Narrative Lectionary Reflection (Year One) for February 8, 2015
And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. Matthew 14:20
This is one of my favorite stories from the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry because it is both about stewardship of resources and the remarkable abundance that can happen when we trust God and pool what we have–however meager–together for the common good. One of the aspects of this story that is often overlooked is that Jesus practices good stewardship of self, and I think this is a point we dare not overlook or gloss over.
Jesus has just received the news of the beheading of his cousin John. It’s not a good time in his life. He’s taken the appropriate measure of self-care by stepping away from the rigors of ministry by himself. I’m pretty sure getting in the boat and going to a deserted place is the first century equivalent of unplugging electronically and removing oneself physically.
Of course, because of his ministry it’s not long before folks come looking for him wanting and needing more. How many people in church leadership positions or even in social ministry contexts understand this phenomenon and have experienced it? No rest for the weary rings true. The point is this: Jesus did get away to take care of himself, to process his grief, to recharge his batteries, and to rest. He didn’t hang around the house sacrificially with a long face and endless sighs of smouldering resentment at his heavy load and overwhelming commitments.
Because Jesus takes care of himself (not to mention the fact that he’s the Son of God), he is able to return to ministry and have compassion on those whose needs are cast before him. What would happen if we in leadership positions encouraged one another and held each other accountable for Sabbath-keeping, for rest, for continuing education, and for health and wholeness? Research shows, for example, that working more than 40 hours per week actually reduces productivity and creates a vicious cycle of exhaustion and reduction in quality of effort expended. Seminarians are routinely told to expect a 50-60 hour work week with one day off. If a healthy portion of that work week is spent in prayer, reading, study, and preparation for worship leadership, sermons, and faith formation, there is often pushback about whether those activities are truly “work.” Perhaps this is more a North American construct than anything else. We work more hours and take less vacation than most western workers. According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, only 57% of U.S. workers take all of the vacation to which they are entitled, compared with 89% of workers in France.
If you’re like me, these facts make you squirm. As a vocational church worker and pastor there is absolutely NO way I can get all of the work done in 40 hours each week. Truthfully, there’s no way I can get all of the work done in 70 or 80 hours a week either. So here’s the thing; I can either choose to work insane hours in the name of sacrifice for the mission or productivity or whatever, but if I want to follow Jesus I’d do a whole lot better to work 40-45 hours a week, take time for Sabbath and study and recreation, and set a more powerful example about how to live life abundantly.
Look at Jesus. He came back from his time alone and was able to feel compassion, to heal, and to organize the most abundant potluck in all of history. Jesus focused on what truly mattered–all while practicing a beautiful model of self-care.
Do we really want life and life abundant? If so, what will it take for us to quit living a model of robot-like, self-serving-sacrifice that in reality serves no one at all, least of all Jesus? If we really want to practice Christian community and joyous worship, might it be time to reassess the model of discipleship that we’re living and teaching? After all, who wants to join up and hang with a bunch of over-worked, highly-stressed, fearful, grumpy people?
Jesus was able to feed more than 5,000 people from five loaves of bread and two fish and have abundant leftovers. He didn’t send people away to find their food elsewhere, he instructed the disciples to feed them and there was more than enough for all. How he did it is not clear, but it happened. What is clear is that the church today tends to operate out of a model of scarcity rather than boldly trusting God’s gifts and believing that following Jesus leads to real life. As long as we see what we have as not being enough, it will never be enough. When we begin to hear Jesus’ instructions and heed his example we will find not only just enough to get by but abundance. And, while it may not look like what we expect or hope for, we will not be disappointed.
One of my favorite things to do with children when this is the gospel lesson for the day is to tell a variation of the “Stone Soup” story. The original can be found here. I like to modify it by having all of the ingredients for a vegetable soup distributed to willing participants in the congregation who will then “help” tell the story by bringing forward the ingredients when prompted. Another option is to talk about how we all have gifts and talents that when put together can make a huge difference (gifts of music, preaching, service, hospitality, care of property, teaching, etc.). It’s a good way to lift up the priesthood of all believers and encourage little ones to see that they, too, have gifts for ministry.
Photos: Jonathan Fox, Soon, and , Creative Commons. Thanks!