Sunday, July 29, 2012

Pentecost Nine
2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-18
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

Whence are we to buy bread, that these may eat?

Even though there is still much to be accomplished in our house, we have decided that it is time to show our friends and have a service of blessing, so we are planning an open house in a few weeks. I love to entertain, and I particularly love the kind of party where people are free to come and go as they please. Rather than have a select menu served to a few around a dining table, I like to put out buffets full of food that people can serve themselves when they are hungry.

For this particular party, since it is an open house to see the house, I plan on having a lot of finger food that will be placed throughout the house. You might find a table of meats and cheeses in the living room, cupcakes in the dining room, gazpacho in the family room and chicken bites on the deck. As the guests wander around the house, they’ll find treats to fill their bellies along the way.

Now, it is much easier to plan the right amount of food for a dinner party. If you have planned for six couples, you know you need to make meals for twelve people. And though I would still probably cook too much, I’m less likely to go overboard for that type of entertaining. I always go overboard for an open house. I always have a ton of leftovers. See, I don’t want to run out. I want to make sure that my very last guest is able to taste every morsel he or she wants. I don’t want to run out of banana cupcakes early in the night even though they might still be able to choose another dessert. I don’t want to discover that I have empty platters even though there is still plenty of other food. I want my guests to be filled and satisfied. To do that, I always make sure I have more than enough.

In the end I always find myself with not only more than enough, but too much. We end up eating the leftovers for a long time. I freeze what I can, send home what others are willing to take and unfortunately throw away some of it eventually. Even now, as I look at my planning list, I know I am planning too much. I have already crossed one thing off my list, although not because I thought it would be too much. I was more concerned about that food sitting out all afternoon in the Texas heat. For the rest of the items, I have to make sure that I limit the amount I make. Despite possibly needing brownies for fifty, perhaps I should consider making just half that much, knowing that my guests will be happy with or without a brownie.

I love the way the assigned texts often fit into my current circumstances. I couldn’t have planned the stories for today any better if I’d done it myself. Here we have examples of dinner parties that were not planned the way I do. Is there a lesson in this for me?

Elisha was new to the prophet business. He’d followed Elijah and when Elijah was taken into heaven, the mantle of leadership fell on Elisha’s shoulders. There were plenty of other prophets. The companies of prophets, also known as ‘sons’ had also followed Elijah. Elisha received the mantle in the presence of many, though not all respected him. The king and the prophets who gathered around the king were apostate; they had abandoned the true faith. The prophets said what the king and the people wanted to hear. Elisha, like Elijah, spoke God’s word. A few faithful prophets gathered around Elisha, and it is this group of men we see in today’s story.

We see in this story that some still believed in God and trusted Elisha to be a true prophet. A man took his offering to Elisha instead of taking it to Bethel. The prophets in Bethel were getting drunk and happy from the offerings that were taken as sacrifices, but Elisha and those who were true to God were going hungry because there was a famine. The man gave what he was able, but it was not nearly enough to for so many. How can you make twenty loaves and a few grains feed a hundred? Elisha was not concerned. God would bless them.

And He did. The bread not only satisfied the group, but there were leftovers. God provided for His people.

This story prefigured what Jesus would also do. In the Gospel text for today, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd of five thousand men. There were also many women and children in the crowd. Jesus saw this as an opportunity to teach the disciples a lesson in faith and trust. Could God take care of His people?

The question Jesus asked Philip is, “Whence are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” As I was reading this passage this morning, I realized that the question is very specific. Jesus doesn’t want to know how they will feed the crowd, but where they can get food. He wasn’t even worried about how to get it, He just wanted to know where. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus doesn’t ask a question, He simply tells the disciples to feed the people. But in John, Jesus is testing them.

Philip approaches the question from a very practical point of view. He isn’t worried about the where, but knows that the how would be impossible. “Two hundred shillings' worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one may take a little.” It’s probably an answer I would give. “We can’t possibly buy food for so many people with what little money we have, there just wouldn’t be enough.” It doesn’t matter where they might get food since they don’t have the cash to buy it. It would be an impossible task even if they had a wealthy donor. Imagine how much bread it would take to feed so many. They were in the wilderness. If there was a bakery down the street, it wouldn’t have that much bread available for purchase. A city full of bakeries couldn’t feed so many at once.

Can you imagine the sniggers from the other disciples when Andrew offered up the small lunch of the boy with five loaves and two fish? “Andrew, really. That’s barely enough for the boy. It wouldn’t feed us, and it certainly won’t feed thousands.” Yet, Andrew was the one who offered an answer to the real question. Now, when Jesus asked the question, he used a form of the Greek verb “agorazo”, which means “to buy.” The word can also mean “to redeem” and does in Revelation 5:9-10, “And they sing a new song, saying, Worthy art thou to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou was slain, and didst purchase unto God with thy blood men of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation, and madest them to be unto our God a kingdom and priests; and they reign upon earth.”

Did God buy us with money? Did Jesus redeem us by going to the bakery? No. He purchased us with His own blood, sacrificing Himself for our sake. Jesus didn’t want to know if there was a bakery nearby, or if they had enough money to buy bread for the crowd. He wanted to know if the disciples would trust that God can provide them with everything. Jesus would be their bread. He would be their life. He would be the food that would feed the world. Were they ready? Did they believe? Would they trust God?

