ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JULY 29, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
2 Kings 4: 42 – 44; Ephesians 3: 14 – 21; John 6: 1 – 15
When cooking Italians serve great quantities of food. It’s a genetic trait. As a result, Terry enjoys leftovers. Some food tastes better the second time around plus leftovers mean a night off from cooking. Other people hate leftovers. Sitting down to supper, a girl complained, “yuck, leftovers!” Thinking she should be grateful, dad asked her to say the blessing. The girl bowed her head and said, “Thank you God for this food – again.” What about you? Do you like left overs? Different people do different things with left overs. Some throw them away immediately. Some give the left overs to their dog. Others use them for compost. Others put them in containers in the frig. My sister says the purpose of a frig is to have a place to keep leftovers until they rot so you can throw them away without feeling guilty. Of course, many people eat leftovers for another meal. When I was a kid at camp on Sunday night we’d eat “seven-layer dinner”. All the left-overs accumulated in the week would find their way into a casserole dish. There’d be a layer of sloppy joes, covered in oatmeal, chili, fish tacos, spaghetti, beans and hot dogs, blueberry pancakes all topped with chili. It tasted surprisingly good.
The story of Jesus feeding the crowd of 5000 people with five barley loaves and two fish is familiar to us all. The event itself is beyond imagination. How ever it occurred, it was truly miraculous. In re-reading the passage, three things stood out for me.
The first was the practicality of Thomas. Jesus asked Thomas to provide a meal for thousands of people. Thomas responded: Are you kidding me? If we had $10,000 we wouldn’t be able to feed this crowd. Well, maybe at Pasta Supper, but you’re not counting the women and kids. There’s no way this can be done. Clearly Jesus needed a reality check. There simply wasn’t enough to go around. Thomas saw scarcity. Many people who grew up through the depression or the war knew what it was like to have too little. The scarcity of their experiences made an imprint on their souls. My Dad was forever telling us not to waste our food. For my mother, nothing was enough or good enough. Without judgment on those who lived through hardship, we can observe that scarcity creates negativity, fear and self-reliance. Those traits are just as real and powerful in those who have an attitude of scarcity. Like Philip, we can greet challenging circumstances with negativity. A recent article addressed the propensity of people to fall out of love as easily as we fall into it. The writer, a psychologist, noted that people are biased towards the negative. We tend to remember and ruminate over negative experiences, even minor ones, much more than positive experiences. Instead of seeing the sunny sky, we focus on the one cloud. After a date, we’re much more likely to forget the perfect manners, scintillating conversation, and wonderful restaurant than someone chewing with their mouth open. Our brains are wired to magnify faults, problems and negativity. A man came back from lunch to find a pink slip on his desk. Immediately, he thought of the terrible things that were going to happen, I’ll have to sell my house; I’m too old to get another job; I have no other skills; I’m done. Then, he noticed a spider on his desk and brushed it off. The tiny creature automatically spun a strand to bear its weight and swing gracefully to the floor. The man thought, if this creature can find the resources to meet its emergency, why can’t I? After a time, his troubling thoughts turned to creative energy. His anxiety lifted as he acknowledged the abundance of God’s gifts to him. He realized his future wasn’t dependent on his income but in his connection with the God of grace who had seen him through all life’s circumstances. No one could take away the flow of God’s generosity in his life. The man had always wanted to write, and he began to see this “disaster” as an opportunity. Are you inclined to see scarcity or abundance? Are you relying on what’s in front of you or on our heavenly Father?
