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Reverend Philip Stringer

John 6:1-15

LET US PRAY: We ask, O Lord, that the words which we hear this morning, and the worship which we offer, may bear fruit in our hearts and be acceptable in your sight, our strength and our redeemer. AMEN

In 1988, the world watched as three gray whales, trapped in the ice off Point Barrow, Alaska, floated battered and bloody, gasping for breath at a hole in the ice. Their only hope: somehow to be transported five miles past the ice pack to the open sea. Rescuers began cutting a string of breathing holes about twenty yards apart in the six-inch-thick ice. For eight days they coaxed the whales from one hole to the next, mile after mile.

Along the way, one of the trio vanished and was presumed dead. But finally, with the help of icebreaker ships, the whales Putu and Siku swam to freedom.

In a way, worship is a string of breathing holes the Lord provides for his people. Battered and bruised in a world frozen over with greed, selfishness, and hatred, we rise for air in church, a place to breathe again, to be loved and encouraged, until that day comes when the Lord forever shatters the ice pack.

The season of Lent is in the midst of this long string of special gifts of God -- and even within itself, there is a special breather -- it is today, the 4th Sunday in Lent.

I shared with you earlier that the word, “Lent” comes from an ancient word meaning “lengthen.” The word, “Lent” tells us about the season that we are in when the days begin to lengthen into spring. It is celebrated in the church as a time of devotion and preparation for the coming of Easter.

The changing of the seasons is more dramatic further north in our hemisphere, where most of our traditions have their beginnings. Far to the north, people experience 24-hour darkness -- or at best some “twilight” -- during the winter months. Where I grew up, winter wasn’t that bad, but we had darkness from about 4:30 PM until 8 or 9 in the morning -- and let me tell you, it’s depressing!!!!

It made a profound impression on me -- as much as I hated the dark, cold days of winter, one thing that I loved was the coming of spring. For me, the lengthening of days was something I thirsted for, and I literally counted the days until spring. The lengthening of days was a continuing sign that the cold, dark, deadly days of winter were giving way to Spring -- to light and to life. We are coming close to the Easter victory where Christ shatters the ice forever.

The season of Lent is 40 days long, not including Sundays, which are always a feast-day. The 40 days remind us of the 40 days Christ was tempted in the wilderness. But even with the breaks on Sundays, 40 days is a long time to repent. The ancient church quickly realized that the people would get tired. They needed a break -- a time to come up for air -- and a reminder of what this whole season was leading toward.

And so, in the Middle Ages, this fourth Sunday in Lent was called “Laetare” (pronounced: Lay tar’ reh). The worship began, “Laetare Jerusalem” or “Rejoice Jerusalem.” It was a Sunday for refreshment, providing a break from the Lenten ordeals of fasting and penance. A time to remember what is on our horizon. A time to remember who we are in Christ, and what God has done for us -- once and for all in the victory of Christ. So, our gospel reading today is chosen as a reminder for us. As we move toward Easter, our text today reminds us who Jesus is.

The feeding of the 5000 is a story of refreshment from the hand of God -- a story about the overabundance of God’s grace.

John tells us that when the crowd approached Jesus, his first words are words of concern for their well-being and comfort -- he asks, “how are we going to feed them?” Philip’s response in classic. “There’s no way we can do it.”

William Easum wrote a book titled, Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers. In it he writes that many established churches worship at the feet of the altar of “control.” One of the most powerful control statements one hears in churches is the statement, “we can’t afford it.” That’s pretty much the gist of what Philip said -- “how are we going to feed them?!!! We can’t!! It’s too expensive.”

Jesus appears to have disagreed with him.

The feeding of the 5000 is the ONLY miracle to be told in all four gospels. The gospel of John gives us several details that the others do not. It is only John, for example, who tells us that it was a small boy who provided the bread and fish for the meal.

Here stood a bunch of adults, assessing the situation and saying, “it’s too expensive -- we can’t do it.”

And along comes a little boy who doesn’t know any better -- and he offers what he has . . . and it is more than enough.

This is a story about the overabundance of God, and of grace. When Jesus feeds the crowd, he does it by accepting the gifts of the weak and overlooked. Jesus took what he had to offer and used it to bless them all.

Not only that, but John provides us with another unique detail.

While the other gospels agree with John that there were 5 loaves and two fish, Only John tells us that they were BARLEY loaves. Barley was used to make the cheap bread of the poor.

Furthermore, while the other gospels use the common word for fresh “fish,” John uses a less common word -- typically descriptive of dried or preserved fish. The kind of fish that the poor would be able to buy.

So, Jesus took the gift of a child -- the food of the poor -- and made a feast for all the people.

John also tells us that Jesus, himself, distributed it to the people -- not parceling out little bits to each, but “as much as they wanted”. John’s point is that Jesus himself is presenting God’s abundant grace -- and when the people have received all they need -- and even all they WANT -- there is still plenty left over. In fact, in some amazing way, there’s more grace than when it all began.

What a great and beautiful story -- and good for us on “REFRESHMENT SUNDAY.”

To return to the language of John one last time -- when John tells us that the leftover fragments were gathered up, he uses a different word than the other gospel writers. They tell us that there were “pieces,” but John uses the term “broken fragments” -- the same word he uses when he tells of Jesus breaking the bread at the Last Supper.

So, John makes a clear connection for us. Jesus’ presentation of the grace of God in the wilderness is a foretaste of the grace that will be shown in the giving of himself in Holy Communion -- and the giving of himself on the cross.

“We can’t afford it” is something we often hear -- but not from God.

What is the cost of saving the world? What is the cost of redeeming you? The sacrifice of God’s own son? Is that too much? God says no. And this table -- set for you -- is the ongoing outpouring of God’s grace for you.

This is the table of God’s overabundance, set for you. Here, there is forgiveness and reconciliation. Here, Jesus promises to be present and to give of himself for you. It is the table of refreshment.

“Laetare.” “Rejoice” and breathe -- for Christ comes to bear your burdens for you, and to refresh you for the journey.

“Laetare.” “Rejoice” and breathe, for he comes that you may have life, and have it abundantly.

“Laetare.” “Rejoice” and breathe because God has done all of this for only one reason -- God loves you. AMEN


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