More than All You Can Ask or Imagine

by Joy Jordan-Lake

John 6:1-21; 2 Kings 4:38-44: Ephesians 3:14-21

Our texts today cover John’s story of the feeding of the five thousand, Elisha’s feeding of one hundred people, and a prayer for the church’s maturity. I wonder: What does the love of God in Christ Jesus have to do with dry barley loaves—the bread of poor, common people? And what does Jesus have to do with a pithy, rather peculiar story about an Old Testament prophet?

Now, I know YOU were paying attention to the gorgeously executed readings of Scripture this morning, but in case the mind of the person next to you took a little trip to South Padre for a moment, let me just highlight what YOU, already, quite cleverly, no doubt have noticed.

The gospel account of Jesus’ feeding the multitudes seems strangely related somehow to the Old Testament account of Elisha’s performing some sort of similar barley bread-related feat, only on a very small scale. Elisha simply has lots more people present than he can feed with twenty loaves of bread, but somehow, in the end, there’s plenty, with lots leftover.

I’m even enough of an irreverent renegade to read this passage and think, “Come on—Elisha just sliced the loaves a little thinner.” As miracles go, the Elisha passage doesn’t even show up on the same chart with the sea-parting/dead-raising/pillar-of-fire kind of thing. Still, the point of the story seems to be something to do with God supplying more than the demand. Much more.

This is not unlike the story of Jesus and the very hungry crowd on the hill. Listen with me between the lines of the story, how the apostles bring the boy with the little blanket, or the basket of food, to Jesus. Jesus examines the crowd, peers down at the couple of tiny, dried fish and five poor-people rolls and says, “Sure, that’ll do just fine.”

The apostles say, “But, um, rabbi, sir, there are maybe five thousand men, HUNGRY ones, hanging out here to hear you!”

Jesus looks back at the crowd and says, “No, I’d say twenty thousand people or so, if you count the women and children—and I do. Guess we’ll have to make the meal stretch a bit, huh, boys?”

I wonder what types of people were standing there listening, watching this Jesus guy announce that he’d be feeding a whole stadium crowd with what amounts to a Weight Watcher’s frozen dinner. I’m guessing there were a few folks like you there, a few like me, a few like the ones you and I admire and despise.

There was an Eye Roller for sure—every crowd has one. She takes one look at the boy and barley and bazillion people and says, “Right. WhatEVER” and rolls her eyes so big her whole head rocks back.

And there’s an Analyst, stepping forward to suggest that someone first commission a survey to see if there is, in fact, a FELT need on the part of the crowd, and how that felt need, if present, might manifest itself according to age, gender and socio-economic breakdown, and perhaps current zip code. Only then, would it be prudent to proceed.

And there’s surely an Eeyore present too—there always is— watching it all and groaning, “We shouldn’t have come. Too many people. Too little food. There’ll be a riot. We’ll all be killed. And when we’re killed, then you’ll agree that we shouldn’t have come.”

Those of us who listen too closely to all those kinds of voices in our own world—the Eye Rollers and the Analysts and the Eeyores—can let them divert us from our dreams of what God might, just maybe, do through us.

Our passage in Ephesians tells us of a power at work within us to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. But those voices around us can make us pinch our prayers into dishonest, safe little words we don’t even mean and intimidate us from being willing to just unfurl our fingers and give what we have and who we are to God—no matter how much or how little that is.

No surprise that the one who offers such a pathetic, measly meal of fish and rolls to feed a mob is a child. Those of us older than seven would be too embarrassed, wouldn’t we? Too self-conscious that people were watching. And what would they say?

Or we’d be too selfish. Didn’t we, in fact, earn what we’ve got—and got it the hard way, thank you? Deserve to keep it, too.

Maybe you’ve heard the statistic that our world easily produces 2,805 calories per day for every man, woman, and child on earth. Yet, every day, 27,000 die of starvation and other preventable causes—three quarters of them children. Why?

Maybe because some of us are hoarding our talent, our skills, and our financial resources. Some of us are hoarding, holding on too tightly to what we have, who we are, because we’re too blasted self-focused. But maybe, too, some of us are scared: we don’t feel we have much in our baskets to offer—what measly talent I have, so few skills, so little savings…what good is this little to anyone, least of all God?

Self-focused or just embarrassed and scared, we end up cowering in the cockpit like the disciples at sea. But this little boy, in that wonderful way children have of not knowing the impossible from the possible, sees that Jesus intends to feed all this ravenous crowd with just two little fish and five barley rolls and the boys goes, “COOL. Here ya go.”

Here’s the thing, though: he has to let go of those loaves. He has to free up those fish in order to do anybody any good outside himself. But then, when he does, doggone if the strangest thing doesn’t happen.

Jesus blesses it, and passes it to the disciples, who act as the waiters and bus boys, and when it’s time to pick up the pieces, there are not one, not two, but TWELVE baskets of bread left over. And to let us know that there’s nothing wrong with the Divine Spreadsheet at work, you’ll notice there’s no mention of leftover fish that would rot in a molten Middle Eastern sun.

