Sermon: IV Lent
Eph 2.4-10; Jn 6.4-15
18 March 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen
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Economics is often described as the "dismal science," and for my part I couldn't agree more. The "C" I got in the one economics class I ever took describes exactly my level of interest. Though that class also met at 8.00 in the morning during the first actual winter – which is to say, the first non-central Florida winter – I had ever experienced, and I was a less than enthusiastic student. In fact, I was a less than enthusiastic human being.
I did learn a thing or two from old Dr. Herdegan, though. I learned the basic economic principle that value depends upon scarcity, and that scarcity is the economic description of the human condition, of our infinite desires and demands running into this world's finite means and resources.
So, potable water, at least around here, is abundant and so reasonably inexpensive. While people will pay for the convenience of bottled water which can be transported in, you're not likely to run into any pay water fountains around here. However, a fine Wadmalaw-grown muscadine wine is precious and rare, produced in limited quantities, so it will set you back $10 at the Pig.
I read a few weeks ago of a man, an art collector, who came across at an auction a Renaissance-era portrait he liked, a portrait by an unknown hand and with a murcky provenance, and he bought it for $21,000. But as he looked at it, he noticed some things that struck him as curiously familiar, and so he had some experts examine it, and more experts after that. It is now thought that the portrait is the work of none other than Leonardo da Vinci, who has been quite dead for going on 500 years now and whose production has slowed somewhat. His work is highly sought after – to the tune of about $100 million dollars in this case. And I read the other day that there is reason to believe that it is just might be possible that a long-lost masterpiece of a fresco of Leonardo's might lie behind another fresco, itself a Renaissance masterpiece by Vasari – though it will be impossible to verify, much less uncover, Leonardo's priceless fresco without destroying Vasari's priceless fresco. And so among the art historians and preservationists and guardians of Italy's cultural patrimony there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. What to do? Scarcity – infinite desire and limited resources.
But even beyond the strictly economic terms of goods and services, of supply and demand, scarcity yet describes the human condition – indeed, it circumscribes our lives, which is almost a tautology, isn't it? If our lives can be circumscribed, drawn around, then they are by definition limited. The years slip away: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away."[i] What would we give, what would we trade, for a few more good years? Literature and film are filled with meditations on that question.
But even turning our eyes from that far horizon to the day's work, we experience scarcity – the desires of our hearts and the duties of our callings, in this fallen world, do not always or, sometimes it seems for months at a time, even often line up. Sometimes it seems like a constant state of "versus": what we owe our jobs vs. what we owe our families; time with our children comes vs. with our parents. Of course it's not always so dismal. Some of our conflicts fall in to the category of what are sometimes called "first world problems" – as in, should we rent a vacation house on the beach side or the creek side? Those are conflicts we ought to be grateful to have. But we are constantly running into them nonetheless. Our desires versus limited means, limited time, limited resources.
Which brings us, at last, to one Jesus, twelve apostles, five barley loaves, two fish, and 5,000 hungry adult men, plus likely a good representation of their families, on a hill above the sea of Galilee:
Jesus said to Philip, "How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?" Philip answered him, "Two hundred denarii – close on a years' wages for a guy like me – would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little."
Scarcity: the fundamental economic problem, maybe the problem of our lives. And Jesus is going to overcome that problem. He is going to perform a stupendous miracle. You already knew that. But it is of course more than a miracle. St. John in his gospel always calls these miracles "signs" – and so we have heard this morning: When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, "This is indeed the prophet who was coming into the world!"
It's a sign – it points beyond itself. The miracle, multiplying the loaves and fishes to feed this multitude, is wonderful considered of itself, but we should remember that John doesn't want us to consider it of itself; in a sense, it's not even the main thing.
Rather, it's a sign; it points beyond itself. It points first of all to the Eucharist, the holy sacrifice of the Mass. John doesn't give us the last supper, the "do this in remembrance of me" account that the other gospels give. Instead, he gives us the feeding of the five thousand, in which our Lord takes bread, and with "his eyes lifted into heaven unto God Almighty his Father", gives thanks, and then gives that bread to his disciples, his friends. And he follows that a paragraph later with a discourse in which Jesus says, "I am the bread of life ... if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh ... he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."[ii]
And in just a few more minutes, Fr. Sanderson, standing at the altar for us, standing as an alter christus, will take bread, and with "eyes lifted into heaven unto God Almighty his Father", give thanks, and then give to us that same Bread of Life, that Bread who is ever giving himself for the life of the world.
The feeding of the 5,000 is a sign, and it points to Moses, and God's provision of bread, of manna, for his people hungering in the wilderness, and so to the new community, the new people, even to you and me, gathering around Jesus and fed with heavenly food.
This miracle is a sign, and it points beyond itself. It points to the heavenly economy, where scarcity has no place: He told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost." So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten.
If life in this fallen world is circumscribed by scarcity, look at this sign of life in God's Kingdom fully come, this picture of his love. Scarcity is not just overcome by abundance, as in everybody had enough, but by superabundance, as in more than enough, as in overflowing, as in no need to count, to calculate, to consider; as in bottomless.
Because our problem is not just that, here and now, our resources are scarce, or our time is scarce. It's that our love is scarce. "Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart with all thy soul, and with all thy mind... Love thy neighbor as thyself." That really is all that is required. It really is that simple. That really is the sum total of what it means to be a Christian. But, I know, between my heart and my Creator, between my heart and my neighbor's worth and need, there is a shortfall. Even my giving is too much mixed with getting, too much mixed with compulsion or with some sense of self-satisfaction.
But into this world of scarce love comes Jesus, comes Love Himself, giving himself to and for us, pouring out among us the superabundance of his love, and obliterating the shortfall of our love.
And how to connect with, tap in to, that superabundance? We have heard it straight from St. Paul in this morning's epistle: By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
And what is that faith which is the conduit of grace? "Ultimately," as one wise theologian has put it, "faith means nothing other than admitting we have this kind of shortfall; it means opening our hand and accepting a gift. In its simplest and innermost form, faith is nothing but reaching that point in love at which we realize that we, too, need to be given something."[iii]
Reaching that point in love at which we realize that we, too, need to be given something.
Which, I guess, leaves it to me to ask this morning, have you reached that point in love? Have you seen the shortfall? Is your heart, like mine, at best a mere five stale loaves and two aging fish? Well, look at what Jesus can do, at what he is doing. And come to Jesus, come to this altar this morning with an open hand and accept a gift: Christ himself – the superabundance of God's love, the immeasurable riches of his grace.
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[i] Ps 90.10
[ii] Jn 6.35-39
[iii] Benedict XVI, Credo.