August 23, 2012

A matter of perspective: Getting and giving


Text: John 6:6: “Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ ”

This is an old story, and one we are all familiar with. In fact this old story appears in all four gospels; the only other miracle story that appears in all four gospels is the story of the resurrection itself, so that tells you, if you needed to be told, that there is something pretty profound going on in this story about the feeding of the multitude that we are meant to pay attention to.

I’d go so far as to say that exactly because this old story is so familiar, it mostly glances right off us. We live at some risk of missing out on the possibility that the story will have any impact on us. Once we recognize the setup, we sort of shut down our ears. Or we only hear the story we think we know.

There are six version of this story: in each of the Gospels, and an additional version in Mark and Matthew. Those second versions don’t really add a great deal of substance; the only significant difference is in numbers, both the number of the people and the number of the fish. But that isn’t the reason the story is repeated. It’s repeated because the writers of the Gospels are trying to get our attention.

All of the feeding stories want to get across to us the same basic set of themes. Where Jesus is involved, people will have enough. The compassion of Jesus makes for an abundance of the things necessary for life, but not an excess. In this world we usually look out for ourselves, but in the kingdom we are meant to be building, the primary idea is that we look out for everyone, no matter who they are.

Those are the basic ideas. Whenever another of these feeding stories rolls around in the lectionary, it’s pretty safe to pick any of those themes to preach on. And you’ve almost certainly heard one of those sermons, or maybe more, and maybe even from me.

But what really is worth paying attention to in these different tellings of the same old story is the differences between them. Because it’s in the differences that you begin to see a little bit of the unique take each gospel writer brings to the basic material. It’s like studying different sorts of ceramic wear. The clay is always pretty much just dirt, but the form, the finish, the purpose of each pot can be a little different.

Those differences between the stories can tell us something about the way each writer is trying to communicate another very basic message carried in this old story. That message is an answer to a central question: Who is Jesus, anyway? What is this man all about? Is he a ... crank? Is he a teacher? Is he a prophet? Is he some kind of revolutionary? Is he... well, what exactly is he, anyway?

This morning we have John’s take on the old story, and the take John has on this old story is one that gives us a very characteristic portrait of Jesus.

John’s Jesus is always in command of every situation he confronts. Jesus is triumphant and confident from the beginning to the end of John’s gospel, even giving family advice from the cross.

This is not Mark’s Jesus, who seems to be figuring out for himself who he is pretty much all the way through the story. This is not Matthew’s Jesus, who sounds almost like a rabbi most of the time, quoting scripture and interpreting it in the next breath.

Practically from the beginning, John’s gospel gives us a picture of a man who must be somehow divine in order for the rest of the story to make sense. Jesus is so capable, so wise, so prescient, that we are constantly being pointed toward the conclusion of just who he must be in order for the story to make sense.

John treats the feeding of the multitude story in much the same way. From the beginning it’s going to be not just a story about God’s abundance and the different way the kingdom of God works. This time it’s also going to be a story about the difference in perspective between Jesus and his disciples—and by extension, Jesus and us.

The clue is in the way the story opens. First, John says that this is all happening near the time of Passover. In all of the versions of this story, John is the only writer to make this little observation. And we can make one observation about that right away: Passover is a time when people gather for a shared meal.

The text says that when Jesus is aware of the great crowd that has gathered after him, he asks one of the disciples, specifically Philip, “Where are we going to buy bread for these people to eat?” And then immediately there’s a little footnote from John: “He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.”

So here’s a pretty big difference in John’s telling of this story: It’s a setup. In language of our own day, it’s going to be a “teachable moment.” The question Jesus has asked is a test, and poor Philip takes the bait hook, line, and sinker.

Because this is what he says: “Six months’ wages would not be enough bread for each of them to get a little.” We would have to get a lot more money to buy enough bread for all of these people. We don’t have what we need to do what you want us to do.

Of course we know how the story ends. Jesus takes the loaves, says grace, and gives what they started with to the people in the crowd, and the fish in the same way; and everyone gets something to eat.

Philip, and probably most of us, see the problem and begins from the position of wondering what it is he has to get to solve the problem. Now it has to be said that Jesus sort of leads poor Philip a little bit down the garden path in approaching the problem this way. Like John tells us, with a pretty broad wink, Jesus asks him—where are we going to buy enough bread?

The thing is, they already have bread. But Philip is forgetting that. He sees the crowd and can’t escape the trap of thinking about what he doesn’t have. He doesn’t have any money to buy bread. And he can’t get bread unless he can get money. He begins from what he needs to get in order to help; and that’s pretty much where his help ends.

But Jesus approaches the problem from a very different position. He begins from the position of what they already have that they can give. They already have bread. It may not be enough; but it surely won’t be enough if they aren’t willing to share it. So, they’ll start by giving what they can.

John’s way of telling this old story of feeding the multitude is meant to teach us something about how followers of Jesus are supposed to discipline their perspectives. If you start from the position of what you have to get in order to solve a problem, you are missing the whole point. Because when you start by asking what you have to get, you are going to start by thinking about what you lack.

Jesus, by contrast, starts by thinking about what he can give. This is the test that John is hinting at. Do we start our thinking about the needs around us by estimating the distance between the cost of the solution and the limit of what we already have? Or do we start by thinking about what we already have that we could apply to the problem?

Not a week goes by that we are not made aware of the crowd that is following us looking to us in hope. It’s the people living on the street in Boston Common or Harvard Square, it’s the children made orphans by the plight of aids in Africa, it’s the victims of forest fires or floods or hurricanes or earthquakes, is the billion or so people on the planet who live trapped in the grinding cycle of poverty.

I don’t know about you, but whenever that crowd of human need starts catching up with me, I usually end up thinking something like: If only I could win a Powerball draw, then I could really do something to help. If only I’d gone to business school instead of divinity school, I’d be earning enough to really help. If only I’d gone into the for-profit world, instead of the non-profit world...

Well, you get the picture. The problem is, all of that is really effective at helping me avoid starting from where I should start: what do I already have that I could give? What bread do I have that I could bless and break and give away?

If you start from the position of asking what you need to get before you can help, you begin by thinking in terms of what you lack. But if you start from the position of what you can give of what you have, then you already have power to build a little bit more of the kingdom right here and right now.

That is the perspective of the person who already knows they have the power to help. That is the perspective of one who knows themselves to be the means by which God’s purpose is worked out here in this world. That is the perspective of a disciple. Amen.