Feeding stale bread to ducks is a bad idea. I didn’t know that when I was a little girl. Apparently, my mother didn’t know it either, because going to our local park and feeding the ducks was one of our regular outings. I still didn’t know it when my daughter was little. Every time we went back to my hometown to visit, Grandma had a bag of stale bread, ready for our trip to the park to the feed the ducks.
Even though I now regret each dry crumb we tossed out onto the lake, I have fond memories of those days. Feeding the ducks was exciting, and sometimes even a little terrifying. Those ducks were well-trained to respond to bag-holding humans, and they would make a beeline for us, dashing after each piece of bread that hit the water. Sometimes they’d even come up on land and flock around us, quacking loudly and sometimes getting a little too close for comfort.
Some years later, my husband and daughter and I and Peyton and I had the opportunity to visit Thailand. Bangkok is something like Venice, with canals instead of streets and ferries instead of busses. One evening, we were taking a ferry into town. As we approached the dock, we observed that the passengers who were waiting for the ferry were purchasing something from a nearby cart. We learned that they were buying bread and balls of wheat flour.
But, they weren’t buying the bread to take home for their dinner. The bread was for the fish swimming near the dock. Thailand is primarily a Hindu country, and they believe that giving life to another creature benefits the giver’s life. So, feeding the fish was a kind of good deed that will also benefit the one doing the feeding.
As the waiting passengers approached the ferry, they emptied the contents of their bags into the water. Instantly, the water boiled up. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of fish, swimming and jumping around and over each other to get at the bread, so many fish that you could barely see the surface of the water. Although feeding bread to fish can be as harmful as feeding bread to ducks, it didn’t seem to slow these fish down any. Like being surrounded by the insistent ducks at Tuscora Park, the sight of these roiling fish was both exciting and a little bit creepy.
These memories came to mind as I thought about our last “Bible or Not” saying: “Cast your bread upon the waters.” The complete saying is from Ecclesiastes, chapter 11: “Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.” The King Kames Version says “cast your bread.” And while the bread we cast may not be good for ducks and fish, the bread God sends is good for us.
Usually when we use this phrase “cast your bread upon the waters” we’re thinking about generosity: if we give generously, we’ll get back as much (or maybe even more). Louisa May Alcott was the author of the book Little Women, and her mother was known to say, “Cast your bread upon the waters, and after many days it will come back buttered.” If you’ve read Little Women, you know that the mother in the story is modeled on Alcott’s own mother, who was known for her Christian generosity.
The author or editor of Ecclesiastes probably would have liked Mother Alcott’s saying, but he probably didn’t have generosity in mind. A couple years ago, we spent the summer delving into the book of Ecclesiastes. So, you may remember that the author was probably a teacher in a royal or priestly household or school. His advice was more along political and economic lines than moral ones. His idea of casting out bread, which would result in some kind of return, was more likely a recommendation for diversification and trade with other nations than generosity to others. Or, he may simply have been reminding his students that hard work pays off.
But, just because the teacher of Ecclesiastes was more focused on business than kindness doesn’t mean we can’t extend the meaning of the verse. We can apply the same principle towards generosity: that we will be blessed when we bless others, just as the Thai people believe that they will be blessed when they throw bread to the fish.
Whatever type of casting or sending Ecclesiastes had in mind, God does some sending of God’s own. We read about this in our passage from Isaiah. These are God’s words, spoken through Isaiah. “[My word] that goes out from my mouth shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
God “sent” this word at a time when the people who had been sent into exile were about to return to their home in Jerusalem. In our passage, God isn’t casting bread onto the waters or sending people into and out of exile. God is sending out God’s word. And, like the exile into which the people were sent, and the bread which Ecclesiastes encouraged his students to cast, the word God sends out has a purpose. God says through Isaiah, that word would do what God intended it do. It would accomplish its purpose and it would succeed in its mission. It would not return to God empty.
What was the intended purpose of the word God sent out? What return was God expecting? We might say that God sent out God’s word so that God’s people would return to lives of faithful and loving relationship with their Creator. God’s word was sent so that we could know how to live righteously. God’s word gives guidance, issues warnings, and lays out consequences for the choices we make. God sends out God’s word, and it calls us to return from those things that have carried us away from God, as a current in a river carries a leaf downstream.
