Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
I can remember a friend telling me about his grandma’s habit of ferreting away small bits of food throughout the house. As a child in the Great Depression, she had known what it was to go without, to make do with very little, to value how precious and rare food could be to come by. So that even as an adult who had enough to keep her cabinets stocked and buy groceries, she was something of a jealous hoarder of food. Even 70, 80 years later, still that worry about having enough persisted, unshakable. Often what we learn as children sets habits that can be hard to break. My friend recalls finding little paper napkin bundles around grandma’s house with little bits of food wrapped up. Half a muffin, a couple of crackers, a can of tuna. They would be in cabinets, but also tucked in drawers, hidden in the nooks of book shelves. Every now and then it would be something spoiled. Fear of scarcity is strong.
Even those of us who have never known the type of scarcity endured during the Great Depression, we are not immune. And maybe it is not food, but clothes, money, time, love, justice. What if there is not enough? We’d better make sure we have ours. Look out for number one, as they say.
It is the same incredulous fear that the disciples experience here. We know the disciples fear. It is our own fear. There simply is not enough.
This is a fear used to great effect by advertisers—“limited time offer,” “while supplies last!”—by politicians—“immigrants will steal your jobs!”—and by those who would divide humanity into cross-sections and forestall justice. We have seen this done over and over: pit women suffragists against black enfranchisement activists, pit the queer community against communities of color, immigrants against black people. As if rights and equity exist only in limited quantity.
Jesus, we only have here five loaves and two fish. What’s that among 5000+? (Also: how did they know they get such a specific head count of just the men? 5000 men, besides women and children). At any rate, it was perhaps a five digit number of people. Half a loaf per 1000. Here is a place of scarcity, they are saying.
Then Jesus says: “Bring them here to me.” No one will be turned away or told to go home. Instead, He gives thanks, the disciples go around giving out what there is, and somehow this is enough. Wondrously, against all the odds of what we are trained to believe. Against the laws of mathematics or physics. Give thanks for what we have, share it, and that is enough.
No, that is beyond enough. God makes with what we have, what we give an unfathomable abundance more that we thought possible.
In the Midrash—ancient teachings which interpret and elaborate on the scriptures—there is an interpretation of this miracle which posits that what happened was as the food was shared, each person present brought out their own small rations, got out their snack or lunch, and added it to the whole. Thus the twelve baskets of leftovers.
I once shared this interpretation with a more evangelical friend who was surprised to hear it. “What’s the point then? Why believe be a Christian if you can’t believe that Jesus can make miracles happen? Why look for a way to rationalize it away?”
The real truth lies in the fact that these two explanations are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think they reinforce one another and offer us a beautiful means of understanding God at work in us and with us. “In us” as the generosity of Jesus shows us what it means to give, shows us what gratitude and solidarity with those in need looks like. It provokes us—in the best sense of that word—to be generous and grateful and in solidarity. And it is God working “with us” to take our acts of generosity, gratitude, and solidarity and multiply their effect, to bring about more than enough out of what seems like way too little.
I think about the FREC conference which just wrapped up this weekend. (Amazing experience, by the way!) It started as an idea, a pulling together to see what could be made out of the resources at hand. Planned to be hosted here, but ended up having to move to a bigger space. And now in its 11th year, hundreds of people from all over Minnesota attend, and others tune in via livestream from Bemidji and Rochester to talk about white supremacy, how we disrupt and resist it. Baskets of leftovers.
So too with our giving. As we continue this week asking you to consider your pledge to Cherokee Park for 2020, it is tempting to think: what I have to give is not enough. It will not cover all that is needed. We can lean into that way of thinking like the disciples. This is all there is: how will that suffice for the greatness of all the needs.
We see in this story what happens when we give Jesus a chance, when we dare to believe that yes, whatever we have to contribute will be enough when it is done in gratitude, when it is joined with the gifts of others. We over-ride our scarcity mentality and say yes, I will trust that miraculous abundance is possible.
When I was 16, I lived for two and a half months in rural Bolivia doing asset based community development. To be honest, I had very little grasp on what that meant. We were way out in the country. It was an hour and a half to two hours walk to the nearest paved road, and no one in the village had cars. There was no where to go to get food, not fast food. Closest thing was a little tiendita that had prepackaged cookies, chips, and soap. That was it. We would work with the people in the town to develop some goals for our time there, and see what we could do over the course of the summer. Part of the arrangement was that we—my two partners and I—slept in the school and each day, a different family in the village would feed us. None of the families could feed three extra mouths for 75 days straight, but each could do one day. There was no technology, phones, nothing. So everyday, we would get up in the morning and wait until someone from the family who was hosting us that day would come to the school to get us for breakfast. The generosity laid bare the lie that there is not enough. I will never forget the hospitality and how the village pulled together to make much out of little.
Jesus tells us: “the place of abundance is here.” The lie of scarcity is a force for division, suspicion of others, tight-fistedness. Keep everything close. Instead Jesus shows a different way. The way of seeing what there is and giving thanks, rather than lamenting or panicking. Then using what there is to feed and sustain and support all those who come to us, sharing what there is and finding out that the miracle is true and worth repeating: there is enough to go around, for all to have their fill and more still beyond, baskets upon baskets of blessing.