“If we only had a wheelbarrow…”

princessbrideThe situation looks hopeless. The odds are twenty to one against, and one-third of their party has just been revived after being mostly dead all day. Westley, Inigo, and Fezzek peer furtively at the newly improved defenses of the castle gate. They have only Westley’s brain, Inigo’s steel, and Fezzek’s strength against 60 men. “If I had a month to plan I might come up with something,” says Westley. Then, half to himself, “If  we only had a wheelbarrow, that would be something.” It turns out, upon second thought, they do have a wheelbarrow; and, upon third thought, a fire-resistant cloak. With this rather odd pairing of materials, they break into the castle, save the princess, steal the prince’s beautiful horses, and make a daring escape. On the walltop over looking the castle, the three heroes make their plan. Here’s the progression as I see it: they state the problem (breaking into a castle guarded by sixty men); they say what they do not have (a month to plan); they re-examine their assets (a cloak and a wheelbarrow); they overcome the problem even though their assets are meager.*

A similar progression, with an all-important extra step, happens when Jesus feeds the five thousand people (as told in Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to John). A large crowd is following Jesus because they like a good spectacle. Jesus has just healed the man at the pool of Bethzatha, so the crowd knows they won’t be disappointed. Jesus goes up the mountain with his disciples and looks down, surveying the vast multitude spread out below him. They could ignore the crowd, and, judging by Philip’s response to Jesus’ question the disciples probably wanted to. But Jesus does not give them that option. Instead, he states the problem: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip (characteristically for this Gospel) answers a different question than the one Jesus asks. He says what they do not have: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Then Andrew re-examines their assets: a little boy has five barley loaves and two fish. Notice how wildly inadequate this amount of food is for so many; I bet Andrew felt foolish even bringing it up.

But Jesus seems to think this very foolishness is just the sort of thing needed to solve such an intractable problem. So he takes the loaves and fish and then adds the all-important extra step in the progression. He gives thanks. He gives thanks even though he has a loaf per thousand people. He gives thanks even though the situation seems impossible. He does not let the apparent meagerness of his resources dictate whether or not he offers thanks to God. He gives thanks, and the crowd eats, and the disciples gather up twelve full baskets. The crowd is looking for a spectacle and they get such a grand one that they try to take Jesus and make him king.

Let’s take another look at the giving thanks. The special word for The Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion is “Eucharist.” (N.B. “Eucharist” comprehends the entire Sunday worship experience, but we are focusing here on the second half, the meal.) When we worship God by sharing this meal, we pray to Christ to somehow enter the bread and wine. Then we break the bread and share the cup, thus sharing Christ with each other. And our eyes are opened to the reality that the love of Christ is inside us and is made known in the sharing of community and love with each other.

The fancy word “Eucharist” is a much less fancy word if you happen to be both from Asia Minor and two thousand years old. This strange looking word simply means “to give thanks.” So, when we come together to share the meal, we are coming together to give thanks to God for all the blessings God has bestowed upon us. The fact that this intentional thanksgiving happens in a community reminds us that we must share our blessings just as we share the body and blood of Christ. And it is the very dwelling of Christ in us and we in him that sustains us as we share with others.

When I give thanks to God for the blessings and gifts God has given me, I must remember that thanksgiving is the catalyst for sharing. If I do not share my gifts with others, then I have not truly thanked God for them. Let me say that again, make it plural, and italicize it so you don’t miss it: If we do not share our gifts with others, then we have not truly thanked God for them

Sometimes, these gifts may seem meager or inadequate. But those are the times we must remember that Christ is there with us, giving thanks for us, and breaking us so he can share himself through us.


* The Princess Bride (1987); dir. Rob Reiner. Watch this film ASAP if you’ve never seen it. In fact, just go home right now and watch it. I’ll lend you my DVD.

Sally has six tangerines

(Sermon for August 3, 2008 || Proper 13, Year A RCL || Matthew 14:13-21)

“We have nothing here.”

This is the disciples response to Jesus’ preposterous notion that they might possibly find enough food to feed all these people—five thousand men plus countless women and children. They followed Jesus here to this desert to be near him, to feel his compassion and his healing touch. They followed Jesus here and now the evening has come and the crowd is restless, hungry, pressing in. The place is deserted: there’s no vendor anywhere. The hour is late: there’s no time to search. The crowd is massive: there’s no food anyway, not even for the disciples.

