The Table of Generosity
Photograph by Ruth Smith
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 6:1-14
Some of you might recall my having mentioned Donald, an 8th grade classmate of mine who, like me, had “linguistic intelligence.” As we’ve learned more about multiple intelligences in recent years, those with linguistic intelligence are those who excel with words – reading, writing, vocabulary, giving speeches, etc. So, Donald and I shared this particular intelligence that really just made us annoying geeks and nerds to our fellow classmates. I vividly recall one day in class when Donald made a statement to the teacher that included a rare word that Donald used, well, uniquely. The teacher informed him that was not how the word was commonly used. Donald proceeded to rattle off its full range of meaning… including its rare usage; the one used by Donald.
Words often have a range of meanings.
Two weeks ago, I preached the story of Jesus’ testing or temptation in the wilderness. All of our biblical gospels tell the story, except for John. There is a lot that is unique to the gospel of John. Now, the Greek word for “tested” is peirazo. The word very often means to “test” in a way that entices someone to sin, in a way that is misleading and malicious. And so, two weeks ago, I emphasized that our scriptures are clear that God does not test or tempt us in this way. God doesn’t set up situations to try to lead us into temptation.
But there is another way of using the word “peirazo” and it is the way that John uses it in this morning’s story of the feeding of the 5,000. John’s use of the word means “to test the character or sincerity of something.” We might think of this as the way a good coach or mentor tests a student or athlete. They create a situation that challenges them. Something designed not to defeat or discourage them, but to inspire them to grow. So, in this morning’s gospel story, Jesus poses a question to test his disciple, Philip. Jesus’ question introduces a challenge that offers an opportunity for Philip and the other disciples to grow; to have their trust in Jesus stretched a bit.
This morning’s gospel story is a miracle story – or what are known as signs in John’s gospel. It is the story of the feeding of the 5,000. But wrapped within the miracle of Jesus’ multiplication of bread and fish is another miracle – one within our human capacity: the miracle of generosity. This morning we continue our Lenten sermon series, Table Talk, as we gather at the Table of Generosity. But what is generosity, really, and what cultivates a spirit of generosity?
Russian author Leo Tolstoy tells an intriguing tale of a peasant named Pahom who leads himself into temptation by bragging that, if he just had land enough, he would not even fear the devil himself. The devil, overhearing, decides to put Pahom to the test. [Remember, the devil is the one who tests to entice us into sin.] Not long thereafter, a wealthy neighbor decides to sell her land. Initially, Pahom and his fellow-farmers decide to purchase the land together as a cooperative. But the devil sows discord among them and they cannot come to an agreement. So, not wanting to lose the opportunity, Pahom borrows money from a relative, hires out his son as a laborer and gathers up the necessary money to purchase the land for his sole use. Initially, he is quite content, even overjoyed. Yet, from time to time his neighbors’ animals stray onto his land and graze and one neighbor even chops down some of his trees. Pahom cannot bear this disrespect. He takes them to court and feelings of bitterness and resentment begin to fester and grow. Soon, a traveler passing through spends the night with Pahom. As they talk together, Pahom learns that this man comes from a place where there is ample, fertile land. The visitor describes the land in glowing terms. So, Pahom decides to sell off his assets and move his family to this new place. When he arrives, he discovers it is just as fertile as the visitor had told. And for some time, Pahom is quite content, even overjoyed. But eventually, even in this place, Pahom begins to feel that he does not have enough. One day, a visitor passing through town tells Pahom of a distant land inhabited by an ancient tribe. The land is very fertile and the tribesmen are willing to sell the land for a very small price. Pahom’s interest is piqued and he sets out to see this land for himself. Eventually, he reaches the village of the tribesmen and they welcome him. By using an interpreter, he explains to them that he has come to buy land. Their chief agrees that Pahom may have land for 1,000 roubles a day. Pahom does not understand this arrangement, so the chief explains: “As much as you can go round on your feet in a day is yours, and the price is 1,000 roubles a day… But there is one condition: If you don’t return on the same day to the spot whence you started, your money is lost.” They agree that Pahom will walk out his land, in a square stopping to place a marker at each corner, the very next day. When he wakes the next morning, he is eager to get started. Pahom finds the land so fertile and lush that he walks on and on, reluctant to turn the corner. When at last he does, the tribesmen at his starting point appear like ants in the distance. Pahom begins to grow thirsty, hot and tired, yet he keeps walking. The second side he also makes quite long and as he rounds that corner he begins to worry, realizing he is quite tired. His starting point is a very long way off and the sun is already beginning to set. Panicked, he begins to run. The heat is oppressive, he is sweating profusely and his heart is pounding like a hammer. Stumbling, hot and dizzy he presses on as quickly as he can move. Finally, reaching his starting point, he falls into a heap. “He has gained much land,” exclaims the chief. But as Pahom’s servant approaches his master, he sees blood flowing from his mouth. Pahom is dead. His servant picks up a spade and begins to dig a grave… six feet from head to heels was all the land he needed.
