God provides abundance where people see scarcity, delights in gathering people to feed them, and comes up with endlessly surprising ways to do so—even during lockdown. (Listen.)
Here we are in lockdown again, and life is feeling small. We don’t see enough people; we don’t share enough meals; we don’t get enough exercise; the walls are beginning to close in. Even when lockdown eases, we know from previous experience that it will take time and energy to reengage with the world. We’ll have new restrictions to navigate and new fears to manage. And after all these months of infrequent socialising, some of us will decide that it’s all too hard; we’ll choose to stay home.
So I hear this story about thousands of people flopped on a grassy hillside, feasting together, and I feel pain. I feel pain for all the ways we haven’t been able to gather in the last sixteen months; all the dinners we haven’t shared; all the weeks we’ve listened for the Word but fasted from the Table. I feel the smallness of lockdown life, and also the weakness of our little church.
For it’s been nearly five years since we formed—our birthday is in late August—and we’re hardly making headlines. Attendance swings wildly, but it’s usually around twenty people: sometimes, many more; but often even less. Our website has many readers relative to our congregation size: but that’s only about the same number as another person’s church. We run no neighbourhood programs; we have no soup kitchen; we’re hardly counting converts. Every year we say we cannot possibly pay our part-time pastor; and there’s never a hint that we might raise money for something or somebody else. Whenever we come up with creative ways to meet, it feels like we are hit by a new lockdown, or new restrictions; the pandemic has affected over a quarter of our life together as a church.
Meanwhile, half of us struggle with chronic pain, or trauma, or our mental health. Half our city has felt misunderstood or rejected by the wider church. Half our region has experienced spiritual and even sexual abuse by patriarchal pastors and paedophile priests. God has been weaponized and Jesus has been bad news and people desperately need a reforming liberating healing theology. Yet the cold hard reality is that in the face of this great need, there are not enough resources and not enough time: six months’ hard labour wouldn’t begin to feed all these hungry people.
Sure, since our foundation we have been gradually formed into a gentle and diverse group with a strong and committed core. We can see the Holy Spirit at work among us, newcomers are finding their way to us, and we recently celebrated our first baptism.
Sure, we have found new ways to meet through all the shifting restrictions of the last sixteen months: via Zoom, in carparks, in paddocks, on a riverbank; in a garden at dawn; at kitchen tables and restaurant tables; at picnics down at Lake Pertobe.
Sure, the good news theology is reaching some people who really need it: friend and stranger, near and far, believer and seeker alike; and the personal stories in our Lent Books, Wednesday emails and group conversations have been powerful for many.
But what are these meagre offerings in the face of a large and hungry crowd?
The disciples had the same question for Jesus. Faced with a crowd, they see scarcity. They see lack. They see the ocean of need before them, they calculate the cost of feeding the people, and they know it is impossible. They are acutely aware of all the things they cannot do or be; they know how futile their efforts are. And because they are so used to relying on their own resources, their fears and failings overwhelm them.
But there’s a little boy there, and he’s different. He’s the kid who watches his older brothers in the fields, as they throw fistfuls of seed over God’s good earth. The seeds sprout and grow and form heavy heads of grain, he knows not how; but he knows that the life force he calls God makes it happen. And he’s the kid who hangs around the kitchen while his mother grinds the barley and makes a dough and kneads the yeast through it. He watches as the dough rises. Then his mother takes it and shapes it into loaves; she bakes them and whips them out of the oven.
He’s a noticing sort of kid, and he’s smart enough to see that he cannot live by his own resources: he needs his mother; he needs the God of life. He sees that they provide the food which fills his belly; they comfort him when he’s scared or sad. So in the face of the hungry crowd, he hands over his lunch to the person who most reminds him of God and his mother; and I reckon Jesus says to him, ‘Thanks. I can work with that.’ Because Jesus takes the loaves and the fish, and gives thanks, and feeds the crowd ‘as much as they wanted’; and they were satisfied.
However, we need to be careful how we understand this. Jesus is not wagging his finger at people. He’s not saying that the resources we already have are enough, and that we should simply be more strategic in how we use them. Nor is this a shaming story, where a poor boy’s generosity shames people into sharing their hidden stash.
These readings are common, but they write God out of the story. They imply that people have the resource and ability to solve all the world’s problems, and they reduce God to a manager or schoolmarm who does nothing more than remind people how to behave—and I think God is much more interesting than that.
For the God attested to in the Scriptures is a God who provides abundance where people see scarcity, who delights in gathering people together to feed them, and who comes up with endlessly surprising ways to do so. This is a God who uses a man rejected by his brothers, then enslaved and imprisoned in a foreign land, to save the people from famine. When a reluctant stutterer leads them out of slavery and into the desert, this God sends water gushing from a rock and showers them with food from heaven. It’s the God who at birth is laid in a feeding trough around which outcast shepherds gather. He makes a feast for thousands from a poor boy’s lunch; he offers his own body as food for the world. And this creative imaginative generative God keeps gathering and feeding people in new and surprising ways.
For as we know, five years ago God called a big city girl to a small regional location to catalyse church among some disaffected people that she barely knew: a non-obvious solution to a pressing need. Then God made a suitable building available for a home and a gathering place. This God drew a small crowd together, then let word filter through atheists and health care professionals and conservative ministers and the LGBTQI+ network to alert those who were seeking; indeed, most of you are here because you were referred by people who would never attend this church. And even now, this God continues to gather and feed people through new technologies, enabling persistent people to find the good news on our website; opening our senses to the Holy Spirit’s presence even over Zoom; and inspiring us to try new ways of gathering through all the vagaries of pandemic restrictions.
My friends, if we had relied on our own efforts, our own resources, Sanctuary wouldn’t exist. I began with a mostly empty kitbag and a pocketful of prayers, knowing that all we really had was trust. We didn’t have the skills; we couldn’t afford it; we inherited no building and had very little support. Some early households felt ambiguous about the project; there was much confusion and conflict; then lockdown should have knocked us for six. Instead, here we are. In human terms, Sanctuary is impossible, yet God called us into being and gave us what we needed to thrive. And while we might still look small and weak, a bit like a knobbly kneed five-year-old, God is using us to feed a hungry crowd far beyond ourselves, in ways we cannot truly know or appreciate.
So as we look towards the miracle that is our fifth birthday, let’s affirm our trust in this creative imaginative generative God, the one who, even during lockdown, loves to gather up and feed hungry folk; the one who takes a group of strangers and kneads them together and turns them into the body of Christ: food for the world.
And let’s always remember that a little group of Christ-centred people who are committed to loving one another, praying together, living faith daily, and sharing stories of how the liberating life-giving gospel is at work in their lives: well, such a group is an offering Jesus can work with. It mightn’t seem much, just five loaves and two fishes: but given trustingly into his hands, it is more, plenty more, than enough. Ω
Reflect: When have you experienced God’s generous provision? Ask God to help you see and remember, and give thanks.
A reflection on John 6:1-15 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 25 July 2021 (Proper 12 Year B) © Sanctuary 2021.
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