is religion.” Jesus was concerned with feeding people’s spirits and bodies. Not one or the other. And we as Christians are called to likewise do both.

Today’s gospel story shows us that in God’s kingdom, there is enough for all. When we share our resources, even if they seem very small, they often turn out to be enough. I hope all of us feel inspired to help bring this gospel vision of abundance to a world hungry for bread and thirsty for righteousness. May the hungry men, women, and children in our midst and overseas be filled with the bread of heaven, Jesus, and also with the edible loaves and fishes of this world. May there truly be room for all at the table.
+++