John 6:1-21, Ephesians 3:14-21, 2 Kings 4:42-44
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Today we are in the very middle of summer. Gardens burst with vegetables and flowers; peach trees are full of fruit; summer rains make for some very happy weeds. The morning sun streams through our bedroom window at dawn, awakening chirping birds and barking dogs. The fullness of summer is upon us.
This is the mood of our readings today. In the Hebrew scriptures, we catch up with Elisha the prophet in one of a series of miracle stories that all have to do with abundance. Prior to today’s passage, Elisha filled an arroyo with gushing water; he caused a poor woman’s oil jar to overflow so much that she was able to sell the excess and get out of debt; he raised a dead child back to life again. And in today’s reading, in the middle of a famine in Israel, he took 20 loaves of bread and caused it to multiply so that many more were fed. There was even food left over.
Does this sound familiar? In today’s gospel, Jesus is the new Elisha. The people are hungry. They bring him 5 loaves and 2 fish. 5,000 are fed, and again, there are leftovers.
Finally, Paul offers an ecstatic vision of what it is like to live with the Spirit of Christ in our hearts. Our inner being is strengthened so that we have the power to comprehend the divine love that fills us with all the fullness of God.
It is a vision of the world as an abundant place, full of the goodness of God. Throughout the scriptures, this theme reappears again and again.
What has become of this message? It has been shaped by our contemporary culture, so that it becomes about limitless financial abundance for individuals. It is called the prosperity gospel. A modern version of some old forms of Calvinism, it says that wealth will come to those who truly trust in God.
What is promised in the scriptures, however, is not material riches but the abundance of peace, mercy, security, joy, love, and hope. Jesus died poor and alone on a cross, after all, and his followers didn’t fare much better. Nevertheless, he told them “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
This is what Paul meant by abundance in today’s reading: that our inner being would be strengthened with the power of the Spirit, that Christ himself would dwell in our hearts, that we would be rooted and grounded in love, filled with the breadth and length and height and depth and all the fullness of God. This kind of abundance, which is not even dependent upon our circumstances, is what Paul promises for those who love God.
So even when material improvement does not happen, even when we get sicker instead of better, even when our debt rises and our friends disappear, we are still surrounded by God’s abundance and filled with the love of God. Even then, the blue sky remains, we can always love others, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, can always dwell in our hearts.
But there is something else about the abundance that is offered in scripture, and that is the way in which it is given. It never comes to individuals by themselves. This is another misconception of our modern day – that we can sit alone at home, visualize success and happiness and health, and then manifest it, all by ourselves.
In the scriptures, we see that abundance always rises up out of community, never to a lone individual. Abundance in the Bible begins with a created world whose prodigious plant, animal, aquatic, and human life is all interdependent. Everything feeds on everything else, and nothing stands in isolation. Nothing can even survive without everything else. It is abundance through the community of creation.
The scriptural vision of communal abundance then moves into the Israelites becoming unified and moving into a land of plenty, as a people. It is Jesus saying that he came to bring abundant life, and then doing it by bringing together a new kind of community of acceptance and healing. It is the people of the early church selling everything they owned, putting the money in a common pot, and distributing to everyone according to their need. The scripture’s teaching about abundance is always that it comes through community.
And the miracle in the feeding stories of Elisha and Jesus just might be about abundance found in community, too. Did Jesus really physically expand the amount of bread all by himself? Or did the miracle consist of each person bringing what little they had, sharing it with others, and discovering that what they could do in common was so much more than what anyone could do alone?
You have probably heard of the Millennium Development Goals, initiated by the United Nations, and taken up by many nations and organizations, including the Episcopal Church. These goals are that by the year 2015, we humans eliminate extreme poverty, hunger, and gender inequality; provide universal education and healthcare for children and their mothers; combat AIDS and create environmental sustainability; and establish partnerships in development between poor and wealthy people for the benefit of all.
All we need to do to reach these goals is for nations, institutions, and individuals to commit 0.7% of our resources to them, and to cooperate. All we need to do is bring our 5 loaves and our 2 fishes, and share, and a miracle of abundance will occur. As it is often said, for the first time in human history, we have the capacity to end poverty. All we lack is the will.
I think this is true about the current debate about health care in our nation. We can provide healthcare for all. But do we have the will? Some of you may have seen the Michael Moore movie “Sicko.” Whatever you think of his heavy-handed propagandist style of filmmaking, he manages to communicate this one heart-felt truth: in many other countries, when you ask someone on the street why they should contribute their money so someone else can have access to quality medical care, they look at you like you’re crazy. They say “Because we all need help sometime; we’re all in this together.”
We see how abundance comes when we share our meager resources year after year in our parish budget; we see it in the fundraising for our building projects. We are not the kind of parish that has a few wealthy angels who give mountains of dollars. Our pyramid of giving is pretty flat. Many people contribute modest amounts, and it all adds up to a lot. We bring our 5 loaves and our 2 fishes, we share, and a miracle of abundance occurs.
And so it is for our personal lives, too. Any time that we are in need of any kind, whether we are sick, in debt, confused, or up against a wall, we are always surrounded by a communal abundance of grace: people with kind and generous hearts, the Sandia Mountains rising up majestically over us, this parish, social agencies that able to help, the wind in the trees, and advice from wise friends. We live in an abundant world that has more than enough resources to carry each of us beyond our individual limitations.
To tap into this abundance, we only have to believe that it does, indeed, surround us in the community of life, and to then turn to others, to God, to life itself, and humbly ask for help. God is just waiting for us to give us grace, at all times, through the community of life.
Do you believe that life is abundant for you?
I will leave you with two images, two memories of mine. One is of a bishop speaking recently at General Convention about a resolution that requires churches to pay into the pension plan for lay employees, as we have done here for years. He lumbered up to the microphone and warned darkly “If this resolution passes, many of the small churches in my diocese will have to cut back their employees’ pay in order to cover their pension.” I imagined him constantly reminding the people of his diocese of the need to be cautious, to hold on to what they had, to fear the awful scarcity of life.
The other memory is of an obituary I read in the Taos newspaper a few years ago. It is of a simple man who sold the local paper for a few pennies. He got around everywhere, giving a smile and easy conversation to all. He was poor and in ill health, but full of grace, knowing that he was surrounded by the abundance of Taos’ good people and its natural beauty. According to the world’s standards, he was a nobody, even deprived. But everyone in Taos knew and loved him because of his abundant heart. His obituary took up half the page.
Two people, two assumptions about the kind of world we live in. Today, how will you choose to live?