The second striking thing was that after the crowd is fed and full, the disciples are sent to pick up the leftovers. Why were there leftovers? This was a crowd of poor, simple people. They’d been there all day. They were hungry – so hungry Jesus couldn’t send them home without something in their stomachs. We’d assume they’d have eaten every crumb in sight – licked the plate, perhaps even slipped a chunk of bread and a fish stick under their robe for later. I think it’s fair to assume that the crowd ate their fill and then some. They were so stuffed they couldn’t shove in one more morsel. They carelessly let the leftovers fall to the ground. A miracle is designed to open our eyes to the nature of God. Not only had the fish and loaves been multiplied but they became a picture of God’s overflowing, bottomless grace. This was an “aha” moment of recognizing God’s abundant and eternal generosity. As Canadians who’ve been on the receiving end of vast material blessings, we should be able to relate to this crowd. After all, how much do we need? When do we have enough? When do we give thanks and stop being hungry for something more? As Christians, we’ve experienced God’s “inexhaustible riches and generosity in Christ” (Ephesians 3: 8). The gospel song by Annie Johnson Flint puts it this way: His love has no limit, His grace has no measure, His power has no boundary known unto men, For out of His infinite riches in Jesus, He giveth and giveth and giveth again. We all believe this, right? If so, why do we not ask for God’s spiritual abundance? Why don’t we expect to receive courage, strength, faith, peace, wisdom, commitment, persistence, kindness, joy and love? Why don’t we ask for the measureless grace to tell others of Christ? Why don’t we ask for God’s blessings to flow from us to others? Why do we doubt? When the Israelites left Egypt and were wandering in the desert, God fed them. He gave them a strange substance called manna. After they’d had their fill, God’s people scraped up the leftover bread to keep it for the next day. We can imagine their reasoning: just because God had done a miracle once didn’t mean he’d do it again. Just because God was generous today didn’t ensure he’d be so tomorrow. Because God had done “far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!” (vs. 20), didn’t mean he’d always have a generous nature. We can imagine that reasoning because we often think the same way. It causes us to grasp and hoard. We aim for good instead of great. We accept adequate instead of outstanding. We pray for okay instead of extraordinary. Our lack of faith causes us to sell God short. We settle for what we can imagine, instead of what God can imagine and do. The Israelites stash of manna rotted and grew wormy overnight and by morning it was inedible. Not only does God give to us abundantly, he gives to us consistently, every day. Through the prophet Malachi, the Lord asked the Israelites to trust him. The sign of their faith was to be their tithe. The promise of God is “Test me in this and see if I don’t open up heaven itself to you and pour out blessings beyond your wildest dreams” (Malachi 3:10). Do we take God at his word? If so, it’s time to show our faith and ask for God’s best, temporally but especially spiritually, for ourselves and for others, trusting that each day is a new day to receive God’s gracious providence because God is faithful.
The third question this scripture raises is: what did they do with the leftovers? Did they send them to the local mission to feed the hungry? Give some back to the boy who’d been so generous with his lunch? Did they make up divine doggie bags for their guests? Feed the birds? Use it for bait? Take it to their families? Perhaps the disciples gorged on a midnight snack. Or maybe, like the Israelites, they threw it away trusting God to provide abundantly the next day. We’ll never know. What we do know is: it was important to Jesus that the remaining pieces were gathered up. We can imagine the 12 disciples, each with a basket, going around picking up the morsels of bread that had fallen to the ground. A scrap here and there may not seem like much, but all together were a sign of God’s lavish provision. The disciples began to understand the work of God. Sometimes God’s abundance comes to us in scraps and pieces; in fragments we would miss if we didn’t search for them attentively. The disciples had to take time to gather up the fragments, and in doing so, they discovered how many of God’s blessings come to us in little crumbs. When we think about our own lives, we can probably remember the “big” blessings God has given us; often we forget the small ones. We think it’s not worth the effort of gathering them up. Sometimes we’re too consumed with other things to collect the fragments of God’s goodness. Maybe we devalue grace that comes in scraps. Sometimes, leftovers don’t seem to be worth saving. They’re not enough for a meal. But a week’s worth of leftovers can make a whole buffet. Gather them up and you can make 7-layer dinner. In the same way we underestimate the gifts of God in our lives. Blessings often come in small pieces like loose change we toss in a jar every day, but after a year, those coins amount to quite a bit of money. When we gather up the little bits, we see the consistency of God’s presence in our lives. We are encouraged in our faith. We are fed a bite at a time. Those fragments are evidence of God’s miraculous blessings, every bit as nourishing as a big meal. C.S. Lewis reminds us, “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” Small miracles in small letters are Divine love broken down into little pieces, so we can grasp it.
Not only does the feeding of the 5000 fill us with awe at the miracles of Jesus, it leaves us with a lingering question: what do we do with our leftovers – with the fragments of God’s rich presence and abundant blessings in our lives? Do we take our gifts and share them with others? Do they increase our trust in the God who loves us? Do we let go of negativity and anticipate abundance? Do we “count our blessings one by one” and praise God for all he’s done for us? Maybe we can take our cue from Paul who writes, “My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, others will be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3: 14 & 19) And don’t waste the leftovers.