Texts: Isaiah 55:1-5 ; Psalm 145:8-9,14-21 ; Romans 9:1-5 ; Matthew 14:13-21
In the name of Jesus, the bread that satisfies. Amen.
About five years ago my parents decided it was time to get healthy. They got a membership to the local YMCA and went on Atkins. In short order they’d both lost a good deal of weight, were reporting great gains in energy and better sleep at night. It sounded miraculous. I wanted in.
Atkins is hard! You cut all the carbs out of your diet – that means no bread, no pasta, no rice, no sugar, no corn syrup. Lord, what else is there? Well, there’s a lot of meat and lots of tea. The first couple weeks are the hardest, especially the first few days. It’s the cravings that make it so hard. Your body knows what it’s missing. It’s missing the fast, easy energy that carbohydrates provide. It’s missing the rush of sugar in all its forms, and you feel those cravings like a smoker trying to quit cigarettes. You think about it pretty much all the time. You start dreaming about French toast and noodles.
Well, I lost about ten pounds. I looked better, felt better, was rewarded in every way I’d imagined. But I missed the bread too much, and after a short while those ten pounds tracked me down and moved back in. My name is Erik, and I’m a carboholic.
Thinking back on my days with Atkins gives me a different perspective on the prophet’s words from this morning’s portion of Hebrew scripture:
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isa 55:2)
Amen Brother Isaiah! Preach! Why spend money and time on anything other than bread?! Get that carbohydrate fix, the easy pleasures of good, rich food! Wouldn’t it be nice if that’s what Isaiah meant? Encouragement from scripture to over-indulge in the foods and pleasures of life that we are addicted to? Of course, that’s not what he means at all. In fact, Isaiah is pretty much saying exactly the opposite, as the preceding verse makes abundantly clear:
“Hey, everyone who’s thirsty, come to the waters; and you that are poor, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk that is free.” (Isa 55:1)
Today’s familiar gospel story of the feeding of the five-thousand, the fishes and loaves, is a story of plenty – of the abundance of God set free in generosity that multiplies as people are drawn into God’s economy. It’s a beautiful moral and a happy ending that we all know before we’re even done reading the scripture. But before we can get to the part where Jesus blesses and breaks the loaves and feeds the hungry masses we have to listen to a question and a command. The question is Isaiah’s, “why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” The command comes from Jesus, “they need not go away, you feed them.”
Isaiah asks a question about satisfaction which is also an acknowledgement of our constant dissatisfaction. He questions the marketing pitch woven into almost all of our purchases, the hidden message in every commercial that says, “if you owned this, you would feel better about yourself.” This is familiar territory, we know how this goes, right? Pretty much every sales pitch has the same three elements:
- First, tell you that you’re somehow deficient or lacking in some quality we’re supposed to desire – power, wealth, love, beauty or happiness all usually work well.
- Second, introduce an item or experience – a beverage, a car, a vacation, a pair of shoes, an iPhone – and suggest that people who have these things are more powerful, more lovable, more beautiful, wealthier, happier.
- Finally, with the product now paired with its immaterial value (power, wealth, love, beauty, happiness, whatever…), tell people where they can buy what’s being sold and how much it will cost them.
Voila! You have just been sold bread that does not satisfy! Empty carbs. A massive sugar rush. We even have names for purchases in this mode. We call it “consumer therapy” or “conspicuous consumption” – acknowledging that this use of our time and money has more to do with the feelings these purchases produce in us than with their intrinsic value, or what they can actually do.
I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I’m not just addicted to carbohydrates, I’m in love with little techie gadgets, I’m entranced with TV shows and movies that distract me from reality. I am constantly gorging on bread that does not satisfy, and because I continue to eat at tables that can never address my deepest hungers, I remain dissatisfied.
Many of you know that before I went to seminary I worked with runaway, homeless and street-dependent youth in Minneapolis and Atlanta, and later as a community organizer up and down the east coast. The youth I knew lived in the spaces between the spaces we know, under freeway overpasses and beside train tracks. They earned the money for their daily bread by begging, stealing and selling. It is a profoundly dissatisfying existence.
After a few years in the field a colleague emailed me a photo of some graffiti she’d found, done by one of our youth, that put it all together. The image showed a squatter, a homeless kid with a hoodie pulled over his head, sitting cross-legged with a cup set out to collect the spare change people might offer. He’s holding a sign for passersby to read, like the kind you see the guys holding who stand at the entrances and exits to the freeway, but instead of asking for money this child’s sign reads “Keep your Coins. I Want Change.”
