23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for* you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
13 Now when Jesus heard [that John had been executed], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then 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. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
My Dad is a storyteller, many of us know him from his days as the Executive Presbyter here in Western North Carolina, others of us met him Friday night as he moved around the reception, proud papa of a teaching elder. I, of course, know him in a different way than the rest of our congregation, what with him being my Dad and all.
Dad had some wisdom that he shared, periodically, on the subject of storytelling: "All stories are true, some of them actually happened."
A human life is a collection of stories. We are the main character in most of them, but not all of our stories feature our names on the title page. We inherit stories from those who have gone before us, and pass them on to generations whom we have not yet met. "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,"
Our stories define us and connect us with the ones with whom we share them. That's why we so lovingly choose children's books when we gather for a baby shower, books like The Runaway Bunny, or Goodnight Moon, or I Love You Forever, because we remember how lovingly those stories were shared with us, even before we knew why that mattered. We know that many of those stories did not happen, but that doesn't make them less true.
The stories that did happen are our Mothers reading us The Runaway Bunny and we knew that she would love us to the end of the earth, no matter what happened. The stories that did happen were our Father's telling us the stories of what happened at work that day, and making us feel loved and accepted by including us in the Dinner Conversations. The stories that did happen were our Mothers' making up a tune to sing while reading I Love You Forever, before we understood that it meant more to her than it did to us.
Our experience with those stories made their truth real to us.
But not every dinner conversation was a pleasant one, and there is more than one story in our anthology that doesn't have a happy ending. There are tragedies alongside the comedies. Those stories are true too, and their harshness shapes our lives just as much as the warmth of the happy stories does. We don't tell those stories as often, and we certainly don't tell them because they're pleasant, or happy, or polite dinner conversation.
In a few minutes, we will gather around the Lord's Table for a sacrament, but we will do so knowing that the dinner table was not a safe place for everyone. Some tables are terrifying centers of abuse, altars to trauma that removes our ability to tell our story the way it happened.
We tell the hard stories because they're true. Even we cannot face that truth straight on, we can tell the truth, but tell it slant.
Sometimes we tell stories in ways that open up old wounds, it's painful and may leave us bleeding, but it's also the only way to make room for healing.
All this happened, more or less.
Our Gospel lesson this morning tells the story of a miracle. Jesus, out of his grief over the loss of his cousin and colleague in ministry, John the Baptist, "he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns."
The story of Jesus is so filled with truth, that crowds gather and walk around the outside of a lake just for a chance to have a piece of God's truth.
"When [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick."
Even in his grief, Jesus is still filled with compassion for God's people, and rolls up his sleeves to minister to them.
"15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’"
The disciples see God doing great things, and immediately miss the point. Again. But I wonder if maybe they saw that Jesus was tired, and that he needed space to grieve, but this crowd did not see it, they only saw their own need for healing. Perhaps the disciples were trying to protect Jesus, and were showing love and care for him, at the expense of the crowds.
16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’
The disciples, perhaps hoping to give Jesus a chance to rest, want to just wave the crowds off to fend for themselves, Jesus’s boundless compassion looks creatively at the situation and finds a way to teach the disciples what it looks like to love God and neighbor by feeding those who are hungry.
17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’
When our mission falls flat on its face, and we are left with “we have nothing,” God finds a way to include us in the healing work of God. God’s compassion includes us even when we think we have nothing to give. Because even when we have nothing, we can still share our story, our part in God’s story, our partaking of the bread of life. “The Lord’s Supper is, in the first place, the sacrament of the sharing of the divine life with humanity.”
19Then 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. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Ah, the miracle. The part of the story where more empirically minded folk raise an eyebrow. There is some speculation as to how this miracle actually happened. One theory is the traditional magic basket approach, where the bread and fish multiplied and never ran out. The other is the stone soup version, where the crowed, inspired by Jesus's generosity in sharing what little the disciples had, revealed that they had brought a little with them, and the hearts of the whole multitude were changed such that they shared everything they had, with plenty left over.
I think either one counts as a miracle. I personally favor the traditional interpretation, that God provided abundance from nothing so that all could be fed. The more modern understanding, however, that God changed the hearts of thousands through a simple act of generosity is a profound miracle as well.
I also think that if it were essential for us to know one way or the other, the Holy Spirit would have included the pertinent details in the unique and authoritative witness we have in scripture. Such a detail would fit in well alongside the stories of God providing manna in the wilderness, or alongside the account in Numbers of each tribe's identical offering for sacrifice and for the tabernacle.
But irrespective of the details, the truth of the story is that through God's intervention, we are fed and what looked like scarcity has become abundance.
But without the stories we tell, we would never get to experience that truth. For Presbyterians, the reading and proclamation of the Word is always tied to the sacraments, because the story and the truth it contains, give us language to describe our experience of God. “The elements of bread and with mediate the spiritual presence of Jesus Christ only insofar as they are celebrated in the larger context of those narratives that identify Jesus as the Christ.”
All stories are true, some actually happened.
But the stories we tell around God’s table are not empty fantasies, they are truth-laden testimony to who God is, and to who we are as followers of Jesus Christ.
The proof is at the table, where we are invited by Christ to dine with our God throughout the power of the Holy Spirit. We are elevated by God through the sacrament to sit and share a meal with disciples in every time and place, and the elements of bread and wine awaken us to the real presence of Christ among us.
One theologian, writing about what happens at Communion, confessed that nobody really gets it, that the sacrament, by its nature, is a mystery. “Now, if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret to lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it.”
Perhaps the feeding of the five thousand serves as a reminder that we cannot do our work apart from God. Communion reminds, reveals, and promises the God is in our midst, empowering our mission, finding ways for us is worship God, grow in faith, and show God’s love to everyone.
Thanks be to God for that.