Ninth Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
2 Kings 4:42-44
Last week, on Tuesday, seven of us from Faith Lutheran Church loaded up in two cars and drove two and a half hours down to Appleton, WI, to participate in a packing event for the organization Feed My Starving Children.
It was a bit of a long ride, but after stops for gas, lunch, and general milling about, we arrived at the north site of First English Lutheran Church. The semi-truck trailer was there waiting, and there were chalk instructions directing us to the door we needed to go through (a clever idea, by the way). We walked in, registered our attendance, and were given hair nets to wear while we worked.
Throughout the day, there would be different groups coming together for an hour and a half packing session, then leaving so the next group could come in. The goal of the day was to pack 200,000 meals in that truck outside. As I sat down with the other seven people in our group (an eighth met us there), I looked around the sanctuary where we were gathered. It was a huge place, but counting the number of people waiting to start our session, well… the place wasn’t even half full. I began to have a Phillip and Andrew moment.
What I mean by that is, I looked around and thought, “I know this isn’t the only group coming today, but, how the heck are we going to pack 200,000 meals today? There’s no way there’s going to be enough people. This is impossible.”
I was even more dismayed after our orientation, when we entered the church’s gymnasium and picked out a packing table. I think there were eight, maybe ten table setups, enough for up to twenty small groups of about our size to work. And we had an hour and a half.
At this point, I was really having my doubts. No way. I don’t care how many of these sessions there are today, there is no way we are going to pack 200,000 meals. Not happening. It’s impossible.
When we finally got started with the actual packing, you should have seen us fumble. I started as one of the two who would open these plastic bags and slip them over the funnels so other helpers could dump the ingredients in, and let me tell you, those bags did not want to open. Then we had to make sure the ingredients were going in in the right order, that everything weighed the proper weight, that the bag was sealed correctly, and finally, that it all got packed properly in the box. Our first box was… a learning experience.
But, as we continued to pack, something amazing happened. First and foremost, the true miracle, was that we got our acts together and our operation started to go quite smoothly! But also, we started to have fun. We were rocking out to the tunes blasting over the gym speakers, yelling for “More soy!” and “Box 10 done!”, and we were having a ball.
All of a sudden, an hour and a half passed and we were told to stop packing our last box. Stunned, we finished our box and set down our equipment, heading back out into the area where pallets of boxes, including ours, were waiting to be loaded onto the truck. Then we did some math.
Between the two spurs of our table, us and another small group, we packed 31 boxes of food. There are 36 bags of food in a box. That means we, our table alone, packed 1116 of these little bags of food. Further, because it’s mostly rice, there are 6 servings of food in each bag, meaning we, our table, packed 6696 meals. The total for our session came out to over 33,000 meals packed in an hour and a half.
Let that sink in for a minute. In 90 minutes, a group that numbered about 120 people packed 33,000 meals for starving children around the world. After packing them and getting them on pallets, we prayed over the food before it was loaded onto the truck, ready to be taken to distribution and delivery. As we headed for our cars and the drive home, I couldn’t believe how much food we’d packed; it felt impossible, and there were more groups coming in after us to continue the work.
I can’t say I blame Phillip and Andrew when Jesus asks them, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” They looked out over the crowd and couldn’t fathom being able to feed them all. Remember, in Mark’s version of this story, it takes place right in between that break we had last week. Yes, I know our story this week is from John’s Gospel, and believe me, we’ll be spending a lot of time in John’s Gospel over the next five weeks, so hear me out.
In Mark, Jesus had just sent his disciples out two-by-two into the towns and villages to spread the Good News, to heal the sick, and to cast out demons. They return after all that work, and Jesus tells them that he’s going to take them out by themselves to rest, as they need to recuperate. But when they get to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, they are met by the crowd that has guessed where they would land and gone on ahead to meet them. Jesus, having compassion, even in his exhaustion, teaches them, heals them, and feeds them.
It’s the feeding that shocks the disciples the most, I think. I mean, imagine if you were sitting there, completely unprepared, and Jesus turned to you and said, “So, how much money you got? Let’s buy this crowd some dinner.”
I think most of us would stutter if we were told to buy dinner for just the crowd in this room. Can you imagine how much that would cost? How much food that would be? I don’t blame Phillip and Andrew one bit. Phillip says, “Six months of work wouldn’t pay for food for these people, just how the heck am I supposed to do this?” Andrew brings up a little boy with 5 loaves of bread and two fish and says, “Well, I guess there’s this, but… good luck! It’s impossible.”
And yet… and yet Jesus takes that little bit of food, what no one regarded as very much, and feeds the crowd. He feeds the crowd with so much food that not only does everyone get as much food as they want (which is undoubtedly more than they need), but there’s food leftover that gets collected. It’s no wonder that the crowd is so astonished by what’s happened to them that they are willing to dedicate to Jesus even more of their livelihood than they already are by making him king (which Jesus quickly avoids).