Tolstoy’s story is entitled How Much Land Does a Man Need?[i] It reveals the truth we humans are often reluctant to admit: that many of us live with an ever-present fear of scarcity. Now, many of us are good folks who really do want to “do good.” And so, we share with those in need. Even so, we carefully monitor what we hold back for ourselves least we, too, become one of the needy. Our charity is balanced by prudence and caution. When Britt and I were in Cincinnati over New Year’s we met with our financial advisor. I went into the meeting feeling relaxed. I left anxious. Britt reminded me that Charlotte’s very livelihood depends on convincing us that we need to be saving more. She works on commission. In fact, America’s entire economic system depends upon all of us being convinced that we need more. Businesses – from department stores to car dealerships to Amazon – banks, credit card companies and lending services all are dependent upon convincing us that we need more.
Yet, this morning’s gospel story presents a very different perspective. It presents a theology not of charity; but a theology of generosity. Generosity is a spiritual gift, an evidence and revelation of God’s grace within us. Generosity gives us a sense of freedom as we release our fear of not having enough.
As I’ve already indicated, there are many differences between John and our other three gospels, even in relation to this morning’s story. First of all, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is the disciples who first raise the issue of the crowd needing something to eat. But, in John, it is Jesus who first raises the concern. This provides us, as gospel readers, the reminder that Jesus does not simply react to our needs. Jesus, in fact, anticipates our needs even before they occur. Furthermore, although Jesus poses the question as a way of testing Philip, Jesus already knows what he will do. Jesus has a proactive plan to provide for our needs. Jesus always makes provision for our paucity.
A second element unique to John’s telling of this story is the occurrence of this young boy. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the disciples report to Jesus that all that they have to work with are five loaves of bread and two fish. But, we don’t know where that food comes from. John, however, tells us that all of it, 5 loaves of barley bread and 2 fish, all come from one young boy. So we learn that one person, a young boy, will need to surrender everything he has – while others contribute nothing – in order for this miraculous feeding to take place. You know, children had little worth in the ancient world. They were a blessing only in that someday they might grow up to be productive adults. Also, barley was the grain of the poor. It ripened earlier than wheat, and since it was cheaper, the poor used it to make bread. So, Jesus’ partner in this miraculous work is not someone wealthy, powerful or popular. It is someone who is socially insignificant and has few resources. But, what little the boy has, he surrenders. That, my friends, was an enormous risk. Most of us would have been tempted to hide one loaf under our tunic just in case things didn’t work out. But, this boy hands over all that he has and his willingness to risk it all results in a miracle.
So we see that John’s telling of this story is distinct in that it is Jesus, not the disciples, who first raises the question of the crowds need for food; and, that John’s telling of the story is distinct in the mention of this young boy.
