26 July 2009
Sermon for the Eight Sunday after Pentecost: "To Partake of the Bread of Life - The Boy's Tale"
I wasn’t supposed to be there that day. You need to understand that from the start. My family kept our flocks in the hills near the Sea of Galilee, and since I was the youngest I was expected to be the one to run errands to and from the house and the flocks. On the day the Teacher appeared, I wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near him. My mother had sent me to the next hill over with two fish and five loaves of bread for my brother, my father and myself. It was a small lunch, but it was what we had that day.
I set out from the house with every intention of going straight to the flocks, but as I crossed over the hill I saw a great crowd come streaming toward the mountain, making a lot of noise as they did. I was twelve years old; I was curious; I veered away from my duty toward the show. How was I supposed to know I’d be right in the middle of a miracle before long?
I came up the side of the mountain and walked right into a man whose robes reeked of fish and pitch. He grabbed my shoulder to keep me from falling down, then noticed the bundle I carried in my arms. “There’s a boy here with...” he pawed through my bundle, “...five barley loaves and two fish. But what could they do for so many people?” Then I noticed the Teacher. He looked at me, smiled, winked, and said, “Make the people sit down.” As the fisherman turned around and started to yell for the crowd to sit down, the Teacher came over to me.
“What’s your name?”
“Yeshua. Yeshua, son of David.”
“Welcome, Yeshua, son of David. I am also Yeshua: Yeshi son of Joseph. But I am also a Son of David. If I make you a promise, will you do a favor for me?”
“I don’t know if I may, sir. I’m not supposed to be here.”
“That is no problem, Yeshua, son of David. Your father and brother will forgive your tardiness. The promise I make to you is that you will eat until you have your fill this day. The favor I ask is to borrow your lunch. May I have it?”
I didn’t want to give it to him. I’d heard stories like this before, but never from a grown man. Our village bullies made promises to get “just one bite” of our food, then laughed when we tried to get them to return it after one bite. I learned very quickly to run from anyone who wanted a piece of my bread. But he had spoken so kindly to me, and had asked so sincerely: I felt as though his request wasn’t really a request, that he was going to do as he wished, but he would prefer to have my permission. So I gave in.
“Yes, sir, only...please do not steal my food from me.”
“I promise, Yeshua, son of David; you will not be hungry this day.”
He took my lunch, spread out the cloth covering the fish and the bread, and then he prayed. “Abba, gracious Father, I thank you that we may feed this multitude this day. I give thanks that you provide bread for those who have none, and I give thanks that we may provide the bread that lasts unto eternal life for those who have none. Let this be a meal and a day given according to your word, which will never return to you empty. Amen.” Then the Teacher rose, and handed the loaves and fishes to the nearest people he could find, and asked them to share with their neighbors. Then he settled back to watch.
The crowd and the disciples looked confused at first. After all, the loaves were barely bigger than their fists, and the fish were about the same size. Finally, the fisherman who’d first kept me from falling shrugged, broke his loaf in two, and handed one piece to a woman sitting next to her children, right at the front of the crowd. That was when the miracle started happening. My breath caught in my throat as I saw it: the loaf wasn’t broken. The disciple broke it again and handed out another hunk of bread, but the loaf remained unbroken. The crowd saw it, too, and gasps and shouts rippled across the mountainside as people surged forward for food. The crowd could barely keep up with the demand: they broke the loaves and the fish and handed out the food as quickly as they could, shouting all the while for the rest of the people to wait, to be patient, that everyone would be fed. Even as they made these promises, you could hear the desperation in their voices: if they ran out of food, the crowd seemed hungry enough to rip each other to pieces.
While this uproar was going on, the Teacher, Yeshi, leaned back on his elbows, smiling. Since I still had no food, I couldn’t go to my father and brother, so I sat down next to him and asked, “How did you do that?”
He looked at me with those piercing eyes. “My father always called me Yeshi. May I call you the same?”
“Yeshi, do you see how they cry out for bread?”
“Tomorrow, they will hunt me down again and ask for more. If they could, they would make me their king. Anyone who can feed a crowd like this should be their king, they’ll say to themselves. What they don’t realize is that their hunger has nothing to do with bread.”
“No, Yeshi. They are hungry for chesed. Do you know that word?”
“I think so. The rabbi says it when he reads from the psalms.”
“Good - you listen when you go to synagogue. Do you know what it means?”
“I think it means love, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, but not just any kind of love. Chesed means steadfast love. Lovingkindness. Love that lasts and lasts, even beyond death.”
“And that is what they hunger for?”
