More Than We Can Ask or Imagine (or, There Will Be Leftovers)

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21

I ate a lot of leftovers this past week, while Nate was away at National Youth Conference. These leftovers were not, however, a sign of desperation or scarcity; they were a sign of abundant love. I had three types of leftovers. The first was a batch of smoked hamburgers that Nate made right before he left—where he showed love by cooking for me as a celebration/date night. The second was a frozen sweet potato and quinoa stew made by my neighbor. She had brought it by for us shortly after we came home from the hospital with Ayuba, just as many of you church folks cooked or provided gift certificates for us to ease our transition into parenthood. We ate a ton and then froze a container, which I utilized this past week. The third batch of leftovers was a gift from Faith K. this week, which she froze from a big pot of stew made for her family. She delivered this to me during my week of single-parenting a newborn. Faith knew that I would need both company (that she and Francis provided) and help feeding myself as I feed my tiny human. A week full of leftovers was a week where I felt held and cared for, even though it was a difficult and exhausting week. These leftovers meant love and community in abundance.

In two scriptures that we read today, leftovers are an act of God. We see people bringing small offerings to a prophet and to Jesus to be used by them. In both circumstances, God takes the small gifts and multiplies them beyond imagination. And there are leftovers.

Our third passage is from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. I think that all three passages can speak to our community’s present state here at Washington City Church of the Brethren. We see that what we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. We see that our offerings, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  

There Will Be Leftovers

Our first passage involves the prophet Elisha. Elisha was the protégé of the prophet Elijah. Yup, their names sound the same in English. Eljiah’s name means “My God is Yahweh” while Elisha’s name translates as “My God is salvation.” In 2 Kings 2, the two prophets are traveling. They both know that Elijah’s time on earth is almost up and that Yahweh will come for Elijah. As such, Elisha will not leave Elijah’s side. Elisha asks for a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit to carry on the prophetic ministry and the elder prophet says, “That’s a hard thing to ask. But if you see me when I’m taken up, then it is granted to you.” A few moments later, chariots and horses of fire whisk Elijah away in a whirlwind, leaving only his cloak behind. Elisha sees all of this, tears his own clothes in mourning, and takes up the cloak (or mantle) of Elijah. (This is where the phrase “take up the mantle,” meaning role or responsibility, comes from).

Fast forward a few chapters and a few miracles later to our passage, when a man brings an offering to Elisha. The man brings “twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some new heads of grain” (2 Kings 4:42). The Israelites were commanded to give to God from the “first fruits” or first harvest. Tithes and offerings in the Mosaic Law were typically agricultural produce and these often went to sustain the priesthood and prophets. As such, it wasn’t an abnormal thing to bring loaves of bread to a religious worker. Someone brought me bread this week – but it’s just because I have a newborn, not because I’m a pastor and she grew the grain.

Elisha instructs the man, “Give these breads to the people and let them eat.” Elisha’s servant is dumbfounded: “how can 100 people eat from these little breads?” A commentary explains that these are not the beautiful big loaves that we are likely picturing. They are small and flat breads, more like pitas, probably. Twenty pitas are not enough for 100 people. But Elisha ignores this and says, “Give it to the people. They’re going to eat and there will be leftovers.” The bread then gets passed around. The 100-person group eats heartily and, just as the prophet predicted, there are leftovers.

In our gospel passage, we meet Jesus and the disciples in Galilee. Jesus crosses the lake and the crowds follow, since he is healing the sick. Jesus and his disciples head up a mountainside and they sit down. Scores of people are around them, waiting to see Jesus teach and preach and heal. Jesus looks at the crowd and asks Philip, one of his disciples, “Where can we get enough bread to feed these people?” Philip is incredulous – Jesus is the person who has said the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. He doesn’t really go buy groceries, either. They rely on the hospitality of others and have little money… buying bread for thousands of people? Philips replies that the question is unthinkable and says, “Bread for these people would take more than half a year’s wages—200 days’ worth (200 denarii)!” Philip can’t even think about where to get the bread. He’s in sticker shock over how much money it would cost.

