Sermon
August 4, 2002
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Genesis 32:22-31 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Matthew 14:13-21 Now when Jesus heard this, 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. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When 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.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 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. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

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Sermon - Bread to Share

This morning we have read two portions of scripture that tell two famous and very different stories. In the lesson from Genesis, Jacob wrestles with an angel and in seeking a blessing has his name changed from Jacob to Israel. In the lesson from Matthew Jesus feeds a large crowd with a miracle of multiplication - he blesses the five loaves and two fish and in their sharing they are multiplied to feed the whole crowd and have enough left over for 12 baskets full of food.

Now if you look through the four gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - you will find that every one of them tells the story of this miracle. In fact, this is the only miracle from the public ministry of Jesus that is told in all four gospels, and largely with the same details, although, as usual, the Gospel of John is a little different.

John, you might know, is the only Gospel that doesn’t have Jesus breaking bread and offering the cup at the Last Supper. In John we have the scene of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet, but no holy communion or, as it is sometimes called, no Eucharist.

In John’s Gospel this story, the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is placed at the time of Passover, and it is Jesus himself who passes around the bread and the fish - just as he himself passed around the bread and the cup at the Last Supper, also a Passover meal. So some have said that this is John’s holy communion, John’s Eucharist.

Even if the Evangelist didn’t mean it that way, that’s how it was interpreted by the church, and in paintings from the earliest known places of Christian worship we find the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as a symbol of Holy Communion and the fish as a symbol of Christ.

I thought that connection was important to mention since we are celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion this morning, and so observations we make about the meaning of the story might help us understand the meaning of the sacrament as well.

Let’s just think about what our three stories - Jacob wrestling with the angel, the miracle of multiplication, and the Lord’s Supper - let’s think about what they have in common.

In each story there is a pivotal moment around a blessing - Jacob seeks a blessing and Jesus says a blessing over the food.

In each story something happens as a result of the blessing - Jacob becomes Israel, the loaves and fishes are multiplied, and the bread and the cup become the sacramental celebration of communion with the Lord.

And in each story the number 12 plays a role.

At the Last Supper there are twelve disciples; at the miracle of multiplication there are twelve baskets full of leftovers; and, although it’s not directly in today’s portion of scripture, we know that Jacob - now Israel - will be the father of 12 sons who will be the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel.

So, in spite of different settings and details, each story has a similar dynamic – each story is about a blessing creating change and the change broadening in scope as it is multiplied from one to twelve.

But the means of the multiplication and the meaning of the blessing are a little different in the Jacob story than in the Jesus story, and I’d like to focus on the latter because I think it tells us something of the purpose of our sacrament this morning.

You’ll notice in the story in Matthew’s Gospel that the loaves and fish do not suddenly multiply as soon as Jesus offers the blessing - it’s not like a magic trick where he covers them with a sheet and then, presto-chango - all the food is there in a big display and everyone in the crowd lets out with a cry of amazement.

No, the multiplication occurs in secret, in the distribution, at the hands of the disciples as they served the crowd. And it doesn’t seem anyone has a grasp on what is happening until the very end when they gather up what is left over and fill the twelve baskets.

Well, there was a lot that the disciples did not have a grasp on, that they did not understand until after they saw the Lord crucified and experienced his living presence in his resurrection and his spiritual presence in the gift of the Holy Spirit. But I wonder if looking back on this they saw how Jesus was preparing them for the role they would eventually and inevitably play - the role of evangelists and missionaries, those who tell the Gospel story, those who spread the Good News of God’s love, those who multiply the blessing of God in Christ through their sharing and the service they render in his name.

They came seeking a blessing, but they became a blessing; they came to have something done for them, but in the end they had something done to them and it changed them forever.

One change that took place in them was they learned the truth of the saying: it is more blessed to give than to receive.

A favorite hymn of mine is “I Thank Thee Lord for Strength of Arm” and it is a great presentation of this truth:

I thank thee, Lord, for strength of arm to win my bread,

And that beyond my need is meat for friend unfed:

I thank thee much for bread to live, I thank thee more for bread to give.

I thank thee, Lord, for snug thatched roof in cold and storm,

And that beyond my need is room for friend forlorn;

I thank thee much for place to rest, but more for shelter for my guest.

I thank thee, Lord, for lavish love on me bestowed,

Enough to share with love-less folk to ease their load;

Thy love to me I ill could spare, yet dearer is thy love I share.

It is a profound blessing and it changes your life to learn that it is more blessed to give than to receive. That hymn was written before World War I by Robert Davis. Later in life he worked on the relief efforts of the National Council of Churches following World War II. In that relief effort all religious faiths and denominations came together to fashion a well organized approach to avoid duplication of services and to multiply their resources.

And this has been true of the best efforts of the church since the early days – the multiplication of God’s blessing has taken shape as well organized mission, a true community effort.

Part of the multiplication as mission after World War II was an effort by American farmers to help their European counterparts replenish their stock. And so cows and chickens, steers and rabbits, goats and pigs were shipped from America as gifts to the war ravaged lands overseas.

That was the beginning of a mission that continues today in Heifer Project International. I don’t want to say too much about this because I know Virnette will cover it thoroughly next week, because later today she is leading a group from our church to volunteer at the Heifer Project farm in Rutland, Mass. They will learn about mission multiplication in mud and manure – and I’m sure after a week of farm work they will have many stories to tell.

But Heifer Project is a perfect example of the multiplication of God’s blessing through mission. They’ll send a farmer two rabbits with the provision that out of the first litter of bunnies a male/female pair is given away – and so on and so on. It’s the oldest math there is, and I’m sure it doesn’t take long to get past a factor of twelve.

Generosity is the result of an individual learning it is more blessed to give than to receive. Mission is when a community puts that learning action.

But along with generosity and mission, the church has drawn another important lesson – that no matter how much they gave and no matter how far distant they traveled in their mission, they kept connected with one another and with the Lord through the celebration of communion.

Now Holy Communion is no more a magic trick than the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. We do not believe that the minister stands up here and says some incantation and, presto-chango, the bread and cup are changed into the body and blood of Christ. The change we seek is not in the elements of communion – it is in the people who share the communion. The multiplication occurs in the distribution, in the sharing of the spiritual presence of Christ.

What is the spiritual presence of Christ? Is it not enough for it to be a remembrance in our minds of his love and sacrifice and a thanksgiving in our hearts for all of God’s blessings? Christ has given us this simple ritual to renew us in the knowledge and love of God – it’s no more and no less. It is something he does for us and something he does to us. It’s the means of multiplication and the foundation of mission. It’s given into our hands and we will decide if it is discarded or treasured, hoarded or shared.

The miracle of the Loaves and fishes is a sign of what God wants to do here and now with us – how God wants to bless us with generosity, to shape us in mission, to have communion with us.

Maybe, like the disciples, there may be many things we do not fully grasp about this – but we follow in faith and we deepen our understanding as we put our faith into action.

Christ sets the table before us to feed us and bless us and make us a blessing, giving us such an abundance that as we give we find we have more than enough for all who hunger and all who thirst – not just for both the basic necessities of life but even for the faith, hope, and love that truly satisfy. Amen


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