July 27, 2012

Deja Vu

Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 10:01 pm

Holy Creator, help me to embrace this day with open arms and to share your good gifts with gladness and generosity. Amen[i]

It’s happened before, this feeding of the multitude. In the time of the kings, the prophet Elisha fed 100 people from a mere 20 loaves and fresh ears of grain. They ate their fill and had some left.

Is this what Jesus meant when he asked Philip how the disciples might feed the 5,000? Was he testing to see if he would make the connection? Or was he testing Philip’s trust in him?

Notice the juxtaposition of scarcity and abundance in Philip and Andrew:  Philip gives up before he even tries. Six months’ wages wouldn’t make a dent—not that any of us earns a wage anymore; we quit our day jobs to follow you, remember?

“Well, we do have five barley loaves and two fish,” Andrew points out. Was he cluing in to the Elisha story? Was he remembering something, some spark or fragment of Jewish tradition? Or by this time did he have enough experience with Jesus to simply assume that anything was possible? Was he open to Jesus’ gift for bringing new perspective to the usual ways of thinking? Or were the disciples having a “stump Jesus” contest and Andrew thought he’d found a good challenge? We don’t know.

What we do know is that the people ate and were satisfied. There was enough. None of the disciples and no one in the crowd had signed up in advance for salads, mains, drinks, desserts, paper goods, set up, or clean up. They trusted the process. They shared good gifts with gladness.

What was that like for them?

Here the people had come looking for one thing and got something entirely different. They had heard of his acts of healing. The rumors gave them hope. If these rumors were true, if his signs were prophetic, they had nothing to lose in seeking him out.

Their trust in him is overwhelming. Of course Jesus knew why they were following him, but John doesn’t say peep about any healings, any miracles. According to the Gospel account, Jesus skipped straight to meeting the immediate need of a daily meal. It is remarkable that 5,000 tired, hungry, sick, lame, impoverished people would just sit down nicely on the ground, organizing themselves into manageable little groups, knowing full well that even with just a pinch, there’s no way that five loaves and two fish will make it past the first row.

But they trust. They sit down. They don’t push and jostle their way to the front; they don’t look out the corners of their eyes to be sure no one takes a bigger piece. They don’t start shouting that this isn’t what they came for—“A crumb of bread? A scrap of fish? We came to be healed!”

They sit down. They wait. They give God the space to do something unexpected.

And then, being human as they are, they miss the point. As they eat their fill and see how much is left over, it occurs to them that this man could be the answer to their problems! If he can make plenty out of little, feed them until they’ve had their fill, who wouldn’t want to make him king?! Joseph got their ancestors through some pretty lean times, didn’t he? Why couldn’t this Jesus do the same?

Because that’s not the point.

The point is that we, whether we are a crowd of one, or of a household, or of a small struggling mission, or of a big busy parish…we are called to receive God’s grace in abundance with joy and gladness, with gracious thanksgiving, with a baptismal dedication that carries the Gospel into our way of being in daily life.

We are called to receive as much of God’s love and grace and generosity as we can imagine, and then some, and then still more.

Receiving such a lavish gift is not easy. There’s something about it that makes us uncomfortable; it feels out of sync with our usual thinking. Every year around this time I can almost count on getting at least one phone call from a clergyperson who would like to try something new in annual financial stewardship, stir things up with something they haven’t done in a while. At some point in almost every one of these conversations, I hear this:

What I’d really love to do is the Festive Meal program. But I’m not sure I can justify it. I know I would take heat for putting on a big catered dinner so that we can tell people that the church is short of money. I suppose we could just take the idea and do it as a potluck, but how would we make that feel different from any other church dinner? I don’t know…. Maybe we should just do something else.

Then, one day, I heard this:

What I really want to do is the Festive Meal program. I’m so frustrated that people complain about the expense and say we shouldn’t be using our money that way. I wish people could understand that giving them this meal models God’s lavish nature. We are inviting people to experience an over-the-top gift, to receive it graciously, and to respond from a place of equal joy.

This conversation has stayed with me particularly because the speaker was in fact from a congregation that could not well afford to make such a gesture. The Festive Meal would genuinely represent a risk in the administration of his parish. And yet he was willing to go there. He wanted people to sit down in groups and trust the process. He wanted to give them that experience of partaking, of eating their fill, of gathering what was left over so that none would be lost.

How do you make sense of this story? Are you like Philip, seeing only the facts in front of you, practical to the point of paralysis? Are you an Andrew, trusting the one who already knows what he’s going to do? Or are you among the crowd, literally or metaphorically, in your congregation or in your life, open to the prayer, “I begin this day with joy; God is good. How will I receive God’s goodness today?”

[i] Daily Prayer for All Seasons, Final Draft, January 2011,  p.95


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