Kids hardly ever get credit for what they bring, but in this story, a little boy brings his EMBARASSINGLY SMALL meal and offers it to Jesus. Think for a moment how laughable that would be. Everyone is hungry, but this one kid has just a tiny bit to share. Did Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, offer this meager bit of food to Jesus as a joke, as if to emphasize how little they had—all we have is one kid’s lunchbox?
But when was the last time you gave everything you had, to share with others? It takes a pure heart to offer whatever one has to give. You don’t have to fix the whole problem, but you can give whatever you can. Jesus never said you are responsible for figuring everything out. God has given us everything we need, and we all have something to give.
I’m always surprised when I hear people downplay their gifts, but I do it too. Lutherans can sometimes be really stubborn about this. But anything offered to Jesus can become plenty.
During the summer that I was a pastoral intern in New York City, I led a four-week day camp. I didn't exactly sign up to be the coordinator of a four-week day camp, but when I arrived at my internship site, Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan, I was informed that leading day camp was the intern's job. I had experience leading day camps, so I felt confident.
I knew I needed to be well-prepared, so I spent months creating Bible lessons for the campers—that's 20 different lessons, one for each day of camp. I gathered training materials for the staff people—college and high school students—and lined up guest speakers, activities, and field trips. I prayed. I prayed for the staff people who applied for these brief but intense summer jobs, and I prayed as we sat for interviews. I prayed for the children and their families as they registered for camp. I prayed for the church members gathering supplies for the camp, snacks and craft materials and signing up to give away time to help with set-up during the camp. I also knew I would need to pace myself. Four weeks of day camp, Monday through Friday, from very early in the morning until late afternoon every day, and I still had to show up on Sundays, too, for all three worship services. I cleared my calendar of any activities that did not involve day camp. I gave myself time to rest and time to pray alone in silence. I made sure to keep exercising. This camp would require discipline. And it paid off. The camp went really well. But the fourth and final week was still hard. The campers were restless, the staff leaders were exhausted, and I was running out of patience to keep encouraging the staff, who—in my opinion—were responding to the stress of keeping the boundaries by yelling at the campers.
The thing about day camp—and this is true of all ministry, in general—is that you can easily spend all your time focusing on the tiny details, or even on the big details, and staying busy just to keep the kids busy. But what separates a church's day camp, or a church's children's ministry, from any other camp or any other kids' activity? The difference is Jesus. The difference is the way Jesus calls us to relate to one another. Everyone—even the smallest children—can tell the difference. Kids know when they're a burden and they can tell when they're driving you crazy, and if they could walk out, they would! But since kids can't just leave, they will walk all over you instead! But kids also know when they are loved and respected and listened to, and very often, they will respond with love and respect. In the last days of that four-week-long camp, I told the staff that the goal of the camp was no longer about following the rules or keeping kids in line. The goal is simply to love the kids. Be safe and have fun, I told them. That's it. No more yelling. No more getting frustrated. Just be safe and have fun. And then I watched and listened. I paid close attention to how each staff person loved their campers. It was difficult work for me, too. I was ready to write off every last one of them—staff and campers alike—and go home and ignore everything and forget day camp. Because that's what happens when you're exhausted and running out of energy. It's normal. It's human. With the last shreds of my humanity, I prayed for guidance. I prayed for God to be with us at camp. I put the last of my energy into God's hands. Jesus, I have nothing here but five loaves and two fish, but I guess I'll give away everything I've got and just see what happens. On the morning of our last staff meeting, knowing how busy our day would be, with lots of extra closing activities and a barbecue lunch to organize while a rain cloud was hovering over us in the sky, I shared with the staff people the list of things I had noticed from each of them, how they were showing love to the campers. Osmery really supported her campers as they led afternoon worship. Hans gave of himself and shared his family's story when he showed the campers pictures of his family in Argentina and told them about his visits there. Nick looked after a girl in his group who was crying, and he helped his group of young campers work toward unity and reconciliation. Christian heard some kids talking about baptism, and he showed them a picture of his own baptism. Oscar responded kindly when a kid from a different group asked him to make a paper airplane. Stephanie had a long, involved conversation about Transformers with some boys while sitting on the subway with the campers as we went on a field trip—and other people on the train noticed that and smiled! Karelyn helped out while another adult was leading an activity, and she took care of kids who weren't even in her group. Laronda stayed at the back of the line as we went on a field trip through busy Manhattan, and she made sure the slowest kids were safe when the group got separated while crossing the street. As I told these young staff leaders about these things I had seen, I saw them smiling, their faces lighting up as they were realizing, hey, I DID do that! Suddenly it became possible to imagine going on one more day, loving these kids, ensuring that this camp would be more than just glorified baby-sitting: this would be the place where kids would know what God's love is really like, how huge and all-encompassing, how forgiving and reconciling and healing God's love really is. The goal is not a perfectly planned activity: the goal is God's love. What I noticed for myself, too, was an overflowing of my own energy, a restoration of my own reserves of patience. When I made time for prayer and put everything I had into the hands of Jesus, my energy had been multiplied. Suddenly I had a sense of humor, I had creativity, and I had flexibility when it did rain on the afternoon of the last day of camp and we had to move the closing activity and barbecue lunch indoors. I was no longer just existing on scraps, either. I had baskets of leftovers. It wasn't magic. Baskets of leftovers didn't come from Jesus just making bread appear. He probably could have done that, but he didn't. In the gospel lesson, where did the bread come from? Maybe a little boy—that story is in a different gospel account—but the disciples were the ones with the bread. Jesus said, "YOU give them something to eat." And the disciples were like, what? We can't feed all these people! We OBVIOUSLY don't have enough! Look at this, Jesus! This is ALL WE HAVE!!! We can't make more out of nothing! What does Jesus actually ask them to do? Make the people sit down. That’s it. All they had to do was sit down. And that's when the miracle happens. In the hands of Jesus, will anyone go hungry? In the hands of Jesus, is anything impossible? In the hands of Jesus, what cannot be provided? Do we trust God enough to give away whatever we have in our hands and trust that God knows exactly what to do with it? That God can multiply our tiny efforts, God can multiply our reserves of energy, God can multiply our offerings, God can bring healing to what is broken, God can feed people with real food. Do we trust God enough to put our giving, our money, our time, our selves, our future, into Jesus's hands? God has already given us everything we need. Sometimes, what God gives us is a challenge. Sometimes, what God gives us is a plan, but not all the resources within ourselves to make that plan happen. God isn't setting us up for failure! God chooses to engage with creation. God doesn't disappear and leave us to figure it out. God chooses us. Through Jesus Christ, God says, whatever you have, bring it here to me. Let’s sit in the green, green grass together and enjoy a meal and enjoy creation. This is what we long for.
The psalmist writes a word of truth about God: "You open wide your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing." Everything we need is already in God's hands. Imagine God's hands opening wide, and whatever we need, that's what is spilling out of God's hand. That's how much abundance there truly is. And even after you’re full, there is plenty left over.