So apparently the twelve baskets are there for some purpose, overflowing their rims as the disciples stumble back to the front. And you have to laugh at these guys, staring cross-eyed from the boy who’d had the five barley loaves to these stockpiles of bread climbing clear up to their schnozzes, and they’re going, “I have GOT to cut back on the tequila shots before noon.”

I’m guessing Jesus is over here with the boy who’d delivered over his dinner, and they’re exchanging a wink. Which is what this story is about, isn’t it? An answer to a need, along with a laugh, and a wink. An abundance no one saw coming, excess nobody earned, some kind of surplus from God you couldn’t spend up if you tried.

Any of us who’ve attempted the practice of prayer for any length of time have discovered that, as Ann Lamott likes to imagine it, no prayer stays in God’s inbox forever. Eventually, it may come back a big “NOPE.” Or it might be, “You’ll have to go step-by-step on this one.”

But sometimes, have you ever had those answers, maybe to one single prayer or maybe a whole season, that come back, as in this story, like billows and billows of bread rolling in, more than you ever asked for, more than you ever imagined?

Abundance. Excess. Surplus.

Twelve baskets of barley bread so full they’re tumping sideways seem to say something about a God who is All About the Impossible. Isn’t that the OUTRAGE of the old, old story, after all? The geriatric pregnancies. The lone shepherd boy with the sling shot who with one stone takes out Goliath, the Philistines’ major weapon of mass destruction. Prostitutes who get featured in the royal pedigree. Seas that part on cue.

It’s impossible, it’s over the top, it’s what this God is about.

One of the lessons on loaves in my own life happened in Cambridge, Massachusetts, over the course of several years. It began when I arrived, fresh from seminary and the sunny South, looked around my New England home and realized for all greater Boston’s sophisticated networking of social services, most of the soup kitchens were rough and rowdy places: one stood an excellent chance of being threatened, struck or propositioned—or all of the above—sometime during the course of the meal.

There weren’t many calm, safe places that a woman alone or families with children could go to get warm, feel cared for, and come away, all in one piece, with free groceries. Enter Recent Seminary Graduate to save the day. I called a meeting in my church for anyone interested in helping to start a clothes closet and food pantry for women and families. This was gonna be great!

Two people showed up.

We had no food, no clothes to offer—and no funding. And no space—our Spanish-speaking sister congregation opposed using the church building to hand out food—might attract the wrong element. But we collected cash and canned food and khakis and down coats from our congregation, and tunneled out a portion of the church basement that had been used since the 19th century for trash and coal dust—surely no one could object to our using that.

We papered the city with flyers announcing our opening day—Da Da Da Da—and we waited for the grateful masses to arrive.

November 17, 1989, ten o’clock. We opened our doors. Hello, hungry and hurting world: help is on its way.

No one was there. Thirty minutes went by, then an hour. Then, at last, our first client. And she had, yes, a baby stroller. Just the target group we were seeking to serve! She approached, stumbling through the driving snow. We reached to help lift the stroller up the steps and lean in to coo in the sweet little one’s face. It was a stuffed Garfield doll—who was, it seemed, very much alive to our client, who tickled him under the chin.

It was winter in Boston, we had only two warm baby outfits on our shelves, and this woman wanted them both for Baby Garfield—and way more of our food, if you ask me, than one person needed for a week. The transaction did not go well. By the time she left, Garfield’s mother had promised to have her partner come after me with a knife.

This was our only client of the day.

I’d been out to feed the world—or at least greater Boston—and instead I was going to be stalked in dark alleys by Garfield’s mother’s lover.

It was a terrible flop. I was a terrible flop.

I went home, and I’d like to say that I prayed, but I think the “prayer” consisted more of my telling God, “I’m done. You can have New England’s finest clothes closet/food pantry. I’m outta here.”

I proceeded to home-perm my hair. Men in ministry don’t have this option for drowning their sorrows in perm solution, and it’s a shame, really. You should know it was a $6.99 drugstore perm, and I could already smell it beginning to burn after 10 minutes. When the phone rang, I’d have ignored the caller, but the voice on the answering machine was our church treasurer, Laura, who said we had to talk right away. I picked up, fully intending to keep an eye on the clock in order to wash out my hair in two minutes, no more.

Laura had just received through the mail a cashier’s check from a local bank with a note from an anonymous someone in the community saying that this was to be used for Cambridgeport’s new clothes closet/food pantry. It was for $1,000.

And, Laura said, we’d received a letter from Project Bread saying they’d not only accepted our grant application for several thousand dollars, but they were giving us emergency funding in the meantime: another check for $1,000.

In all the excitement, a good 30 to 45 minutes went by.

[Sniff, Sniff. ] Uh-Oh. My hair.

It took about four years for 15 inches of fuzz to grow out, but it served as a VIVID reminder: “Oh, me of little faith.”

