Food Miracles

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 9th Sunday After Pentecost + August 6, 2017

Isaiah 55:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21


As I was studying our Bible readings for this week, I came across a reminder: in the Bible one of the most common symbols or signs of God’s care for us is food. Think about how many stories or promises have food at the center. As the Israelites wander in the wilderness, Gods sends them manna and quail. The Promised Land is called “the land of milk and honey.” The Passover is commemorated with a meal; and before Jesus died, he told his disciples to remember him by eating bread and drinking wine. We are given promise after promise of the Great Feast that is to come. Like today, in the reading from Isaiah:

“Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

And of course there’s today’s gospel reading: one of Jesus’s great miracles, the feeding of thousands.

All of these invitations to feasts and miraculous meals, signs of God’s love and care for our bodies and spirits.

hand-bread-fish7002

“Hand of God with Loaves and Fish,” United Reformed Church, Brighton, England. Photo by Anders Sandberg. From Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

This made me think of another thing I read this week: at the end of some article I was reading online came an advertisement that said in all-capital letters: “CHRISTIANS WILL BE ASTONISHED BY THIS WEIGHT LOSS SECRET HIDDEN IN THE BIBLE!” That’s, like, the opposite of God’s constant promises of abundant food. And I think the original audiences of the Bible — full of hungry people who worried about drought and famine — would have thought that trying to lose weight was one of the most ridiculous ideas ever.

That advertisement reminded me of how different our culture is from the cultures of the Bible’s original audiences. In the mainstream U.S. culture food has a complicated set of connotations. On the one hand, we really like food; we’re almost obsessed with food. We’ve got multiple TV channels solely devoted to food and cooking and watching people eat until they can’t eat anymore. I think the internet must be half food blogs by now.

But on the other hand, food is something many Americans actively try to avoid. We worry about eating too much, and we are advertised pills and powders that will help us to eat less. We’ve got at least 30 million people with eating disorders that focus on controlling food intake. And we might think about how much food grocery stores, restaurants, and families throw away every day. Yes, we have many people in our nation who wonder where their next meal will come from — about 15 million households experienced food insecurity in 2015[1] — but that’s not what we see reflected in pop culture. For those of us who do have enough to eat, the food problems quickly become problems of over-abundance: How do I resist food? How can we stop wasting so much food?

So I’m thinking that today’s readings don’t hit us with the same power that they did their original audiences. The vast majority of people in those times were poor in a way that is probably totally foreign to us. They had no refrigerators and no fast food; if a crop was lost, it hurt the whole community. Those people knew what it was like to feel deep hunger: the hunger that makes you feel weak and distracted and on edge, with no promise that you’d be able to eat your fill anytime soon. They maybe even knew what starvation looked like firsthand. So imagine how the Bible’s food stories and food promises would have sounded to people like that: thousands of people followed Jesus out into the wilderness, and all of them ate until they were full, and there was still food left over!

It’s really difficult for us to think of things from such a vastly different perspective. We automatically see and feel things from our own experience and culture and expectations. Reading today’s gospel story, those of us who are currently pretty healthy may not even have noticed that the crowds invading Jesus’s private time came begging to be cured of diseases and injuries, and the quick note that, “Jesus had compassion for them and cured their sick.” But for those of us who are hurting or who love someone who is sick or injured, that may have been the most important phrase in the whole gospel reading.

The same goes for our reactions to today’s political happenings: we react to the health care debate in vastly different ways, from firey and opposite opinions to total lack of concern, and our reaction often depends on whether we and our loved ones are healthy or sick; or whether we have secure health insurance through our employer, or are paying huge premiums every month, or have no insurance at all.

We automatically understand things our own way; we have to make a conscious effort to try and see things from another person’s perspective. But the hope is that trying to see another person’s perspective will lead to new and greater understandings, and these understandings will lead to actions that are better for the whole community.

The writer Megan McKenna spent some time reading the story of the feeding of the thousands with people of different cultures and backgrounds in the hope that she would understand more of the good news this story has to offer. She was reading the story with people in Chiapas, Mexico, and they got into a conversation about the baskets that had been used to collect the leftover fish and bread after Jesus’s miracle. One woman told her with certainty that the women in the crowd had brought the baskets. She said, “No woman in her right mind would head into a deserted place with an elderly person or a child or someone who was sick without taking food, drink, diaper changes, the works.”[2] When I think about how the parents of young children in this congregation come for an hour-long service bearing bags filled with crackers, diapers, wipes, toys, crayons…I figure this woman from Chiapas might just be on to something.

And that woman’s observation opens up another way of thinking about what exactly happened in Jesus’s miracle. The gospel tells us that the disciples had five loaves of bread and two fish — probably barely enough to feed themselves. But Jesus took the food, blessed it, and told the disciples to start passing out the food. We don’t have any details about what exactly happens next; we are told simply: “And all ate and were filled.”

