Many years ago, I lived in South Africa and I had a business with a Zulu friend, Sisanna Mkhize. We ran a community recreation project in the townships around Durban.
Every day we would meet at our office or out in the parks where we were working. Each of us would bring our lunches. Sisanna would always offer me some of her lunch. And I would always refuse, not wanting to take from her. I didn’t want to take Sisanna’s lunch, because I knew that she didn’t have very much money. She was cooking for her mother and brothers and sisters, her daughter and nieces and nephews. At the time, one of her brothers had work, but the other five were unemployed. Her mother had a job running an elder care facility, but she was providing for all the elders in the home with very, very little money. I knew that Sisanna was stretching one tin of sardines into a curry that would feed 10 or 12 people by adding tomatoes, and wild herbs. She would make steam bread—a white soft loaf made in a kettle on the stove because she didn’t have an indoor kitchen—no oven, just a burner on the packed earth outside her tiny house. I didn’t want to take her curry and bread when so many others were counting on her.
But Sisanna reprimanded me. She said, “my feelings are hurt when you refuse my food.” I have plenty and I want to share it with you. It is how we treat one another. I have for the past 30 years remembered that lesson. Sisanna did have plenty. She didn’t have money, but she and her family lived by a rule of generosity, sharing everything they had. When I shared her curry and steam bread, I was satisfied, even though her lunch didn’t have much meat in it. And when I refused to share her lunch, or didn’t offer mine to her, I was the one who lived in poverty—even though I had much more money than she had.
God’s promise to us is that we will be satisfied. God has provided enough for every living creature. In our reading from Kings and the Gospel of John, we see God providing food for all of the people who gathered. These readings speak to the bounty of God, the super abundance that is available to us.
Our readings also speak to the human side of this equation. The humans in this story doubt that there will be enough. They are somehow embarrassed about offering such small amounts of food to so many people. They are more concerned about how they will be viewed if they offer their little portion than they are about feeding the people who are hungry.
Jesus tells the apostles to distribute the boy’s loaves and fishes. Elisha tells his servant to distribute the barley loaves. The believers are shown that rather than being ashamed of how little they have, they should share. And when they share, they will experience God’s abundance.
This is a new kind of calculation. Instead of counting how many loaves, how many fish, how much money, how big a house we have as individuals, we are called to share whatever we have. Shift the focus away from what I have, towards a focus on what we can give to one another. When we share, we get God’s gift—grace in abundance, nourishment that surpasses our wildest expectations, satisfaction that is deeper than any satisfaction that we can experience on our own. There is infinite abundance in God’s Kingdom, but we must share with one another to experience it.
Isn’t this the lesson of our shared Eucharist? Have you ever come to the rail to receive the bread, or the bread and the wine and left feeling that your piece was too small? If the minister miscalculated and gave big pieces of the loaf to the first people who came the rail and small pieces to the last ones who came, would you feel like you’d been “cheated”? My guess is that the size of the bread, or the depth of the cup is not what matters when you come to receive Eucharist. When you come, you are engaging in a sacramental meal—one that will heal you, bind you together with all of God’s people who share that bread and cup. You engage in anamnesis the process by which we imagine a heavenly banquet with fine wine and the most delicious bread. We become part of God’s creative project by which all people, and all of creation will be fed so that they will never be hungry. Our sharing in the real presence of Christ is what is important. It’s not about magic bread, or a metaphysical experience of multiplying fish. This holy meal is an experience of God’s abundance and an action—a participation by us humans as we share the meal with everyone.
I don’t want to leave this discussion today without remarking on the last portion of our reading. Jesus walks out on the water 3 or 4 miles in a blowing storm to catch up with his disciples. I think about walking three or four miles—it would take me around an hour to walk that far. When the disciples see him, they are terrified, but he says, “It is I, do not be afraid.” I think that this miracle story follows the story of loaves and fishes because it speaks to another fear. The people are afraid that the food they have is too little to feed the crowd. Then when they are on the boat, I imagine that they are afraid that Jesus is too far away to reach them after they have set sail on the sea. But Jesus reassures them, that he is not too far away. He will reach them, and they will reach the opposite shore safely. In this story, I hear God’s reassurance that no matter how far away we get, that God can always reach us, God’s guidance and care is always available. When we call out, God will answer us.
I think that our scriptures remind us not only to participate by sharing whatever we have, but also to give thanks for what we have been given by God and one another. I notice that it is sometimes hard to remember that God’s grace often comes to us by way of human hands. We can appreciate the service, the generosity of another person, and know that this gift is greater than what the human being alone can offer. With the right orientation, we can experience human gift as a divine experience. We know that the little piece of bread, the tiny sip of wine offered by the minister in our sacramental meal, can be received as a glorious banquet. The smile of a stranger, the helping hand, these small gifts may with God’s grace be a profound gift to the person who receives it.
Today we are marking some important transitions—we are welcoming Rev. Rebecca back from her brief sabbatical and we are sending Rev. Lizette off to her new job at Huron and saying goodbye. I think about Rebecca’s sabbatical and I know that it was too short. She took a break from her service here, but she didn’t get much of a break from her other work. I wonder, how could this sabbatical be “enough” rest. But I trust that she took in the gift of the sabbatical as a blessing, allowing herself some time to grieve and grow, to pursue her own projects and simply to take one thing off her plate. For us, this time was one of loss, but at least for me, I noticed that Rebecca was very present in my prayers, her absence on Sundays, allowed me to appreciate her importance in our community—in our liturgy and in the fabric of our community. As we mourned Sam and David’s passings this past month, I felt the gift of Rebecca’s personal experience of loving and losing her husband Dick.
And in a different way, we have experienced the gift of Lizette’s presence. She might have said, I have only a few months before I leave the area, I don’t want to serve with you because I don’t have enough time or energy to give. But instead, she agreed to join us and share, for a very small stipend, the time that she had. And her presence was a gift, helping us to deepen our worship from our Easter week and Easter Season services through Pentecost and into Ordinary time. Her pastoral presence, her preaching and her singing. Her support and teaching have all helped us to grow as a community over the past few months. Her gift was not too little, it was an abundance—given with generosity, and received with thanksgiving for all her gifts.
In both of these transitions, we can experience God’s abundance here in our midst. We have been given grace that we do not deserve and that we don’t even know to ask for. God is coming near, we are not adrift in a storm without support, we have more than enough to sustain us.
As we leave here today, let us pray that we might not fear our inadaquacies. Let us share what we have because we know that when we do, there will be abundance. And let us accept the gifts that we are given by our members, our clergy, our family and friends with thanksgivings because in opening ourselves to these gifts, we will come to know God’s presence in our midst. Amen.