Bread from Heaven, IV: Food as Love
Bible Text: Matthew 14:13–21 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster | Click here to listen to this sermon.
“Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds”—Matthew 14:19
This summer, our Vacation Bible School theme was “What If?” We asked “what if God were closer?” and “what if God were beyond?” and “what if God were bigger?” Each question was paired with a Bible story or psalm. Then we got to the question, “what if, with God, there is enough?” and we told the story of the Feeding of the 5,000. Here is how we told that story this summer:
There once was a man who said such wonderful things, and did such amazing things, that the people followed him. Sometimes even when he wanted some time to be alone, the people followed him. Our spiritual grandparents share stories with us about what this person was like, what he did and why his life and death and resurrection and words and actions mattered. This story I’m about to share is one that is told four different times by four different writers in the Bible. So I wonder what made this story so important?
When Jesus heard the news that his cousin John died, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. As Jesus went ashore, he saw a crowd—the kind of crowd where you bump into people wherever you walk. Jesus had compassion on the people in the crowd. Some of the people who came were sick. Jesus healed them.
When it was evening, the disciples came to Jesus and said “this is a lonely place, and the day is now over: maybe you should send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves?” And Jesus said, “They do not need to leave, you can give them something to eat.” The disciples said to Jesus “we only have five loaves and two fish.”
And Jesus said, “Bring them here to me.” Jesus ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish and looked up to heaven and blessed them, broke them, and gave the loaves to the disciples. The disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve full baskets of the broken pieces left over. Those who ate were about five thousand men, plus all the women and children. I’ve got snacks in my office. I’ve got snacks in my car. My in-laws have started putting me in charge of snacks for family gatherings because, well, I’m going to have snack anxiety anyway if the snack situation isn’t under control.
You know those situations where you order soup, and they give you a set of two saltine crackers in a little plastic package? Those two little crackers can move the needle from angry melt down to calm, cool, and collected. It’s not always me who benefits from the snacks. Maybe my co-pilot needs those saltines?
I tell you this because the feeding of the 5,000 is exactly the kind of situation I don’t want to walk into. Seriously, Jesus? You’ve been with these people all day. You didn’t notice dinner was approaching? I would have seen the people coming from a mile away, early in the day, and thought “but what about the snacks?”
I’m exasperated with Jesus about the food situation, just as the disciples are. It’s dinner time and you don’t have a food plan? Send ‘em back home, or at least get outta there yourself so they go figure things out for themselves. Dinner for 12 can be an ordeal, let alone a party for 100. Scale that up and you need Soldier Field level food prep and planning. But as we’ll see, Jesus did have a food plan: take the bread, bless it, break it, and give it away. Enough for all and more leftover.
I’m also impressed by Jesus’ compassion on the people in the first place. Jesus learns about his cousin’s death: a death that is not just a devastating family loss, but also a testament to the fact that Jesus too will be killed because John and Jesus are preaching that same message of hope to the hopeless and strength to the powerless.
Jesus has every right to set out away from the crowd to find a “lonely” place, a “deserted” place to be by himself. He needs time. He needs space. He needs a moment to collect his thoughts, pray, and discern. But instead he is followed. As soon as he sets foot on the shoreline in this quote “lonely” place, he is no longer alone. The lonely place is crowded.
My thought at this moment if this were me? Get back in the boat and head to the next closest “lonely” place. Shake off the crowds and take the time. But Jesus walks straight into the crowd. He heals them. He responds to their needs and then some. When dinner time approaches he knows how to throw a huge dinner party. The first century equivalent to meat and potatoes: fish and bread. Simple. Calorie rich. Familiar. All are fed.
The gospel flips our expectations about how the world works: The lonely place is crowded. An exhausted healer heals. The deserted place has bread and excess to share. There is absurd abundance. Baskets full of leftovers are collected.
From the vantage point of the 21st century this story brings to bear a certain degree of discomfort. Almost 40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted. Uneaten food in landfills accounts for more than 20 percent of our nation’s methane gas production, a major greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. More than a third of what we send to local landfills is food scraps.
We see so much food come across our plates we hardly know what to do. I went to a restaurant this week that admits this absurd abundance up front and says “eat with us: we’ll send twice as much home with you on purpose: some for today, some for tomorrow.” Every 5,000 person party in America ends with baskets full of leftovers: Jesus’ miracle holds little value in our food saturated lives.
That’s what’s so intriguing about this idea that the Bible is really just one long, ancient epic food fight. Scholar Walter Bruggeman claims that the Bible is an ancient food fight about who can eat with whom, who is invited to the table, who is excluded, who has enough, and who has control over the abundance.
In the beginning, God calls all creation “good.” There is enough food for all. The vision is simple: care for this place, work, rest, live. But chaos seeps in. A crack in the foundation of all that is good. The vision becomes tainted. There are some years of famine and some years of plenty. It becomes important to plan ahead, so the years of famine don’t cause a crisis for people all across the fertile crescent. Storing up grain is an act of compassion.
Well it is until it isn’t. Because then there’s Pharaoh: the macro-aggressor who becomes the ultimate villain in this epic food fight. The slaves in Egypt, the ones we claim as our spiritual grandparents are held hostage by Pharaoh because his propensity to store grain moved from compassion to greed.
You remember: Pharaoh enslaves our ancestors to make bricks. And the bricks are just one more step in the absurd hoarding of grain. Pharaoh needs more bricks not just to build more grain silos but to build cities that support his grain silos. Pharaoh had so many grain silos he needed more bricks to build the cities that popped up to support his abundant supply. He needed so many bricks to prop up this abundance of grain that he purposely and dynamically enslaved people.
