During this service, we texted prayers for Christian Aid Week. See prayers from around the UK and Ireland here.
Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 12 May 2013: Year C, Christian Aid Sunday
Enough food for everyone?
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Most of us here are probably familiar with the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. But we are probably less familiar with the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. The two stories are somewhat similar: a tale of hunger, of thinking that nothing can be done, and God providing.
The story about Elijah comes as part of a longer story about Elijah’s conflict with King Ahab of Israel. It is said of Ahab that ‘he sinned against the Lord more than any of his predecessors’ (1 King 16.29). He was married to Jezebel, the daughter of the King of Sidon, who encouraged him to worship the old gods of the land, instead of the Lord God of Elijah. The Prophet Elijah has decreed a drought, as the punishment of the God of Israel on the King. When there is no other water in Israel, God instructs Elijah to go to a place where one stream continues to flow from which he can drink; and ravens bring the prophet food. But eventually, even that brook runs dry.
So now God sends the prophet to Zarephath, near Sidon- the very region where the wicked Queen Jezebel, with her foreign gods, comes from. And it will be one of these foreigners, someone who worships the gods Elijah condemns, who, ironically, will be the one who helps him. She’s the first person Elijah sees at the city gate- a widow gathering firewood. The prophet asks her for a drink of water, and she willingly goes off to get it (for so often, the poorest are those who are the most generous and willing to help, even if the person in need is a foreigner). As the widow goes off to get the water, Elijah calls after her: ‘And please bring me some bread, too’. This stops the widow in her tracks. She swears by Elijah’s God that she can’t. She only has a handful of bread and drop of olive oil- all that’s left for her and her son. ‘That will be our last meal, and then we will starve to death’, she says.
The problem of hunger is still with us today. It never seems to go away. Decades ago, George Macleod said, ”The great community problem of our modern world is how to share bread’ (quote from Christian Aid material). It seems to be very difficult for us to find a way in which everyone in the world gets enough to eat. In this country, we ought to have enough to eat. Yet many people are surviving only because of food banks. And people on low incomes often suffer from bad health because they cannot afford to eat a healthy diet. Other people suffer because they have too much to eat. We are all of us guilty of throwing away food. And meantime, millions around the world just about survive- and often starve.
It’s easy for preachers like me to say that this is wrong. It’s easy to say, ‘its because of sin and evil that people go hungry’. It’s harder to fix the problems. In these Bible stories, the fixes seem so easy. ‘”Don’t worry,” Elijah said to the widow. “Go on and prepare your meal. But first make a small loaf from what you have and bring it to me, and then prepare the rest for you and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The bowl will not run out of flour or the jar run out of oil before the day that I, the Lord, send rain.'” The widow went and did as Elijah had told her, and all of them had enough food for many days. As the Lord had promised through Elijah, the bowl did not run out of flour nor did the jar run out of oil’. That sounds to us like fairy story or a folk tale. We know that world is not that simple! It’s the same with story of the feeding of the 5,000. Somehow, miraculously, a huge crowd is fed- and twelve baskets are left over! Unbelievable?
Yes, these are unbelievable stories, in many ways. But read them more closely, and we have some clues to what these tales are trying to tell us. Go back, for example, to the widow’s astonishment when Elijah asks her to give him some bread. Asking a starving widow to make you bread, when she has only enough to feed her and her son one last time before they inevitably starve to death, seems cruel and heartless. No wonder she complains that it can’t be done.
The same kind of incredulity occurs in the Gospel story. Jesus says he’s going to feed the crowd. Every church needs a treasurer who will point out what our ambitious plans will cost. Philip does that for Jesus- he does the sums and says, ‘ For everyone to have even a little, it would take more than two hundred silver coins to buy enough bread’. A silver coin was what a rural worker would earn in a day (GNB note to 6.7)- it’s going to cost an astonishing amount to feed all these people, says Philip.