Yet a third distinction in John’s telling of this story is that it is Jesus, not the disciples, who distributes the food. It emphasizes the reality that whatever we have in our lives we have received from the hand of God. We might think it comes from our employer, our clients, the government or a rich relative, but in truth “every good and perfect gift is from above.” Jesus is our provider and he is a prodigious, lavish, provider at that. Jesus doesn’t multiply this food so that there will be just enough. Jesus gives so abundantly that there are twelve baskets full of leftovers.
And that, my friends, is in keeping with the overall message of John’s gospel. The gospel begins with an introduction, a prologue, in which we’re told this about Jesus: “From his fullness we have all received, grace heaped up on top of grace.” Last Sunday, I preached on the very first sign or miracle in John’s gospel: Jesus’ turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. When the steward taste-tests the water turned into wine, he is amazed. The general practice is to serve the best wine first and then serve the cheaper wine… after the guests have already had a little too much and aren’t so discriminating anymore. Jesus could have gotten by with turning that water into something cheap – that “2 buck Chuck” Charles Shaw wine they sell at Trader Joe’s. But instead, Jesus turned it into something you’d find aged and auctioned off for thousands of dollars from a French wine cellar. When Jesus gives, he gives abundantly and lavishly.
People of God, that young boy in John’s gospel took a huge risk, he laid it all on the line, and it was his willingness to take that risk that resulted in a miracle for thousands of people. And, you know what I believe? I believe our God is still a God of miracles. And I believe our God is still a God of abundance. But we need to be willing to take the risk. We can’t live like Pahom in Tolstoy’s story: fearfully, greedily grabbing for more in order to secure our future… as if any of us can do that for ourselves anyway. If we name ourselves as disciples of Jesus then we need to be people willing to take risk so that God might perform signs and miracles through us, as well. Rest assured, my friends: the world will always try to scare you into thinking you need more. But do you really? How much does a man – or woman – really need?
I confess to you that I am sure there are times when Jesus tests me as he tested Philip that day long ago. “Here is an enormous need,” Jesus points out to me, “so what are you going to do about it?” But Jesus doesn’t present me with those tests or opportunities to entice me into financial ruin. He wants to know if I, like that little boy, am willing to lay it all on the line because I trust him. Will my charitable contribution be prudent and sensible? Or will I be generous, allowing God’s grace to be revealed in me and through me? Friends: when God presents a need, God provides a way; God partners with us in miraculous ways to meet the needs of the world if only we are willing to trust. Generosity is the raw material of this morning’s miracle story and trust is essential for generosity. Generosity reveals that distinction between whether we simply believe in Jesus’ existence or whether we trust in his saving and sustaining grace.
My last year as an associate pastor in Indianapolis, the senior pastor at the church issued a challenge for people’s fall giving cards to reflect a tithe – giving 10% of one’s income to the church. He raised that challenge up every Sunday throughout the campaign. After the campaign concluded, he shared an email he received from a young woman, relatively new to the church, recently graduated from college and up to her eyeballs in student loan debt. She had been inspired to answer Pastor Frank’s challenge to tithe but as she sat at her computer laying out the numbers, it really didn’t seem possible. Still, she was determined. Shortly after turning in her pledge card, she was out of town for the weekend when she got a call from her employer. Another employee had quit and his position needed to be filled promptly. Would she consider it? Oh, and it included a raise. What was the amount of the raise? It was precisely the number she had written on her annual pledge card.
Now friends: I’m not going to tell you that if you commit to tithing, God will give you a raise. That’s not generosity; that’s magical thinking and manipulation. But I can tell you that when you determine to be generous and not simply cautiously charitable, God will provide you – in some way – with the resources you need to do so. I can tell you that for sure because I’ve lived it over and over and over again.
So what about you? I’d like to encourage you to pray and invite God to challenge you. To put you to a test…. Not one designed to trip you up or mislead you; but one designed to help you grow in your trust in him; one that allows you to set a table of generosity for others.
[i] Found in the collection Walk in the Light and Twenty-Three Tales by Leo Tolstoy; Plough Publishing House; 1998; pp. 265-282
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