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“Leftovers”

“Leftovers”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Hadley Kifner
July 29, 2018
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, NC

 

Today’s reading tells two stories: the first one is about “hunger and the mercy that relieves it” and the second one, about fear raging like a storm and how a fierce grace calms it.[1] These two individual miracle stories, collectively, give a narrative account of Jesus the Christ. And they tell us a lot about God. Through Christ, God is spontaneous. God is courageous. God is generous.

In the first part of the narrative, after Jesus makes a meal almost literally from scratch, he proclaims, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”[2]

Poet and artist Jan Richardson offers, “It is part of the miracle, really: how Jesus, with such intention, cares for the fragments following the feast. He sees the abundance that persists, the feast that remains within the fragments. We might think the marvel of the story is that there is enough for everyone. And yet for Jesus, enough does not seem to be enough. There is more: a meal that depends on paying attention to what has been left behind, on turning toward what has been tossed aside…how Jesus gathers up the leftovers is a sign of the wholeness he can see. Christ will not lose his hold on what is broken and in pieces.”[3]

My day-to-day context is a children’s hospital. To some, it is a world that is broken and in pieces. Broken dreams, broken hearts; lives lived in pieces, in between surgeries and scans and second opinions. As the chaplain there, I wear a name badge and a pager and walk among those who are searching for the bread of heaven. They may not use that particular language – but each and all, in their own way, are looking for a blessing that will take away the hollowness of heart and hunger of spirit that can come from watching a child endure illness and treatment, sometimes suffering and death. Those within the halls of the hospital are not unlike those in the crowd or the boat from the reading this morning: they are starving for something they do not think they have enough of and are afraid, calling out for a divine intervention.

Last fall, I decided it was time to lead a grief support group for parents who had experienced the death of a child. On the night of our first gathering, I was preparing to meet two sets of parents – one clinging to their faith, one walking away from it – both figuring out how to navigate life while holding the crumbs of their hearts, the fragments of their shattered hopes. I had never led a group like this before. I doubted that I had the energy or insight to guide these parents who were entrusting me with the secrets of their tears. I was overwhelmed at the thought of being in a small conference room with people whose needs would surely outweigh the resources we had among us. As the parents started to arrive for the group, I unpacked a large tupper ware bin I had prepared earlier in the day, back at the hospital – a candle and some matches, a box of Kleenex, some name tag stickers and ink pens. It felt ridiculous to consider that anything that could fit inside a tupper ware bin could touch the pain of these parents and offer balm enough. But the people had come, and they had hope that they would be blessed somehow, healed somehow. I lit the candle, took a deep breath, and we began. I offered what little I had, and trusted it would be enough.

 

Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost…[4]

Christ uses everything. Frugal and abundant at the same time, he recognizes that the stray pieces and random bits – of meals, of life, of us – have value in their own right and ought not be tossed aside. They should be gathered up and used – to share, to bless. In this understanding of the value and potential in everything, God’s vision for us and a world redeemed surpasses far more than we could ask or imagine. (Ephesians reference) That Jesus would be so observant to notice the leftovers, gather them up, bless them in such a way that they would be multiplied a thousand times over and over and over again, tells us that God, through Christ, is making a point about abundance.

A message of abundance catches our attention. We live in a culture obsessed with excess and yet one rooted in perceptions of scarcity. In her book Daring Greatly, social researcher Brené Brown writes, “Our culture is one of ‘never enough.’ We start off the morning thinking we didn’t get enough sleep, go through the day thinking we don’t have enough time, and fall asleep thinking we failed to accomplish enough tasks. Whatever we have, do, or get, it’s never enough. Throughout the day, as we interact with others, we are painfully aware of what we’re missing: looks, smarts, talent, luck, money, peace, creativity—you name it.”[5] But here’s the problem, Brene goes on to say: “Not only is the constant recognition of what we lack discouraging and even debilitating, it distorts and hides the tremendous gifts we have been given.”[6]

As children of God, we have been given daily bread. It has been placed in our palms and on our tongues and in our hearts by a God who loves us so much that He goes to great lengths to show us – He becomes flesh and lives among us, he walks on water, he baptizes us in the name of the Spirit, he feeds us. In turn, our own messy, chaotic, imperfect lives, when open to the grace and mercy of God, are made into enough – so much so that there are leftovers to gather up and share.

