I’ve been watching what is going on in Washington this past week. The debate about the debt ceiling and what we should do now has been all over the news. It’s inescapable. Now, don’t be alarmed. I’m not about to preach about politics. The fact is I have no idea how we solve this problem, and I’m not sure anyone in Washington does either.
But as I listened to the news this week and read this passage, I was struck by the fact that both had to do with crowds of people in need, and few resources to go around. In both situations people were trying to figure out a way to make a little stretch into a lot, and in both situations, they were baffled.
There was one key difference. In one situation, Jesus was there to figure out the answer. In the other, no offense meant, we have members of Congress. And as much as some members of Congress probably think they are God incarnate, they are not. In many ways they are much closer to the disciples, bringing forward a couple of fish and loaves of bread and saying “we have no idea what to do now”.
Jesus had headed down to the lakeshore to escape the crowds, but they followed him anyway. He saw them coming to him sick and hungry and in need of compassion and, because he is Jesus, he couldn’t turn them away. And so he healed the sick all day.
That night the disciples said to him, “this is a deserted place” and told him that there was nothing there to eat, so he should send the crowds away, back into the villages. Now many of us know what it might feel like to be in a deserted place. We might know what it is like to make a hard journey, to come to the lakeshore, and to seek out healing, and teaching, and meaning, and maybe even salvation. And we know the fear of making that journey, and being afraid that even though we are in the right place, we might not have enough to stay there long.
When the disciples came to Jesus that night they were surrounded by people who must have felt like that. They had followed Jesus out into the wilderness, and now they were hungry. And the disciples only had five loaves of bread and two fish on them. And they told Jesus that because of that he would have to tell the crowds to go .
Now part of me thinks that the disciples must have been scared too. Five loaves and two fish and thirteen people makes for a pretty lean meal. I’m sure they looked out at that hungry crowd and realized that the little they had was about to get devoured pretty quickly. And the best way to ensure that they’d at least get something was to get rid of that crowd.
But of course, Jesus doesn’t send the crowds away. We know from the Last Supper, and from the sharing of Holy Communion, that Jesus’s dinner parties are always extraordinary and there is always enough there to fill us up. And this day was no exception. Jesus takes those loaves and fishes, and blesses them and breaks them, and starts to hand them out to the crowd.
Everyone was fed that day. Not just fed, but fed until they were filled. And there was such abundance that twelve baskets full of food were collected afterwards. Five thousand hungry people, just a little bit of food, and in the end not one hungry soul.
I heard a story once of another view of what happened that day. Some say that when the crowds saw that Jesus was making sure there was plenty, they opened their own bags. They dug deep and pulled out the bread and fish they had been carrying, scared to share with anyone. And now, knowing that they would be fed and there would be enough, they shared it with their neighbors. Christ’s generosity inspired their own, and they were not afraid to give.
There’s something that rings true about that. In times of scarcity, in the times of our neighbors’ greatest need, we are, perhaps understandably, the most inclined to protect what is ours. When we see people in need we are often uncomfortable and embarrassed. But mostly we are afraid. We are afraid that they are not so different from us. We are afraid that we could become them. And so we create stories in our heads of how they got that way, or what they did wrong to deserve this fate, and how it could never happen to us because we aren’t like that. And it makes us feel safer. At least for a little while.
But the reality is that “it”, no matter what “it” is, could happen to us. Poverty, foreclosure, addiction, illness, unemployment. All those things and more. They could all happen. Not because we are bad, but because we are human. And we know that. And that is what makes us even more afraid to share what little we have.
We’re a lot like those disciples, wanting to at least hang on to those few loaves and fishes. We’re a lot like those people in the crowd, protecting what little they may have had. We’re like that, because we are afraid.
It’s no secret that giving to charitable organizations goes down when the economy is bad. Non-profits, religious institutions, schools, all suffer when the economy is unstable. It’s not that we don’t see the need of our neighbors. We do, but we are so afraid that it’s going to happen to us too. And so when we trim our budgets, the first thing to go is often our generosity to others. The irony, of course, is that when economic times are hard, that’s when your neighbors need you the most.
But sometimes, even when we are afraid that we might not have enough, we get it right.
A friend of mine, not much older than I am, had a headache for four days last week. She didn’t understand why it wouldn’t go away. On the fourth day it turned out she had a brain hemorrhage and had had a stroke. It was shocking, and the recovery will be long, but she is, thankfully, showing signs of progress.
My friend is an artist who works incredibly hard, but she has never had much expendable income. Neither have many of her friends. And her recovery process will mean she can’t work for a while. Things will be extremely tight financially. But this weekend her friends started to do they only thing they knew they could do. They started to pool together their money, organize food delivery schedules, and come up with a plan to help her get through the next few months.
Now, these are not wealthy people. These are not even people who know that they will have enough to make ends meet this month, let alone whether they will have enough left over to help others. And yet they are digging deep because they love their friend, and because they can do none other.
I stole a line from what the pastors say at Old South in Boston and now on Sunday mornings, when we take up the offering, I tell you “don’t give until it hurts. Give until it feels good.” My friend’s friends are giving not until it hurts, though surely it will make some of them tighten their belts this month. They are giving until it feels good. Because they could never feel good in a world where their needs and wants were met, and she was left on her own.
I don’t know how many of them are Christians. I actually doubt most would claim that title. But the reality is that they are demonstrating the love and generosity and hope that Christ taught us that day on the lakeshore far better than many who are Christian do. They believe in the abundance that comes from love in a real way. They know the risk to themselves, and they give anyway. Because they simply cannot not give.
Christians are called to be that way too. And sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don’t. We are human, and we are often afraid. And this economy is a perfect example of that. But we have something that we can put our faith in that is greater than a stock index or a mutual fund return. We have something with a guaranteed return rate that outperforms any investment we can think of. We have Christ. And we have reason to believe that what happened on that lakeshore 2000 years ago can be, and has already been, repeated over and over again.
We are all here, in this church, because at some point at least on person claiming the name of Christian was generous to us. It may have been financial, it may have been a gift of love, it may have been a gift of time. But whatever it was, that person dug deep, put aside their fear that a couple loaves and fishes wouldn’t last them long, and decided to give to you anyway. And hopefully, years from now, pews in churches near and far will be filled because you have chosen to give too. Our generosity to one another, our sharing of Christ’s love, is the most tangible reminder of the legacy Christ gave to us that day at the lake. Let’s not that that legacy die, even when we are afraid. There are enough loaves. There are enough fish. They are out there, and we will find them. Deep in our hearts, we will find them. Amen.