Sunday, February 6, 2011

Being Enough

~by rvacapinta
Sermon, Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings:
2 Kings 4:38-44 and John 6:1-14

So, we have three stories this morning, two from Elisha’s time as a prophet of God and one from the days of Jesus. What they have in common is that some people were hungry, and a servant of God fed them.

The prophet Elisha was the successor to the prophet Elijah, and what characterized Elisha most, is that his ministry emphasized miracles more than any other prophet in the Hebrew scriptures. He turned bad water into good water and he healed people. A certain widow came to him, overburdened with debt, with nothing left in the house except on jar of oil. She sent word to Elisha, and from far away, he caused her empty jars of oil to fill—enough for her to pay off her debts and then some. Later, he raised her son from the dead—this is a prophet from God, indeed! So that when there was a famine in the land, it is not surprising that Elisha was able to feed the company of prophets—one hundred of them in all. And when one of the men accidentally put a poisonous weed into the stew, it’s not surprising that Elisha could throw a little flour in the mix and make the stew edible. As the company of prophets sat together, a man from Baalshalish brought them a few loaves of barley and grain, and Elisha’s servant wondered how on earth it was going to be enough to feed all one hundred. But this was Elisha, after all, and when the food had been distributed, there was enough to feed all one hundred with plenty left over. Prophets are handy people to have around when you are hungry, it seems.

So it’s not really surprising that Jesus, who followed in the tradition of prophets, would have the ability to feed a crowd of people with less than adequate materials on hand. This story of the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle that appears in all four gospels, and whether that was intentional or not on the part of the gospel writers, it focuses our attention. The story goes that Jesus went up the mountain with his disciples a little ways, and it was just before Passover. Spontaneously, a large crowd formed around him, perhaps expecting Jesus to heal them or preach. It seems that neither the disciples nor the crowd had expected to gather together for this event, because nobody brought food with them. Nobody, that is, except a small boy who had with him five barley loaves and two fish. It seems obvious to the disciples that they could not feed the five thousand with such a tiny amount of food. Phillip even said it would take 6 months wages to feed such a crowd. 6 months wages at, let’s say $10/hour, comes out to about $10,000 or $2 per head. Any caterer will tell you that’s only going to get you peanut butter and jelly, or maybe coffee and a bagel. It seems extraordinary to me that the boy would even offer up the food he had in the face of five thousand hungry people—I wonder how many others had food tucked away in their pocket but didn’t want to share. It seems also extraordinary to me that the disciple Andrew would bring the five loaves and two fish to Jesus, but perhaps he had heard of the prophet Elisha, or perhaps he had a sense of the abundance that God can make from nothing. This was, after all, the man who had turned water into wine at a wedding—and not just any wine, but the really good stuff!

And of course, you’ve already heard the story: Jesus took those five little loaves and two fishes, and passed them out to the people. When the baskets were sent around a second time to gather the food, there were twelve baskets full of barley loaves leftover. God provided for the moment, plus a little extra.

I met such a prophet once, in Mexico. My youth group went to Tijuana to build a house for a family that used to have only a shack. And really, what we built was a shack too, but one with a cement slab and a roof that didn’t leak. There were windows and a door that locked, but the whole thing was only 11’ x 22’—132 square feet in all, divided into two rooms. This was not a land of plenty, and we brought our own peanut butter and jelly to ease the burden on the family. But on the last day of building, as we got ready to break for lunch, the mother of the family pulled me aside and said she had made a small lunch for us. It was a feast, really, and I’m still not sure how she pulled it off. Working with a kerosene camp stove she had made eighty tamales for our group. Perhaps you don’t know much about tamales, but they take a long time to make. The meat is steamed and stewed slowly so that it pulls apart and melts in your mouth. Then it’s wrapped inside a corn meal shell, painstakingly patted together. Then the whole thing is twisted neatly into a corn husk and steamed. The mother had worked most of the last two days on that food, and it was truly a miracle. The corn meal crumbled perfectly into our mouths, the meat was exactly, splendidly delicious, all 80 tamales were steaming hot at the same time. Some of my students were a little squeamish about eating Mexican food, so I had six tamales. I was ready for my peanut butter and jelly, but I witnessed a miracle wrought by the hands of this woman. Never have I eaten so well.

