Scripture can be found here....
It’s summer! And there are a few things that are different today about our worship—we have J. kindly filling in for H. by playing the piano, we have a preacher in the pulpit without an actual pulpit robe… and we have our annual Summer Sermon Series! Recently during the summer it’s been my custom to depart from the lectionary to do something a little different; two years ago it was “People’s Choice;” last summer it was “Beach Reading.” Today begins a series of seven weeks in which I address something that comes up, every once in a while, but to which we don’t often give a whole lot of attention: numbers in scripture. I’m calling it “Faith Countdown.”
As those of us who spend some time reading the bible know, there are certain numbers that come up again and again. Think, for example, of the number 40: forty days and forty nights of rain in Genesis, while Noah and his family and all those animals bob around in the ark; forty years of wilderness wandering by God’s chosen people after their Exodus from slavery; Jesus’ forty days and forty nights of self-imposed retreat in the desert. In scripture, forty means something, something about the time it takes to be sanctified, tested and toughened, made ready for the challenges ahead. Forty means something. And mostly, when numbers appear in scripture, they mean something, as well.
So today we begin a countdown from seven to one, each sermon addressing a particular number as it is found in a passage of scripture, but also taking note of the overtones, the echoes, if you will, that number brings to the passage.
When I thought of preaching about the number seven, I realized there were many, many overtones and echoes, scriptural and otherwise. So, to begin, what do you think of when you hear the number seven? Anything come to mind?
[Seven days of creation, seven days of the week, seven seals and seven churches of Revelation. There are also the seven brothers married to the woman, all of whom die without fathering children (Luke 20:27-33). The seven brothers of David (1 Samuel 16:10). Seven brides for seven brothers! The first seven deacons, chosen to serve the people (Acts 6). Seven swans-a-swimming! Seventh heaven! The seven seas!]
There are too many incidences of the number seven for us to name them all—both in scripture and in popular culture! And yet, today we read a passage in which the number seven appears to be—almost—incidental, accidental.
So imagine a warm and lovely summer day. Jesus is in Gentile territory, outside his comfort zone, but still doing the things he does: teaching. Healing. Casting out demons. Getting into religious and philosophical “discussions.” And the passage begins by signaling that Jesus is somewhere he has been before: “In those days... there was again a great crowd without anything to eat...” [Mark 8:1]. So, we are to witness another great outdoor picnic—the first Mark tells about happens in chapter 6. And, again, Jesus uses the language of compassion to explain what happens next:
“I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance” [Mark 8:2-3].
And Jesus’ disciples are no dopes. They know what’s coming, because this has happened before. “You give them something to eat,” Jesus had said, just two chapters earlier, when the crowd was closer to home, in more familiar territory, more comfortable. And Jesus then, as now, got some push-back from the disciples. “Are we supposed to spend 200 days’ wages on this group?” they asked him then. This time, it’s even more pointed: “How can [we] feed these people with bread here in the desert?” [Mark 8:4]. We’re not even in our home region. And you keep sending us out without money and food!
And Jesus asks, “How many loaves do you have?” And this time, the answer is “Seven.”
And because the answer is “Seven,” we know that something marvelous is about to happen.
Seven is the number of fullness. Even the Hebrew word for seven, “sheva,” comes from the word that means, “to be full.”
Seven is the number of spiritual fullness. There are seven days in the week, because the time for work is six days and the time for rest, for Sabbath, is the seventh day—and “Sabbath” also comes from that same number, seven, and that same root, meaning fullness. The full week, the spiritually perfect week, is the week that contains the right balance of work and rest.
There are four numbers in the Old Testament that are believed to be “perfect.” Seven is one of those perfect numbers. It is the number of spiritual perfection and fullness, and gives a message—to the disciples who are digging around in their pockets for bread, to the eager and hungry crowds waiting to be fed, and to the readers and hearers of the gospel of Mark as it travels the countryside and city streets of the ancient world. It gives all these listeners a particular message, and the message is this: There will be enough.
There will be enough.
How many of us spend significant portions of our lives dwelling in the anxiety of not knowing whether there will be enough? Will there be enough soap for the dishes, enough kibble for the dog, enough change for the meter? Will there be enough food, enough money, enough work, enough love? How many of us spend significant portions of our lives dwelling in the fear—even the certainty—that there will never be enough?
The message of seven loaves is this: there is enough. There will be enough.
We are encouraged much of the time to believe that there absolutely isn’t enough. Every advertisement is selling us the idea that we don’t have enough, and we’d better get yourself some of this product to correct that problem. And we are asked to make decisions based on this prevailing attitude of scarcity: decisions about our health care and our food consumption and how much we will give and how much we will save and how much we will spend and how much we should have in an endowment.
We are encouraged, most of the time, to embrace the notion of scarcity: to run around secure in the conviction that there isn’t enough, there was never enough, there will never be enough.
But Jesus, by helping the panicky disciples to find seven loaves, is encouraging an entirely different faith: he is asking them—and us—to believe that there is enough, despite perhaps even the evidence of our own senses. That the work of humans plus the blessing of God will always ensure that there is enough. That the first step to “enough” is the practice of compassion. That, even when things are scarce, there are resources we didn’t realize we had, and if we all dig around in our pockets, we may even find a loaf we didn’t realize was there. And that, if we are giving ourselves over to be followers of the one known as the Bread of Life, we will be fed in ways we never dreamed.
And Jesus gives thanks for the seven loaves, and they are shared. And in the end, after a few fish are thrown in for good measure, the excess, the extra food, amounts to seven baskets. Enough, and more than enough. We are fed by our compassionate God, and we are encouraged to compassionately feed one another, and to know: in this world that God created, when people stop panicking and start sharing, a miracle occurs. There is enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.