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My brother-in-law Rob is a study in contradictions. For 51 weeks of the year, he is a mild-mannered, stay at home Dad, who manages the home, my sister (no easy task) and their 13 year old daughter with skill and care. But for that 1 week, that first week of July, he is transformed into Fernando the Cabana Boy, a persona he's created for himself for our annual Warren family week at the beach on the Outer Banks. He dons a wild shirt and visor, revs up the tropical tunes and the blender, even puts out a tip jar, and runs a one-man Happy Hour show poolside. Who could believe it? Back home, this same man has what must be the fullest and finest assortment of Tupperware imaginable. All sizes, all shapes, all colors, each with its particular designated content, all perfectly stacked in organizing caddies (as opposed to my avalanche of mis-matched tops and bottoms).
But here's the thing - knowing Rob, it's hard to believe he needs it. On this annual Warren family beach week, one of our traditions of necessity is Leftover Night. No meal is planned for Friday. We simply pull out everything that had been put back in the fridge, the freezer, the cupboards throughout the week and go at it. A little bit of pasta, 3 hot dogs, 2 burgers, 5 eggs hardboiled for the occasion, a piece of chicken, a jar of pickles, what's left of the lunchmeat, salad fixins, some tortillas, an ear of corn, the requisite jar of applesauce, some cereal.
You get the picture. Nowhere near enough of any one thing to make a meal of it for 11. And so we graze, some more creatively than others. As with any good ritual, we've developed ritual language around this event. Each time someone announces they've finished something up - a triumphant "That's it for the applesauce!" the family responds "Woo-Hoo!". It's our own leftover litany. Let's try it - "I finished the baked
beans!" "Woo-Hoo!" And who do you think, year after year, gets the most "Woo-Hoos" of all? Mr. Tupperware himself! Rob lives for Leftover Night, and can be counted on to do his part - and a couple other parts, too. So I'm left wondering.... What does that man even do with all of his Tupperware? It seems to me that it's a miracle that he ever actually needs it!
The miracle called "the feeding of the 5,000" is one of the few Jesus stories that all 4 gospel writers record. It is rather unforgettable, don't you think? And, perhaps in John's account, particularly so. For in John, we are shown the mind of Jesus - and are clued in that, while the disciples were anxious about how to handle a last-minute meal for 5, 000, Jesus knew all along what he would do. It was a pre-meditated miracle for Jesus - and a bit of a setup for the disciples. In the face of their practical realities and genuine concern, Jesus says, "You give them something to eat", with a divine wink to those of us reading the story. But I'm in the disciples' sandals on this one, and I doubt I'm standing there alone. I mean, it's good to know your limits - when you really just don't have enough in you to give all that it would take. Where stretching yourself beyond what's realistic ends up hurting you and those you'd hoped to help. And, it's important to be fair - you can't look at a crowd of need, take care of some and shrug off the rest, right? So it was really an act of compassion and justice to send the crowd away to find food elsewhere. There just wasn't enough.
In the face of that overwhelming reality, maybe the miracle that day was that Andrew stepped forward at all to offer the 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. Even so, he knew it was inadequate. It couldn't possibly do the job, fix the problem, feed the crowd. What difference can one gift, one voice, one person, make in the face of such need? It's a question we ask often, in the face of devastation from hurricanes or tsunamis, or the ravages of war across the world, or the war of violence on the streets of this city, or in a movie theater in Colorado, or in light of the war of words hurled by politicians or the actions of organizations like the Boy Scouts of America that wound, or in the face of an economy that has undone the things many have taken for granted, jobs, homes, leaving crowds without resource, without recourse. What can we do? There just isn't enough.
Some would say that the miracle that day was in getting 5,000 people to sit down and to wait. Imagine the logistics - before sound systems or cell phones. And in John's account, it would have been even more of a wait. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, it was the disciples who were charged with passing out the loaves and fish. Some of you have done the math. That's a mere 416 hungry people per disciple. But in John, it is Jesus alone who serves the crowd, one at a time, his hand to their hand, his eyes looking into their eyes, serving each on not only the bread, the fish, but himself. Waiting until each had as much as she or he wanted. Imagine that - and the feeding of the 5,000 becomes a very long, and very personal miracle - and surely the most miraculous for number 5,000 at the end of the line. Which is always where someone is.
There was miracle in the planning of Jesus. There was miracle in the sense of possibility in Andrew. There was miracle in the personal satisfying encounter with Jesus for each person there. But in reading this story this time, I am struck not so much by the miracle that was given, as by the miracle that was left. Left as in leftover. And I don't know about you, but I am left wondering - what did those disciples do with all of those leftovers? Each disciple holding a basketful. Twelve baskets, each full to the brim with bread that wasn't eaten. More than my brother-in-law Rob could ever manage. More than 5,000 hungry people needed. More than the disciples could ever imagine. More than enough.
Jesus said "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost". And the disciples did, and each was left holding a basket of miracle leftovers. So what did they do with them? Send some home with folks - divine doggie bags? Take them on the boat and snack their way across the Sea of Galilee? Feed the birds? Use it for bait? Say, oh well, that was that and leave them where they were? What did they do with the leftovers?
What do we do with them? When we experience a miracle, some sign that points us to the presence of God, some moment that fills us with the assurance, the hope, the wisdom, the meaning, the peace that we need and then some, what do we do with that? When we witness the healing of a broken spirit or relationship, or the renewal within a congregation, or an answer to prayer, or the strength to keep going, or the stories of others who've served those in need, near or far, and found God blessing them all - what do we do with that?
The author CS Lewis wrote, "Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see." Small letters - fragments. Jesus says, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost." In other words, don't just leave it there in that moment. Pick up the miracle. Take it with you. Preserve it to be shared again. Be the Tupperware that keeps God's miracles, God's abundance, God's presence and power at work in this world and in our lives, fresh and alive. And then - share it. Serve up the leftovers of your miracle moments. For they are gifts meant to be re-gifted.
A Chinese proverb states: "The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water; but to walk on the earth." So walk through your life, telling your experience, speaking your heart, sharing the good news. Jesus, the Bread of Life, meets us and feeds us where we don't think we have enough. Jesus, the Bread of Life, meets us and feeds us where we don't think we ARE enough - and time and again, gives us more than enough.
Surely in your home you have some Tupperware, whether color-coded and caddied, or otherwise. May it never look the same to you again. May you see yourself in that Tupperware, as that Tupperware. Gather up and save up your experiences of the
holy, in your life and in others. Serve them up over and over again. For holy leftovers never get old. It seems to me that for Christians, every day should be a "Leftover Night", as we open up the Tupperware and celebrate the feast of God's presence and abundance. To which let God's people say Amen - or even better, WooHoo!
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