And that could be the end of the story, I think. It’s pretty straightforward: people were hungry, there wasn’t enough food, and Jesus made plenty out of little in order to feed them. A miracle, like many others in the Bible. My study Bible tells me that this miracle was performed to prove the power of Jesus—to establish him firmly as the prophet, the messiah. At the end of the narrative, Jesus retreats with the disciples to avoid being made king by the crowd, and my Bible says, “Jesus withdraws to show that he will not answer to the world’s expectations of him.” But I think there’s more to this story than a power play. It is a foreshadowing of the Passover feast he will share with the disciples later at the Last Supper. It is a communal meal with people he hardly knows. It is a testament to the powerful connections made by sharing a meal with one another. The sharing of food tells stories, you see. It tells the story of who we are and how we operate.

While I was a chaplain at Bellevue, we read together a book called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. She wrote about the Hmong people, refugees from Southeast Asia who came here after the conflict in Laos. They were a mountain people, and our government had contracted with them to fight for us in that conflict. When it was over, we didn’t do right by the Hmong people, and thousands of refugees swarmed the camps. We lost that war, you see, and we did not admit to our part in the conflict for many years. This left the Hmong vulnerable. We opened immigration to them, but for the Hmong we did it strangely. We allowed them to come here, but scattered them across the country, separated from kinfolk. Just a few families were permitted to relocate to any one town. There were Hmong families in almost every state. They resisted assimilation fiercely (and if you know anything about the Hmong people, it is obvious why), and it’s only been the last few years that the second and third generations have begun to make their way into colleges and universities. But it didn’t take long for the Hmong to leave behind the disparate communities they had been settled in and create communities of their own. The Central Valley of California was one of the places where large groups of Hmong families gathered to live and work together.

Fadiman followed the story of one Hmong family who had a daughter with epilepsy, and she gathered the stories of their complicated and often difficult journey through the medical system of the United States. There were many cultural misunderstandings, and some of those were about food—what people eat says something to us. More importantly, how we understand other people’s food, says something about us. Do we dismiss another person’s diet as distasteful or label it as dangerous? Or do we find a way to embrace and listen to other people’s ways? Food, and how we share it together tells stories about who we are and how we are connected to one another and to God.

Anne Fadiman interspersed her stories of this one Hmong family with history and stories that illustrate different aspects of Hmong culture. One story she told was called “Fish Soup.”
In an intermediate French class at Merced College a few years ago, the students were assigned a five-minute oral report, to be delivered in French. The second student to stand up in front of the class was a young Hmong man. His chosen topic was a recipe for la soupe de poisson: Fish Soup. To prepare Fish Soup, he said, you must have a fish, and in order to have a fish, you have to go fishing. In order to go fishing, you need a hook, and in order to choose the right hook, you need to know whether the fish you are fishing for lives in fresh or salt water, how big it is, and what shape its mouth is. Continuing in this vein for forty-five minutes, the student filled the blackboard with a complexly branching tree of factors and options, a sort of piscatory flowchart, written in French with an overlay of Hmong. He also told several anecdotes about his own fishing experiences. He concluded with a description of how to clean various kinds of fish, how to cut them up, and finally, how to cook them in broths flavored with various herbs. When the class period ended, he told the other students that he hoped he had provided enough information, and he wished them good luck in preparing Fish Soup in the Hmong manner.

