Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Matthew 20:1-16 The Laborers in the Vineyard
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”
So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
Have many of you seen the list of UCC Firsts? Those of you who have joined the church since I became the pastor definitely saw it in your new members’ class. And, the confirmation classes have seen it, too. For those who haven’t seen it or didn’t memorize everything in their new member class, the list of UCC Firsts is a list of historical events where Christians from one of the denominations that would eventually form the United Church of Christ where among the first folks to do something. The list includes affirmation of the leadership of people from historically marginalized groups, acts of civil disobedience, the creation of schools and mission societies, support of civil rights movements, and comparatively early steps of acceptance of LGBTQ people.
The UCC Firsts list is certainly not an exhaustive list of important events in the history of our denomination. But, it’s a list that some people decided was important. It is one of the things that people new to the denomination see when they want to learn more. It’s a list that can help long timers learn something about a part of our history that they might not know. Also, importantly, by listing these firsts- firsts that have a lot to do with justice and equality- demonstrate both who we are theologically and who we want to be going forward. Some people will act like a Christian push for social justice is some brand-new behavior dictated by the politics of this era. In pointing to historical firsts going back to the 1600’s, we are showing that a Christian commitment to justice has been around for a long time.
And, we are calling out these justice firsts as exemplars of our historical behavior... we are naming them as some of the best things we’ve ever done as a religious community. And, we are claiming them to be behaviors we should repeat in our present time and the future, based on both our historical commitments to justice and to the demands of justice relevant to the present day. If Rev. Samuel Sewell wrote an early pamphlet about the sinfulness of slavery in 1700, we can and should speak to the racism rooted in the practices of chattel slavery that still exists in our time. Sometimes we need to look towards the examples of the firsts to inspire us in the now and push us towards the next. The first we lift up show us who we hope to be.
It can be challenging, though, to only pay attention to the firsts. It may be tempting to feel that because we or a member of our denomination took a stance first, we did it best. Or, we may concentrate too much on our past firsts without tending to the demands of the present. And, when we do something wrong, or someone points out that, though portions of our history are shaped by an old faith commitment to justice, we still have systemic problems with sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia within our denomination, we might get defensive, and point to our firsts as evidence that we couldn’t possibly be in the wrong. Being first does not make us best or perfect.
Just after Jesus told a wealthy man that his wealth was preventing him from being closer to God and confirmed that being willing to make sacrifices is part of following Christ, Jesus tells another story, this time about a landowner and some day laborers he hired. The surprising element of this story has to do with how he chooses to pay them. He hires his first set of laborers at 6 am and goes back at 9 am, hiring a second crew. He goes back at noon, at 3 pm and at 5 pm, hiring more workers each time. In her commentary on the text, Kimberly Wagner notes that the 6 am folks are promised a day’s wage. The 9 am group is promised “whatever is right,” as were the noon and three pm folks. At five, he asks “why have you been standing around all day?” When they reply that it’s because no one hired them, he said they could go to his vineyard, too.
Now, if you have had employees or been in charge of payroll, you might expect the ones who came later and worked fewer hours to be paid less. The workers certainly did. But, that’s not what happened. The landowner told his manager to start paying the last hired first and to proceed to those first hired. Group by group, regardless of how long they’d worked, each worker was paid a full day’s wage. Those who had only been there a little while were overjoyed. Those who’d worked a full day grumbled. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” We got here first. We’ve worked the longest. We deserve the most. My, doesn't that complaint sound familiar?
In her commentary, Wagner notes that this parable isn’t supposed to be read as “Jesus’ advise to business owners,” though generosity towards employees is probably a good and just thing. And, she and another scholar named Emerson Powery argue that this parable is supposed to show us how Jesus thought God was supposed to be. Wagner says that the story shows us that God’s ways of generosity are not bound by human ideas of a “just reward.” In this case, those who were first were not more moral or good or worthy than those who came later. If arriving first in order to get more stuff- more money, more power, better seats at the free Melissa Etheridge concert- is an important part of many human systems, Jesus is clear God is not bound by that system.
