Three Square Meals

Give us this day our daily bread.

So we pray as we say the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

Most of us can’t imagine that prayer going unheard or unanswered.

I suppose everyone in this sanctuary will find bread sufficient for today,

and tomorrow, and all our tomorrows.

We are blessed to live in a land of plenty,

and though many of us have endured times of want,

we cannot imagine life without the promise of daily bread;

and more than the promise —

we shall have our bread, fruit, vegetables, meat, and milk

on our table, at a summer picnic, in the school cafeteria, 

balanced on a TV tray during the “big game,” maybe snacked in bed.

We shall have our daily bread.

Thank God.

When Eugene Peterson wrote his popular paraphrase of the New Testament,

he put that line of the Lord’s prayer in these words:

“Keep us alive with three square meals.”

I always assumed, of course, that three square meals

perfectly reflected that pyramid of good nutrition 

that we find printed on food packaging these days.

Three square meals are balanced, nutritious, and healthy.

In other words, a Milky Way candy bar is not part of a balanced breakfast!

I looked up the term “square meals” in the Dictionary of Possible Sermon Titles,

and found that square meals are those which are adequate, or better, are satisfying.

The word “square” indicates something straight or right.

Now, I was getting the picture:

having three square meals is a right thing. 

It is just. It is justice.

I once produced a video documentary for the Virginia Council of Churches

about the rights of children.

I showed a rough script to a friend 

who disputed a reference I had made to “every child’s right to food.”

He asked, “Is food really a right?”

Constitutionally? Politically? Morally?

After some discussion, I came to this conclusion,

that if all God’s children do not have a right to sufficient bread each day,

no other rights, constitutional or otherwise, will make any difference in their short lives. 

Let me tell you about three square meals.

The first meal is described in the opening verses of Matthew 14.

It is really a birthday party…

for Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great,

and currently serving as Tetrarch of Galilee.

The meal is, of course, a feast,

tables laden course after course with food fit for a king

(though in truth, this Herod was more a puppet).

The room filled with well-wishers and honored guests

who revel in a celebration of music and dancing,

loud laughter, and free-flowing wine.

Oscar Wilde has told the story in a play,

Richard Strauss in an opera,

and Charles Laughton played Herod in the 1953 movie (“Salome”),

so we needn’t set the scene too graphically here.

Matthew has told us the story and its ghoulish conclusion, with just enough detail.

Here was a birthday meal served in a context of plenty,

with high powered guests treated to a provocative dance by Herod’s stepdaughter,

with the beguiling music covering gruesome scheming,

and with fear and vengeance motivating an unspeakable present,

not for the puppet-king, but for his wife,

who also happened to be his niece and the former wife of his brother.

The gift was the severed head of John, the prophet of God, 

who had denounced on several counts Herod’s marriage to that woman.

Herod was a man afraid.

He was afraid of John the Baptist and his religious and political power.

He was afraid of the crowds who liked John’s preaching;

he was even afraid of his own guests, 

and what they’d think if he broke his vow to the young dancing daughter of Herodias.

So, what could he do?

He sent for one more platter.

When Jesus heard what had happened at that meal,

he withdrew from the atmosphere of violence, blood, and danger,

taking a boat to a deserted place far from the evil that was Herod.

Matthew is describing for us here the conflict of kingdoms,

as he moves us from the scene of one meal to offer the contrast of another.

Jesus might have preferred to eat alone.

He had just lost his cousin John, the preacher who had baptized him,

and whose sermons had shared the same urgent energy as his own.                 [Troeger]

But Jesus’ retreat is interrupted by the presence of a growing crowd of followers,

and as he goes ashore, his heart goes out to them,

for he sees their great need, and without hesitation,

he reaches out to them and offers his healing touch.

Standing over against the fear-filled vindictiveness of Herod,

Matthew points us to the unconditional compassion of Jesus.

Eventually evening begins to fall,

and Jesus’ disciples realize that the time has come to send the people away.

There is a very practical reason:

people are going to be hungry, and there is no food to be had in deserted places.

There are markets, though, back in the villages,

so wouldn’t it be best if this crowd of several thousand dispersed,

got dinner on their own?

“They need not go away. You give them something to eat.”

The resources the disciples can muster are meager,

pretty much a peasant’s meal in Galilee: bread and fish.

And not too much of either.

(To get an idea of their dilemma, 

imagine being responsible for feeding the crowds 

at a B-Mets play-off game at NYSEG Stadium

with five loaves of bread and a couple of samples from Doug’s Fish Fry!) 

The disciples hear the emphasis in Jesus’ voice,

You give them something to eat.

And the disciples seem willing, but question how it is possible 

with such meager provisions.

