Abundant Grace / Thanksgiving 2018

A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” 43 But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” 44 He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord. —2 Kings 4:42-44 (NRSV)

When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.  7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” —John 6:5-14 (NRSV)

Dear Friends,

Passages about God’s abundant grace are read with thanksgiving by Christians in all kinds of circumstances—in refugee camps, in comfortable homes, in places devastated by natural and social disasters, and in places of worship. These important stories spanning the millennia contain messages God wants us to feast on, especially at this time of Thanksgiving. As we reflect on the past year, we at New College Berkeley remember God’s abundance.

The messages from Elisha and Jesus weren’t and aren’t easy to take in. Three-D paintings come to mind as I think about the incredulity the stories of the loaves elicit. Have you seen 3-D images? The paintings seem to be flat pictures on a page, patterns of line and color. The artist invites the beholder to relax, to trust that there’s more here than meets the eye. As you allow your focus to blur, sometimes and all of the sudden, the images move and deepen. What was a moment ago a simple pattern of flowers or geometrical shapes, suddenly is a city with depth and contour, or a forest through which the eye probes farther and deeper. And then, just as suddenly, you seize control of your vision again, and the image returns to the impenetrable flatness of the book in hand, leaving you marveling at what somehow must be present still, yet is now firmly invisible. 

So, too, it can be with God’s amazing grace: We relax into it with faith, see what is beyond belief, and then lose sight of it again when control reasserts itself. At NCB we seek and find this larger view as students and retreatants come together, settle into reflection and prayer, notice the presence of grace, and discover God’s reign in the midst of the world’s realities.

The 2 Kings story is short, but it’s been heard by Jews, Christians, and Muslims for about 3000 years. The second story from John’s Gospel, told 800 years later, is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that appears in all four gospels. God must be saying, “Hear this! This is my Word for you! Listen well.”

The words about God’s plenty come to us from the mouths of Elisha and Jesus, two people whose names mean, essentially, “God will save.” They both tell us that “The people will eat, and there will be some left over.” Eugene Peterson in his 2 Kings translation gives Elisha the words: “God says there will be plenty.”

There will be plenty, more than enough. The fear of not having enough is a universally human condition. Scarcity thinking breeds accumulation. The holy alternative is one of abundance, a possibility extended even in times of famine (as in Elisha’s time) and dread (as when Jesus lived his final days of ministry before being arrested), when people are counting and cherishing what little they have.

A farmer living in a season of famine and dearth brought 20 loaves of barley to Elisha. These were small loaves, like circles of pita bread, and were the first fruits of his harvest which he offered in honor of the Feast of First Fruits. It was also a time of spiritual dearth, when priests had abandoned the area, leaving this man to offer his loaves to the community of prophets around Elisha. 

Many years later, also at the time of the spring harvest feasts, Jesus asked his followers to feed the multitude from the meager barley loaves they had. They, like the farmer, responded to the prophet with incredulity (prophets must be used to that!). And Jesus, like Elisha, assured them that our God is a God of holy abundance. As Paul put it, God is "he who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).

God is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, and Jesus, the ultimate expression of that abundant love, said: “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever” (John 6:35).

In both biblical stories, the gift of barley loaves comes from unnamed, ordinary, faithful people—a man from out-of-town and a boy. They have meager offerings. Yet, they open their hands.

Each week I have the privilege of listening to people in spiritual direction groups, classes, and the Spiritual Exercises as they open their hands and participate in God’s grace. A hard-working law student makes time to help an elderly woman do much needed yard work. A pastor steps out of the office and is vulnerable in prayer before a circle of fellow retreatants listening for God’s word. A hospice chaplain seeks refreshment for herself and her patients through the words of poets. Young parents gather together monthly to remember who they are before God.

The people survey their meager barley loaves. Faith creates cognitive dissonance. How can these few loaves feed the multitude? How will the 2-D picture become three-dimensional? How can I, so incapable and clueless, offer life and love to people who are in need? The math simply doesn’t work in what Elisha and Jesus are suggesting. 

God invites these questions. The text says that Jesus engaged Philip in thinking about how to feed the crowd with so little food, and that he did so “to stretch Philip’s faith” (The Message, vs. 6). We are stretched beyond the dissonance of our reason into a place of faith.

Even in the season of dearth, even in the valley of the shadow of death, even in our modest lives, God invites us to participate in the flow of grace. Bring your barley loaves. Go ahead and share them with others. Come to the feasts we offer at New College Berkeley. “God says there is plenty.”

Blessings in Christ,

Susan S. Phillips, PhD / Executive Director