Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent
“ Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost. Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten.”
I have, in person, seen the famous painting by the French Post-Impressionist, Georges Seurat, at the Chicago Institute of Art entitled: A Sunday on La Grande Latte. His method called “pointillism,” was to place dots of color on the canvas, many points, many colors creating a soft effect in hazy detail. Close up, the image appears as only tiny dots of color. When you step back to see the entire painting, there emerge images of people standing by the shores of a city lake out these many-colored dots: ladies with parasols, little dogs, a man reclining on his elbows, everyone looking out at the water on our left. There is surrealism in this painting: the dots float on the canvas, just fragments of color, and they seem almost accidentally to form the images.
Seurat, in his odd painting style, anticipated two developments in image reproduction: half-tone color printing and television’s three-color matrix imaging. These techniques create complete pictures by first breaking the image into color components and individual dots of color, rendered in pigment or in light, then our eyes recombine the dots to portray a complex image from the luminous screen or the page of a magazine.
Our own United States of America is made up of fragments, a variegated confetti of people from many lands, languages and cultures. Our bright, confused flag of red, white and blue stripes and stars testifies to the complexity of even the first Americans. These folk had come mostly from England in search of freedom. Many of them had been oppressed by church or state or economic limitations, and now had become pioneer members of religious enclaves in a new land. Ironically, the Baptists, Congregationalists, Puritans, Quakers, and Anglicans who left England to get away from each other joined hands and hearts here in this new country where they might weave the fabric of a new kind of society. Today that society is comprised of every people group on the face of the earth, fragments torn by strife, war and circumstance from other continents, finding a place in the rich tapestry of the New World.
And a world away, Jesus stood one day before a great host of people out in the countryside, teaching them the ways of God and of the coming Kingdom. He sensed their growing restlessness: hunger was beginning to get the best of them and their attention wavered. Looking out at them He asked his Apostles, “Where can we buy bread so that these can eat?” The question baffled them, seeing the great number of folk gathered. Impossible. Andrew mentioned a boy’s small lunch of five barley loaves, a couple of dried fish, but even as he mentioned it, he withdrew it, saying: “What is that among so many?” Jesus, undeterred, ordered everyone to be seated.
Then he took that little lunch, blessed it, broke the bread, cracked the dry fish in halves, and then ordered the disciples to distribute the food to more than 5,000 as far as it might go. Everyone saw the miracle. This little boy’s food became more and more as it was passed along. In their very hands the bread was multiplied. As it was torn, it grew. As it was broken to fragments, it became one whole miracle and all the people saw who Jesus was.
That wasn’t the end of it. Jesus saw that there was food left over. He ordered that the remaining bread and fish be gathered and saved, that none be lost. Everyone was already full and couldn’t eat another bite. Five loaves had become a great meal for 5,000 and now the remnants were gathered into twelve baskets, brimming with broken bread fragments. Bits and pieces came together to make more than what they’d had at the start. Until that bread had been broken, the people could not have eaten and the miracle could not have happened.
One of my favorite examples of our musical treasure we have in our safekeeping is Hymn 195. This is our oldest hymn by far. It’s dated early 2nd Century, originally Greek from the Didache, that teaches Christian life. The section that becomes our hymn is meant to be a prayer of consecration for the Eucharist in the early church. In English translation, excerpts of this text read:
We give Thee thanks, O our Father, for the holy vine … which Thou madest known unto us through Thy Son Jesus… As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and being gathered together became one, so may Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom… Thou, Almighty Master, didst create all things for Thy name’s sake, and didst give food and drink unto men for enjoyment, that they might render thanks to Thee but didst bestow upon us spiritual food and drink and eternal life through Thy Son… Remember, Lord, Thy Church to deliver it from all evil and to perfect it in Thy love; and gather it together from the four winds—even the Church which has been sanctified—into Thy kingdom which Thou hast prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever and ever.
Our hymn arranges these beautiful phrases:
Father, we thank thee who hast planted Thy holy Name within our hearts. Knowledge and faith and life immortal Jesus thy Son to us imparts. Thou, Lord, didst make all for thy pleasure, Didst give man food for all his days, Giving in Christ the Bread eternal; Thine is the power, be thine the praise.