Andrew’s answer might seem ridiculous, but I wonder if he was thinking about the very story we heard in the Old Testament lesson. It surely would be familiar. When you think about those Bible stories that you learned in Sunday School, isn’t one of the most common this story about Jesus feeding the five thousand? How many years is it found in the VBS curriculum? How often is it used in children’s sermons? It is familiar and it is beloved. I like to use five small loaves and two sardines (which are very smelly, the kids love it.) I ask the children if the food I had would be enough, and they usually turn their nose up at the sardines but think maybe the bread might be enough, especially if there are only five children. “What if I tried to share it with the whole congregation?” They get a little nervous at that point because they know that even one loaf of bread wouldn’t make a very satisfying lunch.

I can imagine Andrew and Philip as children at the synagogue or sitting at their mother’s feet hearing the story of Elisha the same way that we did the story of Jesus. Philip, perhaps, forgot those old lessons, but Andrew seems to remember. “Look, Jesus, this boy has five loaves and two small fish.” You can almost hear him saying, “If Elisha could do it, perhaps you could, too?”

We often joke about church potlucks that we need not worry, there will be enough food. Some people want to plan them down to the last side-dish. They want an accurate count of the guests, unwilling to leave it up to chance. There are times I fall into that same mindset, like when I’m planning a party at my house. Of course, I’m not counting on others to provide the food, so it is all on my shoulder, but still. Do I really need two large bags of meatballs when I only have a dozen confirmed guests? Despite my negative response to questions about “what to bring,” it is likely someone will bring something when they come to the party. Though I can’t count on it, I could count on God.

Now, I don’t want to take away the miraculous nature of our Gospel story, but think about this. The text tells us that it was almost time for the Jewish Passover Feast. How many of those in the crowd were pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the feast? How many of them carried with them their sacrifices for the Temple? In Exodus (23:15) the people are commanded not to appear before the Lord empty-handed. How many were like the little boy with a few loaves and fish? How many had more? We do believe that God made this miracle happen, that Jesus was the one to ensure all had enough to eat. I have no doubt that the food doubled and tripled by His power and faith.

But like the man in the Old Testament lesson, how many of those pilgrims decided that Jesus was the true priest, that He was the one to honor God with their sacrifices? How many gave their offering on that hill rather than at the Temple as they had been commanded? How many realized that this was the One to whom they should not come empty-handed?

Jesus created a miracle, just as He does each time we gather at a potluck, because He draws us together to share our good things with others. The miracle here may not be just that Jesus fed five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, but also on that hill Jesus caused more than five thousand people to turn away from the false religion they were chasing to share everything they had with hungry strangers. While those loaves were meant for the Temple, they would have been used by the faithless priests to stay fat and happy while they dishonored God with their self-righteousness. Just as the man who went to Elisha took the bread to the faithful, so too the crowds willingly gave their bread to the One who was always faithful.

We don’t look at this story from this point of view because it is not the work of the people who made that miracle happen. It is easy to say, “Look what we did” and so the scriptures are clear that it was Jesus who fed the five thousand. We praise God at the potluck when everyone has been satisfied, even though we all shared in the gathering of the food. It is God who works the miracle, but He calls us to join Him in the fulfillment.

Paul writes, “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations forever and ever. Amen.” God’s power works in us. It works through us. It works with us. And Jesus draws us all together to create a miracle.

Trusting God doesn’t mean letting Him do all the work. It means letting go of all our resources so that God can do miraculous things with them. We might not have much, but what we have is enough when it is multiplied by God’s grace. We might not have much time, but every minute we give to someone who is sad or lonely can make a difference in their life. We might not have much food, but every bite given will help sustain a hungry person for another day. We might not have much money, but every penny can be used to do good things for others. With God’s help, our minutes, bites and pennies joined together with others become long glorious feasts.

Paul writes that because of all the great things God has done, he bows his knees to the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” He remembers God’s grace and praises God for everything. He calls the believers at Ephesus to do the same. Paul is responding to the incredible acts of God in his life, in the lives of God’s people and in the Church. God has provided salvation to individuals, reconciliation between people and unification of those who believe by the power of the Holy Spirit. In this passage, Paul is praying for Christ to continue the work begun in and through the Ephesian believers and in this prayer Paul is also reminding the people of Ephesus and every Christian since that God’s grace is bigger than anything we can even imagine. Five loaves and two fishes can indeed feed five thousand or more and we can be a part of that miracle by adding our portion.

Paul reminds us that we approach God and the work He has called us to do with praise on our lips. God has given us enough; we need only share it to discover that there is an abundance beyond our comprehension. Out of the riches of His kingdom we have enough and more than enough to share with others whether they are brothers and sisters in Christ or strangers on a hillside. God will bless the gift of the one who trusts in Him.

Will we be like Philip, answering the opportunities of God with practical answers? Or will we be like Andrew, seemingly child-like in our trust of God’s grace? Will we be like the psalmist, praising the God who provides everything we need and telling the world about all that He has done? Will we take our sacrificial offerings and give them to the true King and Priest to use to feed all those who are hungry not only for food but for the salvation that comes by the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ?

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