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August 3, 2008

When God Challenges Us

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 34:1–10
Exodus 16:1–8
Matthew 14:13–21

“You give them something to eat.”
Matthew 14:16b (NRSV)

An older man, who was both wealthy and suspicious, invited Jacob to dinner in order to test him. When the dinner was served, Jacob was given an empty plate and cup while his host’s plate overflowed and his cup had wine draining past its brim. Jacob said nothing but sat there and watched the man devour his sumptuous meal. When the man had finished, Jacob stood, said thank you for his dinner, and prepared to leave. Unable to resist Jacob’s silence, the host asked, “Weren’t you angry because I gave you nothing?” “No,” said Jacob, passing through the door.

“You gave me what you had. If I had expected more from you than I received, then I was filled with my expectation and not your offer.”

Noah ben Shea
Jacob the Baker


“Life is a miracle.” So states Wendell Berry, prolific writer on many subjects, including human ecology, in his book with those words as its title. Agreed. When you consider the phenomenon of birth, the complex intricacy of the human body as well as other organisms, the many processes by which life is sustained, the wonder of the whole creation, the resilience of the human spirit in spite of its fragility and our own carelessness, you cannot honestly avoid marveling at the miracle of life.

But for many people the world over, and for anyone at a particular time in one’s life, life is not a miracle to be wondered at and enjoyed. It is a mess to be lived in and endured and perhaps one day to be cleaned up. I don’t have to offer a litany of the woes that befall us as human beings, even the more fortunate among us, for us to realize that in spite of the marvelous and miraculous in life, as the psalmist once put it, “all our days pass away; . . . our years come to an end like a sigh. . . . Even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:9–10).

The husband of a dear friend of mine who died recently told me of how shortly before her death he was standing at her bedside, talking on his cell phone to someone who had called inquiring how things were going and to express his concern. Trying to be as upbeat as possible, the husband kept repeating, “Fine, fine. Everything is fine.” Somehow his wife, known for her honesty and candor, marshaled enough of her ebbing energy to say in a loud voice, “Don’t lie, Bob. Everything is not fine. Everything is in shambles.” It was her “last lecture,” and it said, “Don’t whitewash life or death. Tell the truth!”

The truth is that whether miracle or mess, whatever else life is, it is a challenge, at the least, to survive. And it has its challenges, some innocuous and easily dealt with; others more formidable and daunting. Someone recently observed that a burgeoning industry is emerging in this country centering around dealing with disaster, natural and otherwise. Think of flood, fire, earthquake, tornado, hurricane, oil spill, 9/11, to say nothing of war, widespread hunger and poverty, random shootings, domestic violence, sexual abuse, murder and mayhem. Talk about shambles! Then there are the inevitable challenges wrought by illness, death, sorrow, pain, and loneliness.

There are some who assume that the challenges that life poses are one and the same with those that God sets before us. After all, there has to be someone to blame. Often these challenges are thought of as crosses we must bear. But it seems to me that such thinking trivializes the cross, if the cross referred to is the one Jesus bore, as it often is. The cross was Christ’s deliberate choice, and he bore it for the sake of the welfare of the world. Many, if not most, of the challenges we face in life are either thrust upon us or are the result of our own folly or that of others. They are burdens to be borne, not crosses we bear, unless we do so voluntarily and for the sake of the welfare of others.

We live much of our lives in relationship and response to what might be referred to as “-mand behavior” that takes the form of demand, command, reprimand, and countermand. All comprise some kind of “should” that we are called upon to conform to and act upon. There are those who have become so intimidated by the plethora of “shoulds” that they perceive to be imposed upon them by others, by themselves, and by life itself, that they live life constantly under what one therapist called “the tyranny of the shoulds.”

It was a command Jesus gave his disciples and a demand he laid upon them. Nothing ambiguous about that. He put the challenge squarely before them. In the account of this event in John’s Gospel, Jesus puts the challenge in the form of a question to one of his disciples, Philip. “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip responded that there was not enough money available to buy food for the crowd and that the donation of five loaves of bread and a couple of small fish offered by a young lad would surely not be sufficient among so many people. It was an understandable response based upon a realistic assessment of the situation.

In Matthew’s account, it is clear that the disciples had been around Jesus long enough to know that because of his great compassion he would want to do something to meet the need of a hungry crowd of people who were enthralled by his words and awed by his deeds of healing. So they were quick to come up with what must have seemed to them to be the only logical and pragmatic, though conventional, thing to do, namely, to tell the people to go into town, buy their own lunch, and come back later if they wished. “Send them away.” Let them fend for themselves.

“Make it go away” is sometimes our first reaction, if not response, when we are confronted by a challenge we would rather not have to face, especially one that seems to have God’s mark on it. Life poses enough challenges without God piling on with still another one, especially one as daunting as feeding several thousand hungry people. By extension, think Darfur, think Sudan, think Zimbabwe, think Chicago, think Chicago Lights, think the Elam Davies Social Service Center, think the mission programs of Fourth Church. Until one may want to cry out, “For God’s sake, God, enough already! Get out of my face and off my back! I don’t need another mouth to feed, another challenge to face. I’ve got enough mouths to feed of my own, enough challenges that life has dumped on me. I have barely enough to handle them without you dumping on me too.”

When I consider the people I know, both in this congregation and elsewhere, who have been and are now bombarded by bumper-to-bumper challenges regarding health, finances, relationships, feelings, you name it, and when I remember similar experiences in my own life, I can understand and appreciate how a cry of protest might arise within us when the demands of the gospel and our desire to be faithful become the tipping point that puts us over the edge.

