We came back to church services, until we had to backpeddle a bit. We had baseball again, until the players started falling ill. We are planning for a safe return to school – stay tuned. It’s not easy to keep up.
I read an interesting article this week about why so many of our neighbors – and maybe even we – are ornery. We are weary, frightened, stunned by negativity. Have you reached the point when you feel as if there’s nothing left? Perhaps murmuring I just can’t even. Sometimes this is literal, such as when we have gone through the fresh groceries and have to figure out how to make supper from the pantry. Sometimes it is metaphorical, when the stress of kids or work is grinding on that last nerve which is not numb from exhaustion.
We are all mostly overwhelmed.
This may be the context for today’s gospel. It is not obvious that the story unfolds in a context of sadness and loss. In the first verses of this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has just heard of the murder of his cousin John the Baptist, and he has withdrawn to the quiet place to process his grief. When Jesus returns to perform healings – not because he feels all better but because there is work he needs to do – the disciples are anxious, because they are certain that they do not have the resources to feed the crowd, as Jesus asks. How are we supposed to make dinner with five loaves and two fish? Jesus uses what they have already to feed thousands of people (“not counting women and children.”)
The feeding is not only a much-needed meal from what is on hand: it is also an encounter with the Christ, the Messiah, who changes everything for the people who follow him, bringing abundance out of paucity.
What does this teach us today? My thought is that faith can sustain us when we are overwhelmed. We need look in our spiritual pantries to find the soul-sustaining material that God brings into human life.
The scripture consistently teaches us that transformation occurs in the context of real life. These stories are not all about sparkling visions in ethereal places. Frequently they are stories of change during struggle. The Gospels in particular teach us that God is willing to nourish us in the middle of our messy life and make something good come of it. This is not God helps those who help themselves. This is the Almighty asking us for the raw material, inviting us to creative collaboration, saying work with me here.
The scripture teaches us that even in the complication of our life, God is always working.
We want to cry out that this is hard. Yes, it is. And like baseball, If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great. (cf Jimmy Dugan, A League of Their Own)
The hard is what makes it great. Just as there is no quitting in baseball, there is no quitting with God. Even when we are so stressed, so fearful, that we want to run and hide, God is willing to come out into the wilderness with us, to sit down at dinner, to heal us and to nourish us.
What raw material do we already have? What is in the spiritual pantry? Even when we fear the pantry is empty, when we dig around a bit we learn that some longing is in there. When we find silence: can we sit with God quietly? Finding a longing to pray: can we join Morning Prayer or Compline, or do a devotions from the BCP? Finding only Creation: we can perceive God at work. Do we want to fix the world: use our hands and feet in intentional service (food bank) or work the phone for justice. Use that longing you find and God is there.
I perceive a many of us long for a sense of safety. Even in good times, that is illusory. A spiritual life is always good – and it is never “safe” in the normative sense. Many of us experience God most powerfully in a time of difficulty. Any encounter with God, even in the Eucharist, is powerful and dangerous, because as we seek to experience the transcendence of God, all the boundaries we have erected – between the human and the divine, the living and the dead, the past and the present – are dissolved. We know that on some level, because we have used the Eucharist to control and divide other people. The memorial which we enact here is not a safe journey into comforting nostalgia. The Almighty, who seeks to unite us as one people in God, is completely beyond our measure and control. The presence of God always changes our life as we know it. And still we seek that, because we know that it is momentous, and holy, and great.
In this moment of challenge, we must dig deep and seek the little gift we can offer to God. Acts of faith will feed our souls. Don’t wait passively for the miracle to emerge. Be part of the miracle.
Elizabeth Anderson. “Purity and Danger: Eucharistic Safety in a time of pandemic.” Earth and Altar. https://earthandaltarmag.com/posts/mc8a39mtff8754nwszzeh2ci1heifr