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Overwhelming Problems

Overwhelming Problems

Tuesday, February 5, 2013 — Week of 4 Epiphany (Year One)

Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, Prophetic Witnesses, 1683, 1643

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 946)

Psalm 61, 62 (morning) // 68:1-20(21-23)24-36 (evening)

Isaiah 52:1-12

Galatians 4:12-20

Mark 8:1-10

Some problems look overwhelming. Chronic fear seems to freeze portions of our nation’s leadership, making them incapable of responding with creativity and compassion. Have we moved past the tipping point of climate change so that powers beyond our influence will take our planet toward catastrophe? If not, what can we do to restore earth’s balance? Animosities simmer in the Middle East and elsewhere, threatening to expand into regional or worldwide conflicts. Population increases strain the water and agriculture on which life depends. Vast areas of grinding poverty doom repeated generations to continued misery and suffering. Millions in this country and elsewhere need dependable access to the basics of health care. The oceans’ pollution threatens corals, wetlands and other vulnerable ecosystems. Nuclear weapons and other means of massive violence are becoming more available and less contained. The lure of materialism drains the spiritual depth from whole cultures. The earth — its people, lands, air, water, creatures, and spirit — is starving and faint.

The first step in solving problems is awareness — naming the problem. For three days a crowd of four thousand Gentiles have been with Jesus and his disciples in an isolated wilderness. Now they have run out of food. If they were to disperse now, they would leave hungry; they would be likely to faint before reaching their homes. “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?”

The second step is to bring to bear whatever resources are available. Jesus asks them, “How many loaves do you have?” They tell him, “Seven.”

There we are. Seven loaves. Four thousand hungry people.

That’s usually where it stops. With hand wringing and blame. Fear kicks in. Sometimes violence.

The ones who have the precious loaves feel they must protect them. They’ll fight, if necessary. If the masses get too desperate, they can turn ugly. All it takes is fear or resentment plus one or two hotheads to make a mob. Time to divide the “haves” from the “have-nots.” Spend whatever bread is necessary to get the armaments to protect the rest of the bread. Just hope that the starving will do so quietly, without making a fuss.

But Jesus offers a different way. He creates community. He has the crowd sit down on the ground.

He makes Eucharist — Thanksgiving. He takes the seven loaves, and gives thanks for them.

Then he breaks them up. The precious loaves. He starts tearing and breaking them apart so that they can be shared. That’s where the church comes in — the disciples, the followers. He gives the broken pieces of bread to them. They are to distribute the bread. Seven loaves; four thousand people.

Then we hear about a few fish. Same process. Take. Bless. Give.

Something happens. The whole economy of the situation changes. “They ate and were filled.” And there was abundance — leftovers.

Some people act like this is some kind of magic. Jesus exercised some kind of powers to make bread out of nothing. Wow! Isn’t Jesus great!? If that’s all it is, who cares? It’s an entertaining story, I guess. At least for children. But it is meaningless. A cute story about Jesus. No help now. Sure, some people may be satisfied to sit around hoping for magic and talking about how great Jesus is, but that seems pretty pathetic to me.

I think something else happened. I think that the real “magic” is the creation of community and thanksgiving and sacrifice. I think that Jesus sat people down together, so that they were one-to-one, face-to-face — real people encountering real people — community. They couldn’t look away and ignore each other’s hungers. Then there was offering — sacrifice. Someone began by giving their substance away. Seven loaves in the middle of famine. They gave it up.

The whole spirit is imbued with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for the people. Thanksgiving for the gifts. Thanksgiving for the bread. Thanksgiving for abundance.

Something’s got to be broken. You can’t keep the whole loaf — safe, protected and pure. They started breaking it up. And thankful, joyful people began to give it away, passing it out with gratitude, with thanksgiving.

I think something loosed up then. They started caring. They started taking care of each other. Maybe somebody looked at the gracious gift of precious bread as a disciple reached out to present it to them — bread being offered so freely, so lovingly, so trusting, with no strings attached. And they smiled appreciatively, declining the offer, reaching into some hidden place, to bring out some of their own protected stash, turning to some neighbors, and offering to share their bread with others too. With growing smiles. If there was magic, it was the magic of contagious, loving generosity. Maybe some people found they weren’t as hungry as they thought. Maybe some decided they didn’t need so much. Others found that loving their neighbor as themselves was more satisfying.

When communion, offering, thanksgiving, breaking and giving was done, all were filled and there was abundance. My hunch is that there’s not a problem in the world that couldn’t be solved that way.


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I have always loved the account of the feeding of the 4,000 in Mark and Matthew. Some have seen this as being similar to the account of the manna being given to the people in the wilderness, a direct gift from God with no “middleman” (a miracle). That is one possible interoperation.

There is an alternate way of looking at this incident from the gospels however that I rather like. The people as they sit and see Jesus breaking the bread and fish to be distributed decide to follow his example. I have read somewhere that the clothing the people wore at that time had pockets inside that they used to carry food in if they knew they were to be away from home for a period of time. Following Jesus’ example prompts them to be generous and share with their neighbors. I believe that providing an example that allows people to be generous and care for ones neighbors is also a miracle. This is a miracle that each of us can cause to happen by demonstrating our generosity to our neighbors who are in need.

There are miracles or there are miracles that we can prompt by our actions; by following the example of Jesus.

Norman Hutchinson

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