The incredible, impractical, improbably generous actions of the landowner in this story, according to Wagner, point us to a future reign of God that is more generous and gracious and abundant than we can likely imagine. After all, most of us are just trying to get paid fairly for the work we do. This story asks us to imagine a world that is incomprehensibly better than our basic hope for just pay.... we will have not just what we can work for, but what we need. Because every worker needed a day’s pay and the landowner made sure everybody got one, even the people who hadn’t had the opportunity to work as long. We shouldn’t follow Jesus for special privileges. This story shows us that perhaps our calling is not simply to keep track who is first, second, or last, but instead, like those 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, and 5 o’clock workers, to follow when we are called up to the vineyard, to do the work we are called to do, and to give thanks for a holy promise that we will be given what is right. And, what is right... what is just... what we deserve, is more grace and care than we can currently imagine.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
The list of UCC Firsts: https://www.ucc.org/ucc-firsts/
Kimberly Wagner: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/laborers-in-the-vineyard-2/commentary-on-matthew-201-16-8
Emerson Powery: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25/commentary-on-matthew-201-16-6
Matthew 19:16-30 The Rich Young Man
Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’
Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
The average dromedary camel is around 6 feet tall at their shoulder and around 7 feet tall at the top of their hump. They usually weigh between 660 and 1320 pounds. Camels are really big. There are many sizes of needles for many kinds of sewing tasks. I checked my biggest darning needles. The longest one in the packet is 2 and 5/8ths inches long. The eye is about one quarter of an inch long. I’m pretty sure that a camel can’t fit through an eye of that needle. The camel is 336 times taller than the eye of the biggest needle in all of my embroidery gear.
This week, with several strikes either on-going or on the horizon, I’ve seen a lot of talk about how much CEOs of various companies make. Their salaries are really big. Berkeley professor and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich shared a list of the salaries of CEOs of 8 Hollywood studios. The highest salary of the eight he listed was $51 million dollars a year. The lowest was $22 million. This doesn’t apparently count all of their compensation, like stocks and other benefits, though. Journalist Mo Ryan reported that in 2021, one of CEOs pay was more like $246 million a year... which, parceled out in a day over a year, would be about $675,000 per day. That same year, an entry level support staff position in one part of the studio he ran would have been paid about $185 a day. According to Ryan, when you combine all his compensation, this CEO makes 3600 times more per day than an entry level position in the company he runs.
You may have noticed this on your own, but it bears repeating. The four Gospels, while all sharing a telling of Jesus’ life and ministry, don’t each tell it the same way and don’t always share the same stories. Some stories make it into three or four of them. There is a version of today’s reading in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is often known as The Rich Young Ruler. It’s about someone who wants to know how he might achieve eternal life. He ends up being asked to make a significant sacrifice. Money ends up being an impediment to his spiritual growth. Jesus thinks he’d do better with a lot less of it. The wealthy man left the conversation with Jesus in grief, because he had a really big fortune. It seems like giving it up was a nearly impossible task for this man.
In high school, I read a story by Leo Tolstoy called “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” In that story, a man, who begins the story as a peasant working on someone else’s land, works to purchase more and more, assuming that lots of land would insulate him from anxiety and scarcity. He claims that if he had plenty of land, he “wouldn’t fear the Devil himself.” When he purchases his first piece of land, he comes in conflict with his neighbors. When he hears that there is rich farmland in another region, he sells all of his land and possessions and moves there with his wife. The story says he’s “ten times better off than he had been.” And, yet he grows discontent.
He was going to purchase a big plot of land from someone who was struggling to pay for it, so they were going to sell it to him at a loss. But then he found out that if he moved to yet another region, he might even be able to buy a bigger piece of land for the same amount of money. When he arrives, the locals give him a bizarre offer: he can have as much land as he can mark out while walking, beginning at sun up and ending at sun down. He must start and begin at the same place. If he succeeds, he’ll only pay $1000 rubles for what marked. If he fails, he will lose the money and the land.
Though he has a dream where all the men who tempted him to buy more land in different places turn out to be the devil, he still decides to go for the locals’ offer. He marks a huge parcel of land, but the physical stress of the ordeal, along with his fear that he won’t make it, take their toll. He dies just as leader of the local people says he’s gained much land. In the end, all the land he really needed was the six-foot-tall plot of land in which his servant buried him.
In her commentary on this text, Wil Gafney cautions readers not to assume that the Gospel requires some people to live in poverty. This has been a mistake Christians have made in the past and likely continue to make. She argues that individuals and societies that approve of the hoarding of resources too readily “sanctify the poverty of others,” saying that God must intend them to be poor and requiring that they be grateful recipients of wealthier people’s grace. Any reading of this story that justifies impoverishing people because “God’s obviously wants them poor,” is a misreading of the Gospel. Jesus is not justifying the wealthy class impoverishing the poorer classes. He is telling a wealthy man that his wealth, and all that he does to gain more of it and all that he does to protect it, is a really big problem. And, it is a problem big enough to overshadow all that he does to try to live by his religious laws.
