July 29, 2012

Nothing from Nothing

A miracle on the North Side of Pittsburgh -- a sermon for Proper 12b

Proper 12b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what is that among so many?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.”

In the opening scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear the old king is trying to urge compliments from his daughters in return for their getting a share of the kingdom from which he is choosing to retire — very unwisely as it turns out. Two of the daughters are lavish in their flattery — the ones who, as it will turn out, really despise their father and hold the old man in contempt, and eventually conspire to dispossess him completely. But the youngest, Cordelia, who truly loves the old king, is also determined to be honest with him and not hand him a platter full of false flattery. She knows that her love is richer than her tongue. When Lear coaxes her as her turn comes up, “What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?” The honest daughter responds simply, “Nothing, my Lord.” Lear then warns her that “Nothing will come of nothing.” And so the tragedy begins, as the foolish king imagines that his loving daughter does not love him.

We’ve seen in recent weeks, how it is that old King Lear might have had experience on his side. It is true that nothing comes from nothing. If you want to grow a tree, you need a cutting or a seed. If you want to build a building, you need stone and mortar.

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The pairing of the reading from the Second Book of the Kings with today’s Gospel from John is new to our cycle of Scripture readings. No doubt the editors of this lectionary wanted to highlight the fact that Jesus was acting after the manner of one of the prophets of old when he fed the multitude. What is more important to me about both of these passages concerning miraculous feedings is that they start with some food — twenty loaves of bread in one case, and fiveloaves of barley bread and two fish in the other — and it is from these scant resources that the multitude is fed. Nothing, in this case, comes of nothing, but something from something: both Elisha and Jesus take a small amount of food and they feed many with it.

So this is not a miracle like that of the manna in the wilderness, where bread miraculously simply raided from heaven. Jesus — as I hope you’ve noticed — prefers not to work that kind of miracle. As you may recall, he rejected the devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread. No, he takes five loaves and two fish — which the apostle Andrew recognizes is not enough to feed five thousand people, as anyone would realize — and somehow that food stretches, not only to feed and satisfy that crowd of thousands, but to leave twelve baskets full of leftovers. Nothing comes of nothing, but a great deal can come from something, with the power of God at work.

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A priest friend of mine, Gene White — who I’m sad to say died young almost twenty years ago from a rare form of cancer — once told me about an experience he had while in seminary in Pittsburgh. This was some years ago, as you’ll soon be able to tell. Every seminarian studying for ministry had to learn what it was like to be homeless for at least one night. They were each given a dime to make a phone call in case they got truly desperate — a dime, so now you know how long ago this was! Not only could you make a call for a dime, but there were actually phones on the street where you could make a call.

Gene came from a respectable middle class background, and was at a significant loss as to what to do with himself. With only a dime there was no place to go to, no food he could afford, even in those days when a dime went a lot further than it does today. He was hungry and thirsty, lonely and miserable. Finally he gravitated to the public park and took a seat on a park bench. No doubt he’d seen many homeless or impoverished persons do just that, so I suppose he thought that was how you do it, this is what you do when you are homeless: you go to a park and you sit on a bench. He was naturally reluctant to approach anyone to ask for help — he had never had to ask for help in his whole life — and so he just sat, praying, hard, that something might happen to get him out of this terrible situation.

Well, his prayer was answered, but in a way he never imagined. A middle-aged day laborer in dusty work-clothes happened to come by, and noticed him, and no doubt saw how miserable this young man was, sitting there on a park bench by himself, with his head bowed. He approached Gene and asked if he needed help. Gene could see that the man was not likely to have any money to give him, but simply said that he was hungry, and didn’t have any place to stay. It took a lot for him to swallow his pride and his upbringing to say those words. The man nodded and said that if Gene liked he could come home with him to have supper with his family.

Gene brightened up at the prospect, hungry as he was, and went along willingly. They walked a good while into the poorer part of town on the North Side — and if you know Pittsburgh you know it’s got some pretty poor parts. The man turned in at the gate of a run-
down house, its front yard littered with odds and ends, spare parts of cars and washing machines. Three or four young children were playing in the dust around these relics of appliances, but they jumped up when they saw their father arrive, and they ran to him and they hung off his dusty work-clothes until the man carried them all inside, and beckoned to Gene to follow.