Another disciple, named Andrew, comes forward and tries to be as helpful as he can: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus responds by saying, “Sit everyone down.” All 5000 men and also likely many women and children. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks for it, and distributes it to those who are seated, giving them as much as they want. He does the same thing with the fish. When everyone has eaten their fill, Jesus instructs the disciples, “Gather the up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” They do as Jesus asked instructs and they fill up twelve baskets with the leftover barley loaf pieces. In the Kingdom of God, there will be leftovers.

This sign (and many other miracles of Jesus) reference and echo the miracles of the prophets of old, like Elisha, and surpass them. Elisha fed 100, while Jesus feeds thousands. The crowds recognize that God is at work in Jesus, even if they generally miss the point of his messages. V. 15 says that Jesus withdraws, knowing that the crowds would try to make him king by force. This isn’t the type of response that Jesus is looking for.

While these passages speak to both who Elisha and Jesus were, they also provide a message for us. Some pita breads and some fish can go a long way in the Kingdom of God. Sisters and brothers, what we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance and wholeness.

More than you can ask or imagine

Our passage in Ephesians is one of superlatives. It’s kind of like Paul is gushing about what God does—not that that is a bad thing. Paul uses one big run-on sentence in the Greek and prays for the early church. He thanks God and prays that they would, out of God’s glorious riches,” be strengthened in their inner beings with Holy Spirit power. Paul prays that they would be strengthened and, concurrently, be rooted and grounded in love. He prays that not only would they be rooted and grounded in love, but also that they would have the power (emphasizing power again) to comprehend, with all the sisters and brothers, the magnitude and pervasiveness of Jesus’ love. The breadth, the length, the height, and the depth—to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. And to be filled with all the fullness of God. As if all that isn’t a beautiful and moving enough prayer, Paul’s benediction closes giving God the glory, “to him who by the power [power again] at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). This phrasing stands out for me and has for the past few years. The power of God is at work within us and through us and can accomplish more than we could ask or imagine… abundantly far more than we could ask or imagine.

This passage in Ephesians is one of my favorite because it reminds me that the Creator of the Universe is at work. The One who raised Jesus from the dead is at work. We can offer what we have, even if it isn’t much, and trust that God can do abundantly more than what we ask or imagine. It reminds me to hope and trust in the One who is bigger than both all my fears and my hopes.

Little Congregation, Big Things

What we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. Our offering, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  As you all know, we’re a small church. Despite our smallness, we were able to run the Brethren Nutrition Program, our soup kitchen lunch ministry. I remember some BNP guests saying with an incredulous, “Some of these big churches don’t do anything but you all are small, and you can put this on!” With BNP, we offered what we had and that offering was joined by volunteer labor, generous helpings of donated vegetables and bread from Eastern Market area vendors, and the gathering up of fragments from restaurants in Northern Virginia (the Oakton Church of the Brethren’s food reclamation efforts). We offered what we had and God provided, blessed, and multiplied what we gave.

We’re still in our post-BNP discernment and we’re examining how we can faithfully and effectively witness to Jesus’ way of reconciliation and love. We’ve been asking, “How can we serve our neighbors? How can we reach out? How do we invite? How do we build upon the gifts and strengths that we have within our church community?” These questions have not yet been answered; they’re an ongoing dialectic and discernment.

The two disciples in our gospel passage illustrate two different ways of responding to Jesus’ call on our lives and our community. Philip couldn’t wrap his head around Jesus’ request to brainstorm food for 5000. Philip shut down that conversation—there’s no way we can pay for that. Andrew, on the other hand, didn’t understand what Jesus was going to do but he still scrounged up the meagre resources he could find.

Are we Philip or are we Andrew? How do we perceive the opportunity to transform our ministry? Do we shut down and end the conversation? Perhaps we think about the ministry of this church and the task of outreach and caring for our community as overwhelming. That’s too big for us. We could never do that. How much money would it cost? How are we going to find the people to run it? We don’t know where to start…

Or, do we see an opportunity to give even what little we can scrounge up and trust that Jesus can use it? Well, I have interest in books. I have love for gardening. You know how to fix bicycles. You play music. Etc. etc. What are our gifts and strengths as a church? What do our individual people bring as assets and potential strengths to our ministries? What are our interests, skills, talents, and resources that we can offer? What are our community’s needs?

