9th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s; 06.08.2023
Rev Jeremy Bevan
Have you ever had to provide food for unexpected guests, but had nothing to give them? It’s a challenge, isn’t it? It’s a challenge the disciples face in one of the most well-known, best-loved moments from Jesus’ ministry: a huge crowd of hungry people to feed. In response to Jesus’ instruction, “You give them something to eat”, the twelve, quite understandably, protest at the impossibility of the task: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
Believing we have nothing God could possibly use is a problem we can face, just like the disciples did. Yet precisely when we feel we have nothing, Jesus always has something. Let me explain with a couple of illustrations. Close to our hearts here at St. Barbara’s, the church of St. John the Divine, Willenhall is not a well-off church. Yet somehow, it continues to feed hundreds of children and families each year over the summer school holidays through its brunch club. On the church’s website, a recent message states simply, but powerfully: “We are stunned by what happened”.
Far away in San Francisco, St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, with next to no resources, not only feeds a thousand people each week through its foodbank, but in doing so has also created a community where there was none. Sara Miles, former atheist and war correspondent whose own life was transformed by receiving communion during a service at the church, describes a visiting pastor’s reaction: “this looks more like Jesus than anything”, he said.
What do these two stories have in common with that gospel episode? Nothing. That is, they start with nothing or very little, just as the disciples do. Five loaves and two fish to feed what might have been a crowd of over 10,000, allowing for a little bit of storyteller’s exaggeration, but including all the women and children Matthew says were there? That little to feed that many people? Impossible. It simply can’t be done.
But when we feel we have nothing, Jesus always has something. Broken by news that Herod has executed his cousin John the baptizer, Jesus must have realised afresh how urgent it was to show people the coming kingdom of God. To show them that God who gave them manna in the wilderness still provides, and will provide. Show them that the coming kingdom looks like – what? Well, it looks like God working through Elijah long ago to keep alive a widow and her son through famine; working through Elisha to feed a hundred people with twenty rolls a man had in his sack.
Both those episodes start with nothing, or as good as: at any rate, nothing like enough. The widow says to Elijah: I’ve nothing, just a drop of oil and a little flour. The man questions the command of Elisha, saying “How can I set this before a hundred people?”. Let’s look at God at work in these three biblical situations, through Elijah, Elisha and Jesus’ disciples. There are three things to notice, I think.
Firstly, God gives people something to do: make a snack for Elijah; be the one responsible for distributing bread to a hundred people. Perhaps, when Jesus said to the disciples, “You give them something to eat” there was some muttering as they sat the crowd down on the grass: “What does he think he’s doing? No way will this work.” Somehow it works, somehow God is able to work through ordinary people like you and me to bring the kingdom in.
It works because (secondly) God is present. Both Elijah and Elisha speak what’s described as “the word of the Lord” in two situations of dire need. That word seems to have a creative power, like when God spoke the world into being in Genesis 1. Jesus the Word of God hosts the meal in Matthew’s gospel. He takes what’s to hand, the “nothing but five loaves and two fish” the disciples have given him, blesses God, breaks the loaves, and distributes enough for everyone. He takes the disciples beyond the bounds of what they imagine to be possible. As Sara Miles says of St. Gregory’s food pantry in San Francisco: “When you break down borders to share food, God shows up.”
Finally, there is more than enough of what everyone needs when God provides. The
widow’s tiny quantity of oil and flour last “for many days”; when the man distributes his twenty rolls, everyone ate, and had some left; Jesus’s disciples collect up twelve baskets of left-over food. Somehow, somewhere between not very much and very great need, God works, inclusively, making sure those 5,000 men, and the women, and the children, get what they need at this glorious picnic. This is Jesus, heralding the kingdom community that comes through sharing, through eating together. It points forward to the heavenly banquet at the end of all time, to which everyone can come, without money, to get what our Isaiah reading called “rich food”.
What about us, then? Are we face to face with situations of great need and apparently meagre resources in our own lives, our community? In a few moments, we’ll join together in holy communion, another reminder of God’s provision for us, feeding us with Jesus himself. That marks us out as a distinctive community of hope, celebrating that we matter to God, that we are something to God, not nothing. Who feeds us? God whose wild generosity bursts the banks of the little channels we usually sail in, and sends us out onto the sea of God’s love for the world God has made. With God’s wind at our sails, then, let’s expect God to work: through us; with the seemingly insignificant things, the “nothing”, we offer; hoping and trusting God will bless it, and provide abundantly for us and others through it.