Both Isaiah and Matthew today point out how determined God is to feed us, and how powerless we are to help him do it. In Matthew, Jesus feeds 5000 men plus women and children, working with nothing more than one person’s sack lunch. It’s almost funny: the well-meaning helpers in the story scrape together enough to nourish a single individual, and in response Jesus lavishes a banquet on a crowd that could fill the Assembly Hall, and ends up with twelve baskets more food than they can possibly use.
Isaiah is even more insistent on the asymmetrical generosity of God: God cries out “You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!” Even if you wanted to reimburse God a little something for his trouble, you couldn’t, because the sustenance he gives is free. He already paid the price for it. Come, be fed without money, without price. You can’t possibly afford to buy what God gives.
Last week I watched a webinar with two of the Episcopal Church’s great teachers of prayer, Fr. Martin Smith and Mother Sarah Coakley. Fr. Smith was talking about a question he often uses when doing individual spiritual direction or leading retreats, as a way of inviting people into a direct encounter with God. He asks them, “Who is it that God wants to be for you right now?” He has asked all kinds of groups and individuals to turn to God with this question: “Who is it that God wants to be for you right now?”
If we have spent time with readings like Isaiah and Matthew this morning, and absorbed them into the way we actually approach life, we will know that God gives grace and nourishment all out of proportion to anything we do or are. God feeds us lavishly, forgives us exorbitantly; we could never reimburse him for his generosity. If we have listened enough to who the Bible tells us God is, that we begin to behave as if it were true, we will know…. God is like that.
What Fr. Smith discovered, though, is that even those who were interested enough in God to come to retreats or sign up for spiritual direction didn’t know this. They were often working on the assumption that Christianity was something they had taken responsibility for doing. Why did Fr. Smith say that? Because, he revealed, at the majority of his retreats and events – for Christians, I emphasize – at the majority of his retreats and events where he had asked people to pray with the question, “Who is it that God wants to be for you right now?” they would come back to him and say something like, “I was so grateful for that idea, and I found it really challenging to ask God who he wants me to be for him right now.”
Over and over, people turned the question around backwards. Fr. Smith asked them to pray with a question about the love and generosity of God proactively acting on us, and over and over people turned it into a question about what kinds of actions they could do for God. God is crying out, “You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!” and we are looking at the slightly stale granola bar we have in our backpack, and saying “I can help you out, God. I know you need me!”
Do you believe God is like these two passages of Scripture say he is? Do you believe in a God who right now, in response to his infinite knowledge of you, wants to be for you in some way? Who is fundamentally not a taskmaster, not an inspiring ideal you might live up to some day, but a participant in your life who is determined to be for you? Who is looking right now at whatever hunger you have, whatever lack you have – whether it’s boredom or frustration or outrage at injustice or guilt or loss or fear or desire to change – who is looking actively at that and wanting you to allow him into it, out of his infinite love and grace?
Do you believe in a God who has so infinitely much to give that every time we really let him do what he wants with us, there will be twelve baskets of leftovers to feed others as well? Because that’s the God who came to us in Christ. That’s the God who told us about himself in Holy Scripture. The god who is a taskmaster or an inspiring ideal is a human invention.
So, Who is it that God wants to be for you right now? I invite you, as Fr. Smith invites his retreatants, to pray with that question this week. Not the turned on its head version addressed to the kind of guilt-inducing god we would invent. The Christian version, addressed to the God who has told us over and over how much he loves us. Who is it that God wants to be for you right now?
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