We can imagine a lot of things happening in that gap between, “the disciples gave [their bread and fish] to the crowds” and “all ate and were filled.” I’ve always imagined that the disciples kept tearing off hunks of fish and bread, and the loaves and fishes just never ended…and then somehow I guess there were more leftovers than when they started. Or we could imagine that one loaf of bread would suddenly turn into two as the people passed them around. Or we could imagine the fish suddenly quadrupling in size, over and over again. We just don’t know exactly what happened.

But the woman’s comment about the baskets points to another possibility: maybe other people in the crowd — besides the disciples — had brought along baskets and food. Maybe someone in the crowd saw Jesus’s disciples sharing what little food they had to offer, and they felt a tug on their heart to stand up and share the supplies they’d brought along to feed themselves. And then someone else saw that and thought, “Well, I only have this loaf of bread to share with my wife, but I guess we could spare a little, too…” and on and on the generosity spread through the crowd, until everyone had enough to eat. At first everyone thought they had barely enough to feed themselves, but it turned out that when the whole crowd pitched in, there was more than enough for everybody.

That’s not the most exciting way of describing Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and fishes. We’d much rather see God’s power proved to us by supernaturally multiplying loaves of bread; people’s hearts and hands opening in generosity barely sounds miraculous at all. But maybe this is the kind of miracle we really need.

Take today’s situation: as a whole world population, we produce enough food to feed everyone. We don’t really need loaves to multiply; we need to get the food to the people who are hungry. The main cause of hunger is poverty: people are unable to buy the food they need. But even when try to give food to people around the world, things get in the way of charity: war and conflict keep food from getting where it needs to go; shipments get stolen or misdirected; people at the borders refuse to move things along without bribes; people use money to feed their addictions rather than their children.[3] So I think even if Jesus went around multiplying loaves, human greed or violence or something would still find a way to keep people hungry.

The real miracle Jesus offers is to change our hearts and minds. To help us be open to sharing; to considering another person’s perspective; to help us love our neighbor as ourselves; to knit us together into community. That is the kind of miracle our families, our communities, and our whole world needs — and thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we can be part of that miracle.


[1] “Hunger in America: 2016 United States Hunger and Poverty Facts,” WorldHunger.org, October 9, 2016. Available online: http://www.worldhunger.org/hunger-in-america-2016-united-states-hunger-poverty-facts/.

[2] Megan McKenna, Not Counting Women and Children: Neglected Stories from the Bible, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994), p. 24.

[3] “2016 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics,” WorldHunger.org, December 28, 2016. Available online: http://www.worldhunger.org/2015-world-hunger-and-poverty-facts-and-statistics/ Accessed August 3, 2017.

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Overflowing Cups

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Epiphany + January 17, 2016

Readings: Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Many of you know that I have not been a lifelong Lutheran — at least not in church attendance. (In terms of beliefs, I think I have always kept pretty close.) I was baptized in an ELCA congregation, confirmed in a Missouri-Synod Lutheran congregation, and worshipped with many other denominations in high school and college. I joined the ELCA while I was in divinity school.

All of that biographical information is just to introduce this story: one of the congregations I worshiped with from time to time while I was in college was a Quaker meeting house in St. Paul, MN. We met in a very simple room, with chairs arranged in a big circle. And then, together, we sat in silence for an hour. The idea is for each person to listen for what the Holy Spirit is saying to them. If the Spirit moves you to speak to the group, you stand up and speak. Sometimes no one speaks at all; at other meetings there may be many speakers.

At one meeting I attended, a very elderly woman spoke. She couldn’t stand for very long, so she spoke from her seat. She told us about one of the strongest happy memories from her childhood: when she and her siblings would get a few cents from their parents and go down to the ice cream shop. The shop owner would always pack as much ice cream as he could into her little cup. That, she said, was where she first learned the meaning of the phrase “my cup overflows.” It was a very literal experience of that image from the Shepherd’s Psalm.

Then she gave more examples of how her “cup overflowed” in different ways throughout her life, talking more figuratively: children who grew up and established their own lives; the strength to get through difficult illnesses; faith that filled her life purpose.

wine_glass_splash

Philip Serracino Inglott via Wikimedia Commons

 

A theme overflowing cups, of feasts, of shared bounty is threaded through the Bible. In the histories of the Israelites the promised land is referred to as “a land flowing with milk and honey” — two rich, luxurious foods flowing freely for everyone to eat. In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is depicted as a woman saying, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed” (Prov. 9:5); in many other places, Wisdom is described as a gushing fountain (e.g. Prov. 18:4).[1] The prophet Isaiah proclaimed: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters: and you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Is. 55:1).

We see overflowing cups and feasts in Jesus’s ministry. There are literal examples: like when a few fish and loaves produce enough food for thousands, and there are leftovers (e.g. Jn. 6:1-14). And there are figurative examples: like when Jesus tells a foreign woman that what he has to offer is only for Israel, and she responds “But even the dogs get the crumbs from under the table,” and then Jesus heals her daughter, letting his blessings overflow from Israel into the nations (Mark 7:24-29).

