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Fr. John Allison

Proper 12B

2 Samuel 11:1-15

Psalm 14

Ephesians 3:14-21

John 6:1-21

July 25, 2021

Christ Church, Hudson

Our Gospel reading this week recounts two of the most famous miracle stories in the New Testament: the feeding of the five-thousand and Jesus walking on water. Since their first telling they have inspired hope among some and skepticism among others. Belief and disbelief. Some have attempted to rationalize them, explaining away the multiplication of the loaves and fishes by saying that the sharing by the young boy of his meager stash of food inspired others to share whatever food they had hidden away. Or that Jesus was not walking on the water but beside it, as the original Greek could be translated in such a way. Indeed, we humans, especially we humans of the 21st century are masters of looking past the miraculous lest we challenge the surety of the possible. But to stop here, to stop at the question of what is possible or impossible misses the point of these stories; for that matter, we miss the point of the Good News of Christ in its entirety.

The Gospel story, these two miracles we hear this week in particular, are but one episode in the continuing story of God’s people, a story that began way back with the first words of the Book of Genesis and continues to this day in the life of the Church, in the lives of each and every one of us here today. It’s a story that begins with abundance. God created the world and called it good. God created the world and we lived in harmony with the plants and animals and there was a great sufficiency, an abundance. And then, we know what happened next. Disobedience. We failed to listen to God and we began to see with different eyes and hear with different ears. What God began as abundance, we recast as scarcity. 

The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann sees this narrative of scarcity played out in the story of Pharaoh and the Israelites. Pharaoh, with the help of Joseph, hoards all of the resources and when famine hits the land and the people are forced to give up their land and their livestock in exchange for food they end up becoming slaves. Pharaoh couldn’t trust that there was enough for all and out of fear, out of a need for power, kept all for himself. 

When the the Israelites are finally able to escape and are lead by Moses into the wilderness to seek the promised land they complain and argue. They look back to their lives as slaves in Egypt and are tempted to turn back because they had grown accustomed to being slaves; they had come to trust in the economy of scarcity rather than God’s promise of abundance. But God heard them. God heard their fears and answered with bread from heaven, with manna, which they could gather freely and eat their fill but could not hoard. There are many details and episodes that follow that I won’t recount here except to say God’s people, in spite of God’s promise of abundance, were not always able to trust and to follow.  Much of the Old Testament is a record of God’s call to repent and be vessels of abundance and live into a future where all may have enough, where all may be fed. The story we heard today of David and his coveting of Bathsheba is but one example among many. He uses his power and position to send Uriah to his death so that he can have his wife. Our psalm provides yet another instance as it acknowledges how the powerful prey upon the poor and powerless: “Have they no knowledge, all those evildoers who eat up my people like bread and do not call upon the LORD.”

The large crowd that followed Jesus, the five-thousand that he fed would have been among the most vulnerable of his society—the sick, the poor, those who were desperate to see a sign of God’s love. They likely would not have been accustomed to eating as much as they wanted, as John tells us. But in blessing the five barley loaves and two fish, in giving thanks for them the gift is multiplied. It began as a simple offering from a boy who himself had little but was willing to trust that what he had would be enough and in doing so participates in God’s promise of abundance. In his multiplication of the loaves and fish Jesus reaffirms the abundance God set forth at the very beginning of it all.  His action points us to something beyond this most familiar miracle story.  In the truest sense of the word, the feeding of the five-thousand is a sign that directs us to the promise of God’s abundant love for the world. It’s a sign that points us, that redirects us to turn from an economy of scarcity to one of abundance. 

Can we live by an ethic that is not determined by scarcity? It’s perhaps easier for some than for others, especially others who have known hunger, others who have missed meals or who struggle to have safe shelter. There is fear, desperation even, that is perhaps difficult for many of us to fully understand. And yet, often, it’s many of us, relatively privileged in our lives, whose embrace of an ethic of scarcity has the most devastating effects. In the developed world, in America especially, there is a divide between the rich and the poor that grows wider every day. The vast majority of resources flow to centers of power and industry and profits are directed to a tiny minority of our society. The five thousand who Jesus fed is today more like forty million in the United States alone—multitudes more around the world.  With God’s help, we seek to feed those who live in deep hunger within our community—some through our food pantry, others through the Recovery Kitchen, where volunteers serve just over nine hundred meals per week. That sounds like a lot but hunger persists in many forms, and only some it is quenched by bread alone. 

In our collect for the day we prayed that we may pass through things temporal, things of this world, without losing sight of things eternal. It’s a reminder that the good works that we do are not an end in and of themselves; our feeding of the hungry, or embrace of the stranger, our love of neighbor are signs that simultaneously point us back to God’s original will for humanity that was set in motion at the moment of creation and the Kingdom of Heaven toward which we are ever journeying, what the prophet Isaiah describes as feast of rich food and well-aged wines for all people. 

What will happen at this table in just a few minutes won’t seem so dramatic as five loaves and two fish feeding five thousand people with twelve baskets left over, but it is nevertheless a miracle. As I said, miracle stories always point back God’s love. In liturgical terms we call that a sacrament: an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace. The feeding of the five-thousand was certainly a miracle of the body, of things temporal. Bellies were filled and hunger satisfied. In the small piece of bread you receive here, the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven, it is not our bellies that will be filled but our hearts, our souls. In Eucharist, in Thanksgiving, we take the things of this world, bless them, and break them and in Christ they are transformed—we are transformed—to be agents of abundance.  Paul says it today in his letter to the Ephesians: through Christ working in us we will do far more than we can ever ask or imagine. We can’t imagine a world where all are fed and poverty eradicated; it doesn’t seem possible. But that’s God’s will in the world, and we are called to participate. All who come to this table will be fed. But it won’t stop here; our journey with Christ continues until all are fed and all will find not just comfort in things temporal but fullness in things eternal. Amen.