a sermon from Saint James Fordham • Proper 13a
Jesus said, They need not go away; you give them something to eat. They replied, We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.
Has anyone here ever lived through a time of scarcity? Perhaps you lost your job or were out of work; or if you were working you were always struggling to meet the bills. I remember my own childhood in a large household with six kids, Mom working hard as a housewife at home, and Dad working as a schoolteacher in a time and place where schoolteachers made far less than they deserved. It was a family of hand-me-downs and making do, of bargain hunting and vacations that mostly meant staying with my grandmother in Boston, after the long drive up from Baltimore. In fact, one of my earliest childhood memories is of what seemed to me to be the amazing complexity of the ramps coming off the GW Bridge and onto the Major Deegan, just a hop skip and a jump south of here. So our paths have crossed before, at least as far as the Interstate is concerned!
But I know I’m not alone in having lived through some hard times. I’m sure many of us here can testify to living through that kind of scarcity. Just as I’m sure that with the rising fuel and food prices, not a few of us are feeling the pinch right now, living through our own present time of scarcity — whether anyone wants to call it a recession or not, we are living through the midst of it, whatever it is called.
The fact is, though, that however bad things seem to be, however much we need to tighten our belts to live through these hard times, we do in fact live through them. We come out the other side, somehow having made ends meet. However short the resources, somehow they seem, in the long run, to meet the need.
Today’s gospel is a gospel for such times — and timely in that it comes at this time. It is a reminder to us that even when our resources seem to be meager — barely enough for a small family to survive on, five loaves and two fish — somehow the grace of God will provide what is lacking, and will make ends meet after all.
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There is, of course, a bigger lesson here — an eternal lesson about much more than bread and fish; about much more than a miraculous picnic in the desert. In fact, it is a lesson about salvation.
For in the miracle of the feeding of the five-thousand-plus people, Jesus didn’t just make ends meet. It wasn’t a case of cutting the cake into enough pieces so that everyone got at least a little. No, Jesus went so far beyond making ends meet that there were twelve whole baskets of leftovers even after everyone ate and had their fill.
Think about that. Imagine five-thousand-plus people attacking a buffet at a parish luncheon, each one piling his or her plate as high as humanly possible, then going back for seconds or thirds, and eating so much that they are fully and completely satisfied, and couldn’t eat another thing, just lying around leaning back in their folding chairs — why, some of the men have even unbuckled their belts — unconscious, and as we used to say in Baltimore, “bloated” — and yet the buffet is still full, with enough to serve a second seating! This is not just about making ends meet — but about exceeding all that can be asked or imagined.
Now, it won’t surprise you, given the sequence of parables we’ve been hearing in the gospels these past weeks, that this whole passage isn’t really about food — Jesus wasn’t really in the catering business — rather it is about the abundance of God’s grace. It is not about just making ends meet, just making it, by the skin of your teeth, but about the overflowing grace of God.
The key to this is in the first lesson from Nehemiah. The historian Ezra recounts the well known story of how bad his ancestors were — and I remind you, no other nation on earth takes such delight in portraying its ancestors as such wicked cusses as do our spiritual forebears the children of Israel. Most people, you know, like to portray their ancestors as good decent folk, but the historians of Israel weren’t shy at all about recounting their failures and foibles. Ezra reminds his brothers and sisters about the awful stiff-neckedness of their ancestors, how they rejected the one who saved them, ready to go back into slavery rather than trust God to bring them through the desert to the promised land; ready even to turn from the living God to worship a thing made by their own hands, a cast image of a calf, and to have the gall to say, “This is our God who brought us out of Egypt” — I mean, really! To think that their own melted earrings and bracelets and necklaces could do that!
And the amazing thing, the abundant thing, that God does — in spite of all of these blasphemies — is to continue faithful to them even when they proved so faithless to him; not to abandon them when they were ready to abandon him, but to remain with them in a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire; and even more, to see to their sustenance with miraculous bread from heaven and water from the rock.
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This is the great good news of God: that even when things go rough, even when the cause of their going rough is our own doing, even when we work hard at our own destruction — still God is faithful to us, and forgiving, ever gracious. Saint Paul captures this stirring feeling of the abundant and insistent grace of God in that beautiful passage we heard today: that nothing, no nothing on earth can take God from us, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Can hardship or distress? No, it can’t. What about persecution, famine, nakedness or peril? Nuh uh. How about the sword — that’s a tough one, isn’t it. Can violence and death separate us from God? Why not at all: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth” — did I forget anything? Well if I did — “nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Only got two fish and fewer than half a dozen loaves — sit down to supper, for Jesus is here. Made mistakes in your past, losing hope in God, and ready to give it up and call it quits? Look out the window, the pillars of fire and cloud are still there waiting for you. Turned away from God and worshiped idols of gold, or fame, or success, or addiction, or violence? He knows; he knows. But he’s still there — still here — waiting for you — with your supper prepared and the table set.
This is the abundance of God’s overflowing grace — the only thing you can compare it with is an unending banquet, a picnic for eternity, the church buffet that never stops. For Jesus doesn’t just make ends meet — he is the End, the goal, the final point, as much as he is the Beginning, the source of light and life. He is Alpha and Omega, the first and the last — he is the cause of our seeking him as well as the goal whom we seek; he is the one who gives us hunger and thirst so that we may appreciate the food and drink that satisfies them, and that he also provides. And that food and drink, my friends, is not just bread and water, not just loaves and fish. It is his own Body and Blood, given for us and for our salvation, to feed us unto everlasting life.
And nothing can stop those ends from meeting — not our own insecurities or lack of resources; not anyone else trying to obstruct God’s access to us, or ours to God; no power on earth or under the earth can keep those ends from meeting.
So thanks be to God, who always makes ends meet — our end is in him, and by his grace, and his grace alone, we have been saved, and made inseparable from the one who created us, from the one who saved us and feeds us with his Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, and the one who sanctifies us with the outpoured grace of the Holy Spirit. To God be the glory, in whom all ends meet, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever more.+
Tobias Haller BSG