Communion in our hands

Rev. Paul L. Escamilla | August 2, 2020

August 2, 2020            Matthew 14:13-21   Communion in our hands                        P. Escamilla

Jesus is by the Galilean lake. There’s a crowd around him, and they are growing hungry. We are told by Matthew that he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples to distribute to the crowd. Those are, of course, words we know from the last supper in the upper room. Take bless break give. Same words. Same pattern.

Matthew seems to be drawing a dotted line between the upper room and the lakeshore—linking the two. Think of it as a trail of bread crumbs, from one location and time to the other, and back.

As if to say to the reader, the faith community, that communion occurs not only in the upper room, but at the lower lakeshore, too; not only in the liturgy, but also in life. Once communion has been placed in our extended hands, it seeks other extended hands into which we can place that sign of grace.

In this story, a crowd fills the frame. On hearing that word, “crowd,” tell me if you’re thinking what I’m thinking: masks, physical distancing. In a few short months, this is how our sense of the world has shifted. Two other descriptive words in this story have also taken on different significance and profound relevance as a result of our viral year: sick and hungry.

Jesus has compassion on the crowds, and heals those who are sick. It is the disciples who notice the hunger, approaching Jesus with a sensible plan: Send them away to get food for themselves. Maybe there’s some fear on their part that the problem of feeding this many people will be overwhelming if it is left to them. Maybe there’s some anger, resentment: They could be doing more, but have chosen not to. Or perhaps shame. We could be doing more, but have chosen not to.

Do you recognize any of these feelings in yourself? Maybe there’s one more emotion. John the baptizer defined for the Christian community what social protest looks like—speaking truth to power. As I’ve said before, when we speak truth to power we can expect it will not be a one-way conversation. John is imprisoned by Herod, then beheaded. Jesus and the disciples have to be feeling this brutal and devastating loss keenly. Fear, anger, shame . . . weariness, grief. How strange it seems with so much gone of life and love to still live on.

“Send them away,” they instruct Jesus. He counters with words that have echoed through the ages. “You give them something to eat.”  

They seek to resist further, but Jesus invites them to present him with what they have—five loaves of bread and two fish. He proceeds to take, bless, break, give. It’s the four-action shape of the Upper Room prayers. Essentially, as Matthew renders the story here, Jesus is placing communion in their hands. And once he does, a miracle ensues. They feed thousands—five thousand men; perhaps as many women and children.

In one of her novels Willa Cather once observed that “Where there is great love there are always miracles.” Once someone has offered to us that loving gift of grace—placing communion in our hands, even once, even long ago, it’s as though something in us wants to move beyond our wants, beyond our fears, to extend the gift, placing communion in the hands of others.

In that moment the disciples become more than they are, give more than they would have preferred, risk more than they might have dared, trust more than their belief recommended they do, stepped just beyond the known way. By the end these reticent disciples, reluctant table priests, have gathered up more than they had to begin with, reminding us of the universal litany of those who freely give themselves away in love: “I got so much more out of it than I gave.”

Has that ever happened to you? We say, Surely not. I don’t think so. Maybe another time. The math isn’t adding up. I’d rather play it safe for now. And then some yes wells up within us. Love enfolds us, and our hearts are opened, hands are opened. Communion is placed there, already seeking another pair of open hands. And we end up surprised by joy, the reward, the deep sense of fulfillment, purpose, having been a channel of grace.  

Take, bless, break, give. Our time. Our energies. Our resources. Our love. A mantra. A prayer. A pattern for life. Upper room . . . lower lakeside; worship liturgy . . . daily life. Take, bless, break, give.

This has been a season of bringing communion into the world in our very own hands. While we’ve been away from the table, we’ve brought the table into the world. Walking our neighborhoods more, talking to neighbors more, waving, lingering, listening, voicing wrongs, speaking up for the silenced . . . Notes, calls, prayers, letters, masks, ribbons. Financial gifts. Meal preparation. Reading partners. Pen pals. Now Interfaith Welcome Coalition.

Love has issued forth in miracles—loaves and fishes. More courage, more openness, more surrender, more growing in trust, assurance that God is with us, and working through us.

This past week the Kairos-Shalom Sunday School Class delivered cards and letters of encouragement to staff at our own Metropolitan Methodist Hospital who work directly with COVID-19 patients. Metropolitan has the highest concentration of these patients in the city, and the staff who relate to them numbers 250. The class made 250 cards to send to these healthcare workers at Methodist.

A few were from children. And as you would expect, their messages are adorable: “I like how you dress everyday.” “Special delivery: French fries and love!” “You rock!” One young girl wrote this message on her card: “I love what you are doing for the world.” What do you suppose she meant by those words? Healing people with a virus? Or did she mean showing the world what love looks like? Treating people who are ill? Or showing the world what it means in a season of practicing an abundance of caution that it is possible at one and the same time to practice an abundance of courage, of care, of compassion toward those in need. “I love what you are doing for the world.”

It’s communion Sunday. Some will Zoom later this afternoon, at which time we will observe the pattern, receive the signs of grace: take, bless, break, give.

All will be invited to share communion—bread becoming the body of Christ, to be sure; but then, the body of Christ, that is, this body of Christ  . . becoming bread, to feed abundantly a hungry world in all those ways. Whether today, or some other time, somewhere, communion has been placed in our hands . . . to be placed in the hands of others.

I appreciate the poetry of Thomas Porter: “See how my people have nothing to eat; give them, give them the bread that is you.”

If the young girl were writing a card to Laurel Heights, or to you . . . who have said yes—so many of you—beyond your reservations, apprehensions, selfishness, anger, fear, shame, grief. I wonder what her card would say? Would it say . . . I believe it might . . . I hope it would: “I love what you are doing for the world.”