Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
In the far west of North Carolina where I live, you will often see a sign in front of a church or Masonic Lodge or VFW building announcing a “Poor Man’s Dinner” fundraising event. (Except the Catholics; the Catholics have “Friday Night Fish Fry”, for which I am eternally grateful.) A “Poor Man’s Dinner” consists of pinto beans and cornbread, with sweet iced tea and appropriate deserts. This is a nod to the area’s past when most of the people were very poor and pinto beans and cornbread got many families through the winter.
In our gospel lesson for today, Andrew brings forward a young man who “has five barley loaves and two fish.” Barley loaves and fish was a poor man’s dinner. The middle classes, the wealthy, the Greek merchants and the Roman occupiers all ate wheat bread – the poor ate bread made from barley.
I have often wondered about how Andrew stumbled upon the young man with the loaves and fishes. Did the boy shyly tug at his elbow and say, “It isn’t much but the Teacher can have it.”? Did he sit off in a corner with his lunch under his cloak, occasionally sneaking a bite before he was spotted by Andrew, who then said, “Aha, you need to share that.”? Or was it something in between? How was that the boy decided to share?
Surely the boy had to wonder about what difference his little bit of food, his “Poor Man’s Dinner,” would make. He had to think, “There are so many and I have so little. All that will happen is I will have to go hungry along with everyone else. Better to keep what’s mine and let the other people take care of themselves.” Someone shared a cartoon on Facebook this week. It showed four people in a rowboat. The two people at one end were furiously bailing water out of the boat as it began to sink. The two people at the other end sat back comfortably and smiled as one said to the other, “Sure am glad the hole is not in our end of the boat.”
Sometimes we’re all like that. When things look dicey, we decide that the hole isn’t in our end of the boat, therefore it’s not our problem. We look to take care of our own people and our own stuff; we secure what matters most to us and certainly don’t want to waste what little we have on the needs of someone else. Besides, it’s easy to think, “What difference will it make? I have only enough for me and mine.” I read an article recently about what are called “Preppers.” It’s a more urban and urbane version of survivalists. These are people who believe that we are facing a major economic crises and social upheaval in the near future. They are storing several months’ worth of food in their homes, creating emergency plans to get out of the cities into an isolated hideaway, and arming themselves to fend off the masses of unprepared people who will want to get at their stuff. (“The Week,” July 17, 2015)
In contrast to this attitude of scarcity and self-protection, our scripture lessons call us to have enough faith in God to share what we have, trusting God to provide whatever else is needed. In Second Kings, the man from Baal-shalishah showed the offering, the first fruits, to Elisha. He is a bit embarrassed – it is not much, just twenty Barley loaves and some other fresh grain, a poor man’s dinner indeed. But Elisha doesn’t bat an eye. “Give it to the people.” he says. “What? How can I?” the man sputters. Elisha’s servant chimes in, “It’s not enough to feed all these people.” And Elisha assures them both, “The Lord has promised, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’ ”
As we saw in the gospel lesson, the boy hands over his five barley loaves and two fish to Jesus. And somehow, someway, God provides. There is plenty, more than enough for everyone. Jesus makes a rich feast out of a poor man’s dinner.
We often think we don’t have much to offer either God or the world, either personally or as a congregation. We see ourselves as poor, or small, or weak, or otherwise inadequate. And nothing could be further from the truth. The Biblical story is a story of a God who takes our little and turns it into a lot. We often try to hang on to what we have because we don’t really trust God’s promise that if we turn everything over to him we will be all right, really we will. Deep down, most of us don’t believe that God will take what we grudgingly, almost reluctantly hand over and turn it into more than we ever imagined possible.
But the gospel is – God in Christ has done and will do just that. God doesn’t really want our treasure, God wants our trust. God doesn’t really want our finances, God wants our faith. God doesn’t really want our things, God wants us. God wants us to let go of everything else and to truly believe that we can rely on the fact that the divine and holy love that made the universe also made us and that this immense love, a love “that surpasses knowledge,” (Ephesians 3:19) will provide for us and will use us to provide for others.
May we let go of our endless need for self-protection and self-reliance. May we turn loose of our desperate desire to control our own lives and manage our own future. May we look upon the love of God in Christ and relax, and open our hands, and release into God’s care all those things we have been so desperately holding on to because we are afraid of not having enough. May we give to God our “barley loaves and fish,” our “pinto beans and cornbread,” our “poor man’s dinners,” so that God can transform them and us into a rich blessing for the world.
Amen and amen.