On Friday nights, I get a little homesick.
For the past seven or so years, every week we gathered at my sister-in-law’s house for dinner with her husband and children. At 6:00 every evening we’d walk in the door and be greeted with gigantic hugs and shouts of joy.
We’d place our offering for the meal – of warm garlicky bread or some other carb-loaded treat on the table – and we’d all sit down to dig in.
We’d fight over who got to sit by whom.
We’d tell stories and giggle.
And the kids were always so proud of what they helped to make for the meal.
The family dinner table is one of the most powerful analogues we have for what it means to be the people of God. As we gather around the communion table each week, we gather with familiar faces for a familiar taste of grace. We sing those same old songs and we feel warm and comfortable and welcome.
Some of my most powerful experiences of communion were in intimate and small groups of people.
My call to ministry was found around a table in the tiny basement chapel at Simpson College where we began sharing weekly communion. As we broke bread around a circular table, we looked into one another’s faces. You could feel the love and grace and peace of God.
The bread at that table was lovingly baked every week by Patty LaGree – whose husband Kevin is a United Methodist pastor and at that time was the President of Simpson College. It was nutty and sweet and hearty and crumbled a little bit in your fingers.
Far from home, that community that broke bread together became a family. An intimate, holy, close-knit family.
I’m sure that’s the kind of experience the disciples were hoping for in our scripture this morning.
Their friend, their colleague, John the Baptist had been executed. And in his grief, Jesus got in a boat and needed to get away and have some alone time. He had planned to spend time in prayer and mourning, just him and God.
The disciples took the long way and planned to catch up with him that night and have their own time of retreat. A time like many of us seek here on Sunday mornings. A couple of hours to regroup and get spiritually renewed so we can head back out into the hustle and bustle.
And they brought just enough food for their little group. They wanted to break bread together as their intimate, close-knit family.
But when the disciples get to that meeting place, they found thousands of people all pressed into the valley listening to Jesus’ words and waiting to be healed.
You see, as soon as Jesus had stepped off of his boat, the people flocked to him.
He had needed time to be alone and pray, but the people needed him more.
The scriptures say he “had compassion for them,” but those words don’t quite do justice. In greek, the word is “splanchnizomai” (splank-nid-zo-my) which means he felt for them in his gut. He ached with and for these people.
Max Lucado wrote, “once he felt their hurts, he couldn’t help but heal their hurts… He was so moved by the people’s [needs] that he put his [needs] on the back burner.” (The Eye of the Storm)
All day this goes on, Jesus healing and teaching and praying, and then the disciples show up. They brought a little basket of food for their quiet family dinner…. The bread they were hoping to share with one another and they urge Jesus to send the people back to the villages so they can find food.
They want their time with Jesus.
But Jesus, still aware of the people’s hurt and hunger cannot send them away…
“You feed them,” he tells the disciples, “Give them something to eat.”
Just like the disciples were invited to offer up their five loaves and two fishes, we bring this bread and this cup to the table. These elements aren’t here by a miracle, but people from our church have faithfully offered them up to God.
I once worshipped and shared communion with a church in Nashville called Edgehill UMC. They call themselves “the church on the edge” because they straddle the border between extreme wealth and poverty… with Music Row on one side of their block and hungry people on the other.
Much like Trinity/Las Americas here in Des Moines, Edgehill is a church of great diversity… with persons of all sorts of different ethnicities, educations, ages, and orientations gathered in their church. As nearly one hundred people gathered for worship that morning, communion time came and everyone stood up and formed a circle around the sanctuary.
Their sanctuary is flexible space and so during the week, tables are set up for their after school tutoring and meal program and their Free Store.
As we gathered to break bread, we formed that circle, and we were able to look into one anothers faces across the church. We talked about all of those who would be fed in that space this week. We asked God to bless the community garden this church started. We prayed for those who were hungry and were not gathered in the circle this morning. And then, we each received and gave communion.
There was a second loaf of bread and another pitcher of juice on the table… holy communion that was meant to be shared and that would be taken out into the community to the shut-ins and those who couldn’t make it.
This wasn’t an intimate, private family dinner… this was a never-ending feast… a banquet that was meant to be shared. When we broke the bread in that circle, we were invited to draw the circle ever wider and to take that bread with us when we left, feeding others along the way.
Two loaves of bread, offered faithfully to God, became the source of this church’s ministry in their neighborhood.
In our scripture, Jesus invites the disciples to offer up what they had, as well.
A picnic dinner, and a meager one at that. Two fish for thirteen guys? It was all they had.
Jesus took their bread, gave thanks, and broke the bread and gave it to the twelve… not so they could have that intimate, private meal they had been hoping for…. but so they could serve.
They looked around at the men and the women and the children. The people who were hungry for grace and healing and forgiveness. The people who were hot and tired and physically hungry after a long day of waiting and standing around in line to see Jesus.
One by one, the disciples fed the people.
One by one, their small private meal became a kingdom feast, a never-ending banquet, a glimpse of the kingdom of God.
An ordinary thing like a loaf of bread becomes the answer to our deepest hungers in God’s presence.
If you get a chance, I highly recommend you read Sara Miles book, “Take This Bread.” It is the story of her conversion and how God found her at the communion table. In it she writes: The bits of my past- family, work, war, love – came apart as I stumbled into church, then reassembled, through the works communion inspired me to do, into a new life centered on feeding strangers: food and bodies, transformed. I wound up not in what church people like to call “a community of believers” – which tends to be code of “a like-minded club” – but in something huger and wilder than
I had ever expected: the suffering, fractious, and unboundaried body of Christ.
Her experience around the communion table led her to start a food pantry and feeding program for strangers that were hungry. As she was fed, she heard God’s call to feed others.
“You feed them. Give them something to eat.” Jesus commands.
When we come forward to partake in this holy meal and break bread together, we bring our gifts and we bring ourselves.
We might not have a lot to give. A five dollar bill. An hour of time. We might look at what we have to offer as a small and ordinary thing.
But as we participate in the breaking of bread, right here, in this very room, extraordinary things happen.
Your gifts are transformed into meals that feed hungry families and help keep the lights on at places like Edgehill and Trinity/Las Americas. All of these gifts added together help this church do ministry in our neighborhood at Hillis Elementary and sends communion to our homebound. They provide the support for the love, service, and prayer we are called to live.
But this bread also has the powerful potential to do extraordinary things in YOUR life. Just as my first call to ministry came in the breaking of the bread, God just might stir in your life today. Today, God might open your eyes, as God did with the disciples, and help them to see that this meal is not about you… it is about the people God loves.
We sometimes get focused on what we have been given and want to share it with our friends and our family, but here at the table, God invites us to give our gifts and our very lives to any who would become our friends and our family.
When we come forward to partake of this holy meal and break bread together, this is not a private, intimate experience.
This is an invitation to a radically public life.
This bread will send you back out into the world and comes with a powerful challenge.
“YOU give them something to eat.”