“We have nothing here.”

The disciples rummage in empty rucksacks, hoping that a further perfunctory exploration of their food stores will mollify Jesus. “They need not go away,” he had said. “You give them something to eat,” he had said. But they aren’t expecting us to feed them; we’re under no obligation. Furthermore, we can’t give what we don’t have! And…

“We have nothing here!”

To punctuate their point, they turn over the last rucksack and shake it… “Oh, except for a few loaves and a couple fish.” They count them: five squashed loaves, two dry fish. They trace figures in the air—so that’s one loaf per thousand men and two-fifths of a fish. They raise doubtful eyebrows when Jesus asks them to bring him these pitiful scrapings from the bottom of that last rucksack. They start chuckling, but their laughter dies when they look at Jesus’ face. They’ve seen that look before. They know what it means. They bring him the loaves. They bring him the fish. And they wait, incredulous but expectant.

“We have nothing here.” The world suffocates us with this lie so often that we forget we ever knew how to breathe. You will have no friends until you wear this catalogue. You will have no transportation until you drive this luxury car. You will have no romance until you purchase this diamond. You will have no beauty until after your gastric bypass.

“We have nothing here.” Suffocation leads to apathy and apathy leads to hopelessness. And hopelessness drives away from us any thought that we can participate in changing the world.

“We have nothing here.” These are hopeless words, empty words, words incapable of carrying promise or releasing imagination. These words stifle creativity and leave no space for the deep breath of blessing.

But Jesus invites us to take this deep breath with him when he says: “Bring them here to me.” The disciples take him the measly offering: five loaves and two fish. With no thought about how comically small an amount of food this meal is, Jesus looks up to heaven and blesses the offering. Then he breaks the bread and cuts up the fish. He hands the blessed food to his disciples, and they give it the crowds. And they keep giving away the food and giving it away and giving it away. All the people have their fill, and the disciples gather up quite a bit more than they began with.

This is, of course, not how math usually works. Math usually works like this: Sally has six tangerines. She gives Joe two of her tangerines. How many tangerines does Sally have? Four. Right. But the counterintuitive nature of Jesus’ blessing learned a different kind of math. Sally has six blessings. She gives Joe six of her blessings. How many blessings do Joe and Sally have? 12? 36? I’m unsure of the exact equation, but the mathematics of Jesus’ blessing always add and multiply; they never subtract or divide.

When Jesus offers blessing, say, in the form of bread broken and shared, Jesus offers himself. When we take him in, Jesus nourishes us with his blessing so we can bring that blessing to others. When we sing, we can lift our voices in one great song. When we tear down our walls, we can share our lives with one another. When we serve God in the world, we can demonstrate that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. And blessing will spread and grow and multiply. When we share Jesus’ blessing in the form of our gifts and talents, we participate in Jesus’ divine math and discover that Jesus never exhausts his blessing.

The disciples fail this math lesson when they say, “We have nothing here,” because they do, in fact, have something! They have five loaves and two fish, which is seven more than nothing. In Jesus’ day, seven was a number of perfection, a number that signaled completion. So, the disciples miss another math class: 5+ 2 = Completion. They had the exact amount they needed, once Jesus’ blessing got hold of the food. But the disciples were too busy worrying about the nothing they thought they had to notice the something they had.

We have something here.

We have five loaves and two fish. Sure, they are a bit squashed and bit a dry. But we have them. Jesus, what can you do with them? You can bless them and break them and share them, and your nourishing sustenance can overflow through this deserted place.

We have something here.

We have a group of people who have come together to praise your name, O LORD, and to share in your blessing. They are fewer than, perhaps than there has been in years past, but they are here. Jesus, what can you do with them? Your blessing flows into and out of our hearts. Your gifts inspire us and your love moves us to serve in your name. And your nourishing sustenance overflows through this gathering.

We have something here.

We have all the good gifts Christ has given us. We have the grace and the energy to use those gifts to serve God in this world, this world that tries to suffocate us with the lie that we have nothing. But this lie vanishes when we take that deep breath of blessing, which comes from the Spirit of Christ. Christ blesses us in the breaking of the bread, and when we share that blessing it spreads and grows and multiplies. Thanks be to the God who blesses us to be blessings in the world.

We have something here.