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Holding Out and Holding On

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Matthew 14:13-21

I’ve never enjoyed working with numbers. As a business major, I took a year of accounting in college, as well as economics, and I understand church budgets and finances and all of that.

I got good grades in calculus and trigonometry. I could define sines and cosines, could follow instructions, could do all the right steps and more often than not, end up with the right answer.  But it never made sense to me. I never understood why I was doing the things I was doing.  More importantly, I never understood why I would want to.

I also have no retention for numbers. The space in my brain that is supposed to remember numbers is evidently the part of my head I landed on when I fell off the changing table as a baby.  I can call the same phone number every day for three weeks and still have to look it up.

Still, even with my challenges, I’m better at math than the disciples and the Gospel writers. The feeding of the multitudes is the only one of Jesus’s miracles (other than the resurrection) that is told in all four Gospels.  In fact, it is told in two of the Gospels twice, with different numbers of people being fed; so we get some version of this story six times in the four Gospels.  Two of the stories say 4,000 people were fed from 7 loaves and 7 fish with 7 baskets of leftovers.  The other four accounts say that 5,000 men were fed from five loaves and two fish, with 12 baskets of leftovers.  Our story in Matthew specifically says “5,000 men, not counting women and children.”  Oh, but let’s count the women and children!  If we do, that probably raises the crowd to at least 20,000 people.  As a point of comparison, the Cross Insurance Arena holds less than half that many.  And it has a concession stand!

So the disciples were confronted with 20,000 hungry people. Of course they thought Jesus should send the people away to buy food.  How else were they supposed to eat?  But Jesus had a different idea.  Jesus said, “They don’t need to go away; you give them something to eat.”   The disciples looked at the crowd and at the few pieces of food in their hands, and they could do the math.  (Even if they couldn’t count women and children!)  How are we supposed to feed them?  We only have five little loaves and two small fish — that’s not even enough for us, much less for them!

Does that sound like a familiar refrain? We have seen those images of starving children in far-off lands; we have heard the cries of those with AIDS in Africa; we have seen miles of bombed out buildings in Syria.  But we think we don’t even have enough for us, much less them.

Even closer to home, we have heard the statistics on sexual assault and child abuse; we have seen the reports on domestic violence; we have personally witnessed the living conditions of those in poverty in our own state. And it all seems so overwhelming.  The world’s problems are so big, and our resources so small, what could we possibly do to help?  Like the disciples, we get overwhelmed by the needs of the world, without a clue as to how to meet them.

During the question and answer time after a conference, the Dalai Lama was reportedly asked if he had any recommendations to offer regarding the alleviation of world hunger. As the audience settled in for what they expected to be a long and complex response, the Dalai paused, and then replied, “Sharing.”

We live in a society with a mentality of scarcity. We see everything as limited, finite, like a pie, and there’s only so much to go around, so you’d better grab your piece while you can.

We think respect is a finite pie. If you gain the boss’s respect, then that means I’ll get less respect.  So it’s good for me if I undermine your work so that mine will look better by comparison and you won’t get the portion of respect I have earned.

We see power as a finite pie. If I share my power with you, then you will have more and I will have less.  So it’s better to keep you un-empowered so that I can have a bigger piece.  Or better yet, let me control the power pie — so that I can dish out the pieces of power as I see fit.

Acceptance is a finite pie. If I make room for you at the table, there might not be enough room left for me.  So it’s better to seat you at a separate table, even at the kids’ table, so that my place is safe.

We’re so accustomed to viewing the world around us with the mentality of scarcity that we do the same thing with God.  We think God’s grace is a finite pie. We’ll accept God’s forgiveness for ourselves, but we’re in such need of it that we dare not forgive anybody else because then the forgiveness pie might run out.  God’s love is a finite pie. God’s love feels good as it drips on our heads at baptism or as it courses through our veins in our passion.  It feels so good that we’re tempted to deny God’s love to others because we can’t take the risk of it running out.

And so we limit the amount of God’s grace and God’s love that we share with others because we have a mentality of scarcity . . . when what we need is a theology of abundance.  In countless churches across the country, people are complaining that there is not enough:

not enough money

not enough volunteers for outreach projects

not enough Sunday school teachers

not enough people stepping up to responsibility

not enough time.

