03 August 2014

Bless, Break, Give

Matthew 14: 13-21

8th Sunday after Pentecost/ 3rd August 2014
Sacrament of the Lord's Supper

There’s a deep logic in this text, a deep pattern, a fundamental insight into the laws of God’s economy. We’ve probably heard this story countless times before. It’s one of Jesus’ most famous miracles. It’s in all four gospels; that’s how central it was to the early church.  Thousands fed on the lakeshore with five loaves of bread, two fish. There were so many broken pieces of bread leftover that it filled twelve baskets full.  Now, we can try to wrap our minds around how something like this might happen. We can try to figure how this was possible, come up with some rational explanation. All of that would miss the point. There’s more than math and miracles at work here.

Pay close attention to the verbs used to describe Jesus’ actions.  Jesus invited the people to sit down so that they can be served.  That’s what a gracious host does. Here, sit down…. With everyone seated, Jesus took five loaves and two fish, he looked up to heaven, he blessed them, then broke them, and then gave them to the crowds. And all were fed.

Blessed-broke-gave. That’s the deep logic, the deep pattern, the archetypal undergirding of God’s kingdom. It’s the secret, hidden way of God.  Blessed-broke-gave. This, my friends, is the basic, fundamental law of God’s economy.

I’m being intentional here in stressing the use of the word economy.  The English word economy has its origins in the Greek word oikonomia, which means, not high finance, but literally, “household.”  Oikos is Greek for “house;” oikonomia refers to the habits or ways of the household.  The word is found throughout the New Testament.  It’s related to another New Testament word oikoumene meaning “the whole inhabited world,” from which we get the word ecumenical.  In God’s oikonomia, in God’s household, in the ordering of God’s people in the realm of God’s kingdom the world works from a different set of rules, values, and expectations, not the values and rules of the prevailing oikonomia, the household of Caesar.  Life in God’s kingdom is different from Caesar’s kingdom.  God’s economy follows the pattern of blessed, broke, gave. 

This is the foundational law of God’s economy, the way of life in God’s household. In God’s household this is the way the world really works; indeed, this is the way the world is supposed to work. This is the way Christians are to live. And this is the way the church bears witness to the gospel—blessing-breaking-giving. 

This is how it works. We bless.  That is, we give thanks to God for everything—everything, all that we have received, everything gifted to us, including existence itself, everything that provides for our nourishment and nurture, such as some fish and a piece of bread. We bless or thank God for what we have received. All that we have is a gift. What we have doesn’t really belong to us, it’s not ours—nothing is.  (Did you know that in Gaelic there is no possessive form? You can’t say, “This glass of water is mine.” You would say, “This glass of water is at me.”) Because nothing it truly ours and because we are responsible for our neighbor, whoever our neighbor might be, we take what God has given us and we break it—we fracture it, we tear it apart, we rip it apart, we divide it, we break it up into two or three pieces or more. And then we give it away. We share it. We pass it on. Then someone else, your neighbor or a stranger, the stranger who is now your friend, finds himself or herself on the receiving end of a gift. In doing so you’ve given that person an occasion to give thanks and to bless God for what was received. Then after the blessing he or she gets to break it and to give it away. And so the cycle continues. 

This is how God’s household, God’s economy, works. It all begins with blessing, with thanksgiving. It all centers on eucharisteo, the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” Eucharist. We simply call it Communion or the Lord’s Supper.  This table, this meal, this sacrament is a symbol, a witness of God’s kingdom economy enacted through bread. That’s what going on here at the Table of the Lord, in bread that we bless-break-share.

When we live Eucharistically—blessing, breaking, sharing—we soon discover there’s more than enough to go around for everyone. Thousands are fed.  Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourner’s community in DC, an evangelical Christian who, because he is an evangelical, is passionately concerned about social justice, is really one of our contemporary prophets. In a book that came out several years ago, Rediscovering Values: On Wall St., Main Street, and Your Street, Wallis calls the church and the nation to give an account for the way it lives its life. He makes this simple point: “God’s economy, [God’s household] has two basic points: 1. There is enough; 2. If we share it.”[1] 

Unless we share what we have there’s never going to be enough for anyone, which is precisely Jesus’ point.  Jesus isn’t saying here give away everything you have (at least not here), he’s saying share what you have. Stop hoarding it.  Share it—break it, divide it up.  And we’re free to share what we have when we know that we have more than we need.  That’s the tricky part, because there are many who have been seduced into thinking that they don’t have very much, that they don’t have enough.  Time and again Jesus makes the point that it’s extremely destructive to live with a sense of scarcity, whether it’s money or food or time or talent or even love—scarcity destroys individual lives, families, communities, churches, nations.