Both Philip and the widow of Zarephath are indignant about the suggestion that God will provide. They cannot see how it can be done. But in both stories, it is done- people are fed in impossible circumstances. Yes, there is an element of the miraculous in these stories. But there purpose is to tell us that it’s not God’s will that anyone should go hungry; God wants everyone to be fed. And sometimes, even in impossible circumstances, it can be done.
For in both these stories, before God does a miracle, humans have to do something. Elijah tells the widow that if she makes the loaf for him, she will never go hungry: ‘The bowl will not run out of flour or the jar run out of oil’. Perhaps even more remarkable than Elijah saying that is what happens next. It seems as if the widow recognises that when Elijah speaks, it is the word of God, for, amazingly, she obeys him: ‘The widow went and did as Elijah had told her’. She believes that when this prophet of a foreign God says she will not run out of food, he speaks the truth. I don’t know how he said it to her, but she is convinced. She makes the loaf for Elijah, and yet there is enough: ‘the bowl did not run out of flour nor did the jar run out of oil’.
Of course this is a miracle story. Of course there is only enough food because of divine intervention. But the miracle does not happen, cannot happen, until the widow makes the bread. She uses up what she believes- knows- is the last of her ingredients, in order to make the loaf for the prophet. And only after she’s used the last of what she had does she realise God’s promise has come true, as she finds that the bowl of flour does not go empty and the olive oil does not run out. Before God’s miracle could happen, the widow had to make the bread.
The same sort of thing happens in the Gospel story. Philip has laid bare how impossible it is to feed the people- it would cost a fortune, and that is simply not available. But Andrew, brother of Simon Peter, brings to Jesus the young boy with his famous: ‘five loaves of barely and two fish’. I don’t know why Andrew thinks this is worth bringing this boy and his packed lunch to Jesus’ attention. Perhaps it’s Andrew’s best attempt. He’s been looking around to see what is available. And when he finds something- anything- he takes at least that to Jesus- ‘Look Jesus, this is all I can find!’ And Andrew is terribly realistic about what he’s been able to do: ‘But they will certainly not be enough for all these people’, he admits.
Yet Jesus take the loaves and the fishes, and somehow everyone is fed. That is pure miracle. It is something only the power of God could do. But it would not have happened had not Andrew, hesitantly, brought the boy and his fishes to Jesus’ attention. I think Andrew shows an interesting kind of faith in this story- a hesitant, unsure faith. He cannot find much- a few loaves and fishes. He admits it is not enough. But something makes him bring it to Jesus anyway. He’s like an unconfident, hesitant child, who paints a picture which isn’t any good, but who gives it as a birthday present to mum anyway. ‘It’s not that good, but it’s the best I could do, and I hope you like it’. No decent parent would reject such a gift. Christ certainly doesn’t reject the gift. Christ takes it, little as it is, unsatisfactory as it is, and performs a miracle with it.
Thank goodness God is like that. God’s miracles don’t come from nowhere. The depend on people having faith- even if it’s a hesitant, uncertain faith. And thank goodness God can take the little you and I can offer, the not very good, and work miracles with it. Going by these takes, we’re not to sit around waiting for miracles. We’re not to say, ‘we don’t have enough, and what we want isn’t good enough’. God will decide if it’s enough, or good enough. But miracles don’t happen unless people get involved.
Technology means that we humans can often do what would once seem miraculous. But often we don’t do that. Given a mobile phone, many people will fritter away time sending gossipy texts or sending pictures of cats to one another. But for Justin Ireri, mobile phone technology as the potential to change his life. Being able to get those accurate local weather forecasts means that he can feed his family- something which seemed very doubtful before. In a way, that is as much a miracle as the widow’s flour and olive oil, or the wee boy’s packed lunch of loaves and fishes. Technology can be used for good or evil. But when we offer our best efforts to God, miracles can happen.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo
After sermon- offering at both SS and OH