It has often been said that in most churches, 20% of the people carry 80% of the work load. If that is true, the answer does not lie in convincing the over-worked to do even more.  The answer lies in getting each one of us to bring what little we have.

I remember back in seminary there was pressure to sound either very academic or very spiritual when participating in group discussions. Some of us would rather keep our mouths shut than risk saying something obvious.  But my favorite professor compared class discussions to potluck dinners.  She said sometimes you arrive and everybody else has brought these beautiful meals and all you have to offer is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that got smushed in the bottom of your backpack.  She encouraged us to share our smushed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because you just never know if that is exactly what somebody else is hungry for! You share what you have to give, even if it’s not much.

Even if we don’t have five loaves and two fish — even if we have only one piece of bread and one bite of fish, we can say, “Here, God. This is all I have to give.  It isn’t much. But do what you can with it.”  Then my little bit and your little bit and your little bit might just give us enough for everyone, with leftovers to boot.  The answer lies in turning over whatever we have to God; we may see scarcity, but God sees abundance.

Our Bible is filled with stories about our abundant God and God’s abundant provisions. The Israelites in the wilderness received manna and quail and water from a rock.  The prophet Elisha made a widow’s supply of oil and meal to never run out.  Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into abundant wine.  Jesus gave the disciples fishing advice and the catch nearly burst their nets.

And the very first commandment in the Bible — be fruitful and multiply — was not just about making babies.

We worship a God of abundance,

a God of infinite grace and love and welcome,

a God who will not be limited by our focus on scarcity,

a God who says, “Come to the table—there’s plenty to go around.”

In the past century, both scholars and people in the pews have tried to explain this story.

We are slightly uncomfortable with the miracles — both because we question if they really happened, and because we don’t see them happening now, when we need them. Many scholars say that it was highly unlikely that out of such a huge crowd, only one person packed a lunch.  These folks suggest that when Jesus began giving people this measly bit of food, they were all motivated to share with one another what they had brought.  One woman scholar claims that the crowd was all fed because all of those uncounted women had brought enough food for their own families, plus enough to share — because that’s what women always do!  She says that because the women and children didn’t “count,” the disciples and the gospel writers didn’t know where the food came from and so they presumed it was a miracle performed by Jesus.  So maybe Jesus performed a miracle in multiplying the bread and fish, and maybe the miracle was performed in people’s hearts, motivating them to share what they had.

It may sound odd, but I don’t really care which it is. To me it doesn’t diminish the miracle if people shared — in fact, getting 20,000 strangers to share their food is a pretty big miracle in my opinion!  After all, I know how tightly we can hold onto things.

If you were poor and were struggling to feed your family, and you were in a large gathering of hungry people, and you had carefully counted out your bread and fish before you left home, and the rich people next to you, who (you happen to know) waste their money on garden topiaries and brass cupolas for their storage shed, are eyeing your lunch hungrily because they forgot to pack one, what are the chances you’d share? You hold onto those little loaves and fish like they were your lifeline.

Or maybe you’re hungry because your garden topiaries are your lame attempts to distract you from your unhappiness, and the brass cupola wasn’t your idea anyway but your competitive neighbor had one, and now the job is gone, and your credit cards are maxed out, and nobody’s giving you another, and you didn’t just forget to pack a lunch — you didn’t have any to pack.You hold onto those topiaries and cupolas because they’re all you have left.

God invites us to share.

God invites us to abundance.

But first we have to let go.

Fifteen or twenty years ago I thought I had arthritis in my hands because they always ached. Then I realized that they ached because I was holding onto things — too tightly and for too long. I started learning how to let go — of grudges, or bitterness, or my own perfectionism — and my hands stopped aching so much.  I can’t say that I have fully learned this lesson, but at least I am now aware that we need to live, as Buddhism teaches, with open hands.

What are you holding onto? What are you holding onto so tight that the tops of your knuckles are white, and your fingers are cramping, and your whole body is trembling with the effort . . . but you just can’t let go.

Maybe it’s time to share.

It’s time to share the burden.

It’s time to share the wealth.

It’s time to share your loaves and fishes.

 

There are hungry people, no doubt.

But they need not go away. You feed them.

There is enough.

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