This all sounds quite logical, doesn’t it? As trusted theologian Walter Brueggemann would say, how can we be anything but “joyous and gratefully confident in our Creator” after hearing miracle stories like this?[7]

But miracles aren’t usually logical.  And disciples, then and now, are sometimes skeptical. From our text this morning, we have two relatable characters. Among the hungry crowd, Philip and Andrew doubt that even Jesus himself has enough to cover the needs of those gathered. Lurking behind the promise of the feast then is the very practical question of, “What happens, really, if there is not enough food for everyone?” And then on the boat, the terrified disciples cannot comprehend that their experience of Jesus walking on water can be trusted; they think it could be just as likely that they might have seen a ghost. Tucked within the unbelievable experience of the storm quieted right there on the spot then might the very reasonable question of, “What happens, really, if he falls in and can’t swim?” In our own lives, when the stakes seem high, when something is at risk, when we feel vulnerable, don’t we both trust God AND try to come up with a contingency plan, just in case? Like the disciples, perhaps we too then yearn to experience the miraculous intervention of God in our lives in some bright, unforgettable moment that changes everything – and yet simultaneously prepare for the potential disappointment if that doesn’t happen. Isn’t it faithful enough after all to believe that God could perform a miracle even if God doesn’t? (shake head, “no”)[8]

Here is the great good news: “Even when we, the beloved of Christ, don’t believe that the fragments of the feast will actually be enough, God still offers unconditional invitation and abundant grace.” In other words, miracles don’t happen just because we believe they will, they happen because God’s love for us is that generous.

As we leave these pews soon, going out into the world and facing a new week, how can we take these miracle stories with us? What are we to make of them? Might we cling to the Gospel truth that in Christ, the “leftovers” are neither insignificant nor abandoned.”[9] Might we remember that Christ uses everything – salty fish and stale barley loaves, broken hearts and tupper ware bins, raging seas and row boats, you and me. Might we go out into the world, living into the calling that “we ourselves are the leftovers, the fragments of bread carefully collected and lovingly transformed to be the bread for the world.”[10] Amen.

 

 

BENEDICTION:
We ourselves are the leftovers, the fragments of bread carefully collected and lovingly transformed to be the bread for the world.

May the love of God fill your soul.
May the peace of Christ overflow in your heart.
And may the power of the Holy Spirit free you to live fully and abundantly, sharing what you have with the world, this day and always. Amen.

 

 

[1] Ingram, Kristen Johnson. “Fragments of Mercy: A Lectio Divina.” Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life. Volume XIX, Number 6, Nov/Dec 2004, page 34.

[2] John 6: 12

[3] Richardson, Jan. “Gathering the Fragments”, The Painted Prayerbook, 2012. http://paintedprayerbook.com/2012/07/22/gathering-the-fragments/

[4] John 6: 12

[5] Brown, Brene. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012.

[6] Brown, Brene.

[7] Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis, MN” Augsburg Press, 1985.

[8] The general idea here, about skepticism related to the miracles, came to me while reading Rachel Mann’s article, “The Politics of Breaking Bread.” This article was originally posted online on July 23, 2012: https://politicaltheology.com/politics-breaking-bread-trinity-8-john-61-21/

[9] Bartlett, David and Taylor, Barbara Brown (Editors). Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16): Lousiville, KY: Westminster Press, 2009, page 288

[10] Mogabgab, John. Editor’s introduction. Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life. Volume XIX, Number 6, Nov/Dec 2004, page 3.