A kindergarten teacher asked her students to bring in a symbol of their religion or faith.
So the next day, all of the children showed up with the symbols of their faith. The first child was Jewish, so he brought in a Star of David.
The next child was Catholic, so he brought in a rosary.
The third child was a Presbyterian, so he brought in a casserole…
Have you ever noticed how God is closely tied in with food for us?
This miracle of the loaves and fish for instance is the only one that is in all four of the gospels. The sacrament that we participate in on a regular basis has bread at its center. One of the most regular times many of us pray is before a meal.
There was a prayer I learned as a child and I said it every time I had to give the grace. It went something like this: “God is great. God is good and we thank you for our food. By your hands we all are fed, thank you for our daily bread. Amen” So, growing up, when I thought about God, one of the things I thought about was bread. And that was a good thing in my book. Bread has always been one of my favorite foods.
God’s link with food is at the center of many of our faiths. It is not accidental that so many stories in both testaments use food, eating or hunger images to make a theological point. I think there are two reasons for this. First, I think the scripture writers mean for us to understand that God is as essential as food for our existence.
Food is one of our most basic needs as is water and breath, both also frequent biblical images. We could argue that the needs we have go beyond that now. We might agree that all human beings need shelter, clothing, health care, work and personal safety and security.
Yet when we try to take care of our needs God may not be the first need to come to mind. We tend not to think of God as a need until something bad happens. Until there’s something we can’t take care of ourselves. We prize independence and believe that anyone who works hard will not be poor or needy. Probably few of us in this church lack food or shelter. I would like to suggest however that these readings invite us to reflect on hungers deeper than those related to our physical survival.
Since our culture gives us zillions of messages telling us to fill needs we didn’t know we had – a more expensive car or home, a particular brand of clothing, a certain income, personal computers, cellular phones – we find it easy to push God aside for needs we can easily acquire. Few, if any, modern conveniences are bad in themselves. In fact some of them can do remarkable things for us. Yet I think our comforts not only distract us from attending to needs having nothing to do with what we can buy, but also distance us from an awareness of God’s presence in our lives and in the world.
A priest named John Waish, once said our deepest needs were to love, to be loved, and, as he put it, to blossom outward. I think he’s right. Are we not hungry to be known and loved? Are we not hungry to form relationships in which we can love others? Do we not want our work to have meaning as well as to produce a paycheck?
I think the other thing we need to look at with God’s seeming love of food is the sheer earthiness of it. When people mention God they tend to look up. God is out there, beyond the realm of the body and in the world of the spirit. All of the messy, complicated, problematic concerns of the body are beyond God. Only matters of real importance deserve prayer.
I see God’s focus on bread – simple, basic, wonderful, nourishing bread – as a counter argument to that. Jesus’ most common ministry was sharing a meal with people. The event we celebrate once a month here at the church is centered around food. How much more earthly can you get than bread?
There was an email story floating around for awhile that I quite liked. It went something like this:
“Last week I took my children to a restaurant. My six-year-old son asked if he could say grace. As we bowed our heads he said, “God is good. God is great. Thank you for the food, and I would even thank you more if mom gets us ice cream for dessert. Amen.”
Along with the laughter from the other customers nearby, I heard a woman remark, “That’s what’s wrong with this country. Kids today don’t even know how to pray. Asking God for ice-cream! Why, I never!”
Hearing this, my son burst into tears and asked me, “Did I do it wrong? Is God mad at me?” As I held him and assured him that he had done a terrific job and God was certainly not mad at him, an elderly gentleman approached the table. He winked at my son and said, “I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer.” “Really?” my son asked. “Cross my heart.” Then in a theatrical whisper he added (indicating the woman whose remark had started this whole thing), “Too bad she never asks God for ice cream. A little ice cream is good for the soul sometimes.”
Naturally, I bought my kids ice cream at the end of the meal. My son stared at his for a moment and then did something I will remember the rest of my life. He picked up his sundae and without a word walked over and placed it in front of the woman. With a big smile he told her, “Here, this is for you. Ice cream is good for the soul sometimes, and my soul is good already.”
The Bible shows us that we don’t just have to come to God only for the big stuff. God wants to hear about the little things to – like how we want ice cream for desert. God wants us to pray about our daily bread, or the fact that we’re grateful with what we have, or that things are hard for us right now. God will listen to all of the messiness of our lives – the unimportant things, the petty things, the silly things. This isn’t to say that God will say yes in response to all of our prayers, but that God will listen to what we have to say and love us. We are called to bring all of our frustrations to God. If we don’t, God isn’t feeding that hunger we talked about and we try to fill it with something else.
I think that the message of these feeding stories goes deeper than the relief of physical hunger. The 5,000 who followed Jesus up the mountain did not go thinking chiefly of their next meal. The gospel says they went because they saw the signs he was performing for the sick. Yet not all 5,000 needed a physical healing or wanted to gawk at those who did. Don’t you think that some of them went because they wanted to hear Jesus’ message? This message of hope and love that was nothing like anything any of them had ever heard.
Unlike the poor and sick, we do not really feel we need God to feed, clothe, shelter, heal or support us. We have trouble recognizing and, more importantly, feeling comfortable with the idea of needing God. We have the mentality of ‘taking care
of me and mine’ when there is still this hunger that goes unfulfilled. For us who have so much, it often takes a serious problem or a tragedy to bring us to acknowledge this need and open up to God.
While I don’t think God seriously wishes that all of us would become destitute and sick just so we can come to value our divine relationship, I think God would like to hear about our needs more, hear about us more. Although at times in our lives, all of us will approach God out of desperate, frightened need. Its in between these times, perhaps we could try cultivating a healthier relationship with God out of gratitude.
I hear people complaining about their children’s seeming lack of gratitude or even awareness of all the love and material advantages they have. But aren’t we all a bit guilty of being like those children?
Even more basically, which of us did anything to cause ourselves to be born in a country with so many basic advantages over most of the rest of the world? Which of us endowed ourselves with our particular intelligence and character, enabling us to succeed in the world?
Which of us controls any force of nature that allows us to grow food, breathe and live comfortably? Much of what we take for granted and depend upon is simply a gift we did not earn.
The gospel story for today tells us that not only did the 5,000 have enough to eat, but that there was much left over. God is not a minimalist! This is good news for us. We may have needs that only God can fill, but God will be generous when meeting those needs.
God intends, I think, for each of us to be filled to overflowing with what we really need most, love and a sense of purpose, so much so that we cannot help but share it with each other.
Paul, in his letter today, prayed that God might meet that need. “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of God.”
And we shall be Full. Amen.