I know that some scholars have posited that the “eye of the needle” referenced here is actually the name of a skinny gate in the wall around the city that a person could fit through but a camel couldn’t. I think Jesus actually means the eye of a sewing needle. Like our reading from last week where Jesus tells a parable where a person is forgiven an impossible sum of money, the impossibility of this image is the point. Wealth, which is used to solve so many problems in this world, cannot ultimately solve the problem of eternal life. You can’t buy your way into God’s grace.
In fact, Jesus seems to be saying wealth, and the power and influence that go along with it, may actually ultimately prevent you from growing closer to the divine. Or, at least prevent this one man from coming closer to God. But, if amassing and protecting wealth was a barrier to his spiritual growth, it is hard not to imagine that it would be for ours either. I keep wanting to hold this man’s story up alongside the parable of the slave who had his debt forgiven but chose not to offer that same mercy up to someone who owed him money. And, what I think they are saying together is that mercy is at the core of our faith. This isn’t to justify suffering, but it is to call us to generosity and to warn us away from hoarding. May we never be so attached to what we have gathered up that we walk away from an opportunity to lay it down so we can walk closer with Jesus. Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to amass really big fortunes. He told them love God and love their neighbors, and to trust that God could do impossible things. May we never see sharing with our neighbors as an impossible thing.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Where I found information about camels: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camel
Robert Reich: https://twitter.com/RBReich/status/1679865074943500289?t=28NPwWxLg6lNj7tPfQ23_Q&s=19
Mo Ryan: https://twitter.com/moryan/status/1679599813958967296?t=T0YFLR_MaxTu2abS-T5rHw&s=19
You can read "How Much Land Does a Man Need" here: https://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/2738/
Wil Gafney, Proper 10 (closest to July 13) in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Matthew 18:23-35 The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt.
When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
Oh, my goodness. It has been a challenging couple of weeks to talk about debt forgiveness. On June 30th, 2023, the US Supreme Court shared its verdict on a lawsuit brought by 6 states’ attorneys general to stop the implementation of the president’s student debt relief plan. In that plan, some people would qualify for $20,000 of debt forgiveness and more would qualify for $10,000 of debt forgiveness. The court split along ideological lines 6 to 3, with the majority saying that federal law does not authorize the Department of Education to make that much of a change to loan agreements. At least one of the dissenting judges said that she didn’t think that the states had the right to sue at all. They were just attorneys general who didn’t like the plan for ideological reasons, not because it was without legal merit.
As you have probably seen, the public’s response to this ruling has been... contentious. If you know as many people as I do with loads of student debt, you probably know a lot of folks who were looking forward to that debt relief. You might also know or even be someone who wasn’t in favor of the plan because you might think at least some people should pay their debts without government assistance. The most interesting series of responses I saw to this ruling came from members of congress who celebrated the ruling, usually sharing a post on Twitter saying something about how people who haven’t taken on debt or who have paid theirs off shouldn’t be asked to pay off someone else’s.
Very soon after they’d made their post, someone else would chime in sharing that that very same legislator had recently had hundreds of thousands of dollars of Covid emergency loans forgiven. Those loans are also backed by money collected by taxes. Or, maybe they were large scale wealthy ranchers or farmers and had received millions of dollars in agriculture subsidies. Their businesses would fail without these subsidies. These subsidies are also funded through taxes. Having these two facts laid beside each other... that each person didn’t believe it was right for certain kinds of loans to be forgiven while also having personally had hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars of other kinds of loans forgiven... was powerful and kind of funny. And, as I read today’s scripture, it also seemed familiar.
Today’s reading is Jesus’ response to a question about forgiveness. Now, Peter’s question isn’t necessarily about financial debt, but Jesus uses financial debt as a metaphor to help people understand forgiveness of a broader nature. Peter asks, in the verses just before our reading, “Lord, if another sibling (meaning fellow believer) sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said, no. Even more. Like 77 times. Or, as some ancient sources say, 70 times 7 times. That is so many instances of forgiveness! That is so much grace shared! How is that even possible?
In her commentary on this text, Audrey West talks about how when we can count something, at least for some people, it is easier to get our head around something. You should forgive. How many times? A lot. How much is a lot? 77 times. Some people might even be tempted to keep a tally. “Ok, that’s forgiveness number 76. You only have one left. Better make it count.” West thinks the numbers aren’t exactly the point here. Jesus isn’t telling you to keep a tally of how often you forgive someone on a spreadsheet on your phone. She says, “The forgiveness to which Jesus points is beyond one’s capacity to keep tabs, beyond one’s capacity to offer on their own strength or ability.” The story Jesus shares to highlight his ideas about general forgiveness involves an unimaginable level of debt forgiveness. He seems to hope that listeners can figure out how to apply this to their own lives.
