- Ask Dr. Cobb
- Creative Transformation
August 4, 2002
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
The theme that connects the scripture lessons assigned for this Sunday is the proclamation of the abundance of God’s grace, the promise that God gives to God’s creatures more than they can ask or imagine.
That theme is sounded first in the passage from Isaiah. The prophet relates God’s invitation to the thirsty to "come to the waters," and to the poor to "buy wine and milk without money and without price." The vision calls the people to look beyond that which is superficially attractive and yet "is not bread" and "does not satisfy," and instead to accept the real good and the real delight that come from God. In its original context, the prophecy was addressed to the Returnees from Exile, and served both as a goad to the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of national life, and as a promise that God would give abundantly to empower that rebuilding and that restoration.
The Psalm selection continues the theme. The whole of Psalm 145 is a song of praise; the verses selected for this Sunday emphasize especially God’s compassionate care and abounding generosity for the whole of creation. In the Psalmist’s view, Yahweh’s goodness is not confined to the people of the covenant alone, but extends to all people, to "all who call on [Yahweh], to all who call on [Yahweh] in truth." But God’s abundant goodness is not confined to human beings alone, either: it extends to all sorts and conditions of creatures: "The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing."
Paul is also aware of God’s abundant goodness to all people; but in this passage of Romans he is especially concerned to explain to Gentile Christians that God’s abundant love has not been withdrawn from Jews who do not follow the Way of Jesus that Paul and his readers in Rome now follow. Paul admits to having "unceasing anguish in my heart" that "my own people" do not follow Jesus’ Way; yet he affirms that it is still true and will always be true that to the Israelites belong "the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises." The astonishing generosity of God in choosing a people to be near God’s heart is not revoked, and God does not take back God’s gracious gifts. Here too, the abundance of God’s goodness is the theme.
That theme reaches its climax in the passage from Matthew, the story of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. This is one of the very few miracle stories that is narrated in all four canonical gospels, not only the Synoptics but John as well; clearly, the first generations of Christians understood this story to say something absolutely central to the meaning of Jesus and his ministry in the church and, through the church, in the world. Contemporary commentators debate the best way for post-modern readers to understand the "supernatural" element of the story: whether Jesus did something "non-ordinary" with the bread and fish; or whether the members of the crowd, seeing Jesus’ generosity, were moved to share their own packed lunches with each other; or whether the whole story is a kind of midrash on the manna story from Exodus and never "really happened" at all. Prescinding from the whole "What really happened?" question, we can say with some confidence that the point of the story is that Jesus acts out God’s own generosity for the people, Jesus makes visible and tangible—and edible!—for the people the abundant grace and goodness that come from God. The theme of God’s abundant love is thus made climactically manifest in Jesus.
The theme of God’s abundance runs through all the lessons; but from a process-relational point of view, what is particularly interesting about these lessons’ treatment of the theme is the way they emphasize that God’s abundant goodness is actualized in the world through relationships. God’s grace is never isolated or individualistic (individualized to the real needs of real persons in real circumstances, certainly, but never individualistic in the sense of exclusion or division), but is made real in modes of togetherness between creatures. In process-relational thought, every moment of experience begins with an aim from God; God proposes to every emerging event a possibility for what it can become. Each moment of experience is a unique coming-together of influences from the past and from the surrounding world, and God’s ideal aim for each moment is a way those influences can be integrated in a whole complex relationship. Experiences are richer and deeper and fuller as they bring together more relationships; God’s ideal of abundance is realized as more relationships are related in each moment of experience.
Relationship is the medium of God’s abundance in these lessons as well. For Isaiah the abundance of rich food and wine and milk without price—symbols of the grace that is not merely superficially but truly satisfying—comes through the "everlasting covenant," God’s "steadfast, sure love for David." The promise of abundant life is made in and for the context of the covenant community. The Psalm, as we have seen, broadens the context beyond the people of the covenant, but the emphasis on community remains. God gives food to the creatures through the healthy functioning of the whole ecocommunity: plants, herbivores, carnivores, scavengers, saprophytes—each creature is by turns both eater and eaten, and the flourishing of the whole is the necessary context for the flourishing of each.. The flourishing of the whole is then the community-wide realization of the abundance of God’s gift. Likewise for Paul, the irrevocability of God’s gifts continues to be the basis for the community life of the people of Israel. The adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, the promises are for Paul not held or enjoyed by individuals alone, but by all the people precisely in their togetherness as a people. God’s generous gifts are made manifest in community relationships or they are not made manifest at all.
Perhaps the most powerful symbol of that abundance-in-relationship comes in the feeding story in the gospel. As Matthew narrates the story, strictly speaking it is not Jesus who feeds the five thousand; what Jesus does is empower the disciples to feed the five thousand. The disciples express concern for the crowds who’ve apparently gone all day without eating, and Jesus says to them, "You give them something to eat." When the disciples reply that all they have are five loaves and two fish, Jesus takes their food, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it back to them to give to the crowds. In the details of the story, Jesus is the source of abundance, but the abundance is only communicated to the crowds through the active ministry of the disciples. The generosity of God is the basis of an ideal of relationship in which all are fed and none are left out, and the ministry of Jesus communicates that ideal to the disciples so that it can become the motivating factor in their own ministry.
This Sunday’s theme, then, invites us to consider how God’s gracious abundance is a motivating and empowering factor in our experiences. In what concrete situations in our own lives do we find ourselves in webs of relationships that can be made deeper, richer, and more life-giving as we bear witness to Jesus’ enactment of God’s ideal of generosity, and as we allow God to enact that ideal in us, as well?
Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World. and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.