In his poverty and desperation, the artist who left behind a piece of graffiti as a testimony to his dissatisfaction diagnoses the real problem. There is no beverage, or car, or vacation, or pair of shoes or fancy phone that will address his needs. It isn’t even, ultimately, a question of bread. What is needed more than anything is change. A change of heart, a changed world. A re-evaluation of what is satisfying.
Which is not to say that the hungry person doesn’t need food. Ask any family that comes here to St. Luke’s for the food Elijah’s Pantry provides – hungry families need food. And there are plenty of hungry families.
- The ELCA World Hunger program reports that 854 million people across the globe are hungry, which simply means that they do not have enough food to sustain their body’s health.
- Closer to home, 4% of U.S. households (which is 11 million people, including half a million children) experience hunger. That means they skip meals they cannot afford, eat too little or regularly go entire days without eating.
- A larger number, one out of eight U.S. households, has reduced the quality of their diet in order to utilize money for rent, clothing or daycare.
Hungry people are resourceful, and find a way to fill their bellies – even if it is with food that doesn’t satisfy. On the street I learned how to make what my kids called spread. Spread was a quick meal you could put together with the money you earned by panhandling. With very little money you could feed a group of three to five for the night. Here’s how you make it: you go to a grocery store or corner market and buy a big bag of chips – Doritos or Ruffles, or anything that’s basically just flour and salt. If you have enough money, you buy the cheapest uncooked hot dogs you can find. Then you fill a large Styrofoam cup with hot water, like the kind they have for hot chocolate or tea. You hope they don’t charge you for the cup. Make sure they give you a plastic bag or two when you check out. Once you’re back outside, find someplace where you can be left alone for an hour or so. Crush the chips and all the starches until you’ve reduced them back to a ki
nd of flour. Add the hot dogs, or whatever else you’ve got. Pour enough hot water into the mix to help it all congeal, then close the bag and wrap it tightly in another bag. Then in your coat. You’re trying to insulate your makeshift oven at this point. Let it cook for about 30-45 minutes. When finished, the final product is a thick paste that be eaten with a plastic fork or with your fingers right out of the bag. There’s no nutrition in it, but it keeps you from feeling hungry for the night.
That is one way that money from strangers gets converted into food, but I don’t think it’s what Jesus had in mind when he said to his disciples, “they need not go away – you feed them.” The scene in our gospel reading shows Jesus confronted with a large crowd in a deserted place late at night. Not so unlike the corner of Clark and Halsted on a Tuesday night when The Night Ministry’s van pulls up with food and counselors ready to listen. Ministry happens here in the space between spaces. People show up, and we wonder if we should send them away to take care of themselves, but Jesus says that’s not what is needed. What is needed is for us to give them something to eat. For us to have the relationship ourselves. For us to pull ourselves away from that which does not, and never could, address our deepest hungers for justice and reconciliation and a world where children and families do not have to choose between food in their bellies and a roof over their heads.
A miracle happens in today’s gospel reading. After three weeks of hearing Jesus’ parables about seeds and sowers, wheat and weeds, yeast and bread – Jesus takes a crowd full of people, some who had food to share and some who needed food, and makes sure that everyone has enough. He doesn’t just bless the bread for those who planned ahead and brought enough. He doesn’t just bless the bread for those who deserve it. He tells the disciples to put into practice what he has been preaching about the reign of God, where each person has sacred worth. He gives an object lesson in God’s economy, where there is already enough for everyone. He says to the people “you feed them,” and the people set aside their beverages, and their cars, and their vacations, and their tennis shoes and their iPhones and they look into the face of their neighbor and realize that what they really want, what would be most satisfying, would be to live in a world where people had enough. Not more than enough, and certainly not less, just enough. Where people could see that their common destiny was more than an isolated life of providing for one’s self – but instead a life in community, providing for each other.
People set aside what could never satisfy them, and they care for one another. They provide the means so that everyone in the crowd can eat that day. It’s a miracle, but a modest one. Jesus does not provide food for everyone forever, just enough for that day. Their daily bread. We may wonder as we look into the faces of the people sleeping in our alley, or the children on the street, or the faceless numbers that tell the story of our hungry world, where satisfaction will come from. Isaiah answers that question with one of his own:
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Then the solution, a request from Jesus, “they need not go away, you feed them.”