Living in the Shadow of God’s Abundance
Between This week’s reading and last week’s reading, Jesus and his community have received the news of the tragic death of John the Baptist. As you can imagine, they were shocked, incredibly sad and likely terrified about what was going to happen next. Let’s see what happens.
Matthew 14: 13-21
13 As soon as Jesus heard the news, he left in a boat to a remote area to be alone. But the crowds heard where he was headed and followed on foot from many towns. 14 Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
15 That evening the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”
16 But Jesus said, “That isn’t necessary—you feed them.”
17 “But we have only five loaves of bread and two fish!” they answered.
18 “Bring them here,” he said. 19 Then he told the people to sit down on the grass. Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he gave the bread to the disciples, who distributed it to the people. 20 They all ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftovers. 21 About 5,000 men were fed that day, in addition to all the women and children!
The Word of the Lord,
Thanks be to God.
Matthews listeners would’ve heard so many parallels in this story and many others in their past. So, it’s tempting to dismiss this story as another parable, because it seems too good to be true. But this is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels. In every gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to feed the massive crowd of people gathered around him. The disciples show him that they have “nothing to give”, essentially saying, “Lord, there’s no way we will have enough. We only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. That’s nothing.” But nothing is always something for God. Jesus takes their meager resources, he offers them to God with a blessing, he breaks them into even smaller pieces and shares them with everyone present. And then there was more than enough to go around. The similarities in the records of this event are proof that this miracle really happened. This event also carries similarities with other events in their Jewish history and even in the Christian history to come, and those similarities are triggered memory responses which build towards a foundation of faith in the abundance of God’s good gifts for our lives.
Every experience we have triggers good memories and bad ones, resulting in pain, sorrow, joy or surprise. One of my favorite authors is actually a British neurologist, Dr. Oliver Sacks. As part of his study of memory and the brain, he worked closely with patients privately and in nursing facilities. He writes about these scientific studies as personal stories in his books. In "The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” he reflects on his interaction with patients experiences a variety of different levels of memory loss. One man in particular has stuck with me. Dr. Sacks calls him "The Lost Mariner". This man in his late fifties came into the memory unit where Dr Sacks worked, and on the first impression, he seemed completely healthy. Dr. Sacks asked about his family and history, and the man gave a detailed memory of the first 18 years of his life. Then Dr. Sacks realized the man had started to speak of things like his time in the service or coming back from the war, in the present tense, even though they happened almost thirty years ago. The man had no memory of the last thirty years. As their time together continues, Dr. Sacks begins to watch him do things and wonder if a patient can still have a soul if he has no experience that creates memory. He began to consider this question with one of the nuns in this Catholic facility and she said, "You should join us for Mass.” Dr. Sacks went and watched the patient participate in worship and he comments on the man’s strong reactions during the practice of communion. He resolved that the patient appeared so emotionally and mentally immersed in the worship, it could not be considered just a mechanical memory of the past. Whether or not he could remember the new experiences, they were building positive or negative emotions in his body and present experience. This revelation helped Dr. Sacks design a so called treatment for him. From there they sought to give him work to find meaning in the present moments and ended up employing him in the garden for their home. Every morning he would come to the garden as if it was for the first time, but as he created and planted, he became more at ease in the garden and with the people.
Even those of us with an average sense of memory operate with a similar bank of memories. We each carry around our own treasure box filled with a limited number of memories. There are certain memories that stick at the forefront and seem louder or fresher than other memories. When we have a new encounter, these memories, and the emotions they carry, are triggered. When we have recently undergone extreme crisis or tragedy, or when we are living through a never ending crisis like war or a pandemic, the box can become overwhelmed with these painful experiences. It’s like we are living in the shadow of these horrible events, and it’s hard to see past them or truly enjoy the present moment.
Like the crowd that has gathered on the shore, we are overwhelmed by the terminal forecast of our current circumstances. These people had lost their leader and their hope for the future. What were they supposed to do now. And that’s where Jesus enters in. He sees their pain and their fear, and he has compassion over them. He comes and heals them, teaches them, and he refuses to send them away.
He knows what they need. They need a reminder of the Good Gifts of God. He gives them an experience to build a good memory, and make a strong deposit in their bank of memories to trigger those old good feelings of safety, community and reliance on God. When we can seek to trigger those memories and bring them to the forefront, then we can live in the shadow of God’s abundance, where no resource seems too small and everything seems possible.
Living in the shadow of God‘s abundance we can build a memory of God’s positive investment in our lives that is so prevalent that we can forget and even endure the moments of when we have nothing, because we know that scarcity is temporary and the abundance of God’s resources are eternal. We operate in limitation but God operates in production and creation.
When we practice communion we are practicing or rehearsing and even building a memory of the miracles of God. When we hear these stories, memories are triggered of how God used what little resources we had to meet our needs, to bless the people around us, and still leave something left over.
The Pastor, Author and Spiritual Director, Rev. Liz Barrington Forney talks about this and she says, “Our primary limitation is not a lack of resources but our amnesia, our forgetting to offer up what we have been given to the One whose desire it is to bless us. God in Christ stands ready to heal, redeem, restore, and reconcile; our role is to take responsibility in offering up our part and seeking, with all that we are, to collaborate with God.”
Our experiences of failure and disappointment fog up our memories so that we forget the possibilities in abundant living. Throughout time people have been overwhelmed with the desire to gain more and sell more and make more and have more because what we have in our possession never seems to be enough for the tragedy of what tomorrow could bring. But Jesus reminds us that the economy of God multiplies based on the generosity of individuals combined to create a great feast. The economy of the world creates a false expectation of happiness in response to an individuals gathering and generating personal wealth even at the expense and loss of others.
When we hear the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 men plus numerous women and children, Jesus reminds us that the economy of God multiplies based on the generosity of individuals combined to create a great feast.
What kind of miracles has God brought into your life throughout this pandemic to help you continue on? Was it a phone call? An act of kindness? An act of solidarity? A note sent? A meeting scheduled or a meal shared?
Maybe you even feel like your life is empty of miracles, like you have nothing to give and God has nothing to give you.
So, come, let us gather across time and space and sit at the table together. Let us remember God’s Good Gifts given for us, and let us hold on to God’s promise to do this again. Come, let us live in the shadow of God’s Abundance.