The man called out to his wife in the kitchen, saying that there’d be one more for supper. She called back, “That’s fine; the Lord will provide.” She came to the door of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron — remember aprons? — and waved hello to the guest. The man invited him to sit on the ratty sofa and wait for supper. They chatted for a while, and then after a little bit the family gathered around the Formica-topped kitchen table. There were places set for all and an extra one for Gene. The china didn’t match; neither did the knives and forks; but that was O.K. The father bowed his head and the family did the same. “For what we are about to receive, Lord Jesus, give us grateful hearts. Amen.”

It was only when the meal was served that Gene realized just how costly this grace was. For what the mother set before the family and the guest was half a loaf of Wonder Bread fried in Mazola Oil. Gene never forgot the sparkling eyes of those little children looking up at him and grinning as they relished this feast of bread fried in oil. And he never forgot the generosity of that family, willing to share that half-a-loaf of Wonder Bread and that bit of oil. They did not feed a multitude that night — except the countless throngs of angels that gathered round that house and savored the rich taste of pure grace and charity.

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Nothing comes of nothing. If we are not willing to offer what we have — however modest it may be, however small and unlikely to satisfy, however little it may seem among so many — then nothing will come of it. But if each of us offers that little, that little of what we have, then we will find that there is more than we expected. Nothing comes of nothing, but great things can come from small things, when those small things are dedicated to God and to God’s glory, blessed and sanctified with prayer for God’s purposes. So let us then give of ourselves, dedicating our small gifts to God’s service, with grateful hearts. Who knows how many they will feed, both in body and in spirit, when we give them with open hands, and in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


10 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

Today we had the OT passage from 2 Samuel in which David arranges to have Uriah in the front lines of battle so he will be killed so David can take Bathsheba for his wife. It seems to me the reading doesn't match well with John's Gospel of the feeding of the thousands.

Our priest was a visitor who preached a good message, but he went too long. In between the parts if the message, he roamed and rambled, and he followed his footsteps. He didn't quite make it to the sparkling sands of the diamond desert, but by the time he'd get back to the message, I was mostly off in daydream land, try as I might to pay attention. The song kept running through my mind throughout the sermon. The man across the aisle from me was sleeping, which should have sent a message.

But I digress. Your friend's story of the poor family sharing what little they had is beautiful and moving. I like your message that if each of us offers what we have, small though it is, there will be enough and even an abundance to serve God's purposes.

The preacher talked about homeless people on the street who ask for money - do you give or not and that it's perhaps best not to give but rather work to change the system that leaves homeless persons on the street.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

THanks, Mimi. That other OT reading is from the other "track" of the Revised Common Lectionary" where the readings don't go with what you are hearing on a given day, but with what went last week and next -- sometimes. (I'm not making this up.)

Br. Chris said...

What a wonderful, wonderful witness Tobias! and one that I can certainly testify to from my own experience, although I too often take God's abundant grace for granted. Thanks also for sharing wonderful memory of Gene, who I remember from way, way back.

Bill Ghrist said...

Thanks for the great story, Tobias, but when I saw "A miracle on the North Side of Pittsburgh" at first I thought it was going to be about how the Pirates are doing this season :<)

Deacon Charlie Perrin said...

A very powerful sermon. Thank you.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

You're welcome, all!

Allen said...

Mimi said The preacher talked about homeless people on the street who ask for money - do you give or not and that it's perhaps best not to give but rather work to change the system that leaves homeless persons on the street.

I once heard Calvin Butts say we should give money to the person who asks. I took it to heart. Living as I do in Manhattan, I often see people on the street asking for money and I make a point of carrying easily accessible dollar bills in an outside pocket. I can tell that most of these people are in genuine need. Giving money to the needy does not preclude working for change.

P.S. Great sermon.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Allen. I take a similar approach when it comes to being asked for money. As someone who normally travels in clericals, I'm often asked for something on the street, though more often than not it is for a prayer rather than money. Most of the funds requests come to the church office door. Unless I know someone is lying, I try to be generous. I've only a few times had to say, No, and that usually when I know the person isn't being direct with me about what they need and what it is for. As my church is not wealthy I have a responsibility to see that funds go to those who are truly most needful. I wish I had more at my disposal, esp. in these hard times....

Grandmère Mimi said...

I give a small amount and try to remember to make a point look the person in the eye and say something like, "Here you are."

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

And the human contact may be more important than the money... bless you, GM.