August 4/5, 2018 11th Sunday after Pentecost, PR 13 YR B Ed Lawry
“…it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.”
Probably the most celebrated miracle of the Old Testament is the story of how God rained down “manna” on the Israelites as they wandered their long way in the wilderness in search of the promised land. It is not only justly famous for its intrinsic enchantment, but it also provides us with the iconic relationship of God to the people of God—the nurturing benefactor who provides food to keep us alive on our journey. It is not surprising that this story from Exodus is echoed so often in the Gospels, particularly in the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 with “a few loaves and fishes.” For good measure the evangelists do the Old Testament one better by mentioning that not only did Jesus provide the “daily bread” for everyone as Yahweh did for the Israelites, but there were 12 baskets left over (presumably for microwaving tomorrow). The manna story is indeed a paradigmatic type for the central mystery of Christianity—the bread which is broken and shared and which is at the same time, the body of Christ, the bread of heaven. It is not only our “daily” bread, but the bread given so that we will “never be hungry.”
With remarkable thematic overlap, all the readings today celebrate the wild, miraculous, and life sustaining generosity of God. We are awash in an abundance of gifts from God—plenty to give us permanent sustenance. Abundance—our God is so rich and full of generosity that it cannot be contained and flows down and around creation and lifts it up with holy value. Recently, my wife and I were lucky enough to pay a visit to the Rocky Mountain National Park. Winding through roads and pathways, lifting up our eyes to the heights of the mountains, or gazing down on the vastness of the vistas from the summits, meeting on the way noble and gentle elk sauntering up beside the astonished cars stopped along the road, marveling at the nonchalant brilliance of the wildflowers, we and all our fellow visitors in the park were gripped by a familiar feeling that is regularly characterized as “religious”. Amid such glorious surroundings it is easy to get carried away with talking about the abundance of God.
But it is not so easy to recognize God, the giver of gifts, when we are confronted by poverty sickness, pain, disorder, filth, garbage and the like. Scarcity is a constant threat in all the societies of the world. Poverty, homelessness, disease, sickness, often accompanied by wanton cruelty are pervasive threats. God gave manna to the Israelites, but now we all must work for our daily bread. Jesus fed the 5000, but statisticians tell us that more than one out of every six children even in the comparatively wealthy United State suffers from food insecurity. Where is the daily bread? A great deal of what we see around us in the world often induces the sensibility in people that God has abandoned the creation or that the world has never contained generous gifts, but only random alterations of its constituents. These experiences and reflections have often led people to the conclusion that there is no God at all. From this point of view we may say that they are gripped by a feeling that could be characterized as “irreligious.”
There has always been a tension between those who experience the world with that “religious” response and those who experience the world with that “irreligious” response. If the truth is to be told, we all feel this tension in ourselves–waxing and waning between enthusiasm and discouragement. Our religion, our church communities, keep calling us back to the source of religious experience and I think the best way of characterizing that religious experience is to say it is an experience of GRATITUDE. We were so grateful to be able to visit Rocky Mountain National Park and automatically wished that everyone could share in its glorious being. While it is often said that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, I would like to suggest that “gratitude for the gifts we have been given is the beginning of love.” And while wisdom is certainly to be prized, love seems even more precious. Even when we see the world of scarcity with our “irreligious” eyes, we may have a grim wisdom about it. Nevertheless, such wisdom often works against our experience of “gratitude for the gifts that have been given.” Let me acknowledge that theological commentators have explicated the idea of fear of the Lord as a kind of awe that can involve us in authentic religion. But even that explanation tends for some to emphasize our smallness, powerlessness and even sometimes our alienation from God and creation. What I am suggesting is that our typically shallow ways of understanding these matters tend to lead us in the wrong direction.
