Did you carry your lunch to school when you were a kid? My mom never understood that I didn’t like sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly, or bologna, it didn’t matter. I would push aside the sandwich, looking for my Cheetos and my Hoho or Little Debbie, and then toss the sandwich and the bag out together. Some kids brought their lunch in metal boxes decorated with super heroes; others paid their thirty-five cents for goulash or gray baked chicken and creamed corn; but I was a brown bagger from Kindergarten through high school.
The Gospel of Matthew’s version of the feeding of the five thousand mentions five loaves and three fish, but doesn’t reveal their source as John does. John’s Gospel is more chatty and slips in an interesting detail about a boy and his lunch. We might assume that his Mom packed it, but the brief mention is just a passing comment that prods our imagination more than giving any real information or historical substance.
I don’t expect you to remember this, but three years ago this week I preached on this same text on the first Sunday in August. It was my first day in the pulpit as your new pastor, and I used the opportunity to expound on the generosity of those present in Galilee. I suggested, as many biblical scholars have, that when the crowd saw the boy’s willingness to give up his lunch, others began sharing their food as well. Some might see that as a way to diminish the miracle of bread and fish multiplied. Instead, I said that changed hearts resulting in open hands that release bread and fish to others is a greater miracle.
The Lectionary from which we draw our texts each week has a three-year cycle. So last week marked the end of that cycle for me, here, meaning that preaching gets harder, trying to find new things to say about the Scriptures I’ve already covered. I recall that one of the national issues addressed that first Sunday three years ago was immigration. Specifically, the matter of unaccompanied children arriving at our southern border from war-torn countries like Honduras and El Salvador, and being turned away. The boy with a lunch in the Gospel was an unaccompanied child, as well, but the community surrounded him and continues to honor him even today as we repeat the story. As we hear about new immigration policy, this past week, that will value the ability to speak English over the need to reunite families separated by hardship, I’m reminded that the cycle of injustice continues whenever we close our hands to our neighbors rather than offering our bread and our welcome.
Let’s go back to the story and find a new perspective today. The ending is pretty remarkable and is intended to leave an impact on the reader. Before lunch began, it looked like there was no food at all. As the disciples tidy up the hillside at the end of the meal, there were twelve baskets of bread left over. It’s a great picture of abundance, of scarcity and low expectations transformed into more bread and fish than the crowed of five thousand men plus women plus children could possibly consume. Lots of leftovers to seal in baggies and tote home for a midnight snack.
Think about the leftovers in the story from Matthew. The text says, “All ate and were filled: and the disciples took up what was left over of the broken pieces.” Generally, things aren’t worth much when they’re broken. I found a broken glass in our kitchen cabinet two nights ago. It was lined up with the others, all set for someone to pull out and try to fill with water. The water would undoubtedly pour out from the broken part if the person wanting to get a drink wasn’t lacerated first. The broken piece was found later in the dishwasher. The best we could do was recycle the pieces and be glad no one was hurt. And debate who put the broken glass back in the cabinet! Broken things aren’t worth much. But apparently the broken pieces left after the feeding of the five thousand were worth saving.
What does it mean for humans to be broken? I hear that term used quite a bit, and honestly it evokes mixed feelings for me. For many years I absorbed the message that I was broken because I was gay. That is a common perspective from Christians who refuse to believe that those with a different sexual orientation or gender identity than their own could actually be created that way and equally loved and blessed by God. We may be a bit insulated to that particular belief in brokenness here, but it remains a serious problem in the Christian Church. I am much more inclined to want to talk about how all of us are inherently whole, not broken. In our deepest identity as human beings and created children of God, we are perfect because we are made in God’s image. But there are those experiences of life that can break us. Our bodies are vulnerable to injury and illness. Unless we guard our emotions with spiked armor, we are always subject to the possibility of hurt. Our spirits can be crushed when trust is betrayed and those we reach out to reject us. It’s not a stretch to say that those experiences can leave us broken. It’s not we can’t be fixed or healed or put back together again, but most often it doesn’t happen quickly or easily.
In the reading by Liz Crumlish, the broken pieces are described like this: “The bits left over, what of those? Pieces left strewn around, no longer required. A plethora of scraps, yet Christ leaves none discarded but calls for all to be gathered in, saved and treasured.” If you have experienced brokenness in any way, what has happened to the pieces that no longer fit the way they once did? Are they safe? Are there those around you who treasure the pieces even if they remain jagged and unhealed? Our community that we call the church is a lot like that crowd on the hillside, gathering the pieces together and holding them in baskets so they won’t be simply thrown away. This is the place where we hold each other carefully and patiently as the pieces mend.
When I read the story of the feeding of the five thousand, my thoughts almost always go to a classic film that I’m sure many of you are familiar with and which I might have mentioned before in a sermon. Babette’s Feast is a Danish film that came out in the 1980s. Maybe it’s my failing vision, but I sometimes have a hard time reading subtitles and taking in a movie at the same time. I used to say that if I wanted to read, I would just stay home with a good book. Babette’s Feast was the first movie that made me forget that I was reading subtitles. It’s the story of a group of Puritan Christians in the late 19th century on the coast of Denmark. Two sisters had given up their own ambitions in life to care for their elderly father, the pastor of a very stern, very tiny church. All of them are exceedingly dour and seemingly joyless. Their days are long and dark as they perform their religious routines and refrain from any forms of enjoyment. When a French refugee named Babette comes to their community, they take her in, but look on her with suspicion. She becomes their housekeeper and prepares them simple, tasteless meals according to their instructions. After years in their village, Babette wins a lottery. As it turns out, she had been a famous chef in Paris, and decides to show her appreciation by cooking a sumptuous meal.
The church members want to be polite, but are determined not to enjoy anything too much. However, as they feast on turtle soup and quail in puff pastry with truffle sauce and lots and lots of fine French Wine, they begin shedding their inhibitions and start to dance together. Mistrust melts, old wrongs are forgiven, ancient loves are rekindled, and spirits are elevated. It is a sign. In a place of grim and joyless obligation, a meal becomes a sign of generosity and abundance. Babette was like the boy with the bread and the fish, sharing what she had with those around her. The leftovers must have been spectacular.
Mahatma Gandhi wrote that some people are so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread. Those suffering physical hunger are not impressed by our preaching if it’s not accompanied by what will sustain their bodies. And those who are broken or lonely or deprived of joy are waiting to feast on what Jesus called the bread of life. The bread was broken on the hill in Galilee and it is broken whenever we share the meal we call Communion. The broken pieces are a reminder that we come to God as we are and not as we might imagine we should be.
May each one in this room experience the abundance of God and the generosity of one other as we feast on the bread of life today. Amen.