My Mom would not like the ending of this miracle.
Now don’t get me wrong. My Mom was, and still is, all about food and feeding people. She was always ready for a crowd to burst through the doors and sit down at the table for a home cooked meal. Her pantry was always full and there was always food stashed in other places throughout the house. When we lived in the country when I was growing up there were enough jars of fruit and pickle in the cellar and enough frozen vegetables and half a cow in the freezer to make sure that we would never run short. And of course there was pie. There would always be a few frozen pies ready to be taken out of the freezer and heated up when the crowds arrived at the door and then there was pastry in the fridge so that a pie, or pies, could be made fresh if there was time. Maybe she never quite expected the five thousand folks that sat down on the lawn ready to eat in the gospel story today, but she could have managed most of the extended family dropping in on a Sunday afternoon quite nicely.
So my Mom would have had no problem with Jesus taking the loaves and fishes and making a meal for all those people. What would have irked her no end, though, was that there were twelve baskets of left overs! In my mother’s mind, there was nothing worse than having food left over. If you liked the meal, you would eat everything that was on the table. In fact, she was a bit devious with us as kids. She had us convinced that the number of empty serving bowls on the table represented the number of days that we would not have rain. Some people would have called this blackmail but in my mother’s mind it was a very reasonable way to ensure that nothing was left over. To this day, I feel a twinge of guilt when there is something left on my plate, or a spoonful of something left in a bowl. And if it rains the next day, I know who is to blame!
Through my lifetime, I have learned that not everyone and not every culture looks at food in the same way. Perhaps it was our Calvinist or Scottish background, although my Mom was one hundred percent English and married into the Scots, that led us to believe that the best case scenario at the end of a meal was all those empty bowls on the table so that we knew that nothing had been wasted. But in other parts of the world, and indeed among other families in Canada, this was not such a big deal. In fact having food left over was the sign that everyone had enjoyed the meal and had had their fill. In Mozambique, I had to learn that generosity and hospitality were among the highest values when welcoming a visitor. Even in the poorest home, a lavish meal would be put before me when I went to visit, so much in fact that I could rarely finish what was on my plate. Not only did I face the guilt associated with my mother’s conniving to make us finish up everything on our plate, but I was also faced with the guilt of being a relatively wealthy foreigner who seemed to be taking food from the mouths of the poor. I had to learn that in fact there was nothing wrong with leaving something on my plate or in the bowl and like in the story this morning, nothing would go to waste. The point was that the visitor should always have enough to eat, and a little more, so that no one could say that you had not extended hospitality.
This scenario rings much truer to the biblical stories from both the Old and the New Testaments. The story from Second Kings from the Hebrew scriptures resonates with the gospel story of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. Although the numbers are quite different, just a hundred people in this story, the gift of barley loaves and grain brought by the man from Baal-shalishah to the prophet Elisha provided for everyone to eat and there was food left over. On Thursday, at our weekly communion service, our reading was from the book of Ruth. And there, when Ruth goes out to the fields to glean, she is invited to a meal among people she did not know. She was a foreigner, trying to get enough food to feed herself and her mother-in-law Naomi who had lost her husband and her two sons. Ruth had no reason to expect hospitality or generosity. In fact she was probably expecting quite the opposite including questions about why she was even in those fields and why a foreigner should have anything from the crop, even the scraps. But at the meal she is given a place of honour and her plate is heaped with food and she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.
The story of the feeding of the five thousand is central to John’s gospel. There is no recounting of the story of the last supper in John and many would say that this story we read today is John’s way of bringing us to the eucharist, the joyful feast of the people of God. It happens at the time of the Passover feast when the people of Israel remembered the night that the angel of death passed over them as they ate their meal of roasted lamb, bitter herbs and unleavened bread and the Egyptians were convinced to free them from their bondage. In John, through the gift of a young boy, God works to feed the people and to let them know that they are loved beyond anything they could hope or imagine. God was at work on the mountain as they sat down on the grass and Jesus blessed and broke the bread and the fish and gave it to them. They ate their fill and there was food left over. The ordinary, five barley loaves and two fish, enough for a boy’s lunch, became the extraordinary and fed five thousand people with food to spare.