We are called to make disciples, to invite people into this Jesus-led journey of radical love, nonviolence, hospitality, mercy, and peace. The Andrew approach would be to look at what we already have to offer to Jesus. What are the resources that you can scrounge up? What talent, gifts, and interests do you already have, resources that we can use to build up this church and its ministry to the world around us? I invite you to commit to regular prayer with me about our ministry, for God to reveal what we have to offer, what we can give for God to bless and multiply—so that there will be leftovers, beyond what we ask or imagine.

What little we offer to God can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. Our offering, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  AMEN

This is a Wilderness Road

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

Yesterday morning, somewhere between 5:30 and 6, I made the connection that my sermon was titled “This is a wilderness road” and that I would spend the day before preaching it running on trails. Though the race was not a surprise (it took some wherewithal to leave the house at 2:45am and begin hours of running at 5) I had not made the connection—which was, it turns out, only superficial, until I was running through heavily muddied trails by light of a rather dim headlamp (Jenn, we should make a note to buy new headlamps). Whereas the wilderness road in Acts was actually wilderness, mine was a trail full of people not far from a city and staffed with aid stations and medics in cause of injury. Whereas Philip was sent to the wilderness with a mission by the Spirit of the Lord, I was there for reasons personal and perhaps unexplainable. Philip’s going to the wilderness is thought to have contributed to the beginnings of the church in Ethiopia which has produced, among other things, magnificent religious art (some of which is displayed this morning), my going mostly led to a feeling of accomplishment and severe soreness this morning. So, there is no connection between my wilderness road and the one in Acts except that my wandering thoughts noted early yesterday morning

In the Gospel of John (chapter 17), in the last hours before his crucifixion, we hear Jesus praying for the unity of his people. He knows that the coming crisis will stretch and push them and so he prays. Since he prays in the hearing of his disciples it is also a sort of pep talk and exhortation. At yesterday’s there was now prayer but there was a pep talk of sorts. Dean Karnazas, a well know ultra-marathoner, gave us some words to motivate but also included things like—the trails are really muddy and here the mud is slick like ice—which is more concerning than encouraging. When Jesus does the pray/pep talk/warn act it is for unity. It is not unity because unity is nice but because unity demonstrates the truth of their message. Unity demonstrates the truth of their message. In Jesus’s words “so that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21).

The witness, the possibility that what these crazy disciples say about Jesus might be true is based on their unity (not their seamless arguments, dazzling sermons, or their social media presence) —they must be united in a profound way. The shorter booklet of 1 John carries on this concern. Throughout the writing we can see hints that all is not well. In 2:18 in an exclamation that could have been penned by our own Micah we read—”Children, it is the last hour! A you have heard that the antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.” Verse 26, “I write these things to you concerning those who would deceive you.” And just before our passage, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

A commentator writes, “The once-unified congregation began to tear apart from within. Threats that were once external now were found within the ranks of the fellowship itself…The community was splitting, harsh words were being exchanged, and the vocabulary once reserved in the Forth Gospel for those in ‘the world’ now was being aimed at fellow Christians. (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, 589)” Throughout this text John holds two major themes—right thinking about Jesus and right living in light of this. [“John returns to two major subjects repeatedly as he writes: christology and ethical behavior…The secessionists had embraced an aberrant form of christology that led them to make wrong judgments about Christian living” (590).]

John demonstrates an intense concern that right belief and right living are of utmost importance. It is not merely doing the right thing, NOR is it just declaring belief in the right thing.

The spirits must be tested and the test is love. The teachings and actions must be tested—the test is love.

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

This verse tempts us to make it into a formulaàGod=Love and to Love=Knowing God.

9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.

The initiating action of love was from God. We learn of God’s love through God’s action, we demonstrate our connection to God through our own acting in love. In fact, the invisible divine is made visible through our love for one another. The invisible divine is made visible through our love for one another.

11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

There should be a direct causal link between God’s love for us and our love for one another. We have been loved by God, how can we do anything else but love one another?!

