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Matthew 14.13-21

Matthew 15.32-39

Matthew 16.5-12

The Gospel in a Tuna Sandwich

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

If I had consulted with Lou Groen of Cincinnati Ohio, this morning’s sermon title, The Gospel in a Tuna Sandwich would more likely read, Can Salvation Be Found in a Filet of Fish?  For Groen, the answer to that one is definitely “Yes.”  I’ll explain in a few minutes.

The story of Jesus feeding the multitudes with but a handful of bread and a couple fish is one of the very few stories that appears in all four gospels.  The details vary from gospel to gospel, and as you heard from Matthew this morning, the details can vary from chapter to chapter in the very same gospel.  Matthew 14 has Jesus feeding 5000 with five loaves and two fish, which is the story most of us remember, and Matthew 15 has Jesus feeding 4000 with seven loaves and an unnumbered few fish. And then, just for good measure, Jesus reminds the disciples of both stories in Matthew 16.  At the end of the day that’s an awful lot of mouths to feed with an amount of food that can easily fit into a small shopping basket.

This morning and for the next few weeks we’re going to be talking about Stewardship.  This week you will be receiving a letter and pledge card inviting you to prayerfully consider your support of our church in 2023.  It’s no secret this has been a tough year for all of us.  You’ve noticed it when you’ve gone to the grocery store for your own loaves and fishes, you’ve noticed it every time you’ve filled your gas tank, and during this election season you’ve heard it every time a political ad airs on TV or the radio.  There is no need for me to tell you the church faces the same challenges we all face in our own daily spending and saving.  The cost of everything has multiplied as exponentially as Jesus multiplied the scarce provisions the disciples had.  So maybe there is something to help us understand our own stewardship in this most familiar – and most repeated - of stories in the gospels.

I found myself wondering this week about the menu of a first century table at the sea of Galilee.  What kinds of fish might Jesus have blessed and multiplied?  Turns out there were four principal fish native to the region in Jesus’ day:  carp, catfish, sardines and tilapia.  The bread?  There were really only two, wheat bread and barley, and scholars believe the bread in these stories were the latter.  In fact John’s version calls them barley loaves, which stands to reason since wheat bread was mainly the provender for the wealthy classes, and not many of Jesus’ followers were people of means.  I once asked a Bible study group what kind of bread and fish they envisioned when they read this story, and their answers were very creative.  They named pita, matzoh, naan, roti, lavash and challa; eel, smelt, sunfish, snapper, sea bass and salmon.  And the most creative suggestion of all was goldfish for both!  When I wondered how goldfish could be both bread and fish, well, turns out there’s the kind you’d keep in a bowl as a pet, and the kind you get from Pepperidge Farm!  Two birds – or fish, I guess – with one stone, as it were.  But the point of the exercise was that both bread and fish are a kind of universal staple, and every region has one of each to call its own.

So it is with the feeding of the 4000 and the 5000.  Which is it?  Are these two different stories, of are they simply two different versions of the same story?  Did Jesus actually feed 9000 people from the meagre store in the market basket, or did the story get repeated so often that it took on several lives of its own?  As you can imagine, biblical scholars are of multiple opinions on the question, but I’m not convinced that it’s worth anyone’s time to speculate much about it.  I mean, if Jesus could feed 4000 people with scarce abundance, he could just as easily feed 5000, and for that matter, 100,000.  The more germane question I think is, was it the loaves and fishes whose number Jesus radically increased, or was it the generosity of the assembled crowd?  It could well have been that many in the multitude had enough for themselves, and the presence, example and teaching of Jesus compelled them to share whatever they had with the people around them.  To put it another way, did Jesus transform the food or the crowd?  The answer isn’t necessarily found some place in the text, but rather it can be found some place in the human heart.  The answer is found in our hearts.  Or in Jesus’ own words, the story isn’t really about the elements, the fish or the bread.  As he told the disciples with more than a little fire in his voice, It’s not about the bread.  It’s not about the bread.

I get Jesus’ frustration.  Crowds of people came to him, hungry and sick, and as we heard, Jesus cured them, but the disciples thought there were way too many people to feed.  Their solution?  Send them home so they can eat for themselves.  But Jesus had another idea.  He took what little the disciples had, blessed it and had them distribute it among the 5000, and lo and behold, there was enough for everyone to eat, and they collected what was leftover, twelve baskets worth.  Not long afterward – three days, Matthew tells us – Jesus was doing the same thing in a different part of the region, and the disciples came to him with a similar problem:  “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?”  And again he took what little the disciples had, blessed it, had them distribute it, and everyone had enough to eat with much left over.  And so a little later, when they complained a third time of not having enough bread, Jesus had it up to here.  “Why are you talking about having no bread” he asked exasperatedly.  “Do you still not perceive?  Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?  Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?  How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread?”  How is it that you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread?  It’s not about the bread.  Now, to be fair to the disciples, they aren’t the only ones.  The church often makes the same mistake.  We read about the multiplication of the food, and we marvel at it because for us the miracle is in the numbers:  the number of people, the number of loaves, the number of fish, the number of times Jesus did it.  And this, my friends, is part of the root of the contemporary church’s problems:  when we are too focused on the numbers, like the disciples, we fail to perceive that it is not about the bread.

