In 2014, Evie and I were privileged to join a group of other pilgrims from Ohio and Michigan and spend not quite three weeks in Palestine and Israel visiting many of the sites we hear about in the Bible, especially the Christian holy places of the Gospel stories. One of those was a hilly place overlooking the Sea of Galilee called Tabgha. Until 1948, when the Israelis uprooted its residents, a village had been there for centuries; now it is simply an agricultural area and a place of religious pilgrimage.
The name is a corruption of the Greek name of the place, Heptapegon, which means “seven springs;” its Hebrew name is Ein Sheva, which means the same thing. It is venerated by Christians for two reasons; on a bluff overlooking the place is where the feeding of the multitude is believed to have occurred and on the beach is where the Risen Christ is thought to have had a grilled fish breakfast with Peter during which he asked him, three times, “Do you love me?” At each location, there is a shrine and a church: the first is called The Church of the Multiplication; the second is called Mensa Domini (which means “the Lord’s Table”) and also known as The Church of the Primacy of Peter.
A Fourth Century pilgrim from Spain named Egeria reported visiting, in about 380 CE, a shrine where the Church of the Multiplication now stands; in her diary, she tells us that the site had been venerated by the faithful from the time of Christ onward. Shortly after her visit, a new church was built there in which was laid a mosaic floor depicting the loaves and fishes. That floor still exists today and a graphic of that picture of loaves and fishes is on the front of your bulletin.
Before we visited this place, I was in the habit of discounting the story of the feeding of the multitude: “It probably wasn’t that big a crowd,” I would think. John and the other evangelists, or whoever first told the story, probably exaggerated; it was probably more like 500 than 5,000 people. But after being there, I know that it is only about an hour’s walk from Capernaum to Tabhga, only an hour from Genessaret, only an hour and a half from Chorazin, maybe two hours from Bethsaida or Tiberias, perhaps several hours from Nazareth and more distant towns. But if one had a donkey or a horse, or if one could come over the water by boat, the time would be considerably less. If Jesus and his companions were there for several hours, word could easily have spread and people from all those places and more could have come to see this famous prophet and miraculous healer. Each of those places I’ve named was an important agricultural or fishing site, a residential center, a political center; each had a fairly large population for the time. It’s entirely possible that, hearing that this famous teacher was there, a crowd of thousands could have gathered there, a crowd of thousands who dropped what they were doing and headed out to see Jesus, a crowd of thousands who ended up being there late in the day without enough to eat.
When the Evangelist Mark tells this story, and he may have been the first, the disciples come to Jesus concerned about the hungry crowd and one of them (John identifies the speaker as Philip in today’s reading) says to Jesus: “Send [these people] away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” I don’t know about you, but when I read that account I can hear this disciple’s voice dripping with scorn. He doesn’t say it, but I can hear him thinking, “These silly people came out here without planning ahead. This is their problem; they need to solve it.” And, thus, his advice to Jesus: “Send them away.”
The disciple should have amended his thoughts and held his tongue. In Mark’s Gospel, a couple of chapters after this event, is the other miraculous feeding story, the feeding of the 4,000, and once that meal is finished, Jesus and his disciples again get in a boat to go elsewhere. Mark tells us: “Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.” Fancy that! Just like the 5,000 Jews who came to Tabgha, just like the 4,000 Gentiles who gathered around Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee in the region the Decapolis (which means the “Ten Towns”), the twelve set out on a journey unprepared.
The pattern was set from the very beginning by the very first followers of Jesus, the Christian penchant for going off half-cocked, even when we have direct and immediate experience that should influence us otherwise. I have no doubt that the Jews of the region around Tabgha and the Gentiles of the Decapolis had gone on long journeys before and knew the need to bring along food. It is clear that the disciples’ failure to bring more than one loaf of bread for their voyage followed almost immediately after Jesus had fed the 4,000, which itself followed shortly the feeding of the 5,000 in today’s Gospel. You’d think they would have learned, and you’d think their successors through 2,000 years of human history would have learned! But we don’t. We Christians still begin projects without sufficient preparation, and we still start our parishes’ fiscal years with deficit budgets.
OK. It’s not a purely Christian failing; it’s a human predisposition. Failure to prepare. Some people over-compensate for this by swinging their preparation pendulum way over to the opposite extreme; my spouse is sometimes one such person. (I hope I won’t get into trouble telling you this.) Often when we travel she will pack twice as many clothes as she will need, but will then leave her mobile phone behind; more than one hurried return trip has been made retrieve something like that when an item’s absence has been discovered as we are half-way to the airport.
Is there an answer? Well, yes. Planning and checklists. When I’m going on a trip, I make a list of everything I’ll need and want to pack, and then I follow it as I’m loading up my suitcase. More than once, I’ve heard my wife and my children singing “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice . . . .” under their breath as I prepare for a trip. Fine, make fun of me. It works, and it’s fully in keeping with Jesus’ teaching.
Remember the parable of the slave who did not prepare and whose master found him unready? – Jesus promised he would “receive a severe beating.” Remember the parable of the bridesmaids? – half of them did not bring enough oil for their lamps and thus missed the wedding reception? Or consider Jesus’ question to those who would be his followers: “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” Planning, checklists, budgets. Without them, we get into trouble.