Ten thousand talents is a lot of money. More money than anyone in this room will ever see. In her commentary, West says that ten thousand talents would be an amount so large that it could be greater than the national debt of a small country. It would be impossible for one person, especially someone who was enslaved, to pay that off. When we hear how much this person owes, we should understand exactly why he is terrified of his debtor: he cannot pay and will never be able to pay. In fact, according to Eric Barreto, he may actually be enslaved because he sold his own self and possibly his family, into slavery to try and pay the accumulated debt.
The possibility of being sold was terrifying, as was the possibility of having your loved ones sold. We should never forget about what utter power enslavers have over the people they own. This, itself, is an injustice. The ruler, though, is able to be moved when the indebted one pleads for more time. The ruler must know that more time won’t help. Repayment of this amount is impossible. And, yet, the ruler is moved. In a shocking move, he forgives all of the debt and release the man and his family from slavery. We should understand that this action would be considered miraculous.
What happens next is far from miraculous. In fact, it is shockingly common place. The formerly indebted person runs into someone else who owes him money, about a hundred day’s wages. This is a fair amount of money, but, importantly, an amount that someone might be able to actually pay off. And, almost nothing compared to what was owed to the king. And yet, when given the option to share the same kind of grace he had been given, the formerly indebted person physically assaults the one who owes him money and gets him thrown in jail until he will.
Snitching will not always get you many friends, but some people who were still enslaved felt like they needed to snitch on this man. He had been given so much mercy and had not passed it along at all. They ran straight to that ruler and tell him about the shady and cruel thing the forgiven man had done. The ruler opted to rescind his forgiveness: “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” Then the ruler turned him over to be tortured until he would pay. Remember, he will never be able to pay. There is a great price in choosing not to be merciful.
According to Eric Barreto, this story indicates that Jesus understands forgiveness to be a serious matter with which his followers must contend. It is also, as Barreto reminds us, a commitment that is often abused. People are encouraged to forgive great harm with little promise of change or reparation from the one who caused the harm. Barreto doesn’t believe that’s what Jesus is calling us to do here. This passage follows a passage about how to faithfully confront someone who has sinned against you. In that passage, people who do harm are confronted and given the option to repent. In today’s reading, Jesus encourages his followers to be committed to the act of faithful confrontation, and, within that process, being committed to forgive those who ask for it.
I don’t know exactly what forgiveness looks like in every case. Frankly, I don’t know that it’s possible for humans to forgive some wrongs, at least not in a way that lets them maintain relationship with the one that harmed them. West talks about “forgiveness from a distance” in her commentary. That seems pretty necessary sometimes. But, what is clearer to me is that those of us who have received life-saving mercy will, at best, look like fools and hypocrites if we don’t extend mercy to those who owe us far less than what we have been forgiven. At worst, our lack of mercy will land us in eternal torment. So, we must be serious about this matter of forgiveness, even if we aren’t always sure what it will look like in practice. Jesus will be alongside us while we try to figure it out.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
About the Supreme Court ruling: https://www.npr.org/2023/06/30/1182216970/supreme-court-student-loan-forgiveness-decision-biden
Some Tweets pointing out what kind of loans politicians had forgiven:
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-24/commentary-on-matthew-1821-35-5
After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.
Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?’ Jesus asked them, ‘How many loaves have you?’ They said, ‘Seven, and a few small fish.’ Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children. After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.
There is Always Enough: Matthew 15:29-39
If I had to feed a bunch of people, I’d probably make pasta. The box of penne pasta in our pantry has 8 servings. The number of people in today’s reading is way more than eight. Probably more like 6,000. So, I’d need 750 more boxes of pasta. I asked a bunch of my friends what they would cook a whole bunch of people. One said beans and cornbread, a southern delicacy. I looked up how many beans she’d need and it would take about 840 pounds of dried pinto beans to feed all those people. Have you ever seen 840 pounds of beans? That is so many beans.
Another friend said she’d make tacos. I found this tool on the internet called The Taco Bar Calculator. Too feed 6000 people tacos, according to the Taco Bar Calculator, we’d need 1,875 pounds of beef. Or, 825 pounds of refried beans if they are vegetarians. We’d also need 6,000 tortillas, 937.5 pounds of rice, 600 pounds of pico de gallo, and 675 pounds of quacamole. Another friend said she’d make a beef roast and veggies: if a 3 pound roast will feed 6 people, she’d need 400 beef roasts and hundreds of carrots and turnips to roast alongside it.
