July 25, 2021, A Thing of Unreasonable Abundance, Mark 6:30-44 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
The gospel today should have a very familiar ring for us, not only because it’s one of the best-known stories about Jesus, but because feeding people is something we do here at St. Philip’s. In fact, feeding people seems to be in our DNA. I remember reading the early records of our church, and way back at the beginning, even before this building existed, St. Philip’s already had a reputation for putting on really good dinners for the community. It’s one of our ways of being disciples, following in our Lord’s footsteps in our own small way.
I say our “small way,” because we read this morning that Jesus took a few groceries, and fed a crowd that was bigger than the whole population of Canton, maybe even more. This is one of those Bible passages that people often have a hard time taking as fact. Some commentaries have offered an explanation that avoids the difficult issue of the miraculous. Jesus was teaching an enormous crowd of people, in a remote area. It was dinner time and everybody was getting hungry, and Jesus posed this question to his disciples: How are we going to feed all these people? As his disciples reacted in horror at the very idea, a boy came forward and offered to share what he had brought with him, five loaves of barley bread, and a couple of fish. When the people nearby saw the boy’s generous act, other people came forward with what they had, and all that generosity rippled out, one kind act leading to more and more, until every person – 5000 men, plus women and children – had enough to eat, with leftovers. This way of understanding the story has two great advantages. First of all, it doesn’t offend our sense of what is rational and possible. And second, it makes us feel good about the basic kindness and goodness of human beings, which is always nice.
The problem with that explanation is that it doesn’t fit in with any of the four gospel writers tell us about what happened. The crowd that followed Jesus on foot from place to place wasn’t made up of picnickers out for a day’s hike. We heard what Jesus thought of them last week. He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. They were the poor and the sick, the blind and the lame, the last and the least, the ones Jesus had a special concern for. It’s hard – impossible, really – to believe they were all carrying enough food to feed a literal village, that they only needed a little encouragement to share and everybody suddenly had an abundance.
And there is also the problem of explaining how the people reacted to this feast, which was that they were ready to come and take Jesus by force to make him king. It’s safe to say, I think, that no mob ever rose up and tried to make someone king because he taught them a wonderful lesson about sharing. No one ever tried to force Mr. Rogers to run for President because he helped us to be nicer people.
A faithful reading of any one of the four gospel accounts of this event can only conclude that the people had experienced something that was way beyond human goodness, something beyond rationalizing or explaining. Jesus had done something the people wanted to get hold of, like the Golden Goose in the fairy tale, that promised the means of magically solving all life’s difficulties. A faithful reading tells us that these people had witnessed an act of pure, astonishing grace. Human goodness and kindness might have been able to stretch meager resources in a way that was fair and logical. Kind, sensible people would probably have made sure the elderly and the very young at least had something to eat. But grace isn’t something that settles for “fair” or “sensible.” God’s grace doesn’t content itself with “enough.” The grace of Jesus was so ridiculously extravagant that when everyone had eaten as much as they wanted there were still twelve baskets full of pieces left over. And not because there was some special purpose for those twelve baskets of leftovers, at least not that anybody ever mentioned. Those baskets of leftovers were purely and simply the overflow of a grace that is so lavish and generous that even thousands of poor, hungry people couldn’t use it up.
Grace is the love of God in action. It’s what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Ephesians today when he writes: I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Our God is the one whose power isn’t just enough to fill our needs; it is at work in us to accomplish more that we even think to ask for, more than we can even imagine. And I don’t know about you, but I can imagine a lot of good things.
The language of grace is all about God’s excessive goodness. We read Psalm 23 last week, where David wrote: he anoints my head with oil; my cup overflows. Jesus stood up at a festival once and cried out: whoever believes in me, rivers of living water will flow from him. Paul wrote, also in his letter to the Ephesians: in Jesus we have forgiveness according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us. And John tells us that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son, so that we might have life in abundance.
The story of the feeding of the 5000 is a picture of God’s version of grace – which is the Real Thing. It isn’t a sensible and practical idea. Grace isn’t nice. Grace is outrageous. Sometimes grace is so un-humanly good that it offends everything we human beings think of as good. Grace forgives the murderer. Grace offers kindness to the cheat. Grace extends a helping hand to the worthless. More often than not, God’s grace offends our human sense of fairness and reasonableness and righteousness and justice. Grace, by its very nature, isn’t something that can be earned, isn’t something anyone deserves, because it’s unmerited favor. It’s pure gift.
God’s grace doesn’t just take something that’s already good and multiply it, like sharing the loaves and fishes. Grace isn’t a ripple-effect thing. It’s a seismic-event thing, like an earthquake that shakes the whole of creation to its roots. The world felt the shock of grace when the Amish families at Nickel Mines offered forgiveness to the man who killed their children. The world felt the shock of grace when the members of Mother Emmanuel Church offered words of hope to Dylann Roof. Grace is uncomfortable. It’s dangerous. It’s risky behavior on God’s part, because in the hands of the world, grace can be manipulated and misinterpreted and abused in so many ways. The Cross of Christ is the prime example of that. But it turns out, the Cross was the greatest victory of all time for the grace of God.
When our kids were little, they wanted to know why we can’t see God, if he’s so very big. And the best way we could explain that was that the reason we can’t see God is not that he’s ghostly or invisible, but that he is just too big for our little human eyes to see. Really, that’s still the best explanation I can come up with. And in kind of the same way, grace is almost impossible for us to understand – at least without the help of the Holy Spirit – because it’s so much bigger than our little human ideas of fairness and goodness. Grace is God’s outrageous light that shatters our darkest darkness – and not because we earned it or deserved it or paid for it, not even because we asked for it, but purely and simply and freely out of love, because that’s what it is. It is Love writ large. Grace is a thing of unreasonable abundance.
In just a few minutes we’re going to do like the people in the gospel story. We’re going to share a meal together. We’re going to be fed by Jesus. We don’t bring very much to the table, a few wafers, a sip of wine. We bring our weariness, we bring our aches and pains, we bring the sins and worries and troubles of this week past. And we are all, every single one of us, welcomed to the table, not as patients or clients, not even as beggars, but as beloved children who belong here, beloved children with whom the Father is delighted. And we receive all that we can hold and more, an overflowing abundance, because he gives his very self to us.
In his infinite love, our holy and gracious Father made us for himself; and when the world had fallen into sin and we had all become subject to evil and death in all its exhausting manifestations, the Father, in his mercy, sent Jesus, his only and eternal Son.
I have seen on party invitations a sort of gracious gift disclaimer, that says, “Your presence is your present.” But this morning, we say this: His Presence is our Present, an extravagant gift of unreasonable and unmerited abundance. That’s grace