As Much As They Wanted

(sermon 7/25/21)

2 Kings 4:42-44  

A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.

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John 6:1-14

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.

Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

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Presbyterian. Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic; it doesn’t matter the tradition; it doesn’t matter how similar or different their theologies might be; there’s one thing that virtually every single one of them and all the others say: “If there’s anything that this church does well, it’s cook. Or sometimes, they’ll say “eat,” but ultimately it makes the same point – that they enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of preparing and sharing a common meal. There’s something wonderful, something magical, something genuinely miraculous, that happens in the coming together, the sharing of the work of your hands and hearts, of temporarily setting aside any diets, and indulging in the feast and the festivities. It doesn’t matter when someone says that Presbyterian Mrs. McNeil’s ambrosia is the best in the world, that the truth is it tastes exactly the same as Methodist Mrs. Hudson’s down the street; the added aspect of knowing and caring for the people who made all the food, and the people you’re sitting together eating it with, just makes it taste better, and everyone can say that their church makes the best food, and has the best meals, and for them, every one of them is right.

The whole idea of the goodness of food and table fellowship is an important aspect of life in general, but religious expression in particular. And arguably, nowhere is that more true than in the Christian faith. Of course, that’s rooted in the Jewish faith but we take it yet a step further than our Jewish siblings in faith. Both of our traditions start with the first shared, common meal in the Garden of Eden, and while admittedly, that got things off to a rough start, things definitely got better after that. We both have a shared tradition of God providing manna and quail for the common good and sustenance of the Hebrews as they wandered in the Wilderness, awaiting the fulfillment of the promise of being led into a land flowing with milk and honey. We share instructions from God to always share food and drink and hospitality with others, both those we know and those we don’t, sharing whatever we have whether it’s a little or a lot. We share sacred texts that describe the coming fulfilment of the kingdom of God as being like an eternal, unending banquet of the richest foods and finest of drink. In the Passover meal, Jews remember and give thanks for God’s loving faithfulness, while remembering the blessings, and tragedies, within their faith history, as well as remembering the suffering endured by others who were also caught up in that history. And of course, we Christians similarly give thanks for God’s faithfulness and our own faith history, when we participate in the Lord’s Supper; and we believe that in some inexplicable, even miraculous, way we’re united with the Spirit of Christ in the sharing of the bread and cup; in this meal as actual sacrament.

The symbolism, and the reality, of the table-sharing of food and drink – the sharing of hospitality, with God and with each other – is powerful.

We can hear both of today’s Lectionary texts, and we can savor the richness of the details provided in them while our imaginations can be inspired as we fill in the details the authors left out. One thing that we can do that’ probably counterproductive is to get too wrapped up in trying to understand or explain the miraculous multiplication of food that takes place in both of them. Neither author is concerned with explaining the mechanics, the physics, of how it worked, both of them probably considering it unknowable and in any case unimportant as they both focused on the same actual point: in the midst of human need, the resources available are shared generously, even though it seems completely inadequate to meet the need, and the result is that God will make something happen that is wonderful, beyond any human ability, or expectation, or explanation.

This is the point – the good news – that we can hear in both of these accounts: that the miracle isn’t in the mechanics, but rather, in the reality that God blesses and multiplies our faithful and loving acts of generosity and hospitality, often in ways we may never even see.

This point – this good news – doesn’t deny or sugar-coat the reality that despite our actions, some people will still go hungry or otherwise suffer. We can’t understand why sometimes, we see God at work in the world in some places, but not in other places that need help at least as much as the others. I wish that weren’t the case, but we all know that it is. These stories point out, and the fact remains, though, that God’s abundance is capable of appearing in the midst of human need. So we’re all challenged, then, to be present in the midst of that need and to extend generosity, in the same way as Elisha and his servant, and Jesus and the young boy who gave up his lunch and changed the world. Through our actions, and our resources, no matter how seemingly small, God may very well work a miracle in the life of another.

It’s in that spirit of generosity and hospitality that, in addition to our ongoing commitment to our food ministry with Portland Avenue Presbyterian Church in West Louisville and La Casita Center in downtown and South Louisville, we’re also applying to partner with Dare to Care to create a food pantry here in the east of the city, where hunger and food scarcity is also real, even if often hidden. We’re moving forward, confident of the good news embedded in these two texts, of God’s truly miraculous multiplying abundance.

He’d been out of work for many months now. He’d had a decent job, but that was one of the non-human casualties of the pandemic. Since then, he’d burned through his life’s savings just to survive, and now he’d found some work but it only paid a fraction of his old job, making it just barely possible to keep his head above water most days, and too many days, not. Often skipping meals just to cut corners to the bare minimum, while the calls from the collection agencies made his life a round-the-clock, nonstop living hell. His life had been turned upside-down, going backwards in what was supposed to be the prime earning years of his life, filled with fear and stress and no small amount of embarrassment and shame, as he tried to put on a good face around his friends, and not let anyone see his deep suffering and need.

But one of his neighbors did see it, though. And one day on a whim, the neighbor invited him to a dinner they were having at the neighbor’s church, figuring that at least that night, he’d be able to enjoy a decent hot meal. And on a whim, and with the same thought in his mind, he accepted the invitation. When they arrived at the church, the neighbor said to him, “Oh, let me give you the nickel tour of the place before we go in to eat,” and they walked around the building, peeking into the sanctuary and the various rooms and spaces.

“And this,” the neighbor said as they stepped into one room, “is what we call Leo’s Little Store. It’s a food pantry that we run, getting free and healthy food into the hands of individuals and families who need a little help getting through rough patches in their lives.” The two stood there for a moment, until the neighbor broke the silence by asking, “Hey, didn’t you tell me once that you had a family member who was having trouble making ends meet? I’d bet they could use a bag of two of free groceries; we could pack some up and you could put them in your car for them. Do you think they’d like that?” It was an obvious lie, they both knew; a plausible fiction that might enable him to accept some help while saving face and without hurting his pride.

He felt his face getting red, fully aware of what his neighbor was asking without asking. He felt simultaneously embarrassed and grateful, as he heard himself saying, “You know, yes, I think they’d really appreciate something like that.”

Once the groceries were stowed away in his car, he and the neighbor went into the dinner, where there was more food than that number of people were ever going to be able to finish; there was going to be plenty left over afterward. He filled his plate to overflowing with all the standard dishes common to pretty much all church potlucks; nothing elaborate but everything warm and delicious, prepared and shared with love. He sat there enjoying the friendship of his neighbor and the conversation and warmth of those sitting at the table along with him. It truly was something miraculous, he thought, how this made him feel so much better to know that people cared for him and were there to help. He momentarily excused himself from the table and went back through the line to get a small second slice of Mrs. Klinger’s cherry pie, and as he did, he thought to himself that this was the best meal ever. And he was right.

Thanks be to God.  

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