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Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: How Much Is Enough?
How much is enough? This may sound to you like a deep philosophical question or a very ordinary one. To my mind, it’s both—and worth exploring together: How much is enough? Every day, we have to make judgments based on this question. The amount of curry for just the right zing. The applications of sunblock for just the right protection. The hours of work for just the right result. In these common situations, we just have to rely on our experience and best estimates—like Goldilocks, aiming for not too much or too little to satisfy our sense of enough.
Usually, there’s usually no great penalty if we’re slightly off in our judgments. Especially if we’re controlling a plentiful resource that’s just for our personal use. But what happens if we’re part of a group, making judgments about a common resource? Say, food?
How much is enough when you’re hungry? Should the size of your share be determined by your age or weight? Your place in line? The number of people in line? Should the size of your share take into account the last time you were fed? How much you’re used to receiving? Or how much food you need to feel completely full?
What if you’re on the other side of the food equation: say, asked to feed a hungry crowd? Enough in this context can be fraught with concerns about fairness and entitlement, anxiety about cost and control.
Take the situation of the 5,000 who virtually chased Jesus and his disciples to a deserted place on the far side of the Sea of Galilee. Their story is told in all four Gospels: the version in Matthew describes them as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” They desperately want Jesus’ cures; they will not allow him and his followers the rest they sorely need. Yet Jesus has compassion on this jittery crowd: he speaks to them about the kingdom of God; he heals the sick. But tension mounts as the day ends.
Jesus has already taught, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’,” but of course that’s the reality the disciples confront him with. By their judgment, there is no food to be had in this deserted place, no money to meet the need, no reason to keep this ill-prepared, intrusive group together. There is simply not enough—enough food, or enough commitment, to feed these people. Send them away. Not enough.
I read what happens next as a miracle in the sense that Jesus completely reverses the disciples’ perspective—what they see. He challenges all their assumptions about how reality works when you live in the kingdom of God. In another stunning demonstration, he shows that there are new powers available to all women, men, and children in this reality: those who appear dead are really alive; those who have been excluded as sick outcasts are brought back into health and community; those who have been too weak to stand are lifted up by their faith.
These miracles are demonstrations of a new consciousness and a new compassion. In this deserted place, Jesus sees a sanctuary of plentiful green grass; in this motley crowd, he sees an emerging community. And he leads from a spirit of abundance rather than a fear of scarcity.
First, he breaks the mass into smaller groups of about fifty people, as Luke tells it—asks them to sit together down on the grass, encouraging among them a new connection, and a way to see and understand each other’s needs.
Next, he brings to everyone’s awareness a gift of five barley loaves and two fish. A little boy has brought these forward to Jesus. And through this offering, he creates a new consciousness of what real generosity means. Andrew doubts that it could make any difference. But Jesus teaches the many through the act of one: when we each give freely of what we have, there will be enough in the kingdom of God.
Over these gifts, he then gives thanks to the Source of all good things—his loving Father—reinforcing the ancient and universal understanding that a spirit of gratitude amplifies whatever we have. That when we stop and notice and appreciate, our world becomes fuller. “I have come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly,” he teaches: this is how.
And then as he has broken the mass into smaller circles—broken open their hearts—Jesus breaks the small amount of food in his hands and allows the people to share it as they will. Without fear or anxiety or withholding. Simply with gratitude, generosity, and a faith in abundance.
How then is everyone fed and filled? How are there twelve baskets of broken pieces left over? I can imagine the stunned looks on the disciples’ faces as all their assumptions are overturned. By a young boy who had acted from love; by their teacher who had shown trust; and by this helpless, harassed crowd that had found its power to feed its own—fairly and fully and abundantly, even in a deserted place.
What a transformation this must have been for the thousands sitting on the grass! For the jumble of men, women, and children who had rushed frantically after Jesus: “sheep without a shepherd,” empty and hungry in some profound inner way. Now fed and strengthened.
Through Jesus’ practices, and through their own creation of community, they had been deeply changed in the way Paul prays for the Ephesians: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power . . . to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Filled with all the fullness of God. This is the inner transformation that comes from practicing gratitude, generosity, and a faith in abundance—“rooted and grounded in love” in a way that gives our lives security and joy.
A New York Times article this month headlined “Don’t Indulge. Be Happy.” explored notions of what’s enough in our nation of overindulgence and overconsumption. The authors, researchers who’ve written an upcoming book titled Happy Money: The Science of Spending, confirm a radical, scientifically validated way to increase the happiness we get from our money: not using it on ourselves.
“But what about individuals who are notorious for their struggles with sharing? Surely the emotional benefits of giving couldn’t possibly apply to very young children, who cling to their possessions as though their lives depended on it. To find out, [the authors] teamed up with [a developmental psychologist] and gave toddlers the baby-equivalent of gold: goldfish crackers. Judging from their beaming faces, they were pretty happy about this windfall. But something made them even happier. They were happiest of all when giving some of their treats away to their new friend, a puppet named Monkey. Monkey puppets aside, the lesson is clear: maximizing our happiness is not about maximizing our goldfish. . . . [R]ather than focusing on how much we’ve got in our bowl, we should think more carefully about what we do with what we’ve got.”
How much is enough? St. Patrick’s has set a bold goal to be a 50/50 parish: to use half of our resources of time, talent, and dollars for the strengthening of our parish community and the other half for the good of the greater human community—local, national, and international. On our behalf, our Outreach Committee shares our collective loaves and fishes each month in the form of a donation to Tahoe Family Solutions, which feeds our hungry neighbors through Project MANA and also addresses the source of their hunger through support for long-term change. We have also given generously to hunger initiatives through Episcopal Relief & Development, Food for the Poor, and Mercy Corps.
Because just as on that field, long ago in Galilee, we know no one needs to be hungry in this abundant world. Even though almost 1 in 7 people worldwide are malnourished—and the most visible and vulnerable are children—world agriculture produces enough food to feed everyone with over 2,500 kilocalories each day. The principal problem is not supply, but distribution—and that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food.
What can we possibly do about this? Well, we have as much power in the kingdom of God as that little boy who brought forward his few loaves and fishes. With faith in abundance, in gratitude for all we have in our bowl, we can fill that red Project MANA barrel in the lobby each week with food for our hungry neighbors. Without anxiety, we can share our money to advance our Outreach work for those with so much less. Grounded in love, we can then be filled with the fullness of God. That will be enough. Amen.