July 29, 2018, Finding the You in Eucharist – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000091
One of the many ways to read the Bible meaningfully is to find yourself in the story. When you read the story of the Good Samaritan, depending on what’s going on in your life you might see yourself in the good, kind Samaritan you want to be, who does everything he can to help this person who is supposed to be his enemy; or you might see yourself as the wounded man in need of help; or maybe at another time you might recognize yourself in the supposedly righteous man who passes by on the other side because he’s just too busy.
When you read the story of the Prodigal Son, maybe some of you can see yourself in the Father waiting anxiously for the return of his son; or you might see yourself in the Prodigal who has been a complete and utter fool and feels like he has ruined his life; or you might see yourself in the older brother who has tried so hard to be good and to do the right thing, but just can’t understand the grace and forgiveness of his Father.
Today I’d like to invite you to find yourself in the story of the feeding of the 5000 in a particular way. We could see ourselves as one of the people in the crowd, hungry and weary, fixing our eyes on Jesus in desperate hope. Or we could see ourselves as one of the disciples, holding that miraculous food in their own hands with wonder and awe as they feed one hungry person after another. I often feel like that when I offer the Eucharist to all of you. But today I want to invite you to find yourself in the loaf of barley bread that Jesus held in his hands.
As the story begins, it seems like Jesus is kind of giving poor Philip a hard time. An unthinkably large multitude of people is surging towards them – I’m not sure I can really picture what a crowd of 8 or 9 thousand people, all in one place, would even look like, but it’s an intimidatingly large number of people. And Jesus turns to Philip and asks him, “So, how are we going to feed them all?” I can sympathize with Philip here; when I read this it reminded me of a time some years ago when I had a small dinner prepared and some friends stopped by and my generous husband invited them all to stay! But of course Philip is thinking in terms of huge numbers, and it’s no wonder he is taken aback. He answers Jesus, “It would take more than 6 months’ wages to buy enough food to give even a tiny bit to each person.” And John tells us, Jesus was just testing Philip, because he knew exactly what he was going to do all along. And so, he tells his disciples to have everybody take a seat. John tells us that there was plenty of grass in that place, and that was certainly the only thing there was plenty of. They all sat down, all how-many-ever thousands of them, men and women and children, the sick and the lame and the poor. And one child gave Jesus the little bit of food he had with him, a couple of fish and some loaves of barley bread.
And John tells us that Jesus did four things with that bread. He took it in his hands. He blessed it, giving thanks to the Father for his goodness. He broke it in pieces. And he gave it to his disciples to distribute to everyone there. He took. He blessed. He broke. And he gave. If those four words sound familiar to you, it’s because every week at communion we say those very words, and we do those very things. We take up the offering: the elements of bread and wine, and our own gifts of money, as the ushers bring them to the altar. I bless the offerings in the plate, and pray a blessing over the bread and the wine. And I break the large host, the priest host. And then you all come forward to receive what is given to you.
And we say these words: “On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our
Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you [blessed the bread], he broke it, and gave it to his disciples…” The words of institution that we use are from the Last Supper of our Lord, when for the very last time he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to his friends. Take. Bless. Break. Give.
There’s a hymn that we often sing at communion that has these words: “As grain, once scattered on the hillsides, was in this broken bread made one, so from all lands thy Church be gathered into thy kingdom by thy Son.” The lyrics are taken from what’s called the Didache, or the Teachings of the Apostles, one of the earliest writings of the Church. These words picture the people of God as that broken bread of the Eucharist. We are the bread gathered together from the seeds scattered on the hillsides. We are the bread taken into the hand of our Lord, and broken. We are the bread shared out for the feeding of the world.
So, if you imagine yourself as that loaf of bread that Jesus took from the child’s hand, first think how small you are, and how great the need is to feed those thousands of hungry people. That’s not hard to imagine, is it? Don’t we often feel utterly helpless in the face of the need we see? Think about watching the news and seeing the suffering in the world: little children taken from their parents and put in cages; elderly people who are homeless, with no family or friend in the world; families who live in war-torn countries or in refugee camps whose lives are in constant danger. Or, much closer to home: think of seeing your spouse or your son or daughter or sister or brother suffering with depression or cancer or a broken marriage, and being completely powerless to help no matter how much you love them. We are so small. It’s easy to feel useless sometimes. But when you offer ourself to Jesus like that loaf of barley bread, look, he doesn’t refuse you, hoping for something a little bigger and better. He takes you in his hand…
…and he blesses you. Just think, the first thing Jesus did as he held that ridiculously small bit of food in his hand was to give thanks to the Father. He didn’t laugh and give it back. He didn’t send his disciples out to see if there were any more kids around with food from home. He took it, because the offering was a precious gift to him. And he blessed it. And suddenly it was enough….
…but first it had to be broken into pieces. And we know what it is to be broken. There isn’t a single person in this room who hasn’t been broken, many times over. We are broken by sorrow, by loss, by disappointment. We are broken by our own failures, and the failures of others. We are broken by the swift passage of time and all the things we wish we could have done or been and know that we never will. We are broken by sin: by giving in to temptations that do harm to us and to the people we love. But when we see ourselves in that small loaf of bread, we see something more than brokenness.
We see that all our brokenness makes us more useful in his hand, not less. As long as we were whole and confident and sure of ourselves, we weren’t ready to be shared with those in need. But when Jesus blessed our brokenness, then we became a blessing. How often have you received comfort from someone because they had suffered in the same way that you are suffering? How often have you found yourself able to comfort someone because of some great loss in your own life that gives you the wisdom to understand how they are feeling? We are all broken people. But like the little loaf of barley bread: in the hand of our Lord, our brokenness becomes a gift. I remember a long time ago when I was very young and had a miscarriage. I had no idea then that it was really a pretty common thing; all I knew was that my heart was broken. But so many older women in the church came to me and they knew just how to comfort me because their lives had been broken in the same way.
There is a wonderful and very convoluted passage in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that goes: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” Our God is the God of all comfort because he himself has been broken for us. That is one of the great mysteries of our faith.
And we also, as people of the God who was broken, who gives himself to us; when we are broken, he gives us to the world. A man named William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the time of the Second World War, famously said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” Bread is bread because it was created to nourish and sustain mankind. We are children of God, because like him, we were created to give of ourselves for others. Remember what Jesus said to Peter – three times – when they met after the Resurrection? “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.”
And just one more thing: coming back to the story of the feeding of the 5000, remember at the end of the story, too, how Jesus commanded the disciples to go around and gather up every fragment of food that was left over, so that nothing would be lost? No broken piece, not the least crumb, was to be wasted. The God who watches the fall of the tiny sparrow, the God who knows how many hairs there are on your head – he will not let the smallest offering be lost. He won’t let the most insignificant gift be forgotten. Nothing, no-one, falls from his hand and is forgotten.
We are taken. We are blessed. We are broken. And we are given.
In a few minutes we’ll come to the part of the service called the Offertory. In other churches I’ve been to it’s called the Collection, because we pass the plate and bring up the money. But it is actually much more than a time to send up our checks. As we prepare to receive the Eucharist the first thing the ushers bring up are the elements: the bread and the wine for the Communion. And the reason we set them out on the back table and bring them forward at the Offertory is that symbolically, in our hearts and in our imaginations, we offer our very selves in those elements. We offer ourselves, our hearts and our minds and our bodies, in all our brokenness, as our Lord offered himself to be broken for us. And then we are fed with the finest bread of his body, so that we can be sent out as his offerings to the world.