God's Open House

Sunday, August 5, 2018

“Stone Soup Abundance”

It was about 17 years ago, I heard a sermon that changed the way I thought about this parable. I remember exactly where I was when I heard it (though I don’t remember who gave the sermon). But it was a take on the feeding of the 5,000 that I’d never heard before. I call it the Stone Soup Paradigm.

Traditionally, most folks think of this as a miracle of the bread and fish. That is, when Jesus blessed and broke the bread and shared the fish, something happened in the bread that made it more than it should have been. Perhaps the disciples distributing bread would have taken pieces off their loaf and handed them out, only to find that the loaf never diminished in size, like the old joke about a mug of beer that would never run dry. Or they broke it in half but the halves remained the same size like some theoretical math problem. In any case, the traditional assumption is that Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 in some way broke the law of conservation of mass, thus making five loaves and two fishes produce (as it says in the Gospel of Mark), 12 baskets of leftover bread.

But this pastor suggested something different. They suggested that maybe, just maybe there was already enough food among the 5,000, and no violation of conservation of mass is necessary. This theory suggests that many of the people who had come out to listen to Jesus had planned ahead and brought some food for themselves to eat. Maybe some had not, but many had extra. However, all of them were afraid that there was not enough, and so all of them kept what they had to themselves, and did not let anyone know or offer to share. When people saw Jesus, standing in front of the congregation of 5,000 people, with such a meager offering, they were awed at his faith and trust, and they too decided to have faith and trust, and share their bread with their neighbor. You can imagine this happening, right. Someone looks around and breaks a sandwich in half and hands it to the next person, a family invites someone to join them in their circle. So the disciples distributing bread might have gone about with their loaf, only to discover that every where they went there was already food, either their own or from their neighbor next to them. The metaphor doesn’t quite fit, but I call this the “Stone Soup” paradigm for understanding the miracle. There is enough for all, but we have to trust God and share it for all to get enough.

I thought this was the coolest idea when I first heard it, because it got around the problems that I, as a 21st century human being had. In the modern world, these things are hard to believe. But as I’ve gotten older, two things have happened that have made me revisit this understanding. The first is that I have a different understanding of miracles now. The world is so dark, and so cruel, and humans can be so mean to each other, I think that any truly selfless act is a miracle. (Not the easy stuff, mind you, like being nice to people you like, family and the like, because that always pays you back. That’s not really selfless). So now I find the miracle of 5,000 people suddenly sharing with strangers to be almost less believable than a breach in the laws of conservation of mass (the Heisenberg uncertainty principle can throw another little wrench in those gears).

And the second thing that happened is that as I have read the parable over, I have come to realize that they consist of the same miracle, the only difference is in location. Both are miracles of trusting God to do a lot with a little. In the traditional story, Jesus takes a little bit of bread and a little bit of fish, and he blesses it and he breaks it, and God does a whole lot of feeding with a little bit of food, all because of a little bit of trust. In the Stone Soup version, 5,000 people take what little they have and share it, and God does a whole lot of feeding with a lot of food, all because of a little bit of trust. If you start to look at the food miracles, you’ll find that this is a pattern. We talk about God as a God of abundance. That is, a God who provides a lot for us. But that abundance always requires trust.

In 1 Kings, there is a famine in the land of Israel, and God tells Elijah to go out from Israel to Zarephath, for as God tells is, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” And so he goes, and meets the widow, and ask for something to eat. And all she has is a little bit in a jar, and she was just gathering some firewood so that she could make a little bit for herself and her son, eat it, and die. And Elijah says, “go ahead and do that, just make me a little first, trust me, it will be all right.” And she trusts the man of God. And for the entirety of the famine she had enough. Did Elijah bring her a storehouse full of flower and barrels of olive oil? No. It doesn’t work that way. But that little jug of oil and that little jar of flower with just a little bit in it never went dry. She went to bed every night trusting God that she and her son would have enough for the next day. God’s abundance requires trust.

The same thing goes for our Old Testament passage for this Sunday. Manna fell down every day. But you only picked up a days worth of bread. Any manna more than 24 hours old rotted into a squidgy mess you couldn’t eat. Except on Fridays, when you collected double and it lasted until Sunday, because of the Sabbath. God could have made the manna last a little longer, or God could have given them enough bread for the whole trip, or God could have given them money to buy bread. And they could have sold that manna and put that money somewhere that earns interest. Even a modest rate of growth – do you know what 4% interest compounded annually for 40 years looks like? They wouldn’t even need the Promised Land, they’d be living high on the hog right there in the wilderness. Get that milk and honey brought to them, Amazon Prime. But no, that’s not how it works. God’s abundance requires trust.

Jesus of course, is right on track with these First Testament miracles. He taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Not give me enough for my whole life. Give us this day our daily bread. Not Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz. Give us this day our daily bread. God’s abundance requires trust.

The 5,000, the widow of Zarephath, the Israelites in the wilderness, all of them were recipients of God’s abundance. But it didn’t take the form of big storehouses, herds, or bank accounts. It took the form of daily bread.

So why are we all waiting until we have a lot to start doing something with it? Why are we telling ourselves, “Oh we can do that when our building is paid off,” or “I’ll give 10% when I get that raise,” or maybe I can volunteer when I am retired and have a lot of time. Why are we asking God to trust us instead of putting our trust in God? Why are we waiting until our ship comes in when that’s not how God works? The promise of God’s abundance is that we don’t have to be in charge of worrying about whether there will be enough for us, and can instead put our hearts, minds and strength into making sure there is enough for everyone else. But God’s abundance requires trust.

What would it look like if we trusted in God’s abundance? What would it look like if we stood up with our five loaves and two fishes and asked God to bless it and see how far it spread? What would it look like if we all invited someone else to our table? I’ll tell you exactly what it would look like. It would look like a miracle.