Year B Proper 12: Breaking bread

“All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee,” many of us grew up intoning at every Offertory presentation. We are familiar with the concept that all that we have is of God, and that there is nothing we can offer back to God that God has not already given us.

But this story breaks that circle wide open; its arc is much more expansive than we imagine.

The man from Baal-shalishah, an evocative name in itself, suggesting a history of paganism and heathen ways; this man knows the covenant of God with the people of God. He recognizes that everything that he has is of God, and in the absence of a temple, a priest, an altar in the place where he lives, he brings to the prophet the offering of first fruits designated by the Law as a sacrifice to God, a few barley loaves as a thank-offering for the sustaining nature of God’s creative power; a blessing on God for the life with which God has blessed him.

And God, working through the prophet, offers these gifts right back to God’s people.

We offer to God only what God has given us, and God offers it right back, multiplied and stretched out and shared out, in an act of divine grace and mercy.

The context of Elisha’s little miracle is one of famine and fear. The country is at war, besieged by bad politics, and worse, by bad weather. There is little food to be found, and little hope. Just before this happens, a pot of soup is spoiled by the addition of a poisonous gourd, and the whole company falls into despair, because there is nothing else for them to eat.

“There is death in the pot,” they cry, death either way, either by hunger or by harmful herbs. But Elisha adds the antidote, and all is well.

Just before that, he offers a picture of enduring mercy, following grace with grace. After declaring a child to a woman who wants one badly, after the child is born and grown and has an accident in the field, dying in his mother’s arms, Elisha returns, and somehow, by some miracle, returns the child to his mother. God’s mercy, Elisha proclaims in word and in deed, is not limited, is not reversed or taken away.

God’s mercy abounds, and expands, and gives back tenfold, twentyfold, infinitely more than we can offer or expect.

So the child is cared for, the company is fed, and there is more left over.

In the story told by John, a little boy brings to Jesus his few barley loaves and a couple of fish. There is a large crowd following, because of the acts of mercy that Jesus has already done. In a context of fear and faith, wondering where God is in the midst of the empire, the fall of Israel, he heals many, offering grace and mercy to those in pain, in need, in hunger for the love of God. And still there is more. The child offers what he has to Jesus, that which has been given to him for his own sustenance. And Jesus offers it back to the people following, stretched out and multiplied and shared out in an act of divine grace and mercy. And there is more left over.

That which we have been given, we offer back to God at the altar: our faith, our hope, our lives and the first fruits of our labour. And God offers it back, to be stretched out and multiplied and shared out in acts of mercy and of grace.

The gracious act of God in creation and redemption and the sustaining of the earth does not come full circle with our offerings at the altar, despite the neatness of our words, despite even their truth: “All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee.”

The circle is wider than that; much wider. God breaks open our little ways of thinking, our little thank-offerings, and throws them wide into the world, expanding the arc of mercy, grace, abundance, beyond our measure, beyond our view, beyond our expectation.

Jesus, when he perceives that the people are about to make him their king, slips away; he will not let the circle become closed, contained, curtailed. He has not come for the few, or even for the multitude on the mountainside, but for the sake of the whole world.

It seems as though our default position is one of fear of famine. We hold tightly to what we have, in case there is not enough to go around. We may offer to include God in our gracious circle: “all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee,” but God forbid that God should then give away the gifts that we have brought so earnestly out of the goodness of our hearts.

It is an attitude of fear, of famine that sustains the tight circles of privilege, and of discrimination.

It is an attitude of fear, of famine that perpetuates cycles of violence visited on those who might otherwise expect to share our resources, our circles, our lives.

It is an attitude of fear, of famine that withers our imaginations, closes our minds and our hearts to the expansive nature of God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s goodness.

Breaking open the circle, breaking through the barriers of fear of famine, trusting God’s providence means breaking out of old ways, breaking down old walls, breaking through social barriers and fearful reticence, learning to offer our blessings back to God, not for the sake of the offering itself, but participating in the work of God.

As long as our offerings, our thanks, our praise, our prayers; as long as our faith is between ourselves and God and the gatepost, the circle remains closed, the bread remains unbroken, the miracle remains buried, sealed in the stone cold tomb, a victim of fear, of famine.

When we recognize that all that we do here at the altar, here in the coffee hour, here in the garden, here in the food pantry, here at the hot meal, here in our hearts; when we break open our hearts and bring our offerings not to close the circle but to participate in the work of God, to share God’s blessings with the world, stretched and multiplied, without holding back, without fear; then the stone is rolled away, the miracle breaks through into the light of day.

We will talk more about bread, in the coming weeks, and a lot more about what it means to break it open, stretch our limits, share it out, beyond our reach or our imagination.

For now, how did it feel, do you think, to be that man, with his little offering of first fruits, brought out of duty, out of gratitude, out of defiance of the famine, out of trust in the faithful abundance of God, when he saw what God did with his little barley loaves?

What did the child tell his mother when she asked him, “Did you eat all of the lunch I packed for you?”

Our faith is not a private, closed matter between ourselves and God and the gatepost.

Our parish is not a small circle of friends, but a kernel, a seed, a first fruit with the potential to grow into something magnificent, miraculous, when it is offered back to God without reservation, without expectation, without fear; when the circle is broken open, stretched out, shared out, for the sake of everyone whom God loves, whom God has created, whom God sustains.

The prayer of Paul is this,

that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

It is too much, too big, too high and too deep for one person, one small circle to grasp. The fullness of God would overflow us and drown us if we tried to contain it by ourselves, slight vessels that we are.

May we embrace it anyway, and find ourselves broken open with the bread; broken open in our hearts; breaking way beyond ourselves and our imaginations, the inbreaking miracle of God’s abundant grace. Amen.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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