This 1st verse tells how God has planted His Name in us, and as He gives us food for all our lives, He has given us Christ to be our everlasting Bread, the Bread of Life. Then the 2nd verse:
Watch o’er thy Church, O Lord, in mercy, Save it from evil, guard is still, Perfect it in thy love, unite it, Cleansed and conformed unto thy will. As grain once scattered on the hillsides, Was in this broken bread made one, So from all lands thy Church be gathered into thy kingdom by thy Son.
This is gorgeous language, wonderful thought. Grain is scattered on the hillsides. No longer great sacks of the rich grain, but tens of thousands of individual seeds thrown to the wind and landing wherever the sower has cast it away. It must be scattered, or the crop will not come in. At the harvest, the husks are broken off of the hard grain, and then grain is crushed to dust to make flour. The flour comes back together in a loaf. A new loaf is a lovely thing, hot from the oven. Smell it, run your hand over its rich brown skin, pick it up and weigh it in your hand, anticipate its flavor. But you can’t have any of it unless you are willing to break it up. The bread is broken, then in its basket it is passed down the dinner table. Each of us takes a fragment in our hands and eats it with pleasure. Our fellowship of food joins us in a brotherhood of bread.
When we partake of the fragments of bread in the Eucharist we are united by Christ into His Body, by partaking of His Body, and in His Body we fragments become One. Not just one people group together, but from all lands the Church comes into One Kingdom, through the broken fragments of the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ.
Unless that bread is broken, no one may partake of the meal. Unless Christ’s Body was broken on the Cross, none of us might sit at the feast in heaven with the Lamb of God, partaking of eternal food. He had to be broken for us. The breaking of His life and our partaking of that Sacrament is what makes us One.
In the early Church, a bishop stood to celebrate the Eucharist at the altar, gathering bread together from the people of the Church who brought it up to be blessed. He and his priests gathered around this bread sacrifice, laid their hands over it together and recited Christ’s words at the Last Supper: “Take, eat. This is my Body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” A small portion of that bread was then set aside while the people came up to eat the Body and Blood of Christ. These saved fragments were sent out from the cathedral church to the smaller parishes in lesser cities and towns that were associated with that bishop and cathedral, the members of the diocese or see. When those little congregations next met, the priests would also consecrate bread and wine. And into the chalice of blessed wine, they would drop that fragment of bread sent from the bishop’s Mass, signifying unity with the whole Body of believers, all one communion, one body, one faith.
In our Eucharistic practice, we retain a commemoration of that act. When the priest speaks Christ’s words over the Bread, he acts out what Jesus said and did, breaking the priest’s host, saying: “…he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples.” At a later point, the priest says the Fragment prayer and breaks that bread again, getting a little triangular corner of it in his fingers. When he says: “The Peace of the Lord be always with you,” he traces three crosses over the chalice with the fragment and then drops it into the wine. The broken piece of bread in this way signifies our unity with our bishop, and through the bishop with the whole Body of Christ throughout the world, across the centuries, even to that gathering of astonished Apostles at Christ’s Last Supper, who had also seen the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes happening right in their hands.
We are fragments, mere fragments of the family of man. My heritage stems back to the lands of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, England, France and Germany. I am a Northern European mutt. My son is comprised of the same broken fragments, and also a half of pure Persian from his mother. The woven strands of many families come together to make each of us rich tapestries of rare and wonderful design, each different, each beautiful, each a creation of God.
But the material God uses in the miracles of these last days is the material He created long ago. Even the Body of Jesus Christ was made from the broken off substance of His human mother. We are all fragments, bits and pieces of this and that, having a history going back all the way to the Garden world and man’s first fall.
The true unity of mankind can be found in only one place, and in only one Person. The true unity of mankind is only to be found in the broken fragments of the Bread of Life, the Body of Jesus Christ, God in flesh, broken for you and me, broken to make us one with Him and united with one another through love.