Trinity 8: Transformation and generosity
Today’s gospel is another story of transformation. We move from a situation where well over 5,000 people are gathered with no food except for 5 loaves of bread and two fish, to a situation where all are fed and satisfied and there are 12 baskets of scraps left over. How does that happen? Well, it’s a miracle, we say. One of Jesus’s many miracles. But things have to happen in order for that miracle to take place. We might remember that there were times and places where Jesus couldn’t do any miracles because of the lack of faith or hardness of heart in the people he encountered.
Here, Jesus’s followers are integral to the story, the miracle. So, as Jesus’s followers ourselves, it’s worth us taking particular note.
First, the disciples recognise a pressing need and care about it. The crowd of men, women and children had walked miles from the towns and along the lakeside to find and be with Jesus. There’s no indication that he taught them on this occasion. Rather he had compassion on them and cured those who were sick. But it’s getting late and the disciples clearly recognise that the gathered throng must be getting hungry. And they care enough to go and say something to Jesus. Indeed they go to Jesus with a suggestion as to what he might do.
Spending time with Jesus means that we not only learn to see the needs around us and acknowledge them, but we want to do something about them. We care enough and are concerned about their well-being enough to want to help meet their needs. The disciples in this case, think they have the answer. They think that Jesus should encourage the crowd to go now and get some food to feed themselves and their families. It’s a kind thing to do. They will listen to Jesus. And if they go now, they’ll get home before dark.
The needs around us in the gathered communities of our parishes are immense and are going to get worse. The impact of the virus on the lives of countless people in this country is horrific and desperate. We’re hearing about it all the time in the news bulletins, and the statistics are there for all to see. As disciples of Jesus, we’re invited to see it all through his eyes of compassion; to care for the people behind the stories and to long to reach out to meet their needs. But the needs can feel too great for us to respond to. Overwhelming, indeed. Because, of course they are. They were there even before we went into lockdown. The last four months have only compounded them exponentially.
And so, as always when tragedy strikes and needs are identified, we bring them to Jesus. We bring them in our prayers, day by day, Sunday by Sunday. Looking to him to do something, even if it’s just to hold them in his love and mercy.
But in our gospel story, Jesus turns it back on his disciples. ‘You do something’, he says. ‘You give them something to eat’. And here is the heart of the miracle. For they reply, ‘We have nothing here but... We have nothing here but 5 loaves and 2 fish’. Laughable. Pitiful. Hardly enough for themselves let alone such a crowd. They consider it to be nothing in the face of such need, but, they hand it over to Jesus nonetheless.
It’s tempting to feel paralysed in the face of acute need. What on earth can we possibly do in the face of such a level of homelessness, such a degree of poverty and worklessness, such levels of mental illness, stress and depression. We have nothing to give that will begin to scratch the surface. The scale is immense. And we might find ourselves closing our eyes and our minds to it all because it feels too difficult. Like the people we pass sleeping rough in shop doorways or begging in the streets.
It’s also tempting to keep what we have for ourselves. The disciples too would have been hungry. It could well have crossed their minds not to mention their own meagre rations but to keep it for later when the crowds had gone and they could enjoy what little they had together. After all, what good is it going to do? What difference is it going to make? Why bother even mentioning it?
Selfishness lies not very far below the surface of the human condition. We’ve seen countless examples of that too over the past four months. Yes, we’ve clapped the NHS, and applauded Captain Tom and done all manner of other community spirited things that have brought people together. All very good. But when it’s come to food we’ve seen a different story: fights in supermarket aisles over goods and produce; people buying up far more than they need, just in case; nurses weeping in despair at the shelves completely empty after an exhausting shift looking after desperately ill patients.
Jesus invites us into generosity, into giving to him what we have. Not holding anything back, just in case. Not looking after our own needs and wants first and then giving what’s left over. But offering to him all that we have; however small it may seem; however insignificant it appears to be; however much we might think we need to hold on to it for ourselves. ‘Bring it here to me’, he says. Only then can he work the miracle. Only when we give him what we have that he can transform it and use it in remarkable ways. Because he wants us to work with him: to be part of the miracle.
The five loaves and two fish were transformed in the hands of Jesus and then given back to the disciples who then gave them to the crowds. When we give what we have to Jesus, we don’t end up with nothing or less than we had. We end up with more, extravagantly more, to share with others. In that way, all are fed, not just us. And all are fed so generously that there’s more left over than there was to start with.
As congregations, no less than as individuals, Jesus invites us to give to him what we have. To offer it up rather than keep it for ourselves and to be prepared to give it away so that Jesus can bless and transform it. Then we will see the miracle and all, including ourselves, will know our needs met, and more than abundantly.