Proper 13 (18), Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
6 August 2023
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
I do not know when teachers began to encourage team work. Probably sometime in the sixties or seventies. It was certainly part of my schooling. There are things I have liked about working with others on a school project. Well, maybe only one thing, the social aspect. I like people and remember my grade 12 math teacher reducing my mark not for academic performance but because I was chatting too much. Seems hard to believe now.
The things I didn’t like about joint assignments were many. Sometimes you end up in a group where everyone relies on you and you end up doing the work of four people. Other times your work is compromised by others’ imprecision, lack of work ethic, or missing understanding of the subject matter. Your mark is less than it would have been had you worked on your own (at least in your mind), and sometimes the problems begin when you start discussing the project and everyone wants to go off in a different direction.
I know you are supposed to like joint projects but I can’t say that I have ever loved them.
The thing though is, that group assignments are not given for academic performance alone. Their pedagogical value well surpasses that of the academic value, which is why I am not sure why the approach would be used in post-secondary settings. But that’s probably just me.
Group projects teach more about negotiating, compromising, accommodating, persevering, and social cohesion by resisting one’s urge to do it alone, than they teach academically. And that is why they are important. It doesn’t matter whether we like them. There are lots of things we don’t like but we do them still.
What strikes me in the story of the feeding of the 5000 is the complete lack of compartmentalization by Jesus. Jesus is not someone who specializes in healing and preaching and who otherwise sends people elsewhere. The disciples likely feel overwhelmed by the presence of the masses. There is such a thing as too much success and they probably think that this is it. And they may know that a friendly crowd when hungry may become ‘hangry’ and turn on them. Thus their suggestion to Jesus to send them away. Let’s stick to what we’re good at, seems to be the sentiment, or, Let’s call it quits while we’re ahead.
Jesus will have none of it. And the best part is that this becomes a dreaded group assignment, he says to them, “There is no need to dismiss them.; you give them something to eat.” The disciples reject the request, by stating how little they have. They say to Jesus, ‘We have done the math and we would be glad to explain it to you. This won’t work, so keep us out of it.”
The thing with Jesus is that he won’t keep us out of it because he doesn’t keep out of it. For Jesus there is no, “Sorry, not my department, area of expertise,” or “I just work here.” And those whom Jesus calls to follow he calls into exactly this approach to the world, with the singular difference that we do not always have the wisdom required and can only act by drawing on the wisdom and the presence of God.
The reason that Jesus does not compartmentalize and does not abdicate responsibility is because Jesus is the second person of the Trinity who stands in communion with the Father and the Spirit, and that from him and through him and to him are all things. (Romans 11:36) That means that all things are connected and all things are connected through him. Once you see the connections you cannot compartmentalize.
The other thing that is folded into Jesus’ insistence that the disciples give the people something to eat, is that if Jesus is anything, he is present. He is the Word, the light, the life of all people, the vine, the bread, the door, the Good Shepherd, the resurrection, the truth. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel he promises to be with us always. And if there is anything we all agree on this morning, though I think there may be more than one thing, it is that God is present with us, that Jesus is present with us. In this Jesus is our comfort but also our guide.
The thing though is that this is not only a promise that Jesus made but it is God’s very nature to be present. And so Jesus does not send the people away when they are hungry.
God is present to Moses in the burning bush, to the Israelites in the pillar of cloud and fire, in the tabernacle, and in the temple. Psalm 46 calls God our refuge and strength, Jesus is Immanuel – God with us –, and the Book of Revelation tells us that the home of God is among mortals.
That God is present is essential to who God is.
But there is more. Jesus lived among us and took on our nature and our lot. Jesus was born of woman, lived 30 years with his family in Nazareth, and when he began his ministry he called twelve disciples, though there were more. Jesus sends them out two by two, he commissions them to build his church, to baptize and teach in his name, all things that presuppose a community. It is true that Jesus worked our salvation through his cross and resurrection, but for all that he wanted disciples to learn from him and to become like him.
The disciples were thick-headed and lacked in understanding. They did not want to take direction but wanted to give direction. They were like an unruly congregational meeting or a bunch of students unwillingly sharing an assignment. But that they were together was more important than that they got it right. Because in being together they embodied the presence of Jesus toward each other and toward the world, which is why Jesus says to them, “There is no need to dismiss the people; you give them something to eat.” In turning their attention to the people they embody the presence of God. Many centuries ago Catherine of Siena, echoing St Augustine, said it beautifully, “Eternal Trinity, Godhead, mystery as deep as the sea, you could give [us] no greater gift than the gift of yourself.”
Consequently, we who are created in God’s image, recreated in the image of his Son, and called into discipleship, have no greater gift that we can give than our own presence.1
In the modern world the church has become a service agency to service our religious needs. Jesus reminds us that all of our needs relate to God and God relates to all of our needs, that all desire (though often misdirected) is a desire for being, because God is all in all. God cares for the whole person and for the whole community, even the members of my team who don’t get it. Or wait, maybe it is me who doesn’t get it?
“And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”