The week before last I was on vacation with my wife’s family. We have rented the same two houses at the North Carolina shore for the past eight or nine years and every night we all get together at the bigger of the two for dinner. Meg and I cook dinner one night, and her sister and her husband cook dinner another night, and so on, and it is a very satisfactory arrangement. Nobody has to do too much cooking, but we can each focus on the one meal we are responsible for, and we all eat very well indeed. There is just one problem-- we have enough conjugal units, if you pardon the expression, for five nights’ dinners. But what to do about that sixth night, Friday night?
The obvious thing to do would be to eat the leftovers and the unused food, of which there is always a lot, and which otherwise has to be transported all the way back home (arriving much the worse for wear) or thrown into the garbage. Every year we run into this problem and every year someone suggests the obvious solution and every year someone loses their nerve in the end and runs out for pizza or barbeque or something and we end up with even more food than we had before. Every year, that is, until this one. This year we finally just emptied the refrigerators and put all the food out on the counters in the big house and rubbed elbows in the kitchen for an hour or so, taking turns at the microwave until everyone was fed. At the end of which, we congratulated ourselves and asked “why didn’t we do this before?”
Not the right question
Sometimes "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" is not the right question. Jesus knows that it’s not the right question when he asks it of Philip in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, but Philip doesn’t know that, and that’s why Jesus asks it. And when Philip protests that "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little," it’s not clear whether he’s contesting the implied premise in the question, that “these people are hungry and it’s up to us to see they get fed,” or whether he’s pointing out the practical difficulties in carrying it out. Either way, he’s taken the bait, and he’s stuck.
Just then up pops Andrew and the boy with the five barley loaves and two fish. But where did they come from? Surely Andrew wasn’t going through the crowd, demanding to see people’s food. He can only have known that the boy has them because he come forward and offered them. The boy doesn’t look at his five loaves and two fish and ask, as Andrew does, “What are they among so many people?" He just knows that the people are hungry. He has a little more food than he needs, and he trusts that Jesus will know how to put his surplus to the best use.
Celebrating what there is
And he’s right. That kind of trust, that generosity, that simple willingness to respond to a situation of need is something that Jesus can work with. And what is his work? It is the work of celebrating what there is, of giving thanks to God for the five loaves and the two fish, and for the generosity of the child who brought them forward. Jesus gives thanks--eucharistei, as the Greek has it, which is of course where our word “eucharist” comes from, and he breaks the bread and he passes it around to the hungry crowd.
When we gather for the Eucharist, we continue Jesus’ work of celebrating what there is. We aren’t worrying for the moment about our personal finances. We aren’t wondering if there will be enough cookies at coffee hour—not yet. We aren’t thinking about what it’s going to cost to put a new roof on the church. We are just thankful to God for what is here. We aren’t anxious because there aren’t 100 people in church this morning, we are thankful for the thirty or forty who are. We are thankful to be among them, thankful for the gifts that each of them brought to share, thankful for their faith, for their friendship, for the gift of their stories and their prayers and their presence in our lives. And, of course, we are thankful for Jesus.
New and different bread
When I first came to St. John’s somebody asked me if we could use home-made bread for communion in place of the mass-produced wafers, and I said “sure—why not?” So we’ve been using it more or less every Sunday since. There were some people who didn’t like the bread at first, and some who still don’t, which is fine—I understand and respect that.
And some of those who didn’t like the new bread at first were children— some of them even refused to take it. But then it began to dawn on these children that actually the new bread tastes pretty good. And gradually their attitude changed, so that now sometimes when I’m distributing the bread at the altar rail I’ll see them looking at each other’s hands to see who got the bigger piece. Some of them will even (and I have to confess that my own daughter is one of the worst offenders in this regard), hold out their hands and look up at me imploringly as I’m coming toward them with the bread, and whisper “big piece, big piece.” And who can really blame them? Who doesn’t want a big piece of God? Don’t we all want a big piece of health, a big piece of life, a big piece of peace, and joy, and love?
Only a little piece
But I think spiritual maturity comes when we no longer need to look over at our neighbor’s hand to see how big her piece is. The Eucharist has a lot to teach us about this. We don’t complain because we’re only getting a little piece of bread and a little sip of wine, because it is still the body and blood of Christ. The whole person of Christ, the whole life of the Trinity, the whole incarnation and teaching and death and resurrection and ascension, his whole gift of the Holy Spirit and promise to come again to fulfill God’s loving purpose for creation; it is all present in that little crumb, that tiny sip. The fact that we go away from the table hungry only tells us that we are now part of the Christ story and it is up to us to go out and help to tell the rest of it.
In Jesus’ own time it wasn’t always clear that his life was worth much. Certainly there were some people who didn’t think it was worth anything at all, and in the end it was sold cheap. But the very heart of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples was that when we start counting the relative value of a life, even of our own, we are lost. Because life is not something to be priced. It is not to be hoarded, and it cannot be sold at a profit. Every life belongs to God, and so each one is of the same ultimate value. But we can only comprehend life’s true magnificence, the true breadth and length and height and depth of it, when it is given away. Spent. Down to the last penny. Jesus understood this and he spent his life lavishly for the love of this world and we who live in it, and when it was gone it didn’t seem like it had really amounted to much. Not at first. Just one young man’s life; one body; some words, a few deeds; a bitter and pointless death.
God can work with that
But history shows that God doesn’t need much. God says “five loaves and two fish?—I can work with that. The life and death of Jesus of Nazareth?—I can work with that. A little piece of bread, a tiny sip of wine, Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter and Philip and Andrew, and Julian of Norwich and Francis of Assisi, and you and me?—I can work with that. St. John’s Episcopal Church in Petaluma?—sure, why not? God doesn’t say “why isn’t there more?” or “what am I supposed to do with that?” God says, “thank you. Thank you for being here. Thank you for coming forward with what you have. What tasty looking loaves! What fresh, tender fish! Thank you—that will do nicely for all my hungry guests.