Let’s come at this by asking a capricious question.  What do you think all those people did with the food when the disciples gave it to them?  What would you do if you were sitting out there in the wilderness, hungry, and someone gave you some fish and a couple slices of bread?  I know what I would have done:  I would have slapped the fish on the bread and made myself a sandwich.  Maybe the good news came to the crowd of thousands in the form of a tilapia on barley footlong!  I know, it sounds borderline frivolous, but at the same time, since each culture has its own bread and each region has its own fish,  it is more than likely that each culture and region has its own fish sandwich.  Let’s see:  there’s the traditional Jewish bagel and lox, there’s the Cajun po’boy, England offers up a sandwich called a fishfinger, there’s the Nordic Fischbröchten, in the Caribbean you can have a conch roti, or a Bermuda fish pon bun, fishermen in Turkey sell grilled balik-ekmek right off the boat – and yes, that’s a fish sandwich - balik-ekmek literally means “fish-in-bread.”  And of course closer to home we have the lunchbox favorite tuna sandwich.  Can the gospel really be found in a tuna sandwich?

It can if we remember what the disciples continually forgot, that it is not about the bread.  At my church in Beverly we took our confirmation classes to Boston Common every year where we worked with an Episcopal church across from the Park Street station and delivered sandwiches to the homeless.  Sometimes it was ham and cheese, sometimes it was salami on rye, and sometimes it was tuna sandwiches.  And we did it because it wasn’t about the bread.  Yes, the people were hungry, but the point was less that we were feeding them and more that we spent time with them, we listened to their stories, and in the exchange they weren’t “the homeless people” anymore, they were Dave and Melissa and Tim with the religious tracts Rianne with the purple hat, and I bet every one of those kids cannot remember what they made for lunch that day but they will remember the day for the rest of their lives because it was not about the bread.  When they got to the Common they thought they would encounter people scarred by scarcity, but they came away with a vision of abundance.  They learned a bit about homelessness in the encounter, but they learned a lot more about themselves.

The disciples looked out on the thousands, and then at their own meagre store, and they saw scarcity.  By the time Jesus was done, they recognized abundance.  We shouldn’t be surprised that it took them a couple times to understand, because we would probably see the same thing.  Indeed, in today’s fragile economy, we would probably be inclined to see the same thing.  But as we read in three consecutive chapters of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is able to use us to turn scarcity into abundance.  I’ve never been one to tell a congregation they need to tithe, to give ten percent of their income to the church or another worthy organization, but one Sunday many years ago, I did outline what it might look like to tithe.  A parishioner greeted me at the door afterwards and said to me, “I could never tithe, I couldn’t afford it.”  Well, I must have left my filter home by mistake that morning, because before I could stop the words from coming out I impoliticly – impolitely? – blurted out, “Have you ever tried?”  He never quite forgave me for my accidental honesty, but really, it is not so far away from the disciples’ insistence they didn’t have enough to feed the hungry.  Jesus’ challenge was simple enough:  have you ever tried?  And when they did, boy were they ever surprised!  Where we think we see scarcity, Jesus helps us to see abundance.  Jesus helps us to see the gospel in a tuna sandwich.  ‘Oh, I could never do that, I don’t have enough.”  Have you ever tried?

Can salvation also be found in a filet of fish?  For Lou Groen of Cincinnati Ohio, the answer was an emphatic Yes!  Groen owned the very first McDonald’s restaurant in Cincinnati back in the early ’60s, and noticed that his business plummeted every single Friday.  He soon realized that the surrounding neighborhoods were over eighty percent Roman Catholic, and at the time the only sandwich on the McDonald’s menu was the burger.  So he took a cue from a nearby Frisch’s Big Boy and cooked up a fried fish sandwich, mixed up some tartar sauce, slapped on a slice of cheese and took it to McDonald’s headquarters for permission to sell it.  Owner Ray Kroc understood the problem, but he thought he had a better idea:  Kroc’s solution was a pineapple on a bun he named the Hula Burger.  But he made a deal with Groen:  if Goren’s franchise put them both on a menu, Kroc would endorse whichever sold better.  Filet of fish?  Pineapple on a bun?  How do you think that one turned out?  McDonald’s company history tells that Groen sold 350 fish sandwiches that first Friday; McDonald’s company history wisely declines to reveal how many hula burgers were sold that day.  For Lou Groen, the filet of fish saved his job and his franchise.

If there is salvation in a sandwich given to a hungry person, or in a can of tuna donated to the Shoreline Soup Kitchen and Pantry, the salvation is not in the food itself, nor is it only for the person who receives it.  The person who prepared the sandwich, who had gone out and either purchased the food or who has invited another to donate the food because of God’s great love and care for us, and for all people – that is, the giver as much as the recipient – knows God’s saving grace because of the generosity that resides in the human heart, and made visible, on occasion, in a tuna sandwich.

People of God, as you consider your support for our church’s mission and ministry over the coming weeks, I invite you to consider it not through the eyes of the disciples who only saw scarcity, but through the eyes of Jesus, who looked out on thousands of needy people and converted a thorny challenge into a holy opportunity to create abundance.

             

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