The Welcome Table

Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs

Jesus had already been out on preaching tour in Galilee.  Between pulpits, he turned Simon’s house into an infirmary and tussled with a strongman, stilled a raging storm and unchained a demoniac, stopped a hemorrhage and brought a little girl back from the dead. 

The Disciples, back from their first mission trip, had been hard at work too.  Sent out two-by-two, they had led Bible studies, given first sermons, healed the sick and exorcized the possessed.  When they reconnected with Jesus, they were ready to celebrate, swap stories, and then pass out. 

Jesus was exhausted too, and he had arranged for a long weekend off the clock.  But human suffering doesn’t keep business hours.  And the desperate crowds were already lined up on the shore before their boat even hit the sand.  Moved with compassion, Jesus responds by multiplying the five loafs and two fish. 

Because this is the only supernatural phenomenon recorded in all four Gospels, and because it has become such a widespread story, it’s worth asking anew, what’s the miracle?

Mark 6:30-44 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

Congregational Responses:
That Jesus trusts the disciples with God’s work.
Our crumbs and willingness are all that’s required.
There’s not just enough, but more than enough. 

In the American South, field slaves were prohibited from receiving an education, couldn’t be a witness in a trial involving a white person, could be awarded as a prize if their master lost a bet, and faced death as the punishment for many crimes.  Even worse than Confederate State statutes was life on the plantation.  During the harvest, a typical day began before sunrise and lasted well past sunset, 18 hours of hard, dirty, sweaty and bloody labor.  If a slave was fed at all, there was no plate, fork or napkin.  Instead, it was often cornmeal mush slopped into a trough to be eaten on hands and knees like an animal.  Although their freedom, dignity, and bodies were stolen from them, their religion was not.  Many slaves raised their Christian voices in song in-between the cotton rows, singing about a day when things were going to be different.  One of the most famous of all the spirituals sings, “I’m going to sit at the feet of Jesus; I’m going to feast on milk and honey; I’m going to be a registered voter; I’m going to sing in the heavenly choir; I’m going to sit at the Welcome Table one of these days Halleluiah.”

Because of the tyranny of slavery and the satanic evil of owning human beings, many slaves only knew heaven as a Promised Land entered after the grave.  But according to the Gospels, heaven is far less a destination above the cosmos and more a shared experience down here on earth.  In a barren desert, the sore footed are invited to recline on a stretch of green grass.  In a society of rationing, the hungry aren’t just fed, but filled.  The indentured and enslaved are made the guests of honor, waited on by none other than the servant Jesus. 

The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is that heaven is breaking through in the here and now.  An eschatological banquet that happens every time we allow God to bless and multiply the crumbs we bring to the dinner table.  Every time we eat from a common loaf, heaven comes to earth. Every time we drink from an overflowing cup, heaven comes to earth. Every time we gather at the Welcome Table, heaven comes to earth. 

Because the authorities were so threatened by a God who ate with the wrong people and defied the rules of religion at meal times, they lynched him on a tree.  But after three days, he refused to stay dead.  And of all the possible resurrections, he chose to come back among us as the bread of life and the cup of salvation. 

The meal has been prepared and all we have to do is “give them something to eat.”