Set-Up for Abundance
A sermon on John 6:1-21
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Gensa Hub on Unsplash]
My 14-year-old made me proud this week.
It’s not an unusual occurrence. Quinn has always worked really hard in school and gotten good grades. He loves theater and has performed in enough entertaining shows that I have lost count. And I am regularly thrilled with the way that Quinn both chooses good friends and is a good friend, demonstrating maturity and kindness.
My particular pride this week, though, was for something a bit different. It was about how Quinn responded to being set-up by his Dad.
I had been at the church one evening, and when I got home, Quinn announced, “Mom, Dad made me hit myself in the face!”
Now, if all I had heard was the words, I might have been alarmed at this announcement, but Quinn’s tone of mock-offense was quite gleeful.
Tyler and Quinn proceeded to laugh their way through telling me about how, as they sat shoulder to shoulder, Tyler had held his hand in front of Quinn’s face for a high-five, only to pull it away when Quinn’s hand came up for the slap.
It was just a silly, playful moment, but Quinn’s willingness – even eagerness – to tell the story on himself made me proud, because it showed Quinn’s willingness to admit he doesn’t always have the upper hand.
Contrary to that old, snarky advice that we should all “hire a teenager while they still know everything,” Quinn had nothing to prove. Tyler set him up, and he fell for it, and it was a funny story. No need for defensiveness.
The set-up that happens in today’s gospel is very different than the good-natured teasing in my family, but I wonder if the contrast might nevertheless offer us some fruitful insights.
By referring to the “set-up” in the gospel, or course, I am referring to Jesus’ question to Philip: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”
We know this is a deliberate set-up because John tells us so. He tells us that Jesus knew what he was going to do, but he was testing Philip.
But this narrative explanation begs the question of what Jesus was testing.
He knew Philip couldn’t offer a practical answer to the question he had asked, because there was no where they could buy bread for all the people to eat.
Rather, I think he was testing Philip’s reflexes.
Not in the sense of physical reflexes (like avoiding a hand to the face).
Rather, I think Jesus was testing his mindset. Was Philip’s reflex to view the challenge before them from a perspective of scarcity, or abundance?
As a Galilean, suffering under the Roman occupation, Philip (like the other disciples) might be expected to have a scarcity mindset.
He was part of an oppressed people, burdened by heavy taxes and the threat of the Empire’s violence for anyone who disrupted the status quo.
Not to mention, the challenge presented by a hungry crowd of thousands was daunting. Philip’s response to Jesus was a fair assessment.
The daily wage for a laborer would only buy enough food for one day. Even figuring a generous three meals a day Philip’s estimate of 6 months wages would only feed about 500 people, certainly not 5,000.
And yet, John, in his telling of this story, has been intentional to challenge the scarcity reflex.
He begins by noting that the people have gathered because of the signs of Jesus. Jesus’ ministry has already been characterized by signs of abundance.
An abundance of wine out of water at the wedding in Cana.
An abundance of healing for the sick.
Why not an abundance for food for the crowd?
And then, John notes the timing of this gathering: “the Passover… was near.”
Of course, the Passover marks the liberation of the Jewish people from their captivity in Egypt, which was followed by God’s provision of food in the barren desert, first manna and then quails when Moses asks God (in a preview of Jesus’ question to Philip) “where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” (Number 11:13).
Finally, John offers us the detail that there was “a great deal of grass” in the place where they had the people sit down, conjuring up the imagery of God as our Good Shepherd, who “makes us lie down in green pastures” and “prepares a table before us” (Ps. 23).
Of course, Philip doesn’t have the advantage of all of these narrative clues, so we shouldn’t be too hard on him when Jesus’ “set-up” catches him in his scarcity mindset.
Because the point is not for us to judge Philip, but rather to check ourselves.
John isn’t telling the story to Philip. He’s telling the story to us, and to all the would-be followers of Jesus for whom this sign of a miraculous feeding is given.
And he’s offering us a contrast between the pragmatic assumptions of scarcity and God’s work of abundance.
When Jesus asks Philip where they are to buy the bread, the answer is nowhere.
They can’t buy bread for this multitude.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t provide it.
A young boy steps forward with 5 loaves and two fish, an offering so apparently insufficient that Andrew asks “what are they among so many people?”
But then Jesus gives thanks for this gift and distributes it to all who were gathered.
And it is enough. It is more than enough! Every person there is “satisfied” (literally, they were filled), and the leftovers fill twelve baskets. Enough for each of the disciples to have their own evidence of the abundance Jesus provided.
If Jesus wants to test, and expose, the scarcity mindset of his followers, he also wants to change it, to replace it with the assurance that there is enough not only for this one meal, but enough to sustain their ministry going forward.
The SALT Commentary this week offers this summary of the significance of the feeding of the 5,000:
“At its heart, it’s a story about our deep-seated fears that we will not be cared for, and about our tendencies to see the world – from the day’s headlines to our own interpersonal struggles – through the lens of scarcity. And above all, it’s a story about God’s work of feeding, of abundantly providing for our needs, and at the same time calling and commissioning us to help provide for the needs of others.”
And that calling is why I think there is something to be learned in the contrast between Jesus’ set-up of Philip, and Tyler’s set-up of Quinn.
Quinn was able to take delight in the experience of being caught in the trap of Tyler’s joke, because there was no fear in that capture. Quinn felt no need to be defensive, no need to guard his ego or self-respect, because he knows both are safe. He is secure enough in the abundance of his father’s esteem that he doesn’t worry about losing it. He knows there is enough.
And because of that abundance, he can freely give as well.
It might be a silly example, but that doesn’t make it less true.
It’s when we trust the abundance of God that we can let go of our defensiveness, so that we can both receive and give. It is when we trust that God will always provide that we can rejoice in the lesson Jesus is offering to Philip and to us:
The lesson to look past the logistics of the presenting challenge to recognize the rich history of God’s provision;
The lesson to see what seems small and inadequate in our eyes, as the starting place for God’s miracle.
The lesson to release the fears of scarcity and to embrace the promise of abundance.
Because, in the end, we know that God is NOT trying to set us up to look like fools. God is calling us to be part of the miracle of sharing God’s abundance for all.
Thanks be to God.