Our scripture for the days tells us that Jesus fed 6000-ish people with 7 loaves of bread and a couple fish. Must’ve been some really big bread. And, the fish must’ve been those giant tunas that weigh 1500 pounds! Just to be clear... I don’t actually think that Jesus had giant bread and giant fish. Attempts to explain miracle stories through logical methods rarely offer a satisfying explanation and usually dull the power of the story. The author of Matthew didn’t tell us this story so we could use the taco calculator to find out just how big the fish and bread had to be. This is one of those stories that should be read more like poetry and less like math. The numbers, while kind of fun to think about, are not the point. The ability to take care of a lot of people with what seems like limited resources is.
Food is all over Jesus’ ministry. He’s often eating a meal with friends and enemies. Or arguing about what is ok to eat and when it is ok to gather food. And, sometimes he is feeding other people. There is a story about Jesus feeding thousands of people in each of the four Gospels and, there are two “feeding the multitudes” stories in both Matthew and Mark. This is the second Matthew story. They are similar. In both, crowds of people have come to find Jesus in wilderness places. And, in both, Jesus felt great compassion for them and healed them. In the first story, the disciples notice that it was getting late and the people would need to leave to go find food. In the second, today’s reading, it is Jesus who realizes that, after 3 days together, all these people might be hungry. In both, it is Jesus who figures out how to feed them.
Do any of you recognize this language? “After giving thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.” Does it sound anything like what I say when we share communion? Yes. It does. In his notes about Matthew in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, Overman offers up that the use of these particular words point to the ritual life of the church of this era. They appear in the two feeding the multitude stories and the Last Supper. These actions of Jesus... thanksgiving to God, blessing, and sharing... get repeated because they are important. They are important because they show us something foundational about who Jesus is. They are so important that they become the centerpiece of one of our most important rituals.
It would be fair to say that we come the closest to Jesus in the sharing of the most basic elements of survival. And, Jesus is most clearly divine when feeding hungry people using scant resources in wild places, just as God did for the Israelites in the desert. Overman notes that these stories of feeding multitudes in the wilderness are clearly references to God feeding the Israelites in the desert.
Last week, I shared with you a piece of art by the artist David Hayward. It is called “Puzzle of Love.” In the picture, you are looking down at four figures eating snacks and putting together a giant heart-shaped puzzle. One figure is obviously Jesus in a crown of thorns, reaching for nachos. Another is a rainbow-colored sheep. There’s also a sheep the color of the trans flag, and black sheep. And, there’s pizza. Emblazoned across the top of the image is the phrase “Love is not a limited resource.”About the piece, Haryward says, “Love is not a limited resource! So, share as much of it as you can. It multiplies so fast. Love grows like a weed, in unlikely places and despite the conditions.” Maybe love also grows like a small amount of food, gathered with care, blessed, and shared.
As Dr. Wil Gafney notes in her commentary on this text, we don’t know all of what happened during the three days Jesus was in the wilderness with the crowd. We are simply told that he healed people and that the crowd was amazed when they saw people with visible disabilities healed. They praised the God of Israel because of it. We should remember that it wasn’t only the people who saw Jesus. It was Jesus who saw them and was moved enough to care for them, both in healing and in feeding. Food can be healing in its own right, can’t it?
Dr. Gafney notes that the disciples here worry a lot about what they don’t have and about how little they do have to share. Gafney says that what they have to share is either what they pulled from their own satchels or what the people gathered donated to them when Jesus started talking about feeding people. Sometimes the most important thing to do is to take stock of what is available and be honest about what you think you can do about it. But, the presence of Christ will always be the wild card. Love can make just a little bit seem like more than enough. When we look around and see 7 loaves of bread and a few fish, may we remember that in Christ’s hands, we and our resources can do more good than we know. Not even the taco bar calculator can predict what Jesus will do with the ingredients we have on hand. May we present what we have, and trust that the Holy Spirit will get it to the hands that need it. And, may we be surprised, once again, by all the food we have left to share once again. Especially if it’s beans and cornbread.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, "Proper 8 (Closest to June 29), Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Where I got the pinto bean calculations: https://myhomeandkitchen.com/how-many-pinto-bean-per-person/
The Taco Bar Calculator: https://www.omnicalculator.com/food/taco-bar
J. Andrew Overman's notes on Matthew in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)n The New Oxford Annotated Bible
The artist David Hayward's website: https://nakedpastor.com/pages/my-story
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.