Last week I was standing here and talking about abundance. In the string of parables on the kingdom of heaven, little things turned into super-abundant things. The ordinary became extra-ordinary when Divine synergy transformed it.
Among the references to little things becoming abundant, (like a mustard seed, a little bit of yeast), I happened to throw in the comment: Remember the loaves and the fishes?
As I turned to this week’ s Gospel passage, lo and behold, there it was the story of the loaves and the fishes. And thinking I had said just about all that I had to say about abundance last week I passed over this story and focused on the Romans passage. I wrote the wrapper cover on Paul’ s amazing message to the Romans and started my sermon on it.
But I found out towards the end of the week, as may happen to a preacher from time to time, that what I wanted to preach about was not what God had in mind. So here I am, after all, to talk to you about loaves and fishes.
To my surprise I don’ t think this passage is really about abundance. This passage is not about a few ordinary things being transformed into a feast. There’ s no groaning banquet table. Five loaves and two fishes don’ t translate into party time in the Kingdom. There are no well-aged wines; no meaty miracle is spread out on a mountain. Remember, these people are not on a mountain, they’ re in the wilderness, in a desolate, deserted place.
Bread and fish were the ordinary, everyday meal for first century peasants. And here five loaves and two fish become, after all is said and done, simply crumbs of bread and little nibbles of a broken up fish. But, it’ s enough to get these folks through the day.
This is a story about a few ordinary things becoming enough with a few leftovers on the side.
I remember the only time I ever saw Julia Child on TV. She was a wonderful cook, a practical woman with an English accent. She was flamboyant in a way unlike Emeril. She would never say Pow! as she adds a dash of this and a bit of that. She would throw ingredients together, knead them, pound them, stir them with vengeance, and shove them into the oven. And her strong voice, like God’ s might sound in a kitchen setting, seemed to speak the dishes into being.
I turned on the TV one afternoon years ago and there she was. The table in front of her was bare. The countertops behind her were bare. The cook-top was bare, the sink and oven empty. There was not a morsel of anything in sight. She stood squarely in front of the TV camera, glaring at the audience beyond. She told her unseen admirers that today’ s cooking lesson was to be different. And then she announced You’ re not a good cook, unless . . . . There was a long pause as her at-home audience, probably like me, cringed, thinking only of all our culinary shortcomings. Unless and then she swung around, faced her cabinet doors and boomed out, Unless you can open your pantry doors, and say, Somewhere in here is a meal!’ And then she got to work. Whatever was in that pantry, I don’ t remember, but I was sure it didn’ t dare do anything but become, in her hands, a sufficient meal to sustain body and soul.
I remember thinking, It’ s like the loaves and the fishes. And there has been many a time I’ ve remembered Julia and her lesson and benefited by what happened when I’ ve taken the little that was already there and it’ s been more than enough. I call those loaves and fishes times.
The story of the loaves and fishes is about scarcity and Jesus turning what’ s already there into enough for all. It’ s paired in the lectionary with passages from Nehemiah and Psalm 78, both of which refer to the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert, grumbling about a lack of food and water. They have been delivered out of slavery in Egypt. They are now wandering in desolate wilderness, no longer slaves, free at last, but dreaming about going back to their old life as they talk about the melons and cucumbers and fruits and foods of Egypt. Hungry and thirsty, they can only think about the food and drink they left behind.
They remind me of myself when I try to go on a diet. All I can think about is food. I may be dropping a few pounds, getting thinner, still more of the me I would like to be, but food is all I can think about.
The Israelites, though, unlike me on a diet, were actually facing a life threatening situation. Scarcity was not the difference between what they wanted and what they didn’ t have. It was about what they needed for basic survival. Without food and water they would die. Their griping was legitimate; their distress was real. Their failure, though, was that they lacked trust that God would provide for them. Maybe not melons and cucumbers, the meal of their dreams, but sustenance. Enough to sustain them, enough to help them get through their wilderness time, day by day.
Hungry voices cry out from our Psalm: Can God set a table in the wilderness? It’ s the question of thousands of Israelites in the Sinai wilderness in the Book of Exodus; it’ s the question of a few disciples in a deserted place as they face thousands sitting in the grass in front of them.
