In a time of grief and fear, of isolation and overwhelming need, hope comes in the form of loaves and fishes, hotdogs and apples.
Sermon on Matthew 14:13-21 / Proper 13 A / by the Rev. Tracey Kelly / preached to the congregation of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Great Falls, VA / August 2, 2020
Loaves and fishes
Good morning. Today’s gospel reading is the story of the “Feeding of the Five Thousand.” Our gospel story begins in a moment of private grief. Jesus has just learned that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been brutally beheaded during a feast at the palace of King Herod. Our gospel story ends with a very different feast. Five thousand people have followed Jesus and the hour is getting late. Jesus feeds them with just five loaves of bread and two fishes.
After hearing the devastating news about John, Jesus, understandably, needs to get away. He needs to grieve privately, and perhaps have a good cry. Undoubtedly to pray to God. So he sets off for a deserted, lonely place.
He needs to be alone, but the crowd follows. And when evening comes and dinner time is past and the people are hungry, the disciples come forward and make a simple request: “Send them away.”
His response? You feed them. “But we have nothing,” they insist. Nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. They have with them five loaves of bread and two fish.
I get where the disciples are coming from. It would be very easy to look at the size of that crowd, to see the overwhelming need before them, and to feel powerless to make any bit of meaningful difference. It would be way too easy to look at those meager rations in their baskets and see only scarcity.
Hot dogs and apples
This week, I stopped by a roadside stand of a local farm in Brevard, NC. The farm has a great name: Rooster Head Farm. The owners have been popping up on my Facebook news feed several times a week.
Usually, it is Jacqui on video, holding up her iPhone to record herself in front of a pop-up tent, enthusiastically inviting people to the farm. Jacqui wears a mask on camera, but it can’t hide her broad smile underneath. “We are feeding the kiddos free lunch today. Come on by. No questions asked.”
Free lunch for the kids. Some days it is a PB&J sandwich and chips with veggies or fruit. And always a bottle of water. When I first saw Jacqui on Facebook, the meal was hot dogs and apples.
I was curious. So, on Wednesday, I stopped by the Rooster Head farm stand to buy some produce. Jacqui was there. I asked her about the lunch program they’ve been running. This is what she told me: “We are farmers. We are lower income. We do not have much. But we don’t worry about whether or not we are going to eat. I can’t just sit out here and sell food when people are hungry.”
When the public schools shut their doors because of the pandemic, many local children lost their steady supply of food. There are many vulnerable families here in my part of North Carolina. Hard working people that live on razor thin margins. When schools stop offering free lunches every day, when jobs are lost in an uncertain economy, people suffer. People worry about meeting day to day needs. People become afraid of what the future holds. People can feel overwhelmed and powerless.
This family who owns Rooster Head Farm could have looked in their metaphorical baskets and said “we have nothing to share.” Nobody would have blamed them. But instead of scarcity, they saw abundance.
And such abundance! They do receive donations from the community to help cover costs, but I’m sure it’s not enough. Jacqui does all the shopping and with the help of volunteers prepares each meal as families arrive. She admitted to me that she usually asks the parents if they need a free meal too. And she often quietly hands the families who she is most worried about bags of produce from the stand.
They don’t feed the local children once a month, or even once a week. Jacqui and her husband, Jaye, have been offering free lunches to children – four days a week – for nearly five months!
And what I really, really like about Jacqui, is her insistence on respecting the dignity of every single person who shows up at her farm. You don’t have to prove that you deserve a free meal. There are no means tests. There are no questions asked. And if you are too embarrassed to get out of your car, she will discretely come to you in the parking lot and ask if you would like a free meal. And when a TV crew showed up this week to do a story on the free lunch program, she refused to allow the crew to film the families who arrived for a meal without their permission.
Hungry for hope
In the Biblical tradition, the Wilderness, the desert, is a place of uncertainty and searching for identity, and meaning and purpose. The desert does not sustain life. Water and food are scarce out there.
Jesus went to the desert for solitude, but his inward focus was pulled outward into action for the crowd. Jesus, who earlier in the wilderness refused to make bread to satisfy his own hunger, now makes bread for the standing people before him.
This is a story about compassion. The disciples say “send them away.” Jesus says, “bring them closer.”
This is a story about abundance. The disciples say “we have nothing.” Jesus says, “bring me the loaves and fishes.”
This is a call to action, about doing God’s work in the world. Jesus does not actually feed the crowd. He looks up to heaven and says a prayer on behalf of the thousands of men, women and children gathered before him. But it is the disciples whom he directs to feed the people.
The miraculous meal was not a permanent fix. Hunger would return. The next morning the crowd needed breakfast. The gospel tells us that the five thousand ate and were filled. But filled with what? This is a story about food, but really it is about so much more. The crowd didn’t follow him to the desert for a meal. They followed him for something else. They were hungry for something else. They were hungry for his words, for his presence. They were hungry for hope.
More than nothing
It has been 144 days since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic; 142 days since our President’s proclamation of a National Emergency.
We have been separated and distant for a long-time. For many of us, for most of us perhaps, this time has felt like a lonely, deserted place.
The needs of the world right now are great. Unemployment benefits have expired. Eviction notices are waiting. Infection rates are spiking. People are wondering how to educate and feed their children.
In this time of grief and fear, of isolation and overwhelming need, it is very easy for anyone of us to feel powerless. Powerless to change our own circumstances, let alone help others in need. It is very easy for us to see only scarcity.
But if our gospel story can tell only one helpful thing this morning, maybe it is that kindness and compassion produce hope.
Hope can come in the form of loaves and fishes, hotdogs and apples.
We can offer hope in many forms – even through our words, and even through our presence. The gospel is inviting us to be the feet and hands of God in the world, to offer hope to the world. The gospel is inviting us to see the abundance that is already at hand. This gospel encourages us to dream big. We have more than nothing.
© 2020 Tracey Kelly. Published with permission from Jacqui Eden. All rights reserved.
Photo credits: “Rooster Head Farm & tractor” © Tracey Kelly, “Jacqui at the farm stand” © Tracey Kelly, “The lunch tent” © Tracey Kelly.