In the southern evangelical churches of my youth, we didn’t really have “festival” Sundays in the liturgical calendar sense, just Christmas and Easter really. But we had festivals anyway. We found many opportunities to celebrate with a feast. Homecoming with “dinner on the grounds;” the first Sunday night of a revival, the last night of vacation Bible school, numerous family reunions held at the church after service and everyone invited. The invitation was given but unnecessary—everyone would have come anyway, since we were all related somehow, by birth, marriage or friendship.
We knew intuitively that eating together in that way was something the church was supposed to do. And we knew that it was about more than food, about more than good fellowship, camaraderie and community spirit. Deep in an unarticulated part of our souls we knew it was about God, and about growing in God’s grace, and about growing as the body of Christ. It was about remembering that we were more than just folk who liked to get together to sing hymns, listen to sermons and pray; we were God’s children gathered around God’s table. We knew we were a people of the feast.
We knew intuitively that eating together in that way was something the church was supposed to do. And we knew that it was about more than food, about more than good fellowship, camaraderie and community spirit.
This connection between God and community and feasting is reflected in several of our Scripture lessons. In 2 Kings we read a story about Elisha and the feeding of a hundred men with a limited amount of food. It is a parallel story to the feeding of the 5,000, even down to there being a collection of leftovers.
Psalm 145:15-16 reminds us that God provides for our earthly needs:
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.
There are many things going on in the Gospel lesson, but one of the most important is a reminder that God is a god of abundance and blessing, a god who calls upon God’s people to be a community of abundance and blessing as well. The disciples looked at the crowd and then looked at their resources—one little boy with five loaves and two fish—and decided there was nothing they could do. Jesus looked at the crowd and looked at the same resources and, trusting God to provide, did what he could. Then a feast happened.
For years I traveled as a church consultant, first in the Southeast and then around the country. I worked with churches of small membership from Seattle, Wash., to Savannah, Ga., from Western New York to Southern California and all points in between. The congregations represented the spectrum denominationally, from high-church Episcopalians to low-church Baptists. There was one thing all those congregations had in common: They liked to eat. And they liked to brag about how much they liked to eat and about the special regional dishes they liked to eat.
In truth, the real differences between these congregations were not matters of geography or liturgy or theology. Their differences had to do with who was invited to eat with them. The congregations that vigorously pursued opening the feast to everyone, especially those congregations that took the feast outside the walls into the community, were healthy congregations. They looked at the “crowd” and at what they had and decided to do something, trusting God to provide.
Other congregations looked at the needs of the crowd and at what they had and decided they could only feed themselves. These congregations seldom allowed others a seat at the table and kept the feast very much inside the walls. These congregations were dying a very slow but certain death.
Our calling today is to be like the boy who opened his bag and shared his lunch. We are invited to open our hearts, our doors, our lives and our tables to the world. We are encouraged to welcome one and all to the feast celebrating God’s goodness and generosity. After all, we are one family—bound together by much more than birth, marriage or friendship. As Ephesians says, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family on earth takes its name” (Ephesians 3:14-15).
And when we are afraid that what we have is too little, we will remember the little boy in our story and offer up what we have, trusting God’s abundance and blessing to make it enough.
Amen and amen.