(With Jesus, the real question is not how much do we have,

but how much is needed?)                                              [Baesler, “Lectionary Homiletics” X,9]

Then, for too many people to count, Jesus creates a square meal,

a picnic of compassion, 

where someone there must have murmured,

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”

All ate and were filled.

It may have been far from a feast of food and drink,

but it was a banquet of life,

quite a contrast to Herod’s dinner party

which had turned into a banquet of death.

And there, you see, is the conflict of these two kingdoms,

that of the world, and that of God.

In the Bible, God’s providential care always comes through.

God is the one who gives bread.

From heavenly manna in the wilderness to our daily bread,

from Elijah’s gift of endless grain to the widow of Zarephath,

to Jesus’ helping his disciples feed the hungry crowd,

there is continuing confirmation that God wants no one to be hungry.

Now, this story is so important to the gospel writers that it appears in all four gospels,

and more than once in two of them!

And I’ve preached on this story more than any other over the course of my ministry.

But here’s something I just noticed as I was reading it again this week.

Jesus says to his disciples,

“You give them something to eat.”

And just a few words later,

it says, “... and the disciples gave (the loaves) to the crowds.”

Jesus made it clear it was the disciples’ role to feed the hungry.

Then he made it possible for them to do it.

And they did it!

“The work of the disciples, the ‘bread’ of human effort, 

is honored, used, and magnified by Jesus.”                       [The New Interpreter’s Bible] 

That’s a good lesson about our responsibility to feed the hungry crowds today,

and about how we are empowered to do it, not on our own, but with God’s help.

It’s a lesson about our obligation to minister to physical needs as well as the spiritual.

And to avoid thinking about our own poverty of resources 

when we are called to respond to those in greater need around us,

and around the world.

Someone has pointed out that “many poor Christians 

have been encouraged by this story to offer their little 

for the work of God’s kingdom,

knowing that no offering is too small for God to use.”       [Hare, Interpretation, Matthew]


You do it, Jesus said.

And Matthew shows us the disciples accomplishing the work.

But between the command and the doing are the eucharistic actions 

of Jesus giving thanks, breaking the bread, and giving it to his disciples.

Those who first heard Matthew’s gospel were already gathering together

in the fellowship, the communion of breaking bread.

That brings us to the third square meal to consider this morning.

It is the meal that we will share together,

at that table so full of hospitality and grace,

the table of remembrance as we look back to the night 

on which Jesus last broke bread with his indispensable disciples.

He again gave thanks, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples,

saying, “Remember me.”

And they have distributed this bread among us, you see,

all of us hungry and broken and hurting people,

centuries of saints and sinners.

A table of remembrance, looking back, yes, but also 

a table that looks ahead, a table of promise and anticipation.

And a lot further ahead than just the next few minutes!

For the scriptures point to a heavenly banquet that,

in God’s good time,

will draw people

from every corner of creation to break bread with our Risen Lord, 

when the blessed ones who have hungered and thirsted for righteousness

will be filled.

In the meantime,

Jesus is still saying to us,

You give them something to eat.

Feeding the hungry is close to a sacramental command.

When we bring food to church for CHOW, 

or when spring comes prepare the church garden a block away on Liberty Avenue,

when we support Church World Service or Heifer Project,

it is close to being an “outward and visible sign of an inward, invisible grace”

instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Very close.

God’s creation is so full and complete and rich in resources

that even when there is drought in one place, another place flourishes.

When there is destructive rain that washes away crops in one place,

another place has a plentiful harvest.

If people are in need in Tioga or Broome, or the Darfur region of Africa,

we whose tables are full are commanded, You give them something to eat.

It is the right thing to do.

There is enough food in this world of God’s,

enough food to feed everyone.

Except when injustice, greed, or selfishness or other signs of human sin

force hunger on members of our world family.

Feeding the hungry is an act of compassion and justice.

If you ever have a chance to access our denomination’s home page 

look for the pages and links

provided by the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

Our church is well-connected to serve hungry people all over the world.

But another step is for us to be connected as individuals.

When we bring our 3¢-a-meal offering to church

on the fourth Sunday of the month,

it is only a small sign of what should be 

a great act of compassion and sacrifice toward our neighbors.

As we break bread and share the cup 

let’s remember the sacrifice of Jesus for us,

and discern new ways we can respond to his command,

You  give them something to eat. 

Further along in Matthew’s gospel is that preview of our final exam in life.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory...

all the nations will be gathered.

And the King will say to the blessed ones,

the ones about to inherit the Kingdom.

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat...”

And the righteous will ask,

“When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?”

And the King will answer them,

“Truly I tell you,

just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,

you did it to me.”