But, God doesn’t send God’s word simply as a handbook for a good life. God speaks this word so that we may grow closer to God. God speaks this word so that we can bring our lives into closer alignment with God’s will for us. God speaks this word to bring about changes in us which will ultimately create a world that mirrors God’s kingdom, and God is confident that this word will not fail in that task.
Over time, it became apparent that God’s word as it was written and memorized, preached and recited, still hadn’t moved God’s people to return to God. The people refused to allow it to re-form them and remake them into the people God desired them to be. So, God eventually sent out God’s word in a different form. This wasn’t God’s word on a page. This wasn’t God’s word announced. This was God’s Word, expressed in a human being. An embodied Word. The Incarnate Word. The Word who was in the beginning, who was with God, and who was God. The Word who became flesh and lived among us. The Word who was, and is, Jesus.
God sent the Word who is Jesus from above, knowing that that Word would not return to God empty, but that he would accomplish the purpose for which he was sent and succeed in the thing for which God sent him. The purpose for which Jesus was sent was to reconcile the world to God—to do what mere spoken language had not accomplished.
God’s word became flesh and blood, a human being we can see, a life we can emulate, a person we can connect with. The Word God sent was God’s love in a human body—a love so great that Jesus was willing to die on the cross rather than to allow sin to triumph over that love. The Word God sent was God’s power in human body—a power so great that Jesus rose from the dead rather than allowing death to triumph. God so loved the world that God sent the Word we know as Jesus into the world so that the world might be saved through him.
It is true that our world is still torn apart in many heart-breaking ways. It’s true that many people have not yet met God’s Word in the person of Jesus. They do no yet know who he is or what they can find in him. But Jesus has made a way in the wilderness that is open to everyone—the way to forgiveness, to righteousness, to restoration of our life with God.
In Jesus, God’s purpose was accomplished. But the mission is also not yet completed. It wasn’t yet completed on that evening of Easter, as the disciples gathered behind locked doors in the upper room. So, Jesus went on to do his own sending. Appearing to the disciples, Jesus said to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
As the Father had sent Jesus into the world to heal, Jesus sent his followers into the world to heal. As the Father sent Jesus into the world to teach, Jesus sent his disciples into the world to teach. As the Father sent Jesus into the world to offer forgiveness and acceptance and love, Jesus sent his disciples into the world to offer love and acceptance and forgiveness, through him and by the power his Spirit.
Jesus is still doing that sending today. Jesus sends us. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he said to the disciples. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he says to us. Jesus sends us to continue his work of reconciliation and healing in a world that is no less broken than the one he walked around in. Jesus sends us out to share the good news—his good news—of belovedness, of forgiveness, and of hope. He sends us to invite others into the eternal life he offers—life that we can experience now and after our earthly deaths.
We may wonder if what we have to work with is enough to continue that mission faithfully. Are our gifts sufficient? Are we strong enough, persuasive enough, creative enough, brave enough? If we are the bread that Jesus casts on the waters, will we return to him, buttered? The answer is “yes.” In all that we do in his name and to his glory, we can be assured that the One who sends us out knows who we are and what we have and, by the power of his Spirit, we will not return to him empty.
Jesus, the Word God sent, described himself in many ways to a world that struggled to understand who he was, as the world struggles to understand him today. He compared himself to familiar, every-day objects: roots and vines, fresh water, light in the darkness, bread. Especially, bread. Jesus, the Word that God sent, is the Bread of Life that God sent.
God sent bread in the form of manna to the Hebrew people in the wilderness, and God sent us bread in the person and presence of Jesus. Jesus satisfied the hunger of thousands on a hillside with bread, and he satisfies the hunger of our spirits with the true bread of heaven. Jesus broke bread with some travelers on the road to Emmaus and with his disciples on the shore of the Galilee. And, at supper on the night when he was betrayed, he took a loaf of bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying, “Take, eat; this is my body, given for you.”
In a few moments, we will gather at the table—a table set with plates of bread. It’s a table set by Jesus, the living bread. It’s a table set by God’s incarnate Word, sent into the world to redeem it—the Word that accomplished its mission and succeeded in its purpose. It is the table from which we are sent out, like bread upon the waters, to continue that mission until Christ returns. As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us, and we shall not return to him empty. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young