May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be faithful and fruitful in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand is, hands-down, a gospel favorite. In fact, out of all the miracle stories told in the four gospels, the Feeding of the Five Thousand is the only miracle—aside from the resurrection—that all four evangelists tell. It’s a stunning tale of scarcity turned into abundance, as Jesus takes a little boy’s lunch and transforms it into a feast for thousands.
And I am so glad that we get to hear it now, at this time of year, when creation is retelling the same miracle.
When I walk the dog in the evening, I pass garden after garden where a similar miracle is taking place. It never ceases to amaze me how a tomato seed the size of a hole on my watch band can grow into a plant taller than my waist, with pounds and pounds of red fruits.
And the same thing is happened with green beans and eggplants and patty pans and cantaloupes and cucumbers and squash, and even beyond the gardens. I took Barnaby for a walk at Cove Gap the other day, and the thorny brambles that usually lie in wait to ambush us were instead gesturing like welcoming hosts, offering drooping branches of ripening fruit. The whole earth is singing the story of God’s abundance.
It is, in fact, the season of first fruits. And first fruits have a special meaning in the Bible. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are called to offer the first fruits of their harvest to God at an altar—in fact, it is bread of the first fruit that the man brings to Elijah in today’s reading from Second Kings.
And the thing is, giving up your first fruits to God isn’t just a gesture of thanksgiving for the harvest; it’s also an act of faith. You bring your first fruits to the altar unsure of what the rest of the season has in store. Maybe a bad storm will wipe out much of your harvest. Maybe disease will strike your herd. You just don’t know.
So when God responds to the offering of the barley loaves by multiplying them to feed one hundred people, it’s not just a happy little miracle that makes for a nice story. It’s a symbol of God’s promise to God’s people: to take care of them, to respond to their faithful risk with God’s own divine faithfulness.
In Great Britain, this act of bring your first fruits to God was ritualized into a festival called Lammas Day, from the words for “Loaf-Mass,” during the Middle Ages. On the first day of August, households would take the bread that they had baked from the first wheat harvest and bring it to church with them. Some of it would be set aside for communion bread. Some of it would be set aside to give to the needy members of the community. Some of it would be blessed and returned to the members of the congregation.
I want to hit ‘pause’ for a moment and acknowledge something here. Sometimes, in the passage of the thousands of years since the different bits of the Bible were written and today, the symbols can change meaning.
For example, in Jesus’ day, and in medieval England, bread was a daily staple. You ate it every day, for just about every meal, especially if you were poor.
We lose track of that in the American melting pot. I myself come from a firmly committed potato household. For others, it’s rice or pasta. In fact, it might very well be the case that quite few of us eat bread on a daily basis, as Jesus and his friends did. I even read an article this week that said that one in three Americans avoid bread and all its gluten-bearing kin, for reasons of health or preference. Bread is no longer a staple, and for many, it’s not even an option.
So maybe, just for today, we could try out a new symbol. Something that evokes first fruits. Something that symbolizes abundance. Something that we could visualize multiplying to feed five thousand people.
Fortunately, something of just such a nature appeared on my porch this past week.
What do you think?
If you have a zucchini plant, then you understand abundance. You understand what it means to eat squash at every meal for a month, and to give away gourds the size of a baseball bat. Garrison Keillor said that July is the only time of year the people lock their car in the church parking lot, so that people won’t put squash on the front seat.
It is a kind of miracle, a multiplication that takes place in every summer garden. God takes that little seed, smaller than my pinky fingernail, and produces a dozen gourds bigger than my arm. And they all have more seeds. It’s actually a little bit scary.
Particularly when you think about how often the Bible uses the imagery of seeds and green and growing things—and not just in parables, but in prayers. Just today, we heard the author of Ephesians pray that the church might be rooted and grounded in love. It is a prayer for strengthening and fullness and growth, and it is beautiful—but it’s also scary. Because this is a prayer to the God who invented zucchini. Who knows what a God like that will do with a prayer like this?
What if we grow like squash? What if we end up with the spiritual equivalent of boxes of zucchini, filling the aisles, so much giftedness and abundance that we have to sneak out and leave it on other people’s doorsteps in the dead of night because it’s just too much grace for us to keep for ourselves?
I’m only half-kidding when I talk about how frightening that is. That kind of abundance necessarily transforms the ways that we think about the world. We’re so used to operating out of a sense of scarcity. It’s almost as if there’s a sort of security in the not-enough style of thinking. At least we understand how the world works in that scenario: those who hold back, hold out.
There, the gospel brings us good news and bad news. Every story of abundance in the Bible begins with the fear of scarcity. It begins with a kid’s lunch when what you need is a catered feast. It begins with an idea for ministry and one guy saying, “We don’t have the budget for that.” It begins with Jesus responding to that kind of scarcity-thinking with, “That’s adorable. Bring me what you have.” And then he takes a gift, and gives thanks to God for it, and blesses it, and breaks it. And he hands it off, and says, “Here. Share this.”
It solves the problem of scarcity. But it also requires that we let go of our understanding of the world, and especially of the church, and particularly of this congregation, as a place with a problem of “not-enough.”
Here, after all, we gather to worship a zucchini-creating God, a God who doesn’t just feed five thousand people, but makes sure that there’s twelve baskets left over. Those baskets are a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel—that is, everyone who wasn’t there on the mountain that day. In other words, God not only answered the need of the crowd, but made them the answer to the prayers of others.
Which is exactly what God does to us, every Sunday. Today, you will receive the Body of Christ in your hand, and as you eat it, you will become the Body of Christ for the world.
In the fine tradition of Lammas Day, I have something for you to take home with you: zucchini bread. I would like to ask you to do something special with it. Take it with you, and let it anchor a prayer for the week: a prayer in which you ask God what seeds God has given you. A passion or hobby, something you love to do. Bring that gift to God in prayer, and as Christ did once so long ago, give thanks for it. Ask God to bless it. And then ask God to help you break it and share it.
Perhaps God will call you to use that gift in a way that you and I can’t even envision right now, a way which is only possible thanks to the power at work within us through the Holy Spirit.
There is only one thing that is certain: this is the God who created zucchini. Anything could happen.
Let us pray:
God of the first fruits, we give you thanks for every sign of your unbounded abundance: in the food of the earth, in the sharing of love, in the gifts of the Spirit that fill this place. Bless this bread, we pray. May it lead us into deeper contemplation of the gifts with which you’ve blessed us, and the ways in which we may be a blessing to others. In the name of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, we pray: Amen.