the time of loaves and fishes

Homily for September 9, 2018

Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.
– St. Catherine of Sienna

I should begin with a confession. I made a choice of scripture passages this morning that – technically speaking – I am not supposed to make. While the lectionary gives us some choice I’m not really allowed to cherry-pick scripture on a given Sunday.

But all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and my sin this morning has been to switch the gospel passages around a bit. I thought I would get away with I, I’ll admit. I knew in the summertime that we’d be starting our stewardship campaign today, and that our theme would be anchored on the feeding of the 5000. When that passage popped up on late July, I thought, I’ll just do a little one-for-one switch. Who’s going to notice?

Well, this is St. Andrew’s. Everyone noticed. So you are well within your rights to write to Bishop Sam and complain. I’m sure he’d love to hear about this.

But can you blame me? Can you think of a better story that captures the abundance of God? We all know how it goes. Jesus sees the large crowd, finds a boy with five barley loaves and two fish, he gives thanks and blesses them and then, miraculously, there is enough for thousands to eat and some to spare. With God, all things are possible. God’s abundance is so much more than we in our anxious mindsets can even imagine.

Yet there’s another story here. It’s the question not just of how to feed all those people, but rather, what do you do when all the people you’ve invited actually show up?

Jesus looked up, they all looked up, and saw a crowd coming. Thousands of people. Can you imagine that? They opened the church doors and the crowds walked right in. It was like 1958 all over again.

But Phillip started doing some math. I like Phillip. He’s smart. He knows that if you don’t take care of people’s needs they won’t stay. Besides celebrating baptism, today is a big Sunday for us – the stewardship season is planned, EYC advisors are recruited, Godly Play teachers have prepared the classroom. Phillip would have lived for days like today – paying attention to the little details. Phillip saw the crowds coming and opened up Excel on his tablet and calculated quickly that six months’ wages wouldn’t be enough to feed them all, that providing lunch would bankrupt them. Not even six months’ wages keep them there.  What do we do when the people we invite actually show up? How will we ever have enough?

But God’s definition of enough bears little resemblance to our own.  Jesus found bread and fish to share, and before long all were fed. In fact, basketfuls were left over. We don’t know exactly how much that meant. We know how much they started with. Perhaps Phillip even recorded it on his spreadsheet: Five barley loaves, and two fishes.

We know how to tabulate what we have when we’re worried about what we have. We know the baseline. But we cannot fathom the upper limit. We cannot put an upper limit on what God does for us. It’s beyond our capacity to imagine. How much bread, how many fish exactly? We have no idea, and that’s the point. There’s enough, more than enough, to feed our bodies and our souls.

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Perhaps, then, you will forgive me for borrowing this passage to talk about abundance and generosity and giving. When we give, when we grow in our giving as our Christian practice calls us to do, we share in the abundance of God. We grow as faithful disciples…as I’ve said before, few Christian practices have been as transformative, as healing, and as generative for me as giving, and giving more when I can. Jo and I have chosen the tithe of 10% as our guide – sometimes we’re there, sometimes not quite – because it gives us joy.

Yes, I know we’re both ministers, but that doesn’t really mean anything. We’re the same as anyone, we have a mortgage and kids and cars that break down, but we know that giving keep us grounded on God. Giving with intention and joy keeps us engaged in the world, and yet somehow separate from it. Giving meaningfully gives our entire lives a different texture…one that feels holier, more life-giving.

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The other readings this morning (which I didn’t pick), are intimately connected to money and wealth and how faithful people are to use it. In the Old Testament reading, the book of Proverbs tells us: The rich and the poor have this in common: the lord is the maker of them all. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. In the Jewish tradition, generosity and justice are closely tied together, and using our wealth to care for the poor is an ethical obligation.

James then talks about how we as the community of the baptized are to regard wealth and status and class within the church itself. If there is one Lord of all, then all the disciples are equal. If a person with fine clothes and gold rings is given the seat of honor while the poorer among us get the cheap seats, then the body of Christ is diminished. What binds us together is not a similarity of class or culture, but instead a shared spirit of generosity.

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But this is about more than generosity for its own sake, or even how it deepens our relationships with God. We aren’t just here to eat bread but to share it with the world. In this way the church is less like a grand picnic with 5000 of our closest friends, and more like a bakery.

The bread isn’t just for us…it’s for the whole world. We are one bakery among many, and St. Andrew’s has a particular recipe to share. Some of that recipe is written down. Some of that is in the ingredients that have made this place what it is, and the people who over a century-and-a-quarter have made this church their home. Much of that is in the yeast, that mysterious gift of the spirit that animates what we do and which we could never recreate. We have a gift to share, and that gift is an encounter with the living God.

We’ve begun to speak of a five-year vision that is all about listening for God, and being open to God’s incredible abundance so that more can be fed. It’s a vision that calls on each of us to grow, as givers, as members, as disciples. So that more can be fed by God’s word, so that more can be touched and transformed by God’s generosity and love.

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This summer as I was beginning to thank about our stewardship season and the miracle of the loaves and fishes, even before I contemplated committing the liturgical crime of stealing the Gospel from the summer lectionary, I came across a poem by David White, appropriately called Loaves and Fishes. It caught me off guard because it seemed to start not by proclaiming the miracle so much as by cutting through all the noise of the day to remind me that people are hungry, and to remind me what people are hungry for:

This is not
the age of information.

This is not
the age of information.

Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.

This is the time
of loaves
and fishes.

People are hungry
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.

[i]

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, September 9, 2018, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

[i] David Whyte, River Flow: New & Selected Poems. (Langly, WA, May Rivers Press, 2010), 356

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About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Cleveland, Ohio.
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