Jesus wants his people to live from a sense of abundance, not from a sense of scarcity. Trusting there’s enough and then sharing what we have we discover there’s more than enough to go around. It allows everyone to be fed. This is why the church has a rich history of being so generous—and why the Church of Jesus Christ, I believe, should be one of the most generous institutions on the face of the earth. The Church should be known to the world for its generosity. Because we know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of God’s love in Jesus Christ, we are free to be generous. We give from our abundance, not our lack.  When we know just how much we have received, we’re then free to break it—not because we have to, but because we want to—and then to give it away, freely, sharing it with others so that blessing upon blessing and grace upon grace may fall upon our neighbors.

This story in Matthew, which is more like a parable, is designed to remind us, to teach us, to inspire, to equip us to remember how God’s world is ordered—or should be ordered. Jesus wants his people to live from abundance, not scarcity. There’s enough if we share it. 

In his extraordinary book God the Economist, M. Douglas Meeks makes this central claim: “If the righteousness of God is present, there is always enough to go around.”[2]  This quote is helpful here because the concept of righteousness stands at the heart of the gospel. The meaning of the word stands behind Matthew’s narrative and grounds the meaning of the text. Meeks puts it simply: the “economy of God…is the distribution of God’s righteousness.” It’s important to hear this and to get this point. Biblically speaking, righteousness is not a moral term, nor is it a human characteristic.  Unfortunately, it’s often associated with the English word righteous, as in being morally right or virtuous.  Righteousness refers to God, “the righteous one,” the One who does “steadfast love, justice, righteousness in the earth.” It’s an expression of God’s being, what God does. Righteousness can be translated this way, as: “God’s power for life.”[3]

If God’s righteousness—God’s power for life—is active in our lives, in the church, in the kingdom, in our households and communities, then this power will bring people to life, it will secure one’s livelihood, that is one’s ability to live. This means that when this “power for life” is present and real the hungry get fed and the homeless are given shelter and sanctuary, it means reconciliation and peace will be real. For how can human life flourish in times of alienation, exile, bombardments, terror, and war? When the power for life is not evident, when we stand in the way of God’s righteousness, when we hinder and obstruct God’s will for the world—often by doing nothing, often by minding our own business, often by not caring or not caring enough—then we know we are far from God’s kingdom.  However, when this “power for life” is manifest within our hearts, within our relationships and families, within our communities and churches, we’ll know it and we’ll feel it because people will be given an opportunity to live, to thrive, and to flourish. “There’s always enough to go around” because God’s desire is that everyone be fed. Indeed, “the work of...the Holy Spirit…subverts any [economy] oikonomia based on scarcity. The reason for this is that scarcity as a starting point will always produce an oikos, [a house] in which some are excluded from the means of life.”[4]  That's never God’s will.

All of this is what we affirm and claim every time we gather around the Lord’s Table. Abundance. Come eat. Be fed. Be filled. This is more than just a memorial meal, done “in remembrance of him,” merely remembering what took place long ago. It’s the embodiment of God’s promise to be with us and provide for us. This is why John Calvin (1509-1564) insisted that the Lord’s Supper be included in every Sunday worship service.  
(Calvin was overruled by the elders in Geneva, essentially because that would appear too “Catholic.” Appearing too “Catholic” is not a theological argument for abstaining from Communion.)  Why is this so important?  Because when we approach the meal this way, as the real presence of Christ, the pattern of this meal informs and shapes our lives and ministry. The more we enact the blessing-breaking-giving of the bread, the more our lives enact blessing and breaking and giving. Our lives become Christomorphic, that is, they take the shape of Christ, our lives become formed and reformed by the image of Christ—blessing, breaking, giving—working deep within our psyches.  This, then, is what it means to be Christlike.  

Let us bless the Lord for the abundance in our lives.  Then let us break what we have received; divide it up, in order to share it, to give it away, in order that others, too, may know God’s abundant “power for life.” May the meal show us how it’s done.

[1] Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values: On Wall St., Main Street, and Your Street (Howard Books, 2010), 120.
[2] M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 12.
[3] Meeks, 94. “The oikos [house] of God is a gracious gift of God’s righteousness, God’s power for life. God’s gracious goodness gives enough, more than enough, for everyone in the household to live abundantly. The question of economics, will everyone in the household get what it takes to live? is referenced not to scarcity but to the righteousness of God which makes possible the sharing of the household’s store.
[4] Meeks, 94.

No comments: