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I don’t know about you, but whenever I to get to this point in the year, the halfway point of summer, I start to panic. To be precise, it was Monday of this week when I realized it was the last day in the month of July that the panic started to set in. It came with a rush of thoughts about there never seeming to be enough time in the summer, time for household projects, time for rest, time for making plans for the year to come both at work and at home, time for visiting with friends and family, time for sitting in the backyard and enjoying the warmer weather, time for taking advantage of all the theatre and festivals and concerts available to us at this time of year. So when I started to feel that old familiar feeling this week, I decided to sit down, take out my journal and record all the things I did in July. As I did that, I was surprised not only at how many great things I did in July but also at how looking back at them brought forth feelings of gratitude within me. It wasn’t long before I convinced myself that if July had been so abundantly and satisfyingly full, it’s possible I could get to the end of this month and feel like it had been enough.
Today’s scripture reading in which Jesus takes what is clearly not enough, 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes and serves them to over 5,000 people is the only miracle story in the Bible that is found in all four Gospels. But only Matthew and Mark set their versions of the story immediately after Jesus has heard the news that King Herod has beheaded John the Baptist. You may recall that John was the one who baptized Jesus in the river Jordan. He sets the stage for Jesus’ ministry and he’s also a close relative to him.
In response to this news about John’s violent death, Jesus withdraws to a deserted place presumably to grieve and be alone with his thoughts or maybe to get away from the dangerous political situation brewing around him. But solitude eludes him. Before long, he finds himself surrounded by crowds of people who have also heard this news. As I envision this scene I think of the way that when we hear tragic news, especially news that impacts us personally, some of us need to pull back and isolate but the majority of people need company.
So here is Jesus, needing a rest, wanting some time for quiet reflection and there is no quiet to be had. The crowds are pressing in on him. The needs they have are many. And when Jesus sees them he doesn’t send them away saying he has nothing left to give, he has compassion for them. Who knows, perhaps when he sees their grief and their distress he feels less isolated in his own grief and distress. He knows that they too are hungry for justice in their land. He knows they bear the scars of deep personal wounds. He knows they need the love of neighbour and the care of friendship about which he has preached to them and so he gives himself over to tending them.
But by the end of the day, after healing the sick and binding up the broken hearted, his disciples are ready to send the people away so they can get themselves something to eat. They were probably ready to try and regain some of that solitary time for themselves. I would be if I were them. So it’s understandable that when Jesus turned to them and said “there’s no need to send them away, you give them something to eat” their immediate response was “but we don’t have enough.” Maybe when they said “we don’t have enough” they weren’t just talking about food.
I have often thought that the myth of scarcity is a contemporary phenomenon. We live in a world in which we are constantly being bombarded with advertising trying to sell us the one more thing we need in order to have it all. The problem being, of course, that once we acquire that one more thing, something else we “need” comes along or what we have is no longer in style. We’re surrounded with stories and images of people and places that suggest to us that what we have and who we are is insufficient. It’s remarkable how often we tell ourselves those stories and images are true. There is so much political and environmental unrest brewing around us that it often feels like we will never have what it takes to overcome it. There will never be enough tears to shed to fully grieve what we have lost and what we are losing.
So I’m struck by the way this theme of inadequacy seems to be at the heart of the ancient story we have before us today. My hunch is that back in the day this story was told primarily to address the economic disparity that left some people literally without enough food to eat. But I’m sure this miracle story also struck a chord with those who felt like they weren’t enough because that’s the message the culture around them delivered to them in some very harsh ways. And I’m sure it strengthened those who worked tirelessly for justice in their land in the face of what seemed like insurmountable opposition.
But what’s most compelling to me about this pretty simple story are the two ways inadequacy and insufficiency are overcome.
The first way is made known when Jesus takes the 2 fishes and 5 loaves and lifts them up to heaven and blesses them. He gives thanks for what is clearly not enough.
The practice of giving thanks is so simple and yet it can completely change our perspective on life. It’s pretty easy to give thanks when our abundance is evident. So a good way to begin any gratitude practice is by giving thanks for those things that we are truly grateful for. It’s quite another thing to give thanks for what is not enough and even to give thanks for what we might not actually be grateful for.
This week when I wasn’t feeling at all grateful for the fact that summer is half way over and I was starting to despair, giving thanks for what I was grateful for, led me to be grateful for what didn’t seem like it was enough. When I looked at the first half of the summer through the lens of gratitude, I suddenly realized that there’s actually another whole half of summer to enjoy and I was reminded of God’s gracious provision for my life, especially when it seems like there is precious little of it to enjoy. Being grateful changes our perspective. It makes what is clearly not enough, enough.
The second way inadequacy is overcome in the story of the fishes and the loves is through the gathered community. When the community gathers and offers up what it has, there is not just enough, there is more than enough.
After we sent out this week’s e-news including the scripture reading for today, I received the following email from Peter Muirhead: The loaves and fishes story lesson for me is; “step up and do something, others will do the same” — it works every time we have a congregational lunch. Everyone steps up without anyone asking.
The breaking and sharing of bread with another, communion, is all about common union. It is about sharing what we have in common. Physically sharing what we have in common is vitally important if everyone is going to have enough to eat. Its vitally important when we have big projects to complete that we all pitch in.
But sharing who we are and what we possess spiritually with one another is also important. It’s where the fish in the story come in if we think about the fish as a symbol of our faith.
You’ll recall that when the crowds pressed in on Jesus he had compassion for them. His compassion might have been the most important thing he shared with them that day. It’s been said that compassion is the fullest expression of the spiritual life. Compassion expresses our understanding of our interconnection with one another and with all creation, our common union.
When we live out of compassion we live out of our highest calling which some say is to absorb human pain and create opportunities for the relief of that pain.
I find this relationship between inadequacy and compassion interesting because I often think we grasp for more and more in life to dull or hide our pain whether it be material possessions, time or experiences. We call this experiential avoidance and it can leave us feeling very empty.
But sharing our experiences with one another and truly caring for one another especially through the most difficult and painful times in our lives connects us and has the capacity to fill us up to overflowing. It’s when we are being the Body of Christ, broken and shared for one another.
So, let us not despair, the days of summer before us are long and full of possibility. We have one another to share the load and our faith to feed and sustain us and to keep us strong.