This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on Sunday, July 29. It was based on the lessons for the day, 2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-18; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21.
How much is enough? I heard someone say once that enough is just a little more than what I have. Which is apparently why people who have a perfectly comfortable lifestyle continue to buy lottery tickets, dreaming about what they would do with a whole lot more than what they have. Ask a guitar play how many guitars are enough. Usually it’s one more than they have. How big a boat is enough — just a little bigger than the one you have.
Enough is a tricky thing to think about in a culture that is more about scarcity than enough. Conversations in Washington always give us the impression that we have to cut something in because there isn’t enough money for some this or that. Over the years I’ve talked to many people who have comfortable retirement savings who live their lives in fear that their money will run out before the end of their lives. And of course, I have also known many people who really did not have enough to live on. We are conditioned to think of enough as a zero sum game that is more about scarcity of resources than abundance of resources. If we want to do A, then we can’t do B or C because there isn’t enough to go around. Or if we want to do B, then A will have to be cut and C can’t be done at all.
The narrative of scarcity flies in the face of what we hear in our readings this morning. In the first reading, the prophet Elisha encounters a hungry crowd in the midst of a famine. Someone has some loaves of barley bread, but clearly it’s not enough for everyone. Elisha tells him to distribute the bread anyway, and miraculously, there’s enough to go around. Elisha trusts God; God provides enough and even more to satisfy the need.
In the gospel lesson, the crowds are following Jesus. He has been healing their sick and teaching them. People have discovered that this itinerant rabbi has much to offer. So, Jesus goes up the side of a mountain and sits down with his disciples. But they aren’t alone for very long. The crowds follow him, and Jesus takes the responsibility to make sure the crowds have something to eat. Jesus asks Philip a test question. “Hey, Phil. Help me out here. The crowds are hungry. Where can we get them some lunch?” The first thing Philip does is the calculations. A lot of people. Six months paychecks would not be enough to even get everyone a sandwich and chips. Andrew also recognizes the magnitude of the situation; he doesn’t so much do the calculations as look around to see what’s available. A poor boy has his traveling lunch: a few small loaves of bread and some dried fish. The equivalent of a granola bar and a piece of beef jerky. What’s available is almost a joke in the face of so much need. Andrew asks, “What good is the boy’s picnic lunch in the face of so much need?” I hardly think that Andrew’s question is a serious one. He’s not asking it in the hope that it will do any good, but rather as an indication of how little they have. Of how scarce the resources are.
You know the rest of the story. In the hands of Jesus, scarcity becomes abundance. The poor boy’s lunch becomes provision for thousands.
May I remind you that this is but one story in a large collection of biblical stories that remind us of how things work in God’s kingdom. In the very first story in the bible, creation was filled with abundant provision for people and for all the creatures. When God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God provided manna — bread — for their journey, and everyone had enough. When Isaiah proclaimed what the coming kingdom would be like, he wrote that the Lord would make a feast for all people, a feast of rich food and aged wines, so much wine that the wine would be dripping from the sides of the mountains.
These stories challenge us. They offer a different reality, one that is often hidden behind the narratives of scarcity and zero sum accounting. What shall we do with this story of a miraculous feeding? What shall we do with this story in a day when church membership is declining and the cost of keeping the church doors open just keeps going up and up and up? What shall we do with this story in a congregation where our offerings are not keeping up with our expenses and we are looking at roof and siding repairs that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars? What shall we do with this story, dear church, in a community where we know that children go to bed hungry, where families don’t have adequate housing, where too many are living on the edge?
One temptation would be just to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well that’s just the way it is.” And then go merrily on our way, certain that there is never enough to go around.
But this story addresses precisely that temptation. When we say the need is overwhelming and our resources are too meager, Jesus says, “Tell the people to sit down.” Because he’s about to act.
Jesus acts. Jesus acts, not just in the miracle, but in his entire ministry, life, death, and resurrection. Jesus acts and address the hunger that is at the very heart of human life. The gospel writer John here wants to tell us something more important than the miraculous provision for a crowd. His purpose is not to suggest that we believers will be provided for miraculously by a wondrous king. Rather, the point is that Jesus himself is all we need for life.
Did you notice the little chronological clue that John gives us? There’s this little throwaway sentence that almost seems not to have anything to do with anything else in the story. Verse 4: “Now, the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” The Passover is the feast which celebrates the great deliverance. It was the yearly commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, the beginning of the journey from slavery to freedom. God made it possible to share a new life together with God in their midst. By setting the event near the Passover, when the messiah was expected to appear, John uses the story to proclaim that Jesus is the One. He is the One who has come to bring us from slavey to sin and death to freedom and life with God. He has given himself in death so that we might have life.
Because of that, there is enough. There is enough for all. Our cries of “never enough” are never the final answer. Scarcity is a mindset that refuses to acknowledge how God works. In God’s economy, we are simply called to take what we have and offer it to God, and to the world; and to offer not only what we have, but who we are, our very lives. In the hands of Jesus, what we have and who we are will be multiplied and there will be more than enough for everyone. When we feel inadequate, we recall that it is not up to us to solve the world’s problems; God has already given us what we need. Our task is to open our eyes to see what we have been given and then to open our hearts to share with those in need. The answer to the narrative of scarcity is to consider God’s abundant providence. Remember Andrew’s question? “What good is what we have for so many?” It’s the wrong question. The question is, “What have we already been given?” “What do we have?” And then offer it to God believing that God will bless it. Ministry is not just about scrambling to stretch our meager resources, but to offer what we have so that in God’s hands what we have becomes a revelation of God’s amazing grace.
In 1946, a young woman named Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu came face to face with the masses of suffering and dying people in Calcutta. Ever heard of her? You probably know her better as Mother Teresa. She experienced a call to serve those suffering the most. Her knowledge, her wealth, her wisdom were meager in the face of such human need. Armed only with a call, she began the Missionaries of Charity, a small order of 13 members. In the decades to come, the order would grow to thousands of members giving care in scores of orphanages and charity centers in places of dire human need. Love multiplies meager resources and makes a way forward.
And now, very shortly, the One who fed thousands will feed us with his body and blood. He offers himself again for our life. And there is enough for all.