Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Finding Wholeness in Our Brokenness

Today’s scripture is one of the most popular miracles portrayed in the life of Jesus. Recorded in all four Gospels, it appears a total of six times in varying forms. The fact that all four early Christian communities thought it was important enough to be included is significant.

But why?

The Gospels are full of miracles, aren’t they? Healing the sick, walking on water, giving sight to the blind, casting out demons, even raising the dead. So, why is it that this story gets all the play?

If we read the passage carefully, we will see that beneath the glamor of this miracle lies much more. The story of the feeding of the five thousand both points to and embodies a more profound truth about God and humanity. It is, in essence, a sacramental story; a sign and symbol of God's grace let loose in the world.

If we look at the text, we can see the way in which this story parallels our own contemporary rite of holy communion:

“Taking the five loaves and the two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people.”

Many scholars interpret this parallel between the feeding of the five thousand and the institution of holy communion as one example of gospel redaction…that is of the authors of the gospels going back over the stories and editing them to reflect deeper meaning in light of current practice. These scholars propose that after the institution of holy communion in the early Christian communities, gospel writers went back and re-wrote the text to parallel their own rituals and rites. In this way, what was once a simple miracle story took on now greater meaning in the context of the faith traditions and practices of the early Christian communities.

Therefore when scholars read the story of the feeding of the five thousand, they tend to interpret it through traditional understandings of holy communion as a ritual meal reflecting Jesus’ bodily sacrifice for human sin. They highlight Jesus’ pouring out of compassion on the multitudes, the willingness to heal and work long past evening as a sign of the ultimate sacrifice to come. The brokenness of the people there that day…the wounded, the weary, the sick and the oppressed…is read as our own brokenness that is made whole through the sacrament of the eucharist.

Yet, I have to wonder in this case about the order of influence between these two.

Should we really interpret the feeding of the five thousand through the lens of communion? That is to derive the meaning of story from the practice of early Christian communities.

Or shouldn’t we rather interpret communion through the lens of the feeding of the five thousand? That is to derive the meaning of holy communion from the story of Jesus’ own practice. The difference seems subtle, but I believe it is significant.

What if the feeding of the five thousand were paradigmatic for communion? How would we understand communion differently?

Think, for a moment, about what Jesus says when the disciples come and ask for help. The disciples are more than a little anxious about the coming of nightfall. They are tired from their journey and worn out from their work, not to mention frightened and grieving over the execution of John the Baptist. Here they were in a deserted place, the people are hungry, night has fallen. They have to do something.

So, they go to Jesus, the miracle maker, and plead for help. “Jesus, these people are hungry and we can’t do anything about it. Can’t you just send them away and make it all disappear?"

And what does Jesus say to them?

“You feed them yourselves.”

Can you imagine? Here the disciples are looking for help, for escape…for salvation from Jesus and what does Jesus say, “Do it yourself.”

Do it yourself? The disciples are a bit confused because they cannot understand how they are going to feed these people without a lot of money. "Do you know how much that is going to cost," they ask. As if money and things can ever bring salvation.

But Jesus points them in a different direction. Jesus says what do you have? Jesus doesn’t ask for a strategic plan or a fund development campaign. Jesus doesn’t ask them to write grants or go for help to the neighboring villages. Jesus simply asks them to look at what they already have.

As if they were in Oz, Jesus tells those Dorothies, “You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power.”

The salvation and hope they sought was not to be found elsewhere…not even in Jesus. The salvation and hope they sought, the salvation and hope they needed was already right there with them all along.

“What do you have?” asks Jesus.

And with that the disciples begin to go about the sharing of what the community already had.

Now think about the implications this has on our understanding of communion. If this is the lens through which we understand communion, what does this mean? Where is the grace, wholeness, love and healing found? From where does our hope and healing come in this story?

It comes from us. In the words of June Jordan, we are the ones we have been waiting for.

In this way, we begin to see the sacramental focus of holy communion in the compassionate power of the common love we share with one another. It is in the mutual sharing of our joys and sorrows that we find healing and hope. By the very act of coming together in our own brokenness, with our own limitations, failures and griefs, we find wholeness in community. The miracle is not done for us, but rather by us. Holy communion is at heart a communal ritual.

As the contemporary text we read this evening reminds us, we all come to the table hungering and thirsty for something more. To be human is to be finite, limited and broken. Some of us are broken by illness, disease and pain. Others by loss, affliction or depression. Some of us are broken by the words and actions of others…family and friends whose love is imperfect and painful. Others by systems and institutions that oppress and marginalize. Some are broken by powerful addictions that imprison and dis-empower us. Still others broken under the weight of our own internalized pain, buried beneath our self-loathing. Each of us carries our own unique brokenness.

The summer I left for college, I found myself struggling with brokenness in many forms. I was on the brink of moving from adolescence to adulthood as I left my family home and moved 1000 miles away. In the midst of all of these transitions, losses and change, I prayed for things to get better. But they didn’t. I listened to the words of the pastor and tried hard to believe that if I just prayed hard enough everything would work out just fine. But no matter how diligently I prayed, nothing changed. The hurt, the fear, the uncertainty and grief were all still there.

It was during the last UMYF (United Methodist Youth Fellowship) retreat that I found a measure of grace to get me through. We had celebrated communion late at night, in the darkened cavernous sanctuary. Passing the bread and cup as we knelt in front of the hard wooden communion rail, I began to pray. If communion was as magical as the pastor had told us, surely my prayers would be answered there on my knees. I prayed and prayed and prayed. I begged God for forgiveness and deliverance. I confessed any and all possible sins I thought I could have committed and literally threw myself at God’s mercy. Tears streamed down my face as I confronted my own pain and sorrow, feeling so very unworthy at the table. Maybe I just didn’t belong. Maybe I was not good enough for God to heal my wounds.

As I wept in prayer, Jerry came and sat beside me. Jerry was chronologically the oldest member of UMYF at 45 years of age. But his severe form of autism rendered him emotionally the youngest among us. He put his arm around my shoulder and said, “What’s wrong? Can I help you?”

As much as I appreciated his concern, I knew only God could help me now.

Then my youth pastor came and sat beside me and said, “What’s wrong? Can I help you?” I couldn’t bring myself to confess my sense of unworthiness and so again, I sent her away.

Finally, my best friend came and sat me and said, “What’s wrong? Can I help you?” I didn’t have words for how I felt or I didn’t even know at that moment what I needed.

But in her embrace, I felt something subtly shift and my tears subsided.

I wish I could say that I got up and left the table healed. But I was not. Rather, what I found in that moment was a small measure of grace to get me through. It would be over the next several years that I would began to piece together the meaning of that night and begin to make sense out of what happened. What I experienced was not a miraculous healing from God on high, but rather a measure of grace from my community of friends through Christ.

Our human brokenness is inevitable, for all human love, no matter how great, how strong is finite and limited. And despite our best intentions, we find ourselves wounded by life at point or another. And, so it is with those limitations that we approach this table for a spark of hope, a measure of grace to get us through moment by moment.

You see, we cannot find our salvation alone. There is no magic prayer that can make us feel whole once again. In the midst of our limitations and brokenness we must have the courage to reach out to others to heal and be healed. It is only together that we can experience God’s grace, reflected to us in the lives and loves of one another. This is the true meaning of communion as seen through the lens of the feeding of the five thousand.

In the sharing of bread and cup, we are bonded tone another through Christ as a community of compassion, love, healing and hope. We find our salvation in the arms of one another, as we become Christ for each other here and now.

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