God is strong enough to fill our empty places.
On one of the first days on a mission trip to Burma, our team went to church. Like any good Anglican church, the Burmese have their own version of coffee hour. Lots of people wanted to be around us, but mostly all we could do was smile and nod because of the language barrier. One of the mothers of the parish came up to us and asked our translator if we were hungry. She said she would bring us some Mohingar. When she returned, we discovered Mohingar was a soup. My teammate and I graciously thanked our host, but suspiciously eyed the soup. I mean, it’s soup, so how bad can it be, right? But it’s soup – there’s not telling what is in that thick broth. But when you are a guest, you eat. And, so, with many eyes on us, we tentatively ate our Mohingar. As we ate, flavors filled our mouths. The soup was good – really good. In fact, this “Mohingar” was probably the best soup I have ever eaten. This was no ordinary soup – Mohingar is like a meal in soup form. Mohingar has eggs, noodles, fish, banana stems. It sounds strange, but I promise you it was delicious. I had no problem needing to pretend to graciously like the soup. It was amazing! At the end of my very satisfying, filling bowl of Mohingar, I raved to our host. Unfortunately, that meant she insisted I have more. I later realized on that trip in Burma, that this was always the practice with food. If you even came close to finishing your food, you were always offered more – more rice, more fish, more fruit, more Mohingar. We finally broke down and learned how to say, “I’m full” in Burmese. What I learned about food in Burma was that showing love and hospitality meant showing abundance through food. That is not to say that our hosts were well-off. In fact, many of them were struggling. But even in the midst of poverty, abundance found a way.
The disciples in our gospel lesson today were not accustomed to this practice of abundance. Instead, they were quite adept at the practice of scarcity. When Philip is asked where they can buy bread for everyone, he calculates the number of wages that would be needed to feed such a crowd, basically concluding that there is no way they can afford to feed so many. When Andrew is presented with just a little food from boy – five loaves and two fish, he scoffs. His scarcity mentality is too limited to imagine how greatness can come from so little. I am sure that when Jesus told the disciples to sit the people down, the disciples were vacillating between skepticism, disbelief, and maybe even fear of what would happen when all five thousand people realized how hungry they were and how little this Jesus and his disciples had.
We are all familiar with this theology of scarcity. Karen Yust imagines the same scene in a contemporary congregation. She says, “One might expect the [Vestry] to echo Philip’s money-management concern, pointing out that the congregation does not take in enough revenue to support such a project. The outreach committee might reinforce Andrew’s position, stating that the congregation has earmarked only a small percentage of its income for mission giving and the proposed project’s needs far exceed the allocated amount. The groups responsible for discipleship and worship may not even offer an opinion, as they are busy preparing for a fast-approaching religious festival. The buildings and grounds committee may assist with seating everyone on the lawn, although some [committee] members might worry about the effects of this event on the property’s landscaping. It is likely that none of the congregations’ boards or committees would expect to participate in a miracle, as that is not what they signed on for.” [i] On the surface, those behaviors are all smart behaviors. Vestries have fiduciary responsibility for parishes. Outreach committees must be wise in managing their aid. The Altar Guild, Buildings and Grounds Committee, and Sunday School teachers all have areas of responsibility that need tending. Even I have parameters around my discretionary fund and how often one person or family can receive aid. The challenge is when a group of people have gathered to serve and glorify God, but only have a limited financial ability to do so (and trust me, big parishes sweat paying the bills as much as small parishes do), a seemingly necessary but nasty habit evolves – a theology of scarcity. We all have faced that temptation. Think about the last time you were planning your pledge to the church. I am sure each of us looked at our income and other financial obligations before deciding what we had left to spare for the church. We want to be sure that if we give generously to the church, we still have enough to pay the bills!
But Jesus does not seem to know anything about this theology of scarcity. In fact, Jesus seems to have developed the opposite theology – a theology of abundance. Of course, this feeding of five thousand should be no surprise. This is the same Jesus who turned water into wine in Cana – and not just a little wine, but gallons upon gallons of wine; and not just any wine, but the best wine they had had all night long. This is the same Jesus who will later explain to his disciples that in God’s house, there are many dwelling places – not just room for each of them, but many dwelling places. In John’s gospel, “we are confronted with this profuse and full-measured flood of God’s grace mediated through the Christ.” [ii] Nowhere does Jesus invite us to be careful or reserved. Instead, Jesus keeps reminding us of the abundance of God. Not only can he feed five thousand people, there will be leftovers. And my guess is that those leftovers were there even after Jesus kept asking if they wanted more – until the people found the right words for “I’m full.”
Today, Jesus leaves us with baskets – twelve to be exact. Twelve full baskets that are left over after feeding five thousand. Those baskets sit there, challenging our every tendency to live on our own scarcity or fears of insufficiency. Those baskets sit there, challenging our tendency to hoard, save, worry, and live a very small, safe life. Those baskets sit there, challenging all the times we would rather pull back than push forward. Instead, the baskets sit here today, right here at St. Margaret’s, inviting us to exercise faith in God’s abundance. The baskets sit here today, calling us as a community to go places we have never been, to do things we have never tried, and to be things we have never envisioned. [iii] The baskets sit here today, reminding us of all the times St. Margaret’s has had enough and emboldening us to live our lives as though we will always have not just enough, but an abundance. The baskets sit here today, inviting us not be a people of anxiety and competition, but a people of generosity and hope.[iv] Those baskets – that message of abundance is our good news today. Amen.
[i] Karen Marie Yust, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 284.
[ii] Charles Hoffman, “More than Enough,” Christian Century, vol. 123, no. 15, July 25, 2006, 18.
[iii] Hoffman, 18
[iv] H. Stephen Shoemaker, “Bread and Miracles,” Christian Century, vol. 117, no. 20, July 5-12, 2000, 715.