The Economics of Grace

22 years ago when I moved to New York, I was fulfilling a dream.  The city was not quite so glamorous back then.  It still had some of its grit and even more of its noise.  But I used to say that the grit of New York actually scrubbed me clean.  Back in those days I couldn’t understand anyone who complained that the city was too crowded, too noisy, too chaotic.  It was those very qualities that represented my own escape from the quiet conformity of small thinking.  But more than two decades have passed now.  I have changed and definitely gotten older.  And all those things that once attracted me – well, for the most part, they have lost at least part of their appeal.  I have my days when all I want to do is escape the chaos.  And on those days, there is no sweeter sound than the clicking of the deadbolts on the front door, locking me in and the world out. 


A few summers ago I gave myself the assignment to find some of New York’s quieter places.  My first destination was Inwood Hill Park, up at the very top of the island.  It’s the last piece of virgin forest left in Manhattan and is the site where Peter Minuit bought Manhattan from the Native Americans.  It’s still wild there and oh so very quiet - so quiet that it made me rather nervous at first.  But after a few moments, the forest cast me in its spell and I was enchanted with the greenish light filtering through the trees, the singing birds and, wonder of wonders, the wild raspberry bushes.  I was still in the city, but it might as well have been the forests of my childhood. 


Peace and quiet are essential for us humans - like water and food and sleep.  And over the years, as I have read through the Gospels again and again, it is interesting to me that our Lord Jesus had the same need for quiet.  And so, he would climb into the mountains alone or sail the Sea of Galilee, or wander off to the deserted place called the Wilderness.  And he would live into the stillness, in prayer and meditation, until he regained his equilibrium.   


Today’s Gospel lesson tells us of one of those times.  In the verses that precede our reading today, Jesus and his disciples have received word that John the Baptist had been beheaded by King Herod.  John was Jesus’ cousin.  So when word reached Jesus, he no doubt reacted like any of us do when we hear of the untimely death of someone we love.  First there is shock, followed by sorrow and questions and emptiness.  Jesus had lost a cousin.  The disciples had lost an inspiration.  And it could not have been very far from any of their minds that the same political forces that murdered John wanted to murder them.  And so their grief was mingled with fear.


They all needed to breathe, so Jesus and his disciples got into a boat and headed off to a deserted place to regroup.  The crowd, however, got wind of Jesus’ plan and so they followed him, along the lakeshore, to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  Now imagine you have just escaped the pressing crowd.  You have enjoyed a tranquil, quiet passage across the lake.  You are looking forward to some down-time.  But when you arrive, for as far as you can see, there are hungry and needy people – the same ones you just left. 


When Jesus saw them, Matthew reports that he felt compassion for them and healed the sick.  Some commentators make a lot of this, declaring rather piously that of course Jesus healed the sick.  He was the Son of God after all.  But I imagine that Jesus might have felt some of what we feel when we are overwhelmed by our duties.  Perhaps he was frustrated that he had no time for himself.  Perhaps he even resented these folks who seemingly had no respect for his boundaries.  In any event, Jesus did minister to the crowd until the evening came.  And the disciples, tired and cranky, asked Jesus to send the people away so that they could go into the nearest village and buy something to eat.  Now that seems like a reasonable request to me.  After all they’d been at it all day.  But Jesus replied: “These people don’t need to go anywhere.  You give them something to eat.”  In the Greek, it’s actually stronger than that: “you yourselves, give them something to eat.”  To which the disciples replied:  “We would if we had anything.  But all we’ve got is five loaves and two fish.”  This was known as a “plowman’s lunch.”  Barley bread and pickled fish was the staple of the poor.  And what they had was meant to feed one or two.  But there were more than 5000 people there that day.  I can just hear their exhausted grumbling: “You yourselves give them something to eat?  Is he out of his mind?” 


Jesus told the hungry, tired people to sit down on the grass.  And then he took this simple food, looked up to heaven, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples to give to the people.  And as they served it, the most amazing thing happened.  Somehow there was enough for everyone.  In fact, there was so much that they collected 12 baskets of leftovers.  Maybe they ate it the next day for breakfast, like cold pizza.


There is much that could be said and has been said about this miracle story.  Did it really happen as recorded?  Is it a symbolic tale meant to teach us a greater truth?  What are we to make of such a story in our world where millions go to bed hungry every day?  Why doesn’t God multiply food anymore for the starving peoples of the world?  These are good questions, interesting theological discussions.  But they are not the main point.  In fact, the miracle itself rarely is.  Instead, the point of this story is the command of Jesus: “You yourselves give them something to eat.”


I don’t like that very much.  New York is an especially hard place to live out that command.  You can’t walk more than a couple of blocks without hunger being in your face.  Now on a really good day, I sometimes slow down and drop change into the hand of a beggar.  If I’m in a really good mood, I might actually take the time to exchange a word or two with the person.  I might even smile.  But Jesus and the disciples were not having a good day.  They were tired and grieving John’s murder and were afraid.  The disciples wanted to send that need away; out of sight, out of mind.  But Jesus insisted: “You yourselves give them something to eat.”  Do it in spite of being tired.  Do it in spite of your grief.  Do it in spite of your fear.  Meet the need face-to-face, hand to hand, heart to heart.   


That’s what Jesus was always doing.  But just as important as what he did, pay attention to what Jesus did not do.  He didn’t heal every sick person in Palestine.  He didn’t feed all the hungry in Galilee.  He didn’t raise every dead person within a fifty-mile radius.  What he did was take what he had and give away.  He practiced a face-to-face ministry.  He made direct human connections.  And those connections changed people’s lives.


My grandmother used to tell a story about her younger days.  She had four children and they were rabble-rousers, often in trouble, forever a worry.  And she worried and she prayed and she worried.  She was focused on the well being of her own children, obsessed with it, really.  One day, she said, while praying for her children, a voice in her mind said: “Go out and work with someone else’s children.”  Now this was a real challenge to her because she was sure she had nothing left to give.  But my grandmother believed that voice was the voice of God and so she went to the local park commission and volunteered for an after school program for the poor.  She provided for other children what she wanted for her own.  --And her own kids, well, they turned out fine, even if two of them did become preachers.  And if my grandmother could stand in this pulpit, and oh how she would have loved that, she would tell you that in her obedience to serve those needs that were right in front of her face, with what she had, that she was lifted out of her own obsessive misery and saw the glory of God.


The Spirit never asks us for what we don’t have.  She only asks for what we do have.  And the Spirit takes our meager resources, our plowman's lunches; and in the economy of grace, divides and multiples whatever we offer until there is an abundance.  And if that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.


Thanks be to God.  Amen.