15th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 14:13-21 August 4, 2002
The turning point in my trip to Uganda came the evening I took a deep breath and said, “Can I join you?”
During my stay in Uganda I lived in two small rooms of a three-room building behind the home of Erich and Patricia Kasirye. Erich and Patricia I knew from their visits here. Many of you remember them.
The third room in the little building was occupied by two twenty year olds, Denis Iraguha and Henry Irankandu, and an orphan boy of eight or so named Dickson. This is where they lived, the three of them, in a room perhaps 8’x10’.
Denis and Henry are partners. They had been assigned to look after me, and they did, royally. Henry was my alarm clock and fetched water for my bath every morning. I went no where without at least one of them with me.
Yet I was clearly the stranger. But after a few days, I got up the nerve to stand outside the curtain that covered their doorway when the door was open, took a deep breath and said, “Can I join you?”
Of course they said yes. No Ugandan in their right mind would ever refuse a request for hospitality. They showed me in and asked me to sit on the single bed, the only place to sit beside the floor.
I was struck by how small the space was, and the realization that everything these three people had in the whole world was in this tiny room. A small radio played. I would later learn that this radio was Denis’ prized possession.
“Excuse us that we are making supper,” Henry said. I had just eaten at the Kasirye’s. Henry was cooking on a small charcoal stove, about eight inches around. There was a white paste he was stirring in an old pot.
“What are you cooking?” I asked. “It is called posho,” he said, and all three of them laughed. “For most people it is food for dogs,” Denis said, and they laughed again. “But it fills the belly and we can afford it.”
“What is it?” I asked. “Maize,” Henry said. Cornmeal and water.
“Tonight,” Henry said, “we have avocado to go with it, and a little soup.” I recognized a plastic bowl of the meat soup the Kasirye’s and I had shared a bit earlier. “It is a great feast,” he said.
“It is ready,” Denis said, “you must have some with us.” I had been in Uganda long enough to know this was not an option, even though I was not hungry and was skeptical of what was in that pot.
It was fine. I survived the eating. More importantly, of course, I had made new companions, people with whom I shared bread.
It is one of the most basic of human truths that community is made and sustained around a table, with the sharing of food, no matter how elaborate or how simple, no matter how bountiful or how spare. There is something about sharing one of life’s necessities that breaks down barriers between people and makes them companions instead of strangers.
It is the simple secret of the Eucharist we share each week, and why the recovery of the meal-aspect of this ritual has become important in our day. If you’ve ever wondered why we have an Altar that looks more like a table and why we use something more recognizable as bread than thin wafers, this is why. For several centuries the Church made the elements of this ritual look less and less like the basic meal that it is. The impulse was to protect and emphasize the mystery of the presence of God in this sacrament.
And that is important. But the sense of divine mystery must be balanced with a sense of the ordinary, because the miracle here is that God is present in the ordinary, including in the power of a shared meal to make companions, in this case not only companions with one another but companions with God.
It was important for me in Uganda to risk entering that room, to risk being the stranger, to dare to ask the question, “Can I join you?” The risk is that the answer might be no, that I might somehow be found to be unacceptable, remain the stranger, be rejected as a companion.
In my experience in Uganda, the risk was answered with grace. I was accepted for who I was and given a place at the table. Now, of course, that has happened to me hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times in my life, but in that particular situation, where I had a heightened sense of just how strange I was in that vastly different reality, I experienced my acceptance as grace, as a miracle.
Why was the feeding of the multitude which we heard this morning such an important story for the early Christians? For precisely this reason, I think. It told of the compassion of God shown through Jesus, the miracle of there being enough of God—God’s love, grace, acceptability—to go around.
I find the most powerful words in this story to be, “They need not go away.” Isn’t that a remarkable summary of the entire Gospel, the astounding grace of God we know in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?
And how incredibly powerful to realize that this transaction is exactly what happens every Sunday here around this table. You and I ask “Can I join you?” And God in Jesus says, “You need not go away. I will feed you. I will be your companion.”
After my experience in Uganda this realization takes my breath away. Three Africans, two twenty year old gay men and an eight year old orphan, themselves extraordinarily marginal people in their own world, a world that could not be more different than my own, showed me just what is the center of our faith.
We would all of us do well to fight against the familiarity we fall into with one another and this ritual. We ought not forget that in truth we each come here, every time, no matter how often we’ve come, as a stranger. Our question every week is, “Can I join you?” And God’s gracious answer, every week, is, “You need not go away. I will feed you. I will be your companion.”
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