In the following weeks at the clothes and food pantry, clients began to pour in, sometimes 80 low-income and homeless families per two-hour period. But just when I’d despair of enough volunteers a whole Bible study group would show up, unannounced from MIT or Boston U. Or some neighbors from down the street who would never set foot in a church sanctuary, found they liked helping out in a church basement.

Clothing donations poured in—nice clothes, great stuff—so much we didn’t have enough room on the shelves. So we asked a local store to donate some hanging racks. One or two, they grudgingly said. But when I arrived to pick them up with two deacons, local boys who’d been big into drugs and petty crime back in high school, the store manager, who’d gone to school with these guys was so flabbergasted that Pete and Jay, the old hoodlums, were there to help the poor and not rip off her store, she insisted we take more racks—and racks and racks…until the vehicle we’d brought overflowed.

The clothes, the beautiful clothes, kept coming in: business suits and silk blouses, so many we didn’t have time to get them all on the shelves or the racks. And the clients, the beautiful clients, from Haiti and Dominican Republic, Brazil and El Salvador, kept coming. Most spoke not one word of English.

And just when I’d begun to despair of that, a group from Wellesley announced that they could use a school van to drive to Sunday worship IF they would perform some social service, so could they please work in the clothes closet early Sunday mornings before worship? One of the Wellesley women was a linguistics major, and would like to come, she said on Saturday mornings too—if that was okay. She was fluent in French and Spanish and Portugese; someone else knew Haitian Creole. “Yeah,” I said, “that would be okay.”

Now Laura, the church treasurer, had an MBA from Harvard, and knew me in particular and humanities types in general well enough to know that most of us still aren’t real clear on long division. She had to explain to me that in end-of-the-year non-profit accounting one wants to spend all the money one has, to show one needs all that, in order to procure more. A zero balance is a good thing, she assured me. Grant givers don’t like a surplus.

So each year I suppressed my fiscal uptightness, and set my sights on zero. And each year, just as I was about to triumph, the very weekend before our budget meeting, there’d be trouble. One year I was approaching a nice, clean zero balance for the meeting in a few days, when Polaroid executives showed up and asked for a tour of the pantry. We have a favor to ask, they said. We need to show community service, could you accept this small check? It was for $1,000.

The next year, having had a surplus, I knew not to expect much. But Boston’s annual Walk for Hunger fell on a sunny day, 40,000 people walked, and in our annual grant there appeared an additional, unsolicited check—for $1,000. One year, despite our giving away literally a ton of food each week, we faced yet another small budget surplus.

The weekend before the annual budget summit, an elderly parishioner came to the pantry and handed me a hat and some mittens. “The Bible says if you have two coats,” she said, “give one away. I’ve got only one coat but two pairs of these.”

Ah-Hah! That was IT. I could buy boatloads of hats and mittens! People newly arrived from Haiti could use that, and it would spend that surplus. A volunteer loading bags behind me turned. My ladies’ Wednesday morning social club has been knitting for months, and wanted to find someone to give children’s mittens and hats to. Would you be willing to take them?

Mittens. Bags and bags and bags of mittens.

A local bakery asked if they could donate day-old pastries and bread. Every week…boxes and boxes and boxes of bread.

Another year, the weekend before the big budget meeting, we’d spent more money on resources for more cold, hungry people than ever before. We were gonna hit zero this time—I just knew it.

As I was leaving the church building, a cluster of Harvard students slammed through the door, beaming and breathless. “We had our Dunster House dance last night,” they said, “and for admission we charged $5 a piece—we had a HUGE crowd—all of it to be donated to the pantry. Surprise!”

Year after year after year, and always just before the annual meeting. Surpluses. Always, despite all my efforts—apparently, for God to make a point.

During those years the pantry was the most profitable arm of our church. And the laugh, the wink, was always on me. Me, the minister with the curly-fried hair, who doesn’t trust well, who excels in worry, even when I can see that Christ is walking on water, right there on the crest of the waves—I’m back here clutching the mast.

Eight years. And the loaves and fruit and mittens and meat kept coming. Bags and racks and boxes and baskets and checks.

God’s love, like the deep end of the ocean where no one’s touched the bottom yet. Higher and deeper and longer and wider than we know how to measure. God’s power working within us, to accomplish far more than we could ask or imagine.

It’s all about an abundance you didn’t see coming, excess you didn’t earn, some kind of surplus from God you couldn’t spend up if you tried. And it’s something different that this God is about.

I wonder what would happen in your life and mine, what strength we might find, if we could loosen our grip on the mast. What talent or skills or financial resources might multiply in God’s hands—if we would just let go of the loaves and free up the fish.

I don’t know what the answer is—in your life or mine, or in our lives in this church together—but I do know, there’s something to be learned from children and fingers unfurled and fishes and loaves.

May God give us compassion and courage.

Joy Jordan-Lake is a minister, writer, and teacher at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. This sermon was printed in Sacred Seasons, Hunger Emphasis 2003.