This sermon was preached on Sunday, July 29, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 12B: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-19; Ephesians 3:14-21; and John 6:1-21)
How many of you have ever attended a potluck supper or potluck luncheon in this parish? Let’s have show of hands. OK – hands down. Those of you who have done so . . . have you ever known there to be an insufficiency of food at any such event? Ever? Keep that in mind, please, as we take a look at these lessons today.
First of all, a story about the prophet Elisha from the Second Book of Kings. This the fourth in a series of miracles which are set out in Chapter 4 to prove that Elisha is a spokesman for God. In the first story, one of Elisha’s disciples dies leaving a widow with two children to raise by herself; her only possession, we are told, is a jar of oil. Elisha instructs her to borrow as many vessels from her neighbors as she can and to pour the oil from her jar into the borrowed vessels. She and her children fill vessel after vessel with the oil from her jar. When all the borrowed vessels are filled, the miraculous supply of oil stops. Elisha then instructs her to sell the oil, pay her debts, and live off the remaining money. It is a story of over-flowing abundance.
In the second story, Elisha promises a barren woman who has provided him hospitality that she will conceive and bear a son, which she does. Sometime later, however, the son becomes ill and dies. The woman, after placing the body in the room of her house where Elisha had stayed, finds Elisha and tells him what has happened; he offers to send his servant Gehazi but she insists that the prophet himself must come. He does so and raises the son from the dead. Again, it is a story of over-flowing grace.
The third and fourth stories are tales about food. In the third, we learn that on his return from raising the boy a time of famine has come upon his land of Gilgal, but Elisha nontheless orders his disciples to make a big pot of stew. One of the students goes into the field to gather herbs. Along with other ingredients he brings some gourds from a wild vine. As they eat the stew, apparently some fall ill and die as the men cry out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” Elisha, by the simple expedient of throwing some flour in the pot, “cures” the stew. Once again, the prophet brings life out of death. Perhaps more importantly, when his disciples were without food, God through Elisha’s ministry was able to provide them with what they needed.
And then we come to our reading for today at the end of the chapter. In this fourth story, twenty loaves of barley bread and some undefined but clearly small amount of grain feed a hundred people with plenty left over. This story differs from the first three in that it specifically mentions the commandment of God. The instruction to give the loaves and grain to the people and to eat and have some left over are not Elisha’s, they are the Lord’s.
This series of miracles accomplished through Elisha proves his legitimacy as a prophet of God, but beyond that in each of these events God meets and satisfies a significant human need. Saving orphaned children and their widowed mother from poverty and possibly slavery, providing a son to a barren woman and then raising that child from the dead, and feeding the hungry with more than enough are accomplished in these miracles. These are not demonstrations of power for the sake of impressing an audience; these are acts of abundant compassion and love flowing from God.
These stories, especially the one chosen by the Lectionary this morning, form a backdrop to the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. This story was so important to and had made such an impression upon the first Christians that we find it in all four of the Gospels – each of the the Evangelists puts a different “spin” on the story, but there it is in every Gospel. In fact, it is the only miracle of Jesus that is reported in all four Gospels. John, whose version we heard today, uses it to introduce a lengthy discourse on the “bread of life” from which we will hear pieces read over the next five weeks, but for now let’s just concentrate on story itself.
As John tells the story, Jesus had gone off to be by himself after a particularly intense period of ministry. However, the crowds followed him: “Jesus,” writes John, “went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. . . . . [Then] he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him.” This isn’t the sermon on the mount; it’s not a teaching event; he hadn’t encouraged this group of people to come to this place. In fact, as John tells it, there is almost a suggestion that Jesus didn’t want these people around, but there they are! There they are in a wilderness area at the end of the day, tired, hungry, and apparently without food.
“How are we going to buy food to feed these people?” he asks Phillip. Notice that there is no doubt or hesitation about whether or not he and his disciples have any responsibility to do so; it’s not even a question worth asking or thinking about. These people are here; they need to eat; what are we going to do about it? And Phillip’s immediate response is, “We don’t have enough money.” Meanwhile, Andrew pops up with the fact that there is a boy present with five loaves fish and two loaves, but then immediately observes (like Elisha’s servant in the story from Second Kings) that that clearly isn’t enough food for the number of people to be fed.
Elisha’s servant could not see how twenty loaves could feed a hundred men; Philip and Andrew could not see past the probably out-of-reach cost of sufficient supplies or the meagerness of the boy’s five loaves and two fish. And we, even though we regularly experience episodes of improbable and exorbitant abundance (remember those potluck meals I asked you to keep in mind), are much like them. We base many of our decisions on an assumption of scarcity and on our fear of insufficiency; we hoard and save and worry and end up living our lives, personally and corporately, in small and safe (but largely boring and ineffective) activities. We pull back when we should push forward. We give in to our fear of a shortfall rather than exercising faith in God’s profligate generosity. Elisha and Jesus, out of God’s overflowing abundance, gave the people what they needed.
These miracles, Elisha’s feeding of his 100 disciples and Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, demand that we as the church face squarely this question: “Do we believe that God will provide what we need to do the ministry God wants done?” Note the essential qualifiers – what we need, not necessarily what we want, and the ministry God wants, not necessarily the ministry we’ve planned. Another way to ask the question: Do we operate according to a mind-set of abundance or of scarcity? The former engenders generosity, joy, and hope; the latter brings anxiety, fear, and decline. These stories encourage us to rely about God’s infinite abundance, to live in God’s world of generosity and hope, in God’s world of infinite possibility.
These stories demonstrate that will of God for God’s people, throughout both the Old and the New Testaments, is profligate generosity; God’s will for God’s people is the same today. God wants to meet our human needs. We face no problems that are any different from those faced by God’s people in the past; the problems we face can and will be resolved when we rely upon God’s generous abundance without fear of scarcity or insufficiency. Our problems are not our problem! Our problem is really believing that God is still able and willing to enter into our lives to meet our needs.Our problem is in really internalizing what we are saying when we repeat the words of the Psalm: “You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.”
And yet we have our own experiences of that abundant provision. Elisha told his servant to feed the 100 men with the twenty loaves of bread: “He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.” Jesus had the people sit down; he took five loaves and two fish from the boy, gave thanks to God, and distributed the food. After everyone had eaten, “he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and . . . filled twelve baskets.”
That’s exactly what happens when we have those potlucks I asked you to keep in mind! When we have shared suppers in this parish, no one has ever gone away hungry. There are always plenty of leftovers. They don’t always go home with the people who brought them either – they are sent home with our seniors who live alone, with struggling young families with children to feed, or with the family whose breadwinner has recently lost his job. At our potlucks we personally experience of the very stories we read in the Bible. God not only meets our needs, God overfills them with profligate generosity.
With that experience, we really should have no trouble believing that God is able and willing to enter every area of our lives to meet our needs, not just at our potluck suppers but in every thing we do as individuals and together as the church. We should have no trouble comprehending, with all the saints, the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ and the fullness of God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Amen.