In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul wishes for his readers that they would know the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love. That’s four dimensions, not the usual three. Now I know that there is a scientific explanation for a fourth dimension, and indeed for many more. I looked it up on Google and I really tried but I could not understand it. Apparently it began in theory with Joseph-Louis Lagrange in the mid-1700s and arrived at a precise formalization of the concept in 1854 by Bernhard Rieman. It seems that Einstein easily thought in four dimensions and I am sure there are some of you that can do that as well. But it was a little out of my range. However, four dimensions did make sense when I thought in terms of what we are hearing in scripture today. This is not just the usual ways of doing things, the three dimensional ways of doing things. What we encounter here is life in an additional dimension. This is not the way it is supposed to be or the way that it usually is. Those loaves and fish or your brown bag lunch is not supposed to be shared with five thousand people. A bunch of ordinary people sitting on a hillside, or in the pews of a church, are not usually what comes to mind when we try to imagine what the kingdom of God is like. The hospitality we receive when we are in a strange and far away place or on a mountain is not supposed to be so lavish and filling. These are not the usual dimensions of our lives. But God’s Spirit at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. Did you hear that familiar line in Ephesians? A table set with bread and wine is enough, and more than enough, to feed the world. There will be baskets and baskets of food left over and the cup will be overflowing. That’s God’s generosity, God’s hospitality at work in the world.
Do we believe that? I’m not asking if we believe if the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand actually happened as it is recorded. I’m asking if we believe that God’s generosity, God’s hospitality is at work in the world so that simple gifts and a willing and joyful heart can bring life and life in abundance in any situation. We live in a time when the voices that say we have to be careful, we have to hold back, we can’t afford to be generous, that we cannot share, are becoming more and more strident. We have a lot in the cupboards, more than any time in human history probably. We have technological capacities beyond anything we could have imagined, even a generation ago. I am always amazed to be told that I have as much digital capacity in my cell phone as what the space crafts in the initial moon landings had. Yet we live our lives as if we live in a world of scarcity. There are a lot of Philips around saying, “But what good could this little offering be among so many people?” We should save it for ourselves so that we don’t go hungry. Like the people on that hillside, we need to be open to a different dimension, life infused by God’s Spirit working in us and through us.
This past week has been a difficult one in our city. The shootings on the Danforth last Sunday evening and the deaths of two young people shocked and dismayed us. We never think that this kind of violence is going to hit in our neighbourhood or our city. It is something that happens somewhere else. But we are finding out that we are not immune. The killings on Yonge Street earlier this year and the increased number of people killed with guns throughout the summer months have left us wondering what is happening in Toronto. Are we safe? One path that we can take in the wake of this violence is to batten down the hatches, to stay in our homes, to feel threatened at every turn. Of course we do need to be vigilant and learn from these tragic events. But what does Christ’s love in us call us to? It seems that we are called to an even greater expression of love, and generosity, and hospitality. In the face of an impossible situation, a little boy offered his lunch. In the face of the tragedies that have impacted our community what can we do? What barley loaves and fish to we have to offer? And what can happen if we offer them with glad and generous hearts? Will they also be multiplied? Will they continue to be passed on to more and more people to build relationships of compassion and justice? If we allow God’s Spirit to be at work within us will our offerings be able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine? It seemed to be true on that hillside. And it seems to have been true when Jesus’ disciples throughout the ages have learned to confront violence and fear with generosity, and hospitality, and love.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe my Mom would like the ending to the story. Leftovers, of course, are just the beginning of another fabulous meal. As long as we are willing to share what we have, there really is no limit even on what those leftovers can do.
Thanks be to God.