“Yes, Yeshi - they hunger to know that God has not abandoned them, that they are still God’s chosen people. And do you know what I will tell them?”
My mind went completely blank as I thought of the many things this Teacher could say. Would he tell them God still loved them? That God was silent because they weren’t following the Law closely enough? That God would rescue them from the Romans? The rabbis in the synagogue had said all those things and more for as long as I could remember. Every year we ate the unleavened bread for Passover, promising ourselves, “Someday, we will eat this bread in Jerusalem.” We meant, of course, that someday we would no longer live under the thumb of Romans, or Assyrians, or Babylonians, or any other oppressor. But it never happened.
“Yeshi? Are you still there?”
His voice snapped me out of my thoughts. “Yes, sir - but I don’t know the answer.”
“That’s because it’s a new answer. The Father and I are doing a new thing.” His eyes twinkled as he looked deep into my own eyes, but what he said next hit me with the force of a hammer’s blow. “I will tell them that I am the bread they seek, the chesed for which they truly hunger. I will tell them that if they believe in me and in the words I speak, they will never be hungry for steadfast love again. I will tell them that I come to offer myself to the world, to be broken like a loaf of bread and poured out like a cup of wine, to fill the hearts and lives of all those who come to my words and my light. Do you believe that this is what I will tell them, Yeshi?”
I didn’t know what to say. I understood some of what he said, but most of it washed over me like the waves in the Sea when a storm is rising. I looked away from the intensity of his eyes, my gaze darting to find safety like a rabbit fleeing a dog’s pursuit. Then I saw something that brought my already lurching heart to a complete stop: my father was coming up the side of the mountain, on the same path I’d taken quite some time before, and he did not look pleased to see me sitting with a stranger, with no food in sight.
“Yeshi! Are you hurt? Where is our food?”
The teacher rose and bowed to my father. “I beg your pardon, sir. I and my disciples have delayed your son for need of your lunch. If you’ll wait just a few moments longer, you shall have your food, and more besides.”
My father’s puzzled look must have matched my own, for I had forgotten the meal completely while talking with the Teacher. As he turned to the crowd, so did we, and then we saw that the crowd had received all they could eat, and the Teacher’s disciples were gathering remnants from those who had asked for more than they could eat. Soon the disciples were laying baskets at our feet, and in a few moments, twelve baskets of broken loaves and cooked fish sat before us. My father looked up, astonished at the pile of food in front of us. “How does a man such as yourself feed a multitude like this?” The Teacher smiled, nodded in my direction, and answered, “From the food your wife prepared for you, sir - and the bounty of my Father’s generous love.”
The Teacher’s promise to me was fulfilled. I ate to bursting that afternoon. My father ate a hearty meal himself, then bundled up another for my brother, who was still watching our flocks. As we were preparing to leave, the Teacher offered a blessing for our flocks, and then looked into my eyes. “Remember, Yeshi son of David; it is not bread for which the people hunger: it is my Father’s steadfast love. Do you believe me?”
“Yes, sir.” And I did believe him, though my mind struggled to comprehend what my heart told me about this kind, trustworthy teacher.
“Truly, Yeshi, I tell you: if you believe me, and believe the words that I say, then you know the steadfast love of God, my Father, and you have been fed with the bread of life. I wish you well, Yeshi son of David. Peace go with you.”
“And with you, Teacher.”
I never forgot that day upon the mountain, and the Teacher who blessed the bread. Like everyone in Galilee, I heard of the Teacher’s death in Jerusalem, and the rumors that when the Romans opened the grave two days later, it was empty. Some years later, men from Jerusalem came to talk about the Teacher at the local synagogue, and I brought my sons to hear them, ignoring the frown of the local rabbi as they entered the synagogue.
I remember much about the Teacher, even today. I remember his sincerity, the kindness in his eyes, how I trusted him instinctively, even though I had no reason to do so. But what I remember most were his hands. They were rough, calloused hands; the hands of a laborer. But when the Teacher spoke of his Father’s love, of being broken and poured out, those hands trembled and shook, as if he knew what was coming. As I grew older and could think on these things with the mind of an adult, I realized the Teacher did know what was coming. He knew he would be rejected, abandoned, lifted high on the cross like the snake on Moses’ staff, and he would go regardless. And as I realized this, I realized another thing also: this was the chesed of which the Teacher had spoken, the steadfast love of God, made manifest in his own life. The Teacher poured out his life for us all, and I believe that what the men from Jerusalem said is true. The Teacher is the son of God, living at the right hand of his Father today, and I am his servant. Praise be to God, I met the Messiah in living flesh, and I live to tell his tale. Amen.