While Karoline Lewis continues her short vacation from writing this column, I’m filling in for two more weeks.
A lesson difficult for many preachers and worship leaders to embrace is that the adage “Always leave them wanting more” applies pretty well to Christian ministry and its programs. At least, it’s important to remember that a single sermon or class shouldn’t try to say everything. Worship services don’t have to tease out every imaginable symbol or awaken the full range of human emotions. You want them to come back next week eager for more.
When Jesus feeds 5000-plus people, he seems to defy or recast that wisdom. The improvised feast Matthew describes in “a deserted place” leaves each member of the crowd stuffed. “All ate and were filled,” the Gospel says. It’s a narrative detail that many of us skip over, since we’re too familiar with the practice of eating until our bodies say, “Enough!” or “I’m full.” But chances are good that Jesus’ Galilean dinner guests considered being sated an uncommon luxury. Maybe Jesus didn’t leave them wanting more food after they had their fill of bread and fish, yet I suspect he did leave them wanting him to stick around. They must have hoped that there would be a next time, for they would have known they would grow hungry again soon enough.
Many parts of the Bible celebrate God as the source of material sustenance. God is a Nourisher. That theological detail endures as an important reminder that feeding people is about more than solving a social problem, mollifying a populace, increasing economic efficiency, or dividing up the labor required to ensure we all make it to tomorrow.1 When Matthew notes Jesus’ “compassion” for the crowds as his motive, our attention shouldn’t turn to sentimentality or simple sympathy. As a Feeder, Jesus’ actions acknowledge the people’s basic humanity. To feed another person is to affirm their human dignity.
To feed people until they’re full is to declare them replete with value.
Human dignity is always under assault, as recent news reminds us. You’ve read the statistics about how many millions of Americans’ access to affordable health insurance and adequate healthcare has been put at risk. Current and prospective transgender military personnel are singled out for scorn and rejection — their identities and courage dismissed in an effort to score points in culture wars. Families, neighborhoods, and congregations fear being torn apart by ICE agents and policies.
People are wanting more — more than that. We want more than that. A meal in which the hungry are fed. A banquet to celebrate each person’s intrinsic value as a human being and not a commodified life. A seat on the grass alongside the shepherd of our souls. Not just once.
It’s simple: what people want, time and again, is utter satisfaction. Or close to that.
Dear Working Preachers, you are waiters at an extraordinary feast. Many of those who come have been told that they can expect to be utterly satisfied — that they will be filled. And a lot of those people may even firmly believe what they’ve been told, reassuring themselves with almost creed-like certainty that “There will be enough.” But a good deal of them, and maybe we ourselves, will quietly and impatiently wonder whether that’s really true.
After all, in Matthew Jesus dismisses the crowds after the big meal and heads for the hills alone. Nothing says that those people got another meal of such magnitude.
Does the gospel simply pronounce us fed, or does it feed us continually? Does God simply declare our dignity and worth, or has God put people, communities, and values in place that can demand and secure this dignity perpetually?
As Jack Nicholson’s distraught character Melvin Udall says in a film’s titular moment: “What if this” — our lives marked by brokenness, frustrated expectations, and dissatisfaction — actually “is as good as it gets?” What if Jesus’ miraculous feeding, what if God’s endorsement of embodied humanity’s dignity, and what if our hope for fulfillment all function only to show us what we lack? What if they only make us realize how far we have to go or how helpless we are in our current moment? What if they make us feel like we are settling for too little in the face of a biblical text that stirs our longings for maximum satisfaction?
In other words, what’s a waiter going to say to a roomful of anxious guests whose hunger can’t be satiated by promises alone?
The specific answer will vary from congregation to congregation and from sermon to sermon. But I imagine that Jesus would tell the waiters, before they get started, to do more than just listen to people’s orders and enliven the table with small talk. “You give them something to eat,” he says.
You get involved in the meal. You nourish and restore. You affirm the dignity.
That work is not limited to the sermon.
Miracle stories don’t offer evergreen guarantees of instant gratification. But they do disclose something about the nature of God’s reign, the splendor of human wholeness, the heart of God, and the shape of discipleship. They beckon us to enter a new normal and to join in the new work that Jesus has begun.
How much more do you want?
1 Let me be clear, however: in a world in which about one person out of every nine suffers from chronic undernourishment, just about any motives for feeding the hungry can be commendable.