Ninth Weekend of Pentecost B
Preached at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Muskegon, MI, while on Internship.
2 Kings 4:42-44
Some members of my family are in town this weekend, and a few of them took the opportunity to have a long-overdue camping trip here in Muskegon. When I found out about the camping, I called up my Aunt Diane and asked if I could spend the evenings with them. Of course, she said, and then asked me if I wanted to have dinner with them. Trying to be polite, I replied that I didn’t want to impose.
“When have you ever known us to run out of food?” she asked, and I had to admit that, aside from one incident, there has not been a gathering of either the Ranos clan or the Pearson clan that has run out of food that I can remember. No matter how many extra people show up or how many guests we bring to family gatherings, we’ve always managed to provide.
Now, there’s no miracle or secret—there are no Elijah’s, Elisha’s, or Jesus’ that I know of in my family—we just cook a metric ton of food and prepare for the worst; I have a large number of high-school and college age cousins with voracious appetites, after all. (Yes Ben, I’m looking at you). Family dinners overflow with spaghetti, ham, turkey, oysters, garlic bread, potatoes, salad, soup, and, of course, Grandma Nancy’s corn casserole, Grandma Grandma’s Swedish meatballs, Aunt Carol’s famous Fruity Pebble Bars and Aunt Diane’s legendary Oreo cookie desert.
It feels good to be provided for. But that’s not always the case in life. The American Dream says that anyone from any walk of life can make it big, can have all that they want, can live a life of celebrity and fame if they so choose. But the American reality adds that anyone who makes it big can also lose it overnight.
So now we expect that no matter how much we save or prepare, we can lose it all. And so we must save more and prepare more, just in case we lose it. And the more we have, the more we can lose, so the more we must save and prepare. We never know when we have enough because we never expect what we have to be enough.
We are like Elisha’s servant. When told that the offering brought by the man from Baal-shalishah will feed the 100 men present, he responds with distrust and suspicion: “How can I set this before 100 people?” How can this meager offering do so much? We are like Jesus’ disciples who, when asked to provide for the 5000 people present, exclaim in exasperation that 6 months of pay couldn’t feed all these people.
And this fear isn’t just related to food or belongings. We fear in the church that there will not be enough members in the community to sustain it, and so we try to con people in the doors any way we can. We fear in seminary that there will not be enough openings for all of us graduating next year, so we make plans for ways in which we can keep ourselves looking the best for prospective churches. We fear that there will never be enough security to protect us from others who might want to hurt us, so we devote more and more of our own resources to making sure no one could ever touch us.
We have our own ideas about how much provided is enough. We hear, “God provides”, but who among us really believes the story of lilies of the field, in which Jesus says that if God provides for the lilies, surely God will provide for us? How many people here really like that story, but when push comes to shove and the going gets tough, expect that things will run out? I’m one of them. Now, what would the world look like if we were able to trust that God will provide, even if it is in ways we don’t expect?
I just returned last week from the 2012 ELCA National Youth Gathering. We took along eight of our wonderful high school youth who had never seen the city of New Orleans, either before or after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. We drove through the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, one of the areas of the city hardest hit by Katrina. Its levees failed, flooding the Ward, and a barge that slipped through the breach in the levee literally leveled houses as it swept through the neighborhood.
New Orleans is a place that knows destruction and loss and scarcity and poverty and injustice perhaps better than anyone else in the country right now. Seven years after Katrina swept through the city they are still struggling to rebuild. There should not be any hope there. But there is. We entered a city that welcomed us with hugely open arms. Everywhere we went, we saw signs and banners saying, “Welcome ELCA Youth.”
On our service project day, the day on which we were to help leave our mark on New Orleans, instead, we had marks left on us. As we walked to our project location, people honked their horns and waved at us, and came out of their houses to greet us and thank us for being there. People stopped us on the street to talk to us and welcome us personally to their city.
I have to say that my experience in New Orleans was much different than I expected. I went down there expecting to find a people with nothing, and discovered instead that they were a people with so much to offer and to share. Isn’t it amazing how God works sometimes? Isn’t it amazing how God works ALL the time? And isn’t it amazing how often we are oblivious to the way God works?
In the Gospel story today, Jesus multiplies bread and fish and gives them to a hungry crowd. And we are told that the crowd ate all that they wanted and had their fill.
All that they wanted. Not all that they needed.
You see the crowd, like the disciples, had an expectation. The food provided would not be enough. Their trust didn’t extend far enough to accept the gift of God that they had been given, which was not the food in their bellies. Their own expectations got in the way.
After Jesus provides for them, they decided that they want to make him their earthly king and set him on the throne of David. They expected him to provide them with their own independent kingdom again, to throw off the yoke of the Romans and be again the Kingdom of God as they once were. That wasn’t Jesus’ purpose or mission. That is not what the people needed. It was what they wanted.
That is the world we live in. We look for God in all the wrong places and put our wants ahead of our needs. We put our trust in the earthly and expect to be able to carry it all. We try to experience God on our own terms, in our own way. We try to force God into a box that we’ve constructed and feel proud of ourselves for doing so.
What Jesus provided in the feeding of the 5000 was not relief from physical hunger, but an open door to a renewed sense of trust in God, a God who provides for all. What Jesus provided was a new way of living in that trust that meant that we all take care of each other without bias or discrimination. What Jesus provided was the assurance that God would keep providing in ways we might not understand or expect.
Down in New Orleans, we experienced what it meant to be Citizens with the Saints, a phrase taken from the Gathering’s theme verse, which was part of the second reading last week:
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”
We heard some of the most amazing speakers at the Superdome, or the “Lutherdome” as the youth began calling it. We heard Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber of the House for All Sinners and Saints speak on the second night we were there. If you haven’t heard of her yet, you are about ot. Her speech lit up the Superdome, and the video of it has been circulating around the web like wildfire—even among members of the staff here.
Pastor Nadia defies the expectation of what it looks like to be a Lutheran Pastor. The Gathering was heavily criticized for inviting her to speak. In her speech, she even admits that someone with her past, a past of drug abuse, alcoholism, and self-destruction, shouldn’t be allowed to speak to youth. The expectation is that someone like her could only be a negative influence on young people. God couldn’t possibly use someone like her.
But God doesn’t work according to our expectations.
God provides in the most unlikely of places through the most unlikely of people. I never expected to find God so strongly in the words and faces of the people of New Orleans who still needed help rebuilding their lives. I never expected to find God so strongly in the gathering of 33,309 youth and ~2000 volunteers and adult leaders.
But the kind of God we deal with is a God that provides what and who we need despite our own weaknesses and expectations. We deal with a God who can do abundantly far more than we can ask, imagine, or expect. In our times of fear and trembling, when we question what we have been provided and expect something different, we have a relationship with a God who shows up and says, “It is I; do not be afraid.”
And really, what more can we expect or ask for than that?