It’ s our question today whether we, like the Israelites are desperately in need, or, like the disciples, we are faced with the need of others.
Scarcity is a matter of perspective. Let’ s admit it. Today, in this country, most of us live in super abundance, actually over abundance. It can be very difficult to determine when we really don’ t have enough.
What is enough? A bigger house, steak instead of hamburger, a 2005 Lexus instead of a 1999 Nissan, designer clothes and shoes, a bigger retirement nest egg, membership in The Club. I can remember times during my legal career as a family law attorney when a woman would cry in despair when she realized the support the judge awarded was not enough. At times it would be a woman living on an amount only slightly higher than the poverty line. At another time it would be a woman awarded $10,000 or $12,000 a month but who felt desperate and afraid because it just wasn’ t enough.
I don’ t know about you, but I think I’ ve lost track of the concept of scarcity. I’ ve lost track about what is enough in my life. This idea of what’ s enough has been shaped and molded by all the advertising that makes me think I need more and more to meet my basic living needs. Too often I’ ve looked around and compared myself and what I have with others who have more and that has raised the bar for me on what is enough. If I am honest with myself, I can see that my needs are met it’ s the wants that make me hungry and blow me apart.
But there are wilderness times for many. Many do, whether for a spell or for a lifetime, walk in desolate places. They don’ t have enough to live at a basic, life sustaining level. Like the thousands who walked long distances in the story of the loaves and the fishes, they are seeking help. They need help from the Great Healer, the Great Provider, the Great Shepherd. And he is there, among them. And when they are hungry and in real need he turns to his disciples and says, You give them something to eat. The disciples find what they can and then in some mysterious way, what’ s there, as Jesus blesses it, becomes enough.
I remember a family story about my grandfather. He was an Episcopal priest during the depression in the mountains around Charlottesville. Mother told me the story about a Sunday when, after church, she and her brothers and my Grandmother and Grandfather sat down at the table for Sunday dinner. Sunday dinner back then for them meant roast chicken a real treat. I got the impression that sometimes Grandfather was paid in produce and in a chicken or two when there was not enough money in the Sunday plate to support the little church and the rector’ s salary for a month. And Grandmother was good at preparing a beautiful dinner out of very little. Just as Grandfather was about to carve into the chicken, there was a knock at the door. A desperate father, a mountain man who hadn’ t worked in months, hat in hand stood there. He told Grandfather that he had no food for his family. He asked for help.
Grandfather, so the story goes, turned and went into the rectory dining room, picked up the chicken, wrapped it in a big napkin, walked back to the front door and handed it to the man.
The man started to protest recognizing it was the family’ s meal that day. But Grandfather made him take it. I can almost hear Grandfather say, No, you take it. We have enough. And they both did as the mountain man’ s family ate chicken and Grandfather’ s family ate the rice and whatever else Grandmother had prepared.
Where are you today? Who are you in these wilderness stories? Are you one of the Israelites in the Sinai dreaming of melons, or desperately in need of something basic for your survival? Are you one of the disciples turning and recognizing those in need around you as Jesus calmly tells you, Give them something. Are you one of those sitting in grass, seeking healing in some way, seeking to sit at the feet of the great Shepherd, realizing that man cannot live on bread alone, but your stomach is grumbling?
As with the manna in the desert, the water in the rock, the loaves of bread and a couple of fish the ingredients for curtailing hunger and supplying the needs of all are already present. It’ s a question of distribution. The great Distributor is already present. God has given the gifts. God has made available to us all that we need to sustain life. It’ s a question of recognizing just what is already around us, both the gifts and the Great Gift Giver. Jesus is saying, take them, distribute them. With my blessing they will be enough for all.
It’ s time to throw open our pantry doors and recognize, yes, somewhere in here is a meal. Somewhere in here is sustenance for all. There is enough to feed body and soul, with enough for leftovers.
Jesus challenges us to look hard at what is enough in our lives. What do we need to meet a basic living standard and how do we help others to do the same? And remember always, that among the necessities of life is Christ. We will never have enough, until we let Christ into our lives to fill our souls. He is the one who transforms our feelings of scarcity into realization of what is enough and then calls us to turn and fill others in his Name.