The professor of French who told this story said, “Fish Soup. that’s the essence of the Hmong.” The Hmong have a phrase, bais cuaj txub kaum txub, which means “to speak of all kinds of things.” It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking tot he point; and that the storyteller is likely to be rather long-winded.
Because the Hmong resisted assimilation, and because their language is so very different from English, many people I knew in California thought the Hmong were stupid or unable to be educated. This Fish Soup story—this story about food tells us many things. For one, any person who can pontificate in French about Fish Soup for 45 minutes is clearly intelligent. And it tells us that our Hmong brothers and sisters see clearly the connections between all things in life—in order to make Fish Soup, one must know many things and how to connect them properly. In order to make tamales for 30 hungry laborers on a kerosene stove, one must know many things and how to connect them properly. In order to feed five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and two fish, one must know many things and how to connect them properly. Food functions as a connecter between our spirits and bodies—through food we fall in love with one another and with God. Our bodies are nourished so that our spirits may go on. May God bless richly those in our lives who know how to make plenty and good food from few resources, for they perform miracles!

Food, food, we connect over food. How many of our own life stories are richly punctuated by meals and snacks—coffee with a friend, dinner with a lover, dessert with a parent or child. Our own stories of church are punctuated by the Lord’s Supper and potlucks. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament to us—a moment in time when we are connected to the Holy Spirit and to one another across time and space through the eating of bread and drinking of wine. Potlucks are just a little slice of heaven—casseroles and deviled eggs and brownies. Possibilities open up over food, because if you can get someone to eat with you, then everybody’s guard goes down a bit. This is why we have elaborate dinners between heads of state. This is why, when we’re really angry at someone we can barely eat in their presence. As Ruth has shared before, in many places, if you are invited to eat in someone’s home, it is an indicator of trust and friendship. Isn’t that true for us too?

I’ve told you all a little bit about Facebook and Twitter. Recently a few of you have joined Facebook, and we’ve begun to form a small community there. One thing people often say as an objection to social media is, “What do I care what somebody had for breakfast?” And then usually they’ll roll their eyes a bit. And I usually reply, “Why wouldn’t you care about what I had for breakfast. I had a bagel, thank you.” We bond over food, even through social media. And in fact, my facebook and twitter networks are flooded with food remarks all day long and into the night. People eat something good and tweet it. They finally eat after a long day of work and they post it in their facebook status. They blog it. They photograph it. One of my twitter friends has co-founded a cooking blog called Cooktivism. In it she and her cooking partner share recipes and social activism, feminist/womanist insight, and personal rantings and thoughts about all things Nina and JCB. It’s a welcoming little corner of the interwebs, all created out of their offering of time and talent and relationship with food.

We humans are deeply connected by food. And I think this is the message of our gospel story this morning. Yes, it’s about Jesus’ power and miracles. But it’s also about the way in which our life stories are told over food. And it’s also about this: it’s about being enough.

I shared a video this morning in our discernment group by BrenĂ© Brown on the Power of Vulnerability. There is a line in that video that has stayed with me the last few days: "When we work from a place that says 'I'm enough', then we stop screaming and start listening." I liked it so much that I have plastered it across my social media networks ad nauseum. I noticed last night, though, that a colleague in ministry was struggling with this quote and the pressure to then feel like one is enough. And I jumped into pastoral mode and offered a longer quote from a book by James E. Dittes (click here to read the quote). And then I noticed that another colleague on Twitter, @mayog, had tweeted this: “You aren't required to be enough. Christ is enough.”

And there it is, right? We aren’t required to be enough, Christ is enough. It is when we are at our smallest, most insigificant point that Christ takes what and who we are and makes a feast out of it. Water to wine, a few loaves to baskets of bread, human to servant. Wherever we are and whoever we are, God is present, and creates beauty and abundance out of the materials at hand.

We were created by God to be connected to one another through food, our bodies, and our spirits. As we connect to one another, making plenty out of scarcity, may we also connect to God, who is ever present in our midst.


  1. We were just discussing the Hmong yesterday in adult ed. This was very timely to read. Nice tie-in. Thanks.

  2. Katie,
    It was really a good sermon. Keep going, girl!

  3. Ruth! We're gonna get this church all facebook'd up. just you wait and see :-)