But do the slaves have enough to eat in this world of well stored grain in this culture of abundance? No. Pharaoh has a monopoly on food, and the power to decide who has enough, and who gets more.
Fast forward from slavery to freedom, through the long drawn out drama of Moses leading the slaves out from under Pharaoh’s control, and out into the wilderness. In the place of abundance—Egypt, with grain silos galore—there is scarcity. But in the place of wilderness, a place of scarcity—out beyond all that is known—there is abundance. The former slaves are worried like me about the snacks, about the meals, about the food, and yet, there God provides manna, bread of heaven every morning, enough for all, and more so.
The Bible is an epic food fight where we see time and time again, that the need to control outweighs the need to trust, and the fear of scarcity is met with the reality of abundance. We are given permission in this epic food fight, to let go of what holds us, to walk away from what enslaves us, to dislocate ourselves from the ones who hold up a fear of scarcity at the expense of others.
Whether in our personal lives, our families, our work places, our community, or on a national or global scale, this epic tale of a drawn out food fight gives us permission to place our faith in God and not Pharaoh. We can walk away. We can let go. We can probably with some struggle, disengage from the systems of injustice in which we participate. We are still in the middle of an epic food fight—the myth of scarcity and the question of who is allowed to eat with whom continues to dominate our global landscape.
Former Raiders Coach Tom Flores was one of the first Latino football icons to grace the national stage: the first NFL Latino quarterback. He won four Superbowl championships: the only player to do so as a player and as a coach. And he knows what it was like to be part of a national food fight. He joined the Raiders when people were still asking “Where is Oakland again?”
When his team flew to the American south for the first time in the 1960s, his team had a decision to make. Eat separate or together. Participate as a team in the national food fight, or as individuals divided. When they played in southern cities, that’s when they really lived under the reality of prejudice. One week they were in a town outside Dallas and they were not going to let the black players on his team eat in the same dining room.
They were going to have to eat separately. But then the coach announced that they were leaving—the team would eat together at all costs—and all of a sudden when the Oakland Raiders were about to leave the building, the dining room suddenly changed its policy, and let them stay. That’s an example from over half a century now, but it is a story that continues to hold power over the ways we build community, and seek justice in this country even now.
What tables are you excluded from? Or what tables where you’ve been served have others been excluded from? What does it mean to celebrate the wide open, all are welcome table of fellowship that Jesus is pushing us to see?
Ultimately Jesus is not up against Pharaoh in this story but against Herod. Five times in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus leaves town just as Herod brings imperial violence in the picture, and this is no different. Herod kills his cousin, John the Baptist, at a dinner party—and it is that dinner party that pushes Jesus to seek out this “deserted” “lonely” place.
Herod had gathered some of the rich and famous over for a decadent dinner that ended in dancing (read “dancing” not just dancing). In order to say thank you to the dancer, Herod says she can have anything in all his kingdom—any wish granted. She leans over to her mother to deliberate on what to ask for: it’s not every day you get to ask for just anything.
And together, mother and daughter decide the best ask is this: John the Baptist’s head on a platter. It’s hard to know if they were being absurd. Were they just trying to see how far they could push this request? But ultimately Herod, who had already imprisoned John, and knew John was a threat, decides “hey, why not.” And delivers exactly what she asked for: John’s literal head on a literal platter.
So it’s no accident that the feeding of the 5,000 is connected to John’s death in three out of the four gospels. It’s no accident that Herod hosts a dinner party that ends with death beyond his dinner guests’ wildest imagination, whereas Jesus hosts a dinner party that ends with abundance beyond his dinner guests’ wildest imagination. The laughable request of the dancer to bring John’s head on a platter is met with the laughable request of Jesus to feed the 5,000. The horror of Herod’s table is placed right next to the surprise and delight of Jesus’ table. Bread always means more than just food. In this case, we are called toward a creative possibility: life and abundance.
We are called to a faithful obedience: choose Jesus’ table out in the lonely place, instead of Herod’s well appointed but nightmarish table. The Gospel of Matthew is written to the church and here we see: the church is always in the desert. The church is always hungry. The church is always surrounded by a world of deep, sometimes monstrous hungers out of sync with the goodness and mercy to which God calls us.
One person noted that the church is never a group of like-minded people who rally around a worthy cause, but instead the church is a peculiar people, called by God and sent into the lonely places, surprised again and again by the abundance God can provide. 
I wonder how that is true for us: how are we that peculiar people? What lonely places are we called toward together? And what surprises us again and again under the banner of God’s abundance with enough for all and more to share?
Let us pray: God of the wide open banquet table, God who feeds us, who welcomes us, who does not exclude, who proclaims life and healing even in the midst of sorrow and exhaustion: show us the way to your table. Give us a way toward the radical abundance of your love, a love that means going into the lonely places, into the places of hunger, into the wounded places, into the wilderness places. Give us a way, O God, toward that table of love. Amen. Adapted from the four gospel narratives of the feeding of the 5,000 and inspired by Jerome Berrymore’s “The Complete Guide to Godly Play: An imaginative method for presenting scripture stories to children.”  How to Donate Food. http://www.austintexas.gov/page/how-donate-food.  Bruggemann, Walter. “Food Fight.” Word & World, 33 no. 4 Fall 2013, p. 219–240.  Hinojosa, Maria. Portrait of: Former Raiders Coach Tom Flores. Latino USA. National Public Radio. August 23, 2019.  Long, Thomas G. Matthew: Westminster Bible Companion. Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY. 1997.