I enjoy supply preaching during the summer. It allows my civilian colleagues to take well-deserved holidays and it gives me a chance to get to know local churches. Yesterday I preached this sermon in a small two-point parish about thirty minutes north of Barrie, ON. MP+
Preached at St. Paul's, Midhurst, and St. John's, Craighurst, Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 29 July, 2018. Readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost: 2 Kings 4:42-44, Psalm 145:10-19, Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21
"Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen." (Ephesians 3:20-21)
A friend of mine is a volunteer with the Diocese of Toronto, using her administrative talents to help parishes get back on track. This week I accompanied her into Toronto to an inner-city church which is struggling and needs her help.
When we got there on a hot summer evening, the church didn’t look like much. No graceful stone or lofty steeple, just a solid pile of workmanlike brick that had clearly seen better days. Inside it was stuffy and airless, and while the sanctuary was peaceful, with light floating through the stained glass by the altar, the place looked shabby and cluttered, with old books and mismatched furniture jumbled together by the front doors. In short, it didn’t look like much, but my friend sat down with the warden, and they got to work. I had an hour to wait, as I wandered through that old church and thought about St. Paul’s words of promise in Ephesians.
We know most of those words in our second lesson well, so well that most of us could likely repeat by heart because they come from the doxology, the prayer of praise which concludes our Eucharistic liturgy from the Book of Alternative Services.
While most of us know these so well that they might scarcely bear a second look, it’s worth having a look at them in the context of today’s lessons and Gospel reading. The designers of the Lectionary certainly thought carefully because they wanted to underline that word “abundantly”
These words are full of promise and blessing because of that word “abundantly” (Eph 3.20) Actually its two words, because Paul is making a compound adverb here (υπερεκπερισσου — huperekperissou) which some translations put as “exceedingly abundantly”. The word has a kind of “super duper” quality to it. God isn’t going bless us just enough to get by. God isn’t going to give us an unexpected amount so that we are pleasantly surprised. No, its way more than that. God is going to do so much that we will be gobsmacked. God is going to blow our socks off. God will knock our socks off. Which is why we say in our liturgy, following Paul, “more than we can ask or imagine”.
We see glimpses of what that abundance looks like in our other lessons. From Second Kings we hear of how the prophet Elisha feeds a hundred people out of what sounds like nothing more than a large shopping bag (2 Kgs 42-44). This comes at the end of a long list of other miracles performed by Elisha. Today we also heard the psalmist praise God’s abundance ( Ps 145: 15 The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. 16 You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. 17 The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all
his doings. 18 The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.) and of course our Gospel shows Jesus performing a feeding miracle that makes people think he is Elisha returned to earth (Jn 6:14).
The point of these stories, and the reason why they are chosen for our lessons this Sunday, is not to lead us into thinking that we never have to go to Loblaws again. Those of you who were involved in the BBQ dinner at Craighurst on Friday certainly know how much work goes into preparing a church dinner! Rather, the point of these stories is to say something about the character of God. All these readings remind us that God is, in Paul’s words, more powerful than we can possibly imagine, but is also a God who is kind and good to his people – as the psalmist says, he is is “just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings” (Ps 145:17). All these stories say something about being in a relationship with God which makes all this abundance.
We see something of this relationship in today’s Gospel. After Jesus impresses the crowd by miraculously feeding them, the people want to “come and take him by force to make him king” but Jesus wants none of this and gives them the slip – “he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (Jn 6:15). Why wouldn’t he want to be king and end up on a throne rather than on a cross? I think the explanation here, as I suggested when I last preached to you, is that Jesus knows he will have to stand before Pilate, and show the difference between the kingship of earthly power and the kingship of God’s abundance. Jesus can only embody the abundance and love of God if he resists ideas of earthly power and remains connected to his Father, even if that means escaping to a lonely mountain.
For the same reason, Elisha in our first lesson is referred to as a “the man of God”. I don’t think this is just a polite address, like when we call a clergyperson a “man or woman of God”. The word “of” in the phrase is actually possessive, it means a “man belonging to God”. Elisha can do these things because, like Jesus, he knows that he belongs to the Father, that he is in a relationship of obedience to God through which he can do these things.
The same is true of us, really. Each of us, or could be, a man or a woman of God. Each of us can be in relationship with God, focused on him and attentive to his will, in such a way that we he can work with and through us. Let’s look again at what Paul says in Ephesians: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20). This doesn’t mean that we are given powers, like superheroes in some summer movie. Rather, it means that through our relationship with God, we allow God to work with us and through us. We become, as is often said, God’s hands in the world, in ways in which we can’t always predict.
Think of how a typical church dinner plays out. I have never seen a church dinner where the food There’s always enough to go around and more besides. And why is the church meal one of our favourite activities? Surely it’s because the church meal grows naturally out of our Eucharist, our communion. That shared meal at the heart of our worship brings us together around Jesus. In John’s gospel, after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus tells his followers not to look for him just for more food. The food, he tells them, is just a sign of who he is, the Son of God, and it leads to one of his famous “I Am” speeches that we preserve in our eucharist:
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. (Jn 6:35)
These words, like the dismissal “to love and serve the Lord” at the end of our service, send us back into a world which doesn’t have enough bread, enough love, enough care. Our church dinners are just a small glimpse of this abundance.
Sometimes the extravagance of the promise might seem ridiculously greater than the means on hand to fulfil it. A few loaves, some fish, and crowds of hungry people. Seriously? But isn’t it always this way? Doesn’t it always seem hard to hope, hard to pray, hard to just keep on going as church in a seemingly indifferent world? I think of my friend, walking into that faded old church, because God gave her those talents and the desire to use them in what some might think a lost cause. And really, isn’t that why we keep these churches going? We keep them going because the feast is for all, whoever is hungry or thirsty, whoever needs a home, whoever needs forgiveness, whoever needs love, or attention, or dignity, or refuge, whoever needs truth and goodness and hope. That’s who the feast is for. That’s who our God is for. That’s the need our God enables us to meet. Amen.