“his love is perfected in us.” Made perfect? Presumably God’s love is perfect love but if God’s love is to be lived then our participation in this love adds something to it—or at least manifests it concretely in the world. It is made complete

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

There now seems to be a second test of our “abiding” in God. That is, the reception of the Spirit. Which sounds like it should be good empirical or measurable results. If not empirical then at least a matter of philosophical defining or perhaps in writing a definition for a dictionary—which seems definitive. I have been learning, however, that even the dictionary is a complicated thing. In Word by Word lexicographer Kory Stamper describes in often humorous detail the work of a dictionary writer and editor. It turns out that the process of editing or writing a dictionary is about documenting and describing how a word is used rather than prescribing how it should be used. The two requirements to be hired are a degree in some subject (a range of disciplines is good since an economics major has different vocab than a biology-she notes a strong representation of medievalist majors.) and to be a native English speaker.

The later of these is due to SprachgefulleI, the feel of the language that comes with it being your first language—sometimes something just doesn’t feel right and then the editor knows to dig deeper. The offices contain accumulated scraps of uses of words which are filed and considered in this process. She tells of the, at times extensive revision process in which senses are considered and while talking shop at a dinner party she amazed the academics by proclaiming that she had spent a full month revising the word “take.” After describing, what to most of us would be an excruciating and unimaginable process a co-diner, with dramatic pause notes having worked 9 months on editing “run.” (Stamper, 148).

Defining or measuring the presence of the Spirit may indeed be a difficult test. The Spirit presence may also be difficult.

Our passage in Acts gives a picture of the Spirit’s activity. The disciple Philip is getting on with the work of Jesus. There are healings, preachings, and rapid expansion of the church. In chapter 7 Stephen testifies, it says, “filled with the Holy Spirit , he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God….but they [the mob] covered their ears, and with a loud shout rushed together against him.” While killing him, Saul stood by watching and approving. The Spirit that it seems that we thought we wanted to display…is hardly a ticket to a life of ease. The Spirit might just get you killed. Saul then goes about and severely persecuted the church. This Spirit filledness—leads to actions—which leads to persecution—which in verse 1 of chapter 8 leads to a scattering.

Though scattered this didn’t stop them. Vs 4 reads “Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” Philip was one of them and went to Samaria. Now, Samaria might sound familiar. Remember Jesus and the parable? The Good Samaritan? The general consensus was not with Jesus and the “goodness” (potential or innate) of a Samaritan. Samaria was a place of enemies. The place that was outside of okay. None-the-less, the good news is preached and received, the Apostles come down to verify (it did, of course, stretch credulity), and the Holy Spirit power came upon them. Philip was rockin’ it—major successes, rapid church growth in a new locale. And then…and then the “angel of the Lord” said, go to another place—and abandoned place—a deserted place. In case the reader doesn’t know that the road from Jerusalem to Gaza is such a place the writer notes parenthetically that “(This is a wilderness road).” Rather than be where the action is, go over there. After providing commentary and then baptism to the Ethiopian Eunuch the “Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away…Philip found himself at Azotus….

All of this, then, becomes an expression of verse 13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

A writer asks “who is the protagonist is in this story?” (Willimon, Interpretation, 71). The angel of the Lord and demands and then the spirit of the Lord instantly transports Philip elsewhere once the meeting, explanation of the scripture and baptism are finished.

Meanwhile, returning back from the Spirit excursion to the dusty and desolate lands….

14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

Here we have the right belief—the confession, proclamation, assertion that “Jesus is the Son of God.” There are some of us that may “skew ethical”—not that we are necessarily particularly ethical but that we have reacted to Christians who assert that it is all a matter of belief—the notion that you should check the correct dogmatic box and you’re set—For those of us who skew ethical in our emphasis, this verse chastens us. It challenges us. (I wouldn’t necessarily say rebukes us). This confession is not simply in the vein of “actions speak louder than words” but seems linguistic. It is content bearing—it IS connected to practical ramifications BUT can, in some way, be spoken. [The Brethren are non-creedal—which doesn’t mean we don’t believe anything but rather that we don’t think it is summed up in a tweet or so.]

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

Abides, abides, abides—When I see the same word show up I wonder—my biblical language major brain dings. Since there are not one for one translations of words the same word in an English translation doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the same original word. This happened when reading the 1 John 4 and John 15 passages. Though the word “abide” shows up many times and in both. The John 15 passage uses a much different metaphor to illustrate abiding. Remaining with or in or connected to.

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears  no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit….4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing….8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

God is love,

       Remain in God.