Saint Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that the Lord’s Supper ought to be a feast for everyone to enjoy equally (1 Cor. 11:17-34).

In the Gospel of John, the very first miracle Jesus performs in public is literally an overflowing cup. At a small town wedding the hosts are about to be deeply embarrassed in front of all their friends and family, because they didn’t prepare enough wine for the feast. But Jesus saves them from disgrace by producing another 120 to 180 gallons of good wine. Overflowing cups all around!

And this miracle is an example of very generous sharing in another way, too. When Mary suggests that Jesus step in and fix the wine problem, Jesus says, “Why is that our problem? My time has not yet come.” Despite the fact that he had planned to start revealing his divinity at a later time, Jesus doesn’t hold back when a friend is in need. He overflows.

I’ve been talking about this turning water into wine as a miracle, but the Gospel of John doesn’t call it a miracle. John calls it a “sign,” and that’s the word he uses for all of Jesus’s displays of power. He emphasizes that they are more than miracles; they are signs telling us who Jesus is. Jesus is God, the Son of God, come to earth.

But what does that mean? What are the details? What exactly does God-on-earth look like? What does he do?

One thing we see is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who makes cups overflow, who shares a bounty so large that those who receive cannot help but share it, too. We see that not only in the wedding at Cana, but also in many other places throughout John’s Gospel. Jesus tells the woman at the well that he gives living water, water that becomes a spring inside of each person who drinks, so that the water of life is always gushing up (Jn. 4:13-14). After the sign of the fishes and the loaves (Jn. 6:1-14), Jesus tells the crowds: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (Jn. 6:35).

In the end it turns out that all this talk of literal cups overflowing, literal water, literal bread…all that is figurative. And the literal point is this: “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12). Or, in the words of a letter from John, “We love because he first loved us.”[2] Christ’s love for us is so bounteous that we cannot contain it. We overflow. We love others because of how fully he loves us — and because of how fully he loves everyone (Jn. 3:16).

The whole “overflowing cup” thing sounds beautiful and easy when we say it like that: God loves me, so I love others. God has made my cup overflow, and so I can’t help but share with others. It gets more difficult when it hits the ground, when we ask just how we should overflow with the love of God.

It is difficult, because overflowing with the big, wide love of God means we cannot be isolationists. I can’t love just myself, or just my family, or just the people who share my ideas, my way of life, my traditions. All of that is hard enough, but Jesus took this “overflowing cup” thing much further than that. He said we are to give and borrow to everyone who asks of us; we are to love our enemies and to pray for those who are out to get us (Matt. 5:38-48). These are some of the toughest words ever spoken.

Tomorrow our nation commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr., a man we remember for trying to put Jesus’s toughest words into action. He preached and worked and protested so that all people would be treated equally as people created by God and loved by God. First he focused on establishing greater equality for people of color in the Civil Rights Movement; and when he saw that improvements in civil rights did not improve the economic, material situation of the people, he began the Poor People’s Campaign to help raise people out of the degrading conditions of poverty. Even when he was insulted, attacked, and threatened, Rev. King strove to obey Jesus’s command to love our enemies, and he remained committed to the path of nonviolence. Martin Luther King, Jr. offers us one inspiring, concrete example of how a cup can overflow.

Today, I challenge each us to think of just one new way that we can let our cups overflow, one new way we can be a little more generous with what God has given us. Listen, not just to me, but (like a Quaker in a meeting), listen for the Holy Spirit — what is one new way God is calling you to let God’s love flow? And then let that be your intention for this new year.

Maybe we can be more generous with our words: speak more kindly to those around us, or speak more kindly about those we disagree with, or stand up for others when they are being insulted or misrepresented. Politically, we can speak up for those who are in need of help.

Maybe we can be more generous with our attention: giving more time to our families, calling a relative or friend on the phone to see how they’re doing, visiting someone who is sick, volunteering, listening to someone with a different opinion and really trying to understand them.

Maybe we can be more generous with our forgiveness: for others, and for ourselves.

There are endless ways for us to love one another as Christ has loved us, to let our cups overflow with grace upon grace upon grace.

As you listen for what the Spirit is saying, please pray with me that God will be with us and fill us with the love we need in order to better love others. This prayer comes from Martin Luther King, Jr. Let us pray.

God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen.[3]


 

[1] Sharon H. Ringe writes about “Wisdom’s Bounty” in Wisdom’s Friends: Communitiy and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999). pp. 60.

[2] Most scholars agree that the Gospel of John and the letters 1, 2, and 3 John came from the same early Christian community. They share many themes and values in common.

[3] Taken from a published collection of King’s prayers: Thou, Dear God: Prayers that Open Hearts and Spirits,” ed. Lewis V. Baldwin, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012). Found quoted online in John Dear’s blog On the Road to Peace: “The Prayers of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” National Catholic Reporter, Jan. 15, 2013, http://ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/prayers-martin-luther-king-jr