When we focus on our common bond, we can work together
in spite of our differences, especially when our survival is on the line.
Mine happened while I was sitting on a dusty blanket in the middle of the Serengeti in Tanzania, Africa. Our guides, Patrick, Elson and Francis, had set out blankets under an enormous Acacia Tree. There, in the shadows of a dusty green canopy, we escaped the midday heat and ate our lunch.
The meal itself was not that spectacular. However, I remember it because we were served the same box lunch every day; a small piece of chicken, a ham and butter sandwich, a hard-boiled egg, a cookie, and whatever fruit was left over from breakfast. By no means would anyone say this meal was gourmet. But it sustained us and satisfied our hunger pangs as we roamed the vast wilderness looking for animals to shoot...with our cameras.
What made the meal unforgettable was not the contents, but the company. Less than 50 yards away a traffic jam of wildlife pushed one another across the expansive plains. By our guides estimation there were no less than 200,000 wildebeest, and 10,000-20,000 zebra. Mixed in there were hundreds of Thompson gazelles, dik-diks, impalas, and a few other migratory animals, each peacefully searching for the same thing. A meal.
National Geographic has aptly named their trek, the Great Migration. For nowhere in the world is there such a movement of animals as immense as this. From July to October, over two million animals migrate from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the greener pastures of the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Before long, they return to do it all over again.
It’s hard, however, not to think of Disney’s version of this story; like the Lion King, without the lions (which are always present). I imagine the tribes of animals gather and their leaders meet and agreed to form a civil community with each other. There would be one chosen from all the herds to lead the animals through a great adventure, working together towards a common cause, sharing equally the precious resources needed for survival. It would of course have a great soundtrack.
Anthropologist and Zoologists have studied such societies for centuries. What they have learned is simple. When we focus on our common bond, we can work together in spite of our differences, especially when our survival is on the line. Much to Luke’s point in the Book of Acts, “The whole congregation was united as one—one heart, one mind!...And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy."
In Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus feeding the multitude, we learn about another diverse group that gathers to share a memorable meal. Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, free and slaves, men and women and children were all represented. What drew these people to that field along the seaside that day would be the very thing that would unite them as one people. It was the carpenter’s son, Jesus of Nazareth.
Like wildebeest and zebras, they came by the thousands. Matthew records that there were 5,000 men, not including women and children. Judging by today's standards that number would add up to around 20,000 people. As you might imagine, sending a crowd that large to the local village for supper was not an option. But if we look at those numbers in the context of a first century family, the population could be easily doubled, if not tripled. Which of course makes Jesus' miracle that much more remarkable.
Great miracle aside, I can’t help but wonder what they were hoping to hear that day when they sat down to hear Jesus speak? Were they expecting a good old fashion revival, with altar calls and heart lifting gospel music, or a thought-provoking Ted Talk? I’m sure some came in search of a miracle worker, or perhaps a politician who could rally the crowd into action.
Matthew doesn't really give us any clues other than they were hungry, and that Jesus had compassion for them all. While they, like us, sought out Jesus for many different reasons, I believe each one left that night, having been fed in such a way that their life would be forever changed. At this unforgettable meal, a disorganized and diverse community would find their common bond. And their salvation.
It is my hope that maybe this week you will spend some time thinking seriously about why you came here today. Have you come searching for something or looking to be fed? Too often we forget the reasons we gather together. And at times it might seem like it’s just automatic, something we do for an hour on Sunday.
Sitting around this room are imperfect, messy, wonderful people on the same path as you and me. We are all trying to make sense of life and to be better people. Many of us are looking for deeper meaning and purpose. And many of us believe that if we open ourselves up to God, then the spirit of God’s life and love will nourish us and sustain us throughout all eternity.
I believe Matthew’s story provides some food for thought, some “soul food” if you will. In it we discover that through Jesus Christ, God shows sympathy for his people, feeding our deepest wants and desires. No one is left unfed, unsatisfied, or even unchanged. So whatever your reason for being here today, may you leave knowing that God's compassionate love is always ready to meet you and to feed you no matter where you are in the great migration of life.
John’s gospel describes Jesus as the very Bread of Life, the new manna given to us for our wilderness journey. This bread is offered to you today at the communion table. Thus whenever we come together in his name, we enter into communion not only with one another but with God, who offers his love and grace in great abundance. This gift that we have received is so beautiful and so immense that we cannot hold it for ourselves, but instead we are moved to share it with every human being on earth.
Through Jesus, God places himself in the midst of this community, and shares all he has with us; a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. A meal so memorable that we still speak of it today. By God’s amazing gift, we become a community like no other; redeemed, renewed, and resurrected through the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
To quote the band U2, we the church, the very Body of Christ, become "One love, one blood. One life, with each other. Sisters, brothers. One life, but we're not the same. We got to carry each other. Carry each other."
In spite of all our differences, be it political, social or religious, may we never lose our focus on that one love and common good, Jesus Christ, who feeds us and strengthens us so that we can challenge ourselves to grow and deepen our spirituality, and make the world a better, more peace-filled place, "so that not a person among us is needy."
As we come together to share this communion meal, we share in Jesus’ story. Through him, we become one in his suffering and in his resurrection. We become a part of his life and his glory, his love and his grace. Many have come from the East and the West, the North and the South to taste the meal that Jesus offers. Come and let us gather as a family around the table. Each one of us is different, yet loved by God all the same.
We do not put up walls or barriers to keep you away. Instead, we offer you, the faithful and faithless alike, to take this simple bread and cup and receive all that Jesus has to offer. Come not because you have to, but come because you want to be filled with the abundance of God's love. Amen.