How much is all that we can ask or imagine?
Really. What’s the fullness, the greatness, the grandeur of our imaginations?
Today’s first reading is a prayer for the church. What comes just before it is Paul’s hope that the people of the Church at Ephesus will not lose heart, that God’s people will remain steadfast, faithful. And then, this prayer: that the people of this beloved church will be strengthened through the Spirit; that Christ may dwell within them, within us, from generation to generation; that they and we might be filled with all the fullness of God. Paul ends this prayer, glorifying the God by whose power at work within us is able to accomplish more than all we can ask or imagine.
I wonder. I wonder what all it is that we can ask, or imagine. I wonder what muscle, what capacity, what willingness we have…to wonder.
After all, we live in a reasonable world. It’s reasonable to expect that things will be as they have been, that our lives should be comprehensible. It’s a reasonable expectation, to assume that what we see will be what it seems: that water will stay water; that five loaves of bread will remain five loaves of bread, and feed a reasonable number of people accordingly; that people who are dead will stay dead…and will not get up and start walking around.
So in this world filled with smart and reasonable people, it makes sense that somebody would come up with a logical explanation for how 5000 people were fed after sitting down on a “great deal of grass” there on a mountain, on the far side of the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus tests Philip in John’s gospel today by asking him where they’ll buy bread for all these folks (not too many bakeries up there, my guess). Poor Philip’s imagination is not up to the test. He doesn’t even make it to the question of where – he’s stuck on the how. No way is there enough money to pay for bread for all this multitude of people, even if there was a Panera right there on the mountaintop with them!
The disciple Andrew doesn’t fare any better. He finds a kid with five barley loaves and a couple of fish. But his imagination has the same regulator as Philip’s. “Here’s this little thing,” he says. “But what is it among so many?” No way is this enough. No way could this feed everybody.
It’s reasonable, isn’t it? It’s logical to guess in this moment that Jesus takes the five loaves and the two fish from that bag lunch offered by some little boy to a skeptical disciple. It makes sense to think that people see Jesus give thanks for that meager offering and decide to open their own picnic baskets and share what they have with their neighbors.
I could ask for that. I could imagine that happening.
But here’s the thing. God does more. This story of the feeding of the multitudes gets told six times in four gospels. And the only reasonable explanation for that, as far as I can tell, is that something extraordinary is taking place, something that defies our comprehension…otherwise, it seems like one telling might have been sufficient.
“Now to God,” Paul prays, “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory…forever.”
It turns out there is enough of everything, all over the place. In fact, somebody along the way thought it was important enough to mention that there is even enough grass. Jesus says “Make the people sit down.” And they can. Because, John’s gospel tells us here, “There was a great deal of grass in the place.” Who knew? But apparently there was. You need a place to sit down? We have a great deal of grass for everyone to be able to do just that. So the people sit. And Jesus gives thanks. And there’s enough bread for everyone to eat, enough fish, enough that everybody is satisfied. There’s enough to fill twelve baskets afterwards, so that nothing is lost, nothing wasted.
My guess, this is more than the disciples and all the people in that crowd could have imagined. My guess, this is more than they could have asked for.
I would be confounded too, in their place. I would stop short in front of 5000 people without six months’ pay and a mountaintop Panera; I would see the limitations of a kid’s sack lunch to feed the multitudes. It’s unreasonable. It’s beyond our scope of comprehension.
It’s reasonable to expect, in Jesus’ time and in our own, that people would have enough to eat, that they would make travel plans accordingly, that a prophet could talk about his beliefs without having to worry about his head winding up on a platter. It’s reasonable, now, to believe that people can go safely to work, or to a movie theater, or just to drive a car, reasonable to believe that no one would attack them or take them to jail, logical to expect that they would live through those experiences.
The thing is, Jesus lived in an unreasonable time. He walked this earth when people were starving and suffering and bleeding and dying, at a time when a tyrant would kill a prophet to save face before his dinner guests. And the thing is, we live in an unreasonable time, too. We live in a time when those things that seem secure and justified…are really, sadly, not always so.
We live in a time that defies logic, just as every time, ultimately, has. We live in a world that, as it is, is not as it should be.
And so I guess in this moment that I need more than a sweet story about people doing what they ought to do. I need more than it’s reasonable to ask, more than I can logically imagine. I need to believe in a God who does what we cannot, who imagines beauty and fullness we cannot even begin to fathom. Because, friends, “miracles, and not lessons in sharing, are what we really need.”
More than we can imagine? It’s unreasonable. And that’s what God does.
Because, in the end, there is enough. In God’s economy, there is more than all we can ask, more than all that we can imagine. There is more available to those followers of Jesus on the mountaintop than what they alone brought in their own backpacks, more than what they themselves have to offer.
And “maybe the disciples, like us, need to be reminded that even when we do not have what is needed, what is needed is still at hand…(but it’s going to) come from God or from others, because in God’s economy that’s how it works. What you have is enough, because it is never all there is.” No, it doesn’t make sense. No, things are not as they seem. And thanks be to God, for that.
So we bring our five little loaves and our two fishes. Heck – we bring our limited imaginations, our realistic doubts, our fear of asking or wondering, our lack of curiosity. We bring our own need for food in the wilderness when we’re hungry and exhausted and when nothing is working and everything seems to come up short and we’re veering toward cynical because that’s all that makes sense. We set it all down before God, who blesses and breaks and gives, and breaks and gives, and breaks and gives, until everybody, everybody, everybody has had enough. That’s how much – enough…and more than enough. God gives us unsensibly, illogically, unreasonably more than we can ask, more than we could ever imagine. And nothing is wasted.
And so, to that God, by whose power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to that unreasonable and generous God be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2015/07/sermon-on-the-feeding-of-the-5000-preached-for-pastors-musicians-and-church-leaders/. Thanks to Nadia Bolz Weber for this inspiration for a whole new sermon written on a Saturday night. I never do that. But this time I did.