Encounters with Rabbi Jesus, I: Is There Enough?

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August 6, 2017

Encounters with Rabbi Jesus, I: Is There Enough?

Passage: Matthew 14:13–21

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Jesus said to them,
‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’
—Matthew 14:16

God, you have spoken to us through your Son, by his presence, his words, his love and compassion, his dying and rising.
Let your written word now be spoken and heard by each of us.
Give us ears to hear and hearts to understand,
that we may not refuse your calling or ignore your voice.
Humble us to accept your truth that we may all learn.
Bring our every thought captive to obeying Christ,
In his name we pray. Amen.

Over the coming weeks, we will follow along with Jesus’ disciples and listen in on their conversations as they witness mind-bending miracles. In these lessons from the Gospel of Matthew, we can learn more of both who Christ is and then who we are to be.

Jesus has been teaching and healing throughout his journey with his disciples—caring for all people in his path—and upsetting the status quo within the Roman Empire and his own village. The tension was so thick that he was unable to heal anyone. The opposition was so fierce he was run out of town. Who knew doing such good would be so dangerous?

Not just dangerous, deadly. Our reading picks up as Jesus learned Herod has beheaded his cousin, John the Baptist. Listen for what happens next and for God’s word to us as I read from the 14th chapter of Matthew:

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothinghere but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
A couple of weeks ago, when friends came for dinner, I apologized that I just did not have time to bake a cobbler as I served fresh sliced peaches with ice cream for dessert.

Rob eased my mind. “I know you love to bake, but fresh peaches alone are a treat, besides nothing will ever compare with the peach cobbler I ate almost 40 years ago in Colorado.” Then he launched in to a story of hiking with several college buddies in the Rocky Mountains when he was 20-something.

Their plane touched down in Denver amidst a slew of restaurants including an all-you-can-eat Denny’s buffet. As they drove into the foothills there were fewer and fewer McDonalds and rest stops with only a Coke machine. When they arrived at the remote crossroads where they would begin their weeklong hike, they found a filling station with no-name diner. This would be their last meal for a while.

He recalls being a little agitated since it took so long from the time they placed their order to being served. The diner did not have enough plates and needed to wait for other customers to finish eating and get them washed.

Dinner was great and before they turned from this last vestige of civilization, they ordered the peach cobbler. Homemade, fresh, peach cobbler. Imagine it.

Throughout their journey they had enough food. As experienced hikers, they knew to balance their expected hunger with the weight of the food they would carry.

Rob’s eyes smiled remembering this was the one time his group of friends, young 20ish spoke of what they wish they could have, it was not a cold beer or the all-you-can-eat buffet—it was peach cobbler.

They did not exist in scarcity: they were filled. They were not burdened by abundance: they experienced the freedom of enough, which opened them to the joy of desiring simple peach cobbler.

Perhaps you have your own story of a rustic cabin as well as strawberries? Or camping with the extravagance of s’mores? Traveling away from all the confines of our daily life allows us to experience the sense of being and having enough in ways that open us to being alive.

In the first century, when Roman rule was literally killing people and the people in Jesus’ village stifled his gifts of healing—because they refused to see or experience who he was—even Jesus chose to escape to the wilderness. Jesus’ trip to the wilderness was not a pleasure jaunt. He needed to experience God and not the limitations others foisted upon him.

Jesus was not the only one feeling suffocated. His disciples followed and crowds from the towns walked to catch up.

This is the only miracle story told in all four of our gospels—those who witnessed the miracle want us to know the truth.

Away from civilization, Jesus is again able to heal the sick. But as the day wanes and the people were naturally hungry, the disciples thought they were being responsible to both Jesus and the mass of people by telling Jesus to send the people away. Maybe they could find a village to buy their own food? As they saw things, there was nothing.

Of course, they saw five loaves and two fish, scraps, as “nothing” and certainly nothing to be shared. That has been their worldview. It is better to secure what you have and avoid those who may want to make a claim on it. The disciples felt this was not their problem; not just the people’s hunger, but the people themselves.

Jesus startled everyone with — “You give them something to eat!” As usual, Jesus is operating out of a different paradigm; he’s embodying God’s worldview. He was filled with compassion such that when he saw the five loaves and two fish, he saw possibilities. Jesus turns to God and blesses what they have and through the disciples they have enough.

Sometimes is not a lack of resources. More often, it is a lack of vision. Maybe a lack of faith? Too often we get caught up in counting fish, loaves, baskets and people, and wonder “how did that miracle happen?”

The miracle began as Jesus’ compassion opened the disciples’ eyes, who only cared about their own needs, to instead participate in feeding these 5,000 men, plus women and children. Jesus moved his disciples from seeing the people as problems to seeing all of them as people God loves.

The miracle was experiencing God’s mercy that ensures we have enough and reminds us that we are enough.

Enough is that elusive place between scarcity and abundance.

On the north shore of Chicago, it is rare to be hungry, or live in a home that is not safe, or not be able to secure medical care when we are sick or injured. By all measures, we live in abundance. I imagine your closets are still as full as mine and we just had a rummage sale.

So why do we feel anxious at times? Why does it take a wilderness experience in the Rocky Mountains or Jesus’ lakeside meal to restore a sense of enough?

The scarcity we feel is completely manufactured. Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and the Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir write in Scarcity, “while scarcity plays a starring role in many problems, abundance is what sets the stage.” Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is aware of what others have and what we lack.

