Bread for our Neighbors

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho

John 6:1-21

Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16

The lectionary jumps around a bit this summer. When last we checked in, a few weeks ago, we were in Mark’s gospel, and skipping over a feeding story.

This morning, we have John’s account of a feeding miracle. This is a story that is recorded in every gospel, in one version or another. Which may just  be extra incentive to pay attention to it. The four gospel writers, as different as they are, all agree that there is something important for us in the idea that Jesus fed these people on the hillside.

And we need to be clear that in our culture today, this story should not be popular. Because we seem to have become a culture where we are more concerned with personal success and provision than we are with setting aside personal comfort for the benefit of others. I can’t think of many people today in our political realm who would ask the boy to share his fish and bread so that the crowd on the hillside wouldn’t go hungry. Because the idea that we would care for each other is not politically popular.

Every so often I read the news and think, “How did we get here? How did we wake up in a world where we don’t care about each other?”

Notice what does NOT happen in this story.

Jesus does not say, “I guess these people should have planned better and packed a sandwich.”

He also doesn’t say, “we should raise taxes so that Jerusalem could have a government run kitchen here in the wilderness.”

He also doesn’t say, “Hunger is a real problem in our community and we should do something about it”, while then doing nothing about it.

He doesn’t determine that the enormity of the problem is a reason to not do anything either. The disciples correctly note that six months wages wouldn’t be enough to feed that crowd. There were over 5,000 people there, after all.

So, what does Jesus do?

He asks his disciples a question—

How are you going to feed these people?

At this moment, he doesn’t care what they think about fiscal policy or social engineering.

How are you going to feed these people?

Jesus may care very strongly about how we pay taxes and all of that. But if we spend all of our time fighting over those issues, we aren’t answering the question “How are you going to feed these people?”

Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one.
And that is Jesus’ question.  This story is less about 5,000 hungry people eating fish sandwiches and is more about the community asking itself and each other a spiritual question about how we are going to live together.

Are we going to decide that our ultimate interest is making sure that we have enough to eat personally?

Or are we going to decide that our call as God’s children is to struggle with Jesus’ question, “how are you going to feed these people?”

I recognize that is often enough of a challenge to take care of our own lives. To make sure everyone is where they need to be and the bills are paid. But it is clear that we can’t be paralyzed by either the personal needs we face or the enormity of the problems we face in the world.

We have to look around and come up with some idea, any idea, about how to feed these people.

Even if all we have is a few rolls and pieces of fish.

Because our job is just to respond with what we have. The abundance in this story doesn’t come from the kid who has the food. The abundance doesn’t come from the disciples. The abundance comes from what God does with what we offer for the common benefit.

Because while each of you is great on your own, all of us are better together. We might each be able to care for our own needs most days, but together, we can join in to what God is doing and can make a difference in the world around us.

Last week, the Human Rights House Church led worship and shared their experience in mission this year. Earlier this summer, we heard from the Step Up House Church, who tutored homeless men and women seeking their GED. After worship this morning, you are invited to join the House Church Forum. House Churches are called for only one year. So those two churches have completed their work. But we hope that new house churches will rise up to make a difference this year. Please come to the forum if you can, or check with a member of the Mission Committee for more information. We will be gathering to share information about House Churches, what they do, how they are formed, etc. If you think you might want to be a part of one, but aren’t sure what the focus for mission should be, we would be happy to help with that discernment.

Because one person can make a difference. And everyone should try.

If you don’t believe me yet, let me share one final story.

A few weeks ago, I visited a church in San Francisco with my friend Maggi. It is St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. This is what preachers do on vacations, on Fridays. They go visit other churches. This sanctuary is beautiful and worth a visit. The walls depict saints dancing in praise. You can find out more here.  But it was what was going on in the church that I want to share. The beautiful sanctuary was transformed into a food bank. There were lots of volunteers sorting tons of food as people lined up down the street.

Sanctuary of St Gregory of Nyssa
San Francisco, CA

This is a ministry started by a woman named Sara Miles, who is an author I admire. I got to meet her that day, as she was in the midst of food bank set up.
The former atheist turned disciple told her story this way on NPR’s This I Believe:
“Until recently, I thought being a Christian was all about belief.
I didn’t know many Christians,
but I considered them people who believed in the virgin birth,
the way I believed in photosynthesis or germs.
But then, in an experience I still can’t logically explain,
I walked into a church
and a stranger handed me a chunk of bread.

Suddenly, I knew that while it was made out of real flour,
water and yeast —
I also knew that God, named Jesus, was alive and in my mouth.

That first communion knocked me upside-down.

Faith turned out not to be abstract at all, but material and physical.

I’d thought Christianity was about angels and trinities and being good.

Instead, I discovered a religion rooted
in the most ordinary yet subversive practice:
a dinner table where everyone is welcome,
where the despised and outcasts are honored.

I came to believe that God is revealed
not only in bread and wine during church services,
but whenever we share food with others –
particularly strangers.

I came to believe that the fruits of creation are for everyone,
without exception—
not something to be doled out to insiders or the “deserving.”

So, over the objections of some,
I started a food pantry right in the sanctuary,
giving away literally tons of food –
where I’d eaten the body of Christ
we gave food to anyone who showed up.

I met thieves,
child abusers,
millionaires,
day laborers,
politicians,
schizophrenics,
gangsters,
bishops — all blown into my life
through the restless power of a call to feed people.

At the pantry, serving over 500 strangers a week,
I confronted the same issues
that had kept me from religion in the first place.

Like church, the food pantry asked me to leave certainty behind,
tangled me up with people I didn’t particularly want to know
and scared me with its demand for more faith
than I was ready to give.

Because my new vocation didn’t turn out to be as simple
as going to church on Sundays and declaring myself “saved,”
I had to trudge in the rain through housing projects,
sit on the curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man,
take the firing pin out of a battered woman’s Magnum
and then stick the gun in the trunk of my car.

I had to struggle with my atheist family,
doubting friends,
and the prejudices and traditions of my newfound church.

But I learned that hunger can lead to more life—
that by sharing real food,
I’d find communion with the most unlikely people;
that by eating a piece of bread,
I’d experience myself as part of one body.

This I believe: that by opening ourselves to strangers, we will taste God.”

Friends, we will be coming to the Table this morning to be fed. This meal of bread and cup feeds us in real ways. It reminds us that at God’s Table, there is enough to go around. It gives us strength to live in faith and answer the question, “how are you going to feed these people?” It calls us to leave our certainty behind and to rely on the mysterious abundance of God. Come to the table. And then go feed your neighbors. Amen

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One thought on “Bread for our Neighbors

  1. I needed Sunday’s sermon more than I realized. I awoke feeling awfully down in the dumps, so we stayed home. I should have pushed myself into gear and come. One of my district representatives met me at my doorstep last week, and we commiserated about someone who hated health care reform, yet, couldn’t afford to pay his hospital bill, and had no clue as to how these things get paid. Rather than thinking the thoughts I had towards this man, I should have been asking God to soften my heart towards him, beit with prayer for bread for him, or an insurance policy he can pay for. I’m quick to judge, and slow to serve. And this sermon is going to stay with me for a very long time.

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