At the same time, it is important to realize that even when our plate is not that full and there is room on it for one or more of God’s challenges, we may find ourselves hurling a challenge or two back at God. The human genius for holding God at a distance, stubbornly daring God to overcome our resistance, is not to be discounted. There is, for example, the challenge of our retreat into nostalgia, into the good old days of Eden and of that spot, not to be forgotten, which for one brief shining moment was known as Camelot. The Old Testament prophets and Jesus himself were constantly running into it. It’s our bondage to the past and how things used to be done, even our preoccupation with the pragmatic (“Send them away”) and the conventional, that sometimes gets between us and the future.

Then there is the challenge of our own goodness that God has to deal with. Our pointing to our piety and parading our virtue, as if to try to convince God that we are doing all we can, as it were, to feed the people. The point is, we are, many of us, even as we spend billions to support a war the purpose of which seems to have gotten lost somewhere in its own fog. Like the boy in the nursery rhyme (remember little Jack Horner who sat in a corner?) we put our thumb into life’s pie, pull out a plum, and say, “What a good boy (or girl) am I!” Perhaps that is the point at which audacity morphs into arrogance, as in such audacious assertions as, “We will change the world!”

If we are not careful, the money we give, the service we render, the kindness we show, and the effort we make to try to overcome intractable personal and world-wide problems we face, can become what we hide behind to keep God from getting into our inner world, into our hearts. Our attention to externals, however necessary, can become the way we avoid the internal world of our attitudes, ideas, and feelings. I can give generously to our tutoring program and still harbor prejudice against people who look different from me, and pride myself that I am not a racist. It’s a bit like some people who enter therapy or counseling convinced that there is no need for them to change because they are doing the right thing by coming to counseling. Christ on the cross was God’s bid for the totality of our beings, not the outside only where we do justly, but the inside, too, where we try to love mercy and to walk humbly.

Then, of course, there is the ultimate challenge we put before God and behind which we may hide, the challenge of our inadequacy. Five loaves and two fish, but what are they among so many, as if it all depended on us. I know this one well, for I am tempted to wonder whether my five loaves and two fish are enough. And that’s the point Jesus was making. It doesn’t all depend upon us, and it doesn’t all depend upon God, either. It depends upon both God and us. We and God working together to get the job done. Today we are all called to be not only disciples of the Lord, but also co-laborers with God and with one another, to care for the creation, the world, and one another.

So Jesus took the bread and blessed it and gave thanks for it, and gave it to the people. And the miracle of multiplication happened with amazing results. You see, it is not about me and my scorecard. It’s about God and God’s grace. To those who are hungry, a little can be a lot.

It is out of the abundance of our poverty that the power of God to do a lot with a little is revealed. That is, if we put our poverty in God’s hands and dedicate it to the task of meeting human need beyond our own. The miracle of multiplication is not to be found in the quantity of resources given to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, educate the untutored, heal the sick, comfort the sorrowing and, as the gospel hymn puts it, “rescue the perishing (and) care for the dying.” The miracle lies in the transformation of the human heart, our hearts and minds, from grabbing and grasping in greed to giving and sharing in love, compassion, and gratitude.

I saw him out of the corner of my eye, walking toward me on that cold day in April, 1945 as I stood before the box-cars piled high with the corpses of the inmates of the infamous Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, shortly after we had liberated it. They had been machine-gunned to death in a last gasp frenzy on the part of the guards when they heard that American forces were coming. I stared in horror and disbelief at the carloads of carnage, the inhumaneness of it all, confirming beyond the shadow of a doubt the rumors we had heard about such places of detention and death.

Instinctively, I reached for the .45 caliber pistol on my hip as he approached me, just in case. Then I noticed his tear-stained face as in a combination of German and broken English he began to speak. “Danke, danke,” he said. “Thank you, thank you.” He was trying in the only way he could to express his joy and gratitude for what he thought would never happen to him, to be freed, to be spared, to be saved.

Then this Lithuanian Jew, who had been a prisoner at Dachau for over three years, reached into the pocket of his threadbare shirt. Once again, like Pavlov’s dog, I automatically let my hand drift toward the holster on my hip. (The Army had trained me well.) Out of his pocket he slowly brought forth a dirty looking crust of bread and held it out to me. I took it and he told me that on the day before his friend gave it to him as he was being led off to be executed. He had realized that he would no longer need it and that since bread was a coveted item among the prisoners, he wanted his friend to have it. Now this man was giving me what had been given him, so as to show his gratitude.

I thanked him and put the crust of bread in the pocket of my field jacket, where it stayed for several weeks. From time to time I would finger it, as though it were a talisman of some sort. It soon was reduced to crumbs. Then one day, as I sat on a bench before the cathedral in Saltzburg, Austria, the site of our divisional headquarters after the war had ended, I emptied the crumbs into my hand, stared at them for a minute, and then fed them to the pigeons gathered round my feet.

Over the course of nearly sixty years in ministry I have officiated at and participated in and partaken of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper more times than I can remember. What I do remember is that whenever I have done so, I remember that survivor of the Holocaust, that Lithuanian Jewish man, and a dirty looking crust of bread. It was not much, but it was all he had to give, and with which to give thanks. I have been feeding on the twelve baskets full of the leftovers ever since.

It was enough. It was more than enough.

Danke. Danke.