We are, of course, to rely upon the abundant graces of God. “God will provide” is a sentiment in which more of us should trust. On the other hand, we are supposed to be stewards of God’s bounty and stewards are supposed to be people of common sense and good preparation. Setting off on a journey of several hours in First Century Palestine with no food, undertaking a major project with only a single loaf of bread is not good stewardship! God will provide, it’s true: “You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature,” sings the Psalmist. The Bible is full of stories like today’s lessons which demonstrate the abundant and prodigal generosity of God, but it is also filled with admonitions to plan and prepare.
I’m sure that you have all worked on something that required dedication and perseverance. Maybe you have achieved an important educational or professional objective, perhaps you’ve accomplished a major athletic goal, or conquered a bad habit. It took planning and preparation, didn’t it? Together in this parish we have done many things, including the renovations and remodeling this building: that took planning and checklists and budgeting. The thing that we accomplished together that I am really most proud of is the annual Gentlemen’s Cake Auction through which we raised thousands of dollars for youth ministries and children’s programs in this city.
How did we do it? Did it just happen? As every guy who baked and decorated a cake can tell you, it required preparation, and discipline, and persistence. As the Hansens, who coordinated those auctions, and everyone who helped on the day of the event can tell you, it took planning, and a checklist, and a budget. Long before the grants were given to Garfield Elementary School or Let’s Make A Difference or any of the other recipients, we had to do what was needed to get ready, to be ready, and to stay ready. We had to be prepared, and the degree to which we prepared, to which we planned, and made and followed budgets, and made and followed checklists … the degree to which we did that determined how well we succeeded. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written,
“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever.”
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.
Today’s lessons give us two examples of what God does when we do our part. From the Second Book of Kings, we have what Presbyterian scholar Choon-Leon Seow calls a “remarkably mundane” story of food for the hungry. Elisha takes just twenty barley loaves given as an offering of first fruits by a faithful man from Baal-shalishah and with that small amount, feeds a hundred or more people: “He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.” In his commentary on the story, Professor Seow writes:
We may not have the technical know-how … to cause limited quantities of food to multiply. Yet it is imperative that we feed the hungry with whatever resources we may find. Proclamation of the word of the Lord involves much more than words; it involves reactive and proactive action to bring life and to give hope to others.
And, of course, the Gospel story in which it is none of the adults who come prepared, but a boy who generously gives up his own lunch of five small loaves of bread and two fish, which Jesus blesses and distributes to the huge crowd, all of whom eat and are filled. Afterwards, the disciples gather up the leftovers, “and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.” With a little bit of foresight and planning, a little bit of faithfulness, a little bit of generosity on the part of God’s people, God working through Elisha and working as Jesus increases the harvest of righteousness.
In a few weeks time, the church throughout the United States will once again begin the annual ritual known as “Stewardship Time.” St. Paul’s Parish will follow suit: you will receive a Transforming Generosity card and be asked to give the vestry your estimate of financial support for this parish in 2019. For the first time in 15 years, I have no stake in this process, no “dog in this race” as a friend of mine likes to say. In 2019, I will no longer be dependent on your financial largesse for my livelihood. And, yet, I encourage you to generosity, to profligate generosity, in fact.
Your vestry and eventually your search committee will soon have before them the task of seeking out the best possible clergy person to fill the role of rector in this parish. You want to empower them to be as prepared as possible to do that. You want this place to be one to which God will call the priest who will best serve the needs of this congregation and the community it serves. You want this parish to be the faithful man who brought the twenty barley loaves; you want this parish to the young boy who brought the five loaves and two fishes. You do not want to be the one who sows sparingly and thus reaps sparingly; you want to be that faithful follower of Jesus who sows bountifully and thus reaps bountifully. You want St. Paul’s Church to be Baal-shalishah; you want St. Paul’s to be Tabgha; you want St. Paul’s to be the region of the Decapolis. You want God to take what you bring and feed the multitudes. You want your generosity to transform this place.
It is entirely possible that thousands were fed at Tabgha; it is entirely possible that thousands were fed in the region of the Decapolis; and it is entirely possible to spiritually feed thousands here at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio. But that takes planning. It takes checklists. It takes budgets. And it takes pledge cards and contributions. When you get your Transforming Generosity card in a few weeks, complete it with as much abundant generosity as you can muster . . . and next year when you make your contributions in fulfillment of that pledge, strive to do better than you promised.
“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 29, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
The lessons used for the service are 2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-19; Ephesians 3:14-21; and St. John 6:1-21. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.
 Mark 6:3 (Return to text)
 Mark 8:14 (Return to text)
 Mark 8:14 (Return to text)
 Matthew 25:1-13 (Return to text)
 Luke 14:28 (Return to text)
 Psalm 145:17 (Return to text)
 2 Corinthians 9:6-10 (Return to text)
 2 Kings 4:44 (Return to text)
 The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III, 1 and 2 Kings (Abingdon: Nashville, 1999), page 191 (Return to text)
 John 6:13 (Return to text)
 Ephesians 3:20-21 (Return to text)