Notes for a Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, August 3, 2014
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The Epistle, Romans 6:19-23 – The Gospel, St. Mark 8:1-9
A. The feeding of the Multitudes as a pattern for the life of prayer
1. In the miracle of feeding, Jesus reveals a pattern for the life of prayer, for what we might call a Eucharistic life. The setting: There is a crowd in the desert with many needs and few resources; a crowd that had persevered in following Jesus, despite hunger, for three days.
2. Jesus took the inadequate supply and gave thanks to God for it. The Greek word for giving thanks is “Eucharist.” The result was that it became sufficient to meet the need.
3. This is the pattern for our lives in Christ. As we follow Jesus we continually find ourselves in desert circumstances where the demand exceeds the supply. When we follow the example of Jesus and give thanks for what we have, even when it seems insufficient; when we take what we have and offer it to God with thanksgiving, it is sanctified, and made sufficient to meet our needs. We experience the miracle of God’s new creation; we receive his provision; we experience his joy and peace—and we are freed from anxiety and fear.
B. The connection of the feeding miracle to the experience of Israel
1. There is a purposeful connection between this creative miracle and the experience of Israel. Having departed Egypt in the Exodus, the people were led in to the desert; a place where there were many mouths and appetites to be fed in a dry and barren place.
2. Israel’s response to the desert was to be unfaithful. The people “murmured” and complained. God was not happy with this response: As Psalm 95 says, “Forty years long was I grieved with this generation…”
3. God later revealed to Israel that the wilderness was a purposeful test. Deuteronomy says,
You shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD (8:2-3).
4. We typically respond to the wilderness or desert with murmuring and complaining also. Jesus teaches us the new and faithful way. God sends hardships to test us and know what is in our heart. God tests us, not because he wants us to fail, but because he wants us to succeed. But faith can only be shown by a test. It is only when we can’t see or figure out the answer that we must trust and depend upon God.
C. The need for habits of prayer and faith
1. We can only learn to be faithful by practicing habitual faithfulness. The life of prayer teaches and trains us to offer life to God, to give thanks in all things and, thus, to continually experience God’s miracle of new creation.
2. What do we do when there is not enough? The truth is that there is never enough. Even when we have enough of the things we need for life, there is still a curious emptiness. This is the folly of pursuing money or things as the goal of life. When we get them, we still lack something—for man cannot fully live by bread alone.
3. This fallen world is, in fact, a continuous spiritual wilderness. The purpose of this desert is to teach us to seek the Bread of Life all the time through faith. This world is all the more a desert when it is full of things, for things tend to become idols that separate us from God. We are typically separated from God by our fullness rather than by our need. Tests and hardships are graces that pry us loose from the world and return us to God. As St. James writes,
Count it all joy, St. James tells us, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces perseverance; and let perseverance have its full effect that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4).
D. The formative pattern of the Eucharist
1. We reenact the pattern of the feeding miracle in the Eucharist. We offer bread and wine on the altar. These represent us—our sins, needs, wants and inadequacies. We come with too many demands and not enough resources. The Eucharist teaches us to respond to this need by giving thanks. As we offer ourselves to God in Christ with thanksgiving, our inadequate offering is sanctified and consecrated by the perfect offering of Jesus, and it becomes sufficient to feed us. God fills our emptiness and inadequacy with himself.
2. This pattern is to be repeated always and everywhere. We begin by offering life to God in thanksgiving. We offer the first part of our income in thanksgiving , the tithe; we offer the first part of the day in prayer; we offer our obedience first in times of trial—giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:20).
E. The challenge and the rewards of a Eucharistic life
1. There is never enough time for prayer or money to tithe. It always seems that if we obey God we won’t have enough or our desires won’t be met. When we respond with murmuring and complaint, when we try to meet our needs by our own cleverness and strength, when we withhold from God the thanks and obedience he is due, the result is that we become anxious, fearful and full of despair—the need grows.
2. The answer is to learn to live by the pattern of Eucharist. Begin by giving thanks. Begin the week by offering yourself to God with Christ at the altar. Begin your finances by offering the tithe to God in thanksgiving. Begin the day by offering yourself to God in prayer, thanking God for life and its challenges and the opportunity to exercise faith. When you are tempted to complain, give thanks instead. This is how we find the Bread of Life in the desert. This is how we experience the miracle of new creation. As St. Paul says,
Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7).