Jesus performed miracles and drew crowds often because of his miraculous wonders. The crowd that followed Jesus across the water in today’s gospel illustrates the point of mistaking the mere thrill of being satisfied by something we want or need, from the religious ideal that instills gratitude. He tells them they have confused things. They have followed not because they saw signs and witnessed miracles, but “because you ate you fill of the loaves.” He tells them “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” And then a few verses later repeats the same point: “Very truly I tell you it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven” (which would fill your belly and slake your hunger for a few hours,) “but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven” (which gift inspires lasting gratitude.) They immediately mistake the point again by asking Jesus to give them this bread always. And Jesus exasperatedly tells them “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will not be thirsty.” But we forever continue to make the mistake of looking for bread and missing sustenance.
In a marvelous book entitled The Gift, Lewis Hyde provides a wonderful insight into the nature of love prompted by the bestowal of gifts and the perennial mistake of seeing gifts as possessions (as in mistaking sustenance as bread). Using anthropological research into the organization of indigenous cultures, Hyde distinguishes between “gift economy,” most clearly exemplified by indigenous peoples, and “market economy,” familiar to all of us because we so thoroughly live in it. The gift economy is characterized by the bestowal of ephemeral or non-practical goods (as symbols of the spirit of abundance) in a ritual manner that circulates among all the peoples of the community, most often embodied in some sort of public ceremony involving the most prestigious leaders of the tribes. The famous “potlatch” ceremony of the Northwest Tribes is cited by Hyde as a good example, and any communal feast might be another good image to capture what he is driving at—for example our celebrations of Thanksgiving which at least dimly harken back to what we think of as the “original thanksgiving.” Wikipedia tells us that Thanksgiving was a feast lasting three days attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims in 1621. Or tellingly, the ancient practice of sacrificing the first fruits, the fatted calf, or even the first born son to God in a conflagration. These practices all spring from some form of gratitude for gifts bestowed in which something which has been given is given back, symbolized by the destruction of the gifts with the assumed assurance that the gifts will somehow be bestowed again. No doubt, these practices are based on the cycles of the natural world, in which things die periodically, only to arise again in the next season, and whose fruits sustain the people. Hyde generalizes and says the gift economy operates only where the gift keeps moving, or better, circulating, and that is why he calls it a gift “economy.” It is an economy which ties together a people and sustains their lives. The spirit of the gift is that it remains a gift and is given away again by those who receive it. And we all recognize that when given a gift, we feel gratitude toward the giver and in some way or other wish to give the giver something back. This economy is an economy of abundance, for its fecundity remains always present among the people who share in it. There is a shared spirit in a continuing wish to make some return for the gifts received. As soon as the gift is “owned” in the ordinary sense of being a private possession, it loses its sense as a gift and though it may then benefit the recipient-owner, it ceases to sustain the community.
Obviously, the market economy is the contrast where everything is owned privately and where, because of this outlook, there is no shared spirit but rather only a sense of individual dissatisfaction followed by some moments of individual satisfaction. This market economy is an economy of scarcity, because no one individual has all the satisfactions he or she wants, and these satisfactions keep disappearing, or at least threaten to disappear, and thus create fear rather than security as a dominant outlook.
In an economy of abundance, where we feel secure there is no need or worry about giving things away. And this ties back to the notion of gratitude that I began with. In the National Park, there was no hesitation to engage even strangers in marveling at the surroundings and expressing delight in them, for there was no question that in giving away the fullness of our emotion, there was no chance of losing it. And so it is with love. When we give our love away, we do not lose it. Rather it comes back to us, even more abundantly. For love is not possessed, but a spirit which possesses us. And when we are filled up with gratitude, we intensely sense that we have been blessed and that the blessing is so rich that there is plenty of it to share with others. The blessing comes from something larger, sweeps through us and continues on its path of enrichment.
- D. Thoreau was wise when he told us that “a man is rich in proportion to the things he can do without.” But Jesus was even more astonishing when by his life he assured us that persons are rich in proportion to the things they can give away.
God Bless You.