Sermon delivered at Ballard First Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA
This is one of those Sundays where our Old Testament lesson and our Gospel lesson really seem to be in lock-step.
So, let’s hear our reading from Isaiah again, so it’s fresh in your mind.
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
Wow: Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
The ringing question from Isaiah.
This is a tricky, rhetorical question. What is it that these exiled Judeans have been buying, if not bread?
Now, be careful: Bread here becomes an image with many facets, full of lots of different meanings.
“…that which does not satisfy”, says God through the prophet Isaiah today. What is it, then, that does satisfy? What can fill us up, and never leave us hungry again?
Clearly, the prophet in today’s lesson is saying all bread— actual, physical food—fills our hunger only for a short time.
This is a stark and frightening reminder of how truly limited we are, if you stop and think about it. Human beings don’t create food out of nothing. Human beings can’t create water from nowhere. Without food and water, well, we would cease to be in a very short time. We are very dependent creatures.
I think, today, especially, we live under the illusion that by depositing our paychecks, and going to the grocery store, we have somehow created our own food. But we are severely limited. Without the help of an outside source we would be dead meat quickly. Isaiah puts it perfectly, encapsulating the whole proud attitude of human beings, that alienated attitude we call sin, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
The disciples in today’s Gospel lesson seemed pretty keenly aware of these limitations too. They were worried that these crowds of people chasing after Jesus were going to go hungry.
So, the story goes like this: having heard that his friend John the Baptizer, the forerunner of Jesus’ ministry, was killed, Jesus retreats to the wilderness. But before long the crowds of people who had heard about Jesus’ teaching and Jesus’ healings followed him. So for a while Jesus was doing his thing—healing and teaching. But it had gotten late, and they were all far from any town. The disciples were worried and they say to Jesus, “the hour is now late, send the crowds away so they may go and buy food.”
That’s awfully considerate, I’d say. The disciples don’t want this seemingly helpless crowd, these sheep without a shepherd, as Matthew has called them, to be in want, to suffer any more than they have to. The disciples want them fed. But the disciples, as usual, are thinking with a very one-track mind. They are seeing things in 2D so-to-speak, but Jesus always sees in 3D.
The disciples do get what we now call a miracle. That crowd got fed, and then some! But what about the question from Isaiah— Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Is this Gospel lesson a magic trick for bread?
You know, in my life, I feel like I went through two different stages with this Gospel reading, and really all of the extraordinary things that happen in these Gospel books. One was, when I was pretty young, that this was simply a miracle. Jesus multiplied the bread because he is God. It historically happened. And he did it to feed hungry people. Period.
The second, which I thought for much longer was: this is simply not a miracle. Miracles don’t happen because the laws of physics are never defied. Period. If this story is worth anything, I thought, then clearly it has a literary meaning about sharing. Everyone got fed, because Jesus got the crowd to share.
In both cases I was getting hung up on the bread, sort of like the disciples were. But bread doesn’t solve this crowds problem. Why didn’t Jesus just zap the bread into their bellies? Why didn’t Jesus, all powerful son of God, just remove their hunger forever?
This miracle isn’t about bread alone.
Do you remember in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus was in the wilderness a different time? Jesus hadn’t eaten for 40 days. He was at the very edge of his human limit of hunger. And do you remember what his temptation was? To feed himself magically, “Why not make stones into loaves?”—the inner voice of materialism says. “Save yourself”—The voice of selfishness says. And what did Jesus say? To fend off this nagging voice, Jesus in the wilderness quotes Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy— that OT book that comes at the very end of the wilderness wandering, Where Moses recounts all that has happened to the Hebrew people— saved from slavery— new way of life and law— before they cross over into the Promised Land. So, anyway, the whole quotation goes like this.
[God] humbled you by letting you hunger [in the wilderness], then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
How about that? This crowd in Matthew this morning cannot live by bread alone. Is this a magic trick about bread, or a lesson about sharing?
Either way that makes this Gospel only about eating.
Listen to Isaiah again, just after the prophet asks about bread, and starts to talk about the act of listening.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. How can someone listen to rich food?
Either Isaiah has got some badly mixed metaphors, or else, Isaiah, like Jesus, has got that phrase from Deuteronomy in mind.
…one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
All this could only lead us to conclude, with Isaiah, and Deuteronomy, and the Gospel of Matthew too, that it is God’s Word that satisfies.
God’s Word is that thing we truly need to survive.
It’s just like bread, but it’s not only bread.
So, this could be the point where I tell you, that we are the helpless crowd, storm tossed and full of disease, And that Jesus is the Word, Jesus is the Bread. We certainly do take communion for that very reason. We do need Jesus and God to survive. Absolutely we do.
But, today, I’m not saying this.
You are not the crowds.
Obviously, this is my last Sunday with you. Obviously, you’re waiting for me to say goodbye somehow up here… But instead of saying goodbye, or as a way of saying goodbye better: I want to say thank you.
Look at our Gospel lesson again. Does Jesus himself hand out this Bread/Word-from-God? No. He says to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.”
Jesus takes their bread, and their fish, Jesus maybe takes it to bless and break it, But if there is any magical multiplying of those morsels of food, it happens as the disciples are handing it out.
Now maybe you might identify with the crowds, maybe you do. But let me tell you—for me— you have not been the crowds.
You are the disciples.
You are the church, and in your hands you have the most ordinary bread and fish that can do the most extraordinary of things.
Of course I came to Ballard First Lutheran and to Faith Action Network to serve and to advocate and to lift up the “crowds” of the world. Of course. But in reality, I came here and was served.
You have shaped me, you have put the real Good News in my hands. Your welcome, your tradition, your money, your time, your passions, your struggles, your deaths, your births, your mothers, your fathers sisters brothers confirmations sadnesses happiness prayers meals and so much else…
…one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
Every last morsel of what you have given me I know comes from God, because it will stay within me forever. It’s not a snack that vanishes in just a few hours. It’s a lifetime meal.
The more I think about it, the more I want to say:
Don’t you dare think that your are the crowds of people chasing after Jesus. You are the disciples! You are in the inner circle.
If I wanted to leave you’all with some advice, you know, me, the young up-and-coming-leader— Here’s what my sagely advice would be:
Take this Church seriously! You have in your very hands the endlessly nourishing Word of God. Yes, sure, I mean communion and baptism and all that. But even more, I mean merciful Sunday dinners, and needful justice and advocacy.
If you really believe and trust in God, if you really believe that God has grabbed you, then believe that you have something to offer the world.
You had so much to offer me, so much that you don’t even know about!
So, turn your eyes to the crowds.
Turn your eyes to the crowds who are actually literally hungry, or naked, or in despair, or in prison, or sick, or just bored to death in Ballard—
Turn your eyes to the crowds and remember Jesus’ words:
“They need not go away, you give them something to eat.”