The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: July 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector, St. Michael’s Church
On many of the sites of Jesus’ miracles in the Holy Land, there is a church. Most of them now are newer buildings, built in the last few decades, but they are built on the ruins of older churches from the 4th and 5th centuries, when pilgrimage to the Holy Land was still a possibility for Christians in the ancient world. One such church is the Church of the Multiplication, built where it is believed Jesus fed the multitudes with only a few loaves and fish – a story so significant to the early church that every one of the four gospels includes it. That site has been and continues to be one of the primary places of pilgrimage for Christians, drawing now some 5000 visitors a day. It is famous for its beautiful 5th-century Byzantine mosaic floor, a design that turns up on nearly every pottery souvenir you see from the Holy Land. But a month ago, the church was set on fire and mostly destroyed. Israeli police call it an act by extremists, probably Jewish settlers. It’s a news story that hasn’t seen much play here for some reason – perhaps because in this country we are dealing with our own instances of church arson by our own kind of extremists. But it caught my attention, because I’ve been to that church many years ago, and it was beautiful, and this news made me very sad.
It’s a lovely church, but it’s also a sacred place. The early church was right to highlight the story of the feeding of the 5000. It is central to our understanding of God. Jesus takes the meager amount someone offers to him, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it out, and there is so much that all that hungry crowd of people can’t even finish it. It’s what we replicate every time we celebrate the Eucharist, offering what we have, little as it may seem, and asking God to bless it and break it and share it out. We give our money in the plate, the currency of the sweat of our labor and our livelihood; we bring up to the altar the wine and the wafers that we have baked or bought for the purpose; we offer our selves, our souls and bodies, in the prayers the celebrant says at the altar. And what we get back is more than we give. The wafer and the wine and the church our money supports become more – they become nourishment for our souls, home for our restless spirits, light shining in darkness. So to have the site of that story, that grounding essential part of our identity as Christians, intentionally destroyed is a terrible twist to the tale. The pilgrimage site commemorates an experience of abundance that is essential to who God is. We rightly condemn the actions of those who damaged it. The burning of that church is a tragedy, yet another horror story from a land where extremists of all kinds kill and destroy in an unending battle for power and dominance.
And yet it is just like us human beings to attack and try to destroy that symbol of abundance. Because we, all of us, live in deathly fear that there is not enough. And so we do anything to hold onto what we believe is ours. It is a story about what we do out of fear – a story that finds echoes in our own country’s ongoing litany of wrongful deaths, of churches burned, of actions taken because of racism, and because of hatred and greed infecting our hearts. We are frightened of other people and what they will take from us – our ‘heritage,’ our religion, our land, our status. We are just so afraid that we can’t seem to hold our hearts open to others besides ourselves.
Years ago a friend pointed out to me that we human beings can be kind of like hummingbirds. You know those little red plastic hummingbird feeders that you fill with sugar water? I lived in a house once with a feeder hanging outside, and hummingbirds were there all day feeding. We kept the feeder pretty full, and there were four little feeding tubes on it – so theoretically, four hummingbirds could feed at the same time. But they didn’t. Instead, one hummingbird would perch on the feeder while two or three others fluttered anxiously about in the nearby trees, squawking at the one who was feeding. If any one of those who weren’t on the feeder tried to zoom in, the one feeding would fly up and fight them off. Sometimes no bird was feeding at all, because they were all in the trees – but if a bird tried to come in, someone else would fly in to head them off. It seemed like they were all so busy fighting over the food, they couldn’t stop to eat it.
Yes. Just like human beings. We are convinced that there is so little available, there’s not enough for others. And all of the energy we have to love gets used up instead in this zero-sum game, staking our own claim and making sure others don’t take it. Striking out against others in ways large and small to be sure that we have enough. It’s the impulse behind so much of what we do – even all the many of us who decry extremist violence and argue against prejudice and try to be good citizens. We also can’t help striving to be there first before the supply runs out. And making sure others don’t get there before us.
What we have a hard time accepting is that with God, there is always enough. God never runs out of anything – the very idea of scarcity with God is impossible. And when God calls us to give of what we have, it is because God knows that we have enough to do the task set before us. The generosity we could be capable of is amazing; the abundance of God is overwhelming. God is more of everything than we can ever fathom; God contains all and more besides. With God, as Jesus says, there is life abundant, good measure, shaken down and running over in our laps.
But all around us we are faced with examples of scarcity. Race relations seem to be on a downward spiral in our country, the poor are being priced out of our neighborhoods, Christians are being driven out of the Middle East, on and on. We worry about our church and whether we have money enough to keep going. And we are tired and stressed, our kids and elders need our help, our work keeps demanding more of us, and there doesn’t seem to be enough time to do what we want or should do. It is hard to believe that the light is still shining in all of this, sometimes. It is hard to believe that there is enough.
When Jesus asks Philip, how are we going to feed these people? Philip and all the disciples fret and say to him, but there’s not enough food for all of them, there’s only these few things here. But Jesus replies, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Bring me what you have, what you think isn’t enough. Give what you have to me and I will bless it and break it up and share it again. And there is enough, there’s more than enough; the disciples go gather up the extravagant leftovers. They, the disciples, become witnesses of the abundance they didn’t trust was there – and even more, they’re the ones to give out the bread. They become ministers of that abundance to others. Ministers of the abundance just as God’s servants have been throughout the ages despite what they thought were their limitations. Just as we can be here today in the face of all this fear and hatred in our world. We don’t feel like enough either. We may worry we won’t say or do the right thing, that we don’t know enough of have enough power to make a difference. We worry that we’ll run out of the little we need for ourselves.
But I believe each of us is hearing God’s voice in our hearts calling us to step out anyway. To give up what we think we need, give more than we think we could, let go of our old ways of seeing ourselves and our community and step forward in faith. Hey, God says, I need you to do this. Give what you have to me and see. This world needs some love.
And so come here again to the table, hanging out with Jesus, and watch it all happen again. We give the little we have and we see it come back as more. Every time we tell the story, the five loaves and the two fish always turn out to be enough; every time we’re asked, what we have and who we are turns out to be plenty for God’s purposes. It’s all enough when we give it over and let it all be broken and blessed. It’s all enough to change the world.