Combined with Jesus walking on the water, coming to his disciples in the midst of their terror, this says a lot about who Jesus is.
First, it tells me that Jesus comes to people in the midst of their need. Jesus knew that the crowd was hungry. Jesus knew that the disciples were terrified. And still he comes.
But it also tells me that Jesus recognizes and is not afraid to do what we would consider impossible. Phillip and Andrew knew that they couldn’t feed so many people. Yet Jesus insisted that they do so—and lo and behold, there was enough for everyone.
I’m finding out that Jesus is in the business of working the impossible. Yes, sometimes, it’s things that really are by definition impossible. Walking on water with your bare feet when it’s not frozen is pretty much impossible. Raising someone back from the dead past a certain point, like Lazarus, is impossible. Curing disease and removing disability with a mere touch is impossible. All of these things Jesus did.
But it’s more than that. I’m finding that Jesus has a tendency to not only do the impossible, but to confront the very idea that some things are impossible. Phillip and Andrew thought it was impossible that they could feed so many people. But they were wrong. It wasn’t impossible, even if it was miraculous.
It all depends on how you look at it. Phillip looked at how much money it would take and said, “It is impossible for us to feed all of these people.” Andrew looked at the food in his hands and said, “It is impossible for us to feed all of these people.”
But Jesus looked at the crowd and said, “They are hungry. And so we will feed them, even though it’s, as you say, impossible.”
Jesus doesn’t seem to be at all concerned with what his disciples think they can do. If he did, he would come to the same conclusion they did: that it’s impossible. But that’s not Jesus’s concern. He’s not concerned with the logistics of getting it done. He doesn’t sit and plan out how many resources it will take, he doesn’t calculate cost vs. benefit ratios. He doesn’t care how big the crowd or how big the need. He cares that the people are in need. He and his disciples are going to help them, no matter what it takes. And much to their surprise, the disciples find that they were more than capable after all.
Yes, the people would be hungry again—something Jesus addresses later on—but for that moment, the compassion shown by Jesus and his disciples was enough to satisfy their need and show them that, yes, it was possible that their constant need, their constant hunger, could be satisfied. Where Jesus’s disciples, human beings, saw only an overwhelming desperation, Jesus saw a need that was to be filled. And fill it he did, bringing his disciples along for the ride in all of their doubt and fear. He showed them what was possible, that where they thought there was no chance, there was more than they ever hoped.
Last week, the group of us that volunteered with Feed My Starving Children experienced just such a phenomenon. There are, according to the World Food Programme of the United Nations, 795 million people in the world that don’t have enough food to lead a healthy life. That’s 1 in 9 people on the planet. 795 million people. We were going to work for an hour and a half packing rice into bags, and that was supposed to make a difference? Nope. Not gonna happen. It’s impossible, I thought.
And yet, in an hour and half, our table alone packed nearly 7000 meals, and our entire group packed 33,000. Suddenly, the impossible seemed not so impossible after all.
If you think that’s impressive, last week I mentioned that we were worshiping at the same time as the ELCA National Youth Gathering was having their final closing worship. Over 30,000 high school kids were finishing out their four day experience in Detroit MI. I want to show you a short video showing you some of what they experienced.
Here are some important numbers from the Youth Gathering—they are still counting some of these things a week later.
The Youth Gathering raised $402,000 for the ELCA Walk 4 Water, a program to provide clean water to communities around the world. High school kids raised $402,000.
650 of them donated at least 8 inches or hair or more.
They painted 1847 murals.
They worked in 600 neighborhoods.
They boarded up 319 vacant homes.
Cleared 3200 vacant lots.
Distributed 1426 backpacks.
Installed 36 urban gardens.
Built 99 picnic tables.
Filled 26 dumpsters.
Donated 78.9 gallons, or 607 pints of blood.
And collected 1,000,000 diapers. (source)
You want to see the church being God’s Work with Our Hands, look no further. I’m not at all surprised that in both the 2 Kings and Gospel story this morning, when the adults say, “That’s impossible,” it’s the kids who step up and say, “Just watch. Just watch what we can do with your impossible.”
We, disciples of Jesus, who follow in his footsteps, are in the business of the impossible. We are the impossibly flawed who are impossibly saved sent out into the world to do the impossible. Our FMSC group couldn’t imagine that what we did that day was possible. Detroit couldn’t imagine that what this giant mob of kids could do was possible. But this is who we are.
We are the church. We are Lutheran. We are the church together, and we are church for the sake of the world. We know our God is impossible. And yet, defying all expectations, we encounter God in the most impossible places. We are impossible.