Their research focused on debunking the myths that poverty was a result of lack of effort and those who were poor deserved to be so. They argue it is not foolish choices that keep someone poor; it’s that poverty’s effects on the mind lead to bad choices. Living with too little imposes huge psychic costs, reduces someone’s mental bandwidth and distorts decision making in ways that dig deeper into a bad situation. The stress that leads someone to secure a payday loan will also drive a successful broker to a risky trade.

Their research claims it is true in any condition of scarcity, not just lack of money. Chronically busy people, suffering from never enough time also make self-defeating choices, such as unproductive multi-tasking or neglecting family for work. These are the same people who also do not get enough sleep.

Lonely people, suffering from isolation, become hyper-focused on their loneliness, prompting behaviors that render it worse. To them, it seems everyone else has more friends or followers or dinner dates.

Then there is the combination of these two scarcities, time and relationships, which turns into FOMO—fear of missing out. People who suffer from FOMO are eternally connecting, committing, texting, Instagram-ing, but are not really present with anyone, most of all themselves or God.

For those trying to lose weight, an empty stomach may weaken resolves for healthy eating, but it will also make them irritable in other areas of life. The feeling of scarcity—of not having as much of something as you believe you need—is ubiquitous and agonizing.[1]

Somehow, we need to escape the dangers of focusing on the extremes, not enough or someone else’s too much, to get to this sense of enough.

In the place of enough, well-being, creativity, and innovation are at their peak. There is clarity of vision. Prudent risks are taken to grow and change. Threats can be anticipated. It takes resetting our vision and continually re-centering our values to appreciate the life we can have.

I know my writing is better when I am not pushed by a deadline. My thinking is clearer when I have a full night of rest. My entire being is improved after an escape from the city traffic to some form of wilderness—even if it is only Oz Park. I know that prayer and worship and Sabbath-keeping restore my sense of worth and wholeness.

Worship is the respite from all the “should be’s” and “not enough’s” we continually hear. Receiving God’s mercy in worship reminds us we are loved and valued by God. We are enough.

When I preached a couple of weeks ago about resilience I included what I called “a little Christian lie” of “God does not give us more than we can handle.” It is a lie, not part of scripture, and is toxic to our faith. All sorts of calamities may befall us at once, but not from God’s hand. This little lie has been offered too often under the guise of faith and yet can deeply hurt. This seemed to resonate with many of you who shared other little lies that hurt.

The Puritans etched into our nation psyche the ideal to be prudent and resourceful, a belief that if one works hard and honestly, one could expect to be rewarded. Described by Max Weber as the “Protestant Work Ethic,” the behavior was not so much treasuring possessions one accumulated, but thinking they were the evidence one was doing something right in God’s eyes. The unspoken flip side of this is, if you falter, you did not work hard enough and had probably not earned God’s favor.

This slides into what is not found in scripture—anywhere—of “God helps those who help themselves.” That is another little Christian lie. “God helps those who help themselves.” In this lie, we can deceive ourselves that what we have is a result of our efforts, alone, and not God-given talents or fortunate circumstances.

It gives us permission to be like the disciples and send those hungry people away…” don’t ask us to see them as anything more than a problem.” The lie is used on more than just hunger and might be said to ignore those who suffer from addiction or abuse or disabilities. It is whispered at times about those whose self-esteem is compromised when sincere compassion is what is needed, not condemnation.

It is a very slippery and dangerous slope to ignore or judge others by thinking they need to help themselves before anyone, including God, will help them.

This little lie also could lead someone to believe that if one is able to earn success; salvation too could be earned. If that were the case, who would need Jesus? Or for that matter, God?

What we saw in the miracle of Jesus feeding multitudes is that he helps all people. Jesus started by teaching the disciples to see the people with compassion, then to feed the people, and not run them off or shame them for their need. Jesus particularly helped those who could not help themselves.

I want to close with a story from poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Several years ago, she was at the Albuquerque airport at her gate when she learned her flight to El Paso had been delayed. Then she heard an announcement asking if anyone who was able to speak Arabic to please come to gate A-4. Since that was her gate, she didn’t think she had an excuse.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like her grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. The flight attendant asked, “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

Ms. Nye spoke to her in halting and rough Arabic, but clear enough that the woman stopped crying. She had thought the flight was cancelled and she needed to be in El Paso for a medical treatment.

With this Ms. Nye stayed with her as she called her son to let him know and spoke with him as well…in English. Then they called another of the women’s sons and then, since they had the time, Ms. Nye’s father who, to no surprise realized they shared several friends. By then they were laughing.

Naomi Nye writes,

(S)he then pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies— little powdered sugar mounds stuffed with dates and nuts— from her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single traveler declined one. It was like a sacrament.

Then the airline broke out free apple juice and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend…had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies.

She concludes with “This can still happen anywhere.” [2]

[1] Oliver Burkeman, “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir – review, Does being poor lead to bad choices?” The Guardian (August 23, 2013), Accessed July 27, 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/23/scarcity-sendhil-mullainathan-eldar-shafir.

[2] Naomi Shihab Nye, “Gate A-4”, Live and Learn by David Kanigan, (November 16, 2014), accessed August 3, 2017, https://davidkanigan.com/2014/11/16/gate-a-4/