Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Season of Bread

At the end of July in Year B of the Lectionary Cycle of assigned readings we read the story of Jesus feeding the multitude.  And then, for the next four weeks we have gospel lessons on the meaning of the story, each with a more nuanced version of the “Bread of Life” than the week before.  So what better way to enter this season of bread then by telling you the six worst jokes about baked dough you will ever hear in your life!

Q:   Why doesn’t bread like hot weather?
A:   Because things get Toasty!

Q:   Why are bread jokes always funny?
A:   Because they never get mold!

Q:   What does bread do after it is done baking?
A:   It loafs around.

Q: What is bread’s favorite ride at the amusement park?
A: The roller toaster.

Q: Why did the loaf live at the zoo?
A: Because it was bread in captivity.

A passenger tries to sneak an elephant through airport security by sticking a slice of bread in each of its ears.  The security officer looks at him and says, “Good morning sir, anything to declare?”   The man answers, “No, nothing.”  “Well, what about that?” the office says, pointing to the elephant.  The passenger responds, “Look mister, what I put on my sandwich is not your concern!” 

We read just two verses from the Old Testament’s 2nd Book of Kings in this morning’s first lesson.  They tell the story of one of the prophet Elisha’ early miracles after taking up the role of his mentor Elijah.  It comes at a time of widespread drought, famine, and scarcity.  People are hungry – really hungry – and there is little or nothing for them to eat.  Many blame the drought on Elisha, but the author of 2nd Kings makes it clear the fault lies with the king and his idolatrous practices.

The account begins with an unnamed person coming from a place identified as Baal-shalishah to present Elisha with the offering of his first fruits.  Notice a couple of things about this introduction.  First, the person making the offering is not named.  He, like the overwhelming majority of faithful people down through the ages – including us – does what he does out of simple devotion to God.  He is not in it for the credit or for publicity. 

He is making what is known as a ‘first fruits’ offering.  This takes place at the beginning of the harvest and, as the name implies, involves produce and product from the initial crop.  Think about this for a second.  It has been a long time since the last harvest.  Whatever came from it either is running out or has long been gone.  The laws around the first fruits offering, found in Leviticus 23, make clear it is both a statement of faith and a test of faith.  It makes the statement that the earth and all that comes from it belong to God.  It tests if a person believes God will supply what you need.  It is the opposite of how many of us approach stewardship: I’ll take care of my needs first, then my wants, and then if I have anything left I might give some of it to God.

And more than being a challenge for today’s lay reader, the place where this person is from offers another important insight into this story.  Baal- shalishah.  The word Baal refers to the Canaanite god who is the focus of the king’s idolatrous worship.  Baal means “owner” or “master”.  This pagan worship is a direct challenge to the Hebrew belief that God alone is Sovereign.  To worship Baal as owner and master not only breaks the First Commandment, it is an act akin to returning to the slavery and bondage of Egypt, from which God delivered the people a few centuries earlier.  The word shalishah means “multiplicity”.  The name of the place where this man is from literally means “The master of multiplying”, referring both to food and to fertility.  It is quite a tribute to a pagan god.

Now scholars believe that before it was renamed for the pagan deity this town was called Beth-lehem – the birthplace of David.  The name Beth-lehem means “house of bread”.  Centuries later it will be the birthplace of the One who is the Bread of Life, but in Elisha’s day it is just one of many epicenters of political and theological upheaval.  By bringing his offering of first fruits to Elisha rather than to the corrupted priests at Gilgal, this person is registering his protect against the king and the bankrupt values of his day.

So he presents to Elisha, whom the text describes as “the man of God”, his first fruits offering of twenty loaves of bread and a sack of fresh grain.  Given that this represents 10% of all his harvest will produce, these meager amounts suggest the man is not well off.  But for Elisha, living in a time of drought and famine, twenty loaves and a sack of grain are a godsend that can provide for his needs for months and months. 

But notice what Elisha does.  Rather than keeping the offering for himself – something the Levitical code supports – he orders the food to be shared with everyone who is with him – a hundred people.  Now, what the man brought to Elisha could be divided among that number of folks, but it would not be much – perhaps just a bite or two per person.  In spite of protest, Elisha remains steadfast, insisting that God will ensure everyone gets enough and there will be some left over.  And this is just what happens.

Commenting on this story, Elna Solvang, an Associate Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Minnesota, writes:

A miracle occurs in this story: a sack of grain and twenty barley loaves feed one hundred people, with food remaining.  It is a miracle:

·   made possible by God’s abundant providing.

·   initiated by the generosity of an anonymous giver.

·   shared with others because of the recipient’s generosity.

·   in which all are included because of an administrator’s concern for equity.

·   through which the community shares in what is holy.

As I said earlier, over the next few weeks our readings will help us to explore the deeper spiritual meaning behind Jesus’ feeding miracle.  Paired with today’s Old Testament reading, we are invited to consider the human element of the story:

·   to ponder the role of Philip who cannot figure out how to muster the financial resources to buy food for so many people.

·   to ponder to role of Andrew who rounded up the boy with the fish and bread and brought him to Jesus, but had no clue how Jesus could do so much with so little.

·   and to ponder to role of the boy who gave the food he had so others might eat and then most likely went home to his family empty-handed.

What does it look like in your life to trust in God’s abundant providing?

What generous acts do you undertake, especially those acts that fall beyond the vision of others?

When you are blessed, how do you share that blessing with others?

What does it look like to ensure everyone receives God’s blessing in a way that is fair and equitable?

Can you think of a time or of times when you were a part of something like this and you recognized you were in a holy moment and place?

Did you happen to see yesterday’s Virginian-Pilot story about the Hampton Roads Food Bank, from which our Food Pantry purchases supplies?  It chronicled how the shelves go bare at this time of year because so many people are out of town during the summer and local food drives grind to a halt.  It had a picture of a woman pushing her cart past one empty bin after another.

During this Season of Bread I propose we initiate a food drive not for our Food Pantry, but for the Food Bank whose work and ministry benefits our pantry and so many others on a regular basis.  Each Sunday in August I invite you to bring half a dozen to a dozen non-perishable food items to church with you.  I will set out a table right here in front of the pulpit for them and we will ask God’s blessing on what we give at the Offertory.  You don’t have to spend much to make this happen.  A dollar per item will be more than enough.  Shop for bargains and think in terms of bulk quantities. 

Like our two bible readings this morning, our meager offering will seem to be little in the face of such insurmountable need.  And yet, offered humbly to God and through God’s blessing, we trust it will be more than sufficient.  And we also hope we will sense and share in something holy.  May God bless us spiritually and may God tend to the needs of the hungry during this Season of Bread.