My father was three years old when war broke out in 1939. The following year, decreased food imports because of submarine activity led to the rationing of meat and other food items in Britain. As the war continued, more foods were rationed. Each family’s allowance was itemized in a book to be shown to the shopkeeper to claim one’s rations. Adults were allowed one egg per week. Even after the war, rationing continued; in fact, it was the year after the war ended that bread was added to the rations list. Rations were finally lifted the year my father turned eighteen. He had gone through all of his childhod savouring and saving every last scrap of food, to make sure that there was always enough to go around.
So it was the remainder that got to me, at the end of it all; the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. These were surely not gathered up to be thrown away. These broken pieces had to mean more than mere leftovers.
We can imagine the scene. The people sit on the ground beside the water’s edge, on the grass. You can hear the psalm murmured among them:
The Lord is my shepherd; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. (Psalm 23)
But the men are counted in military formation, apart from their women and children; they sit by the thousand, regimented, with the women and children off to the sides.
You have spread a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. (Psalm 23)
At the centre of it all, Jesus takes fish and bread, looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the loaves, and gives them to the disciples, who in turn share them amongst the crowds, those counted and those besides. And when all was said and done, they gathered up twelve baskets full of broken pieces.
Those who live with rationing – those who go hungry so that their children can eat; those who can’t heat their houses or who have to choose between shelter and much-needed medicine; the underfed, the underpaid and underappreciated – they know what it’s like to pick up the broken pieces around the edges, that others leave behind.
There are other broken pieces.
I’m thinking of the people of Gaza, after a failed ceasefire, suffering the continued killing of their children. I think about the brokenness of a region, a country which has so far failed to forge a nation of peace out of peoples at war; too many broken pieces on both sides of the security division, but especially those children. I remember that horrible phrase, “collateral damage”; those counted afterwards, besides.
I’m thinking of the broken families that peel off a part of their own hearts, and send their children across another border fence, seeking safety through desert wanderings, hoping for the best. Broken pieces of families living in fear of becoming leftovers; unimportant side characters in a story centred on the gangs and their violence; disposable red shirts; those counted besides.
On Friday, international inspectors were finally allowed back into the area where the Malaysian airliner was shot down, presumably by Russian rebels, over Ukraine two weeks ago. A reporter told of belongings strewn across the fields, untouched; the broken pieces of so many lost lives, tossed aside by the explosion and the crash. And on the ground, and all around; so many broken pieces besides.
In western Africa, in the midst of a different kind of terror, not of anyone’s making but the opportunism of disease, care workers risk their own health and wholeness to gather in the sick and minister to them. They carry grace into the valley of the shadow of death, and those walking through it lean on their shoulders.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23)
In Gaza, an Episcopal hospital, Al Ahli, continues to pray for the peace of Jerusalem not only in words but in action, binding the wounds of the broken, bringing grace into the valley of the shadow of death.
Grace is not scarce, not even here, nor in Guatemala, nor in Guinea nor in Gaza; grace is not scarce, and it is never rationed; and it is never thrown away.
Of course, the central action of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is that of the Eucharist; Jesus takes bread, blesses it – which means to give thanks for it – breaks it and distributes it to the hungry.
But Jesus employs his disciples throughout this episode, and in its aftermath. First, he tells them, “You feed the people.” Do not let your neighbour go hungry, for bread or for grace. Jesus feeds the disciples first, then he has them go out and share what they have received with the others; moving through the sections of five thousand men, with women and children besides, distributing the bread and the fish, and the blessings. Finally, when all is said and done, he has them gather in and gather up the broken pieces. Nothing is tossed aside. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is left to be trampled underfoot. And no one is left out.
The Eucharistic prayer that we have been using this summer contains the petitions:
Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name. (Holy Eucharist II, Prayer C)
Whether we identify with the disciples in the story, who serve as the primary ministers of food, of grace; whether we see ourselves among the crowds, following, waiting, hanging on Jesus’ every word as it feeds us; whether we feel at times as though we are the ones who get the broken pieces; prayers answered differently than we might have liked; still, it is grace, to know that God hears our prayers, gives us our daily bread, one way or another. “We who are many are one body, for we all share in the one bread.”
We bring our own brokenness to the altar, to the Lord, and we are told to go now and gather up the remainder, so that nothing is lost; that we may worthily serve the world in Christ’s name. The feast of grace that we share is not for us alone. It is for those besides, who hunger for the body of God, who thirst for grace. No fragment of grace is too small to share. None is too broken to be gathered in.
Lord God of our Fathers and Mothers; God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.
Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread. Amen. (Holy Eucharist II Prayer C)
 rationing information from http://www.primaryhomeworkhelp.co.uk/war/rationing2.html