The Parable of the House Plant
A sermon preached at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia, on July 29, 2018.
Loaves and fishes. This is a story that many of us know well. And, we should. The feeding of the 5,000, with some variation, shows up in all four of the Gospels, suggesting that we might want to pay close attention to what it is trying to tell us. And, yet, this is a story that shows up in all four of the Gospels. A story that is familiar enough to lull us into some complacency.
Loaves and fishes, you might think. Got it. Jesus is a miracle worker. Or, perhaps you’ve come down on the other side of miracles. Loaves and fishes, a great metaphor for making a lot out of a little. Either way, a familiar story.
To crack open a text like this such that we see it differently - maybe even feel it a little bit - can be a difficult task. I know it is for me. Unlike some of the more mysterious texts, this text and many like it read like a problem that has already been solved, a fable with an obvious takeaway, a rule of life that is successful and generally applicable if only I could manage to do it.
And, yet, I’m never quite sure of the answer, of the takeaway, of the rule. And, even when I feel like I know those things - oh, this is a text about trusting God - I can’t manage to actually do it. Something does not connect.
Which, brings me to house plants. I know how unrelated this seems, but stay with me for a minute.
For a long time, I truly disliked plants. I resented the need of certain plants to be cared for. I wanted to be a grower of things, at the very least a sustainer of things, but I doubted my ability to keep a plant alive. And, that doubt was somewhat well-founded. Exhibit A: the fall mum. I would live my life plant free and just fine until Fall approached. And, the mums would come out. Deep purples, bright yellows, burnt oranges and affordable and everywhere! And, I’d convince myself once again that anyone can keep a mum alive. I never kept a mum alive. My porch apparently is where mums go to die. And, so, I dubbed myself killer of all things house plants.
Well, fast forward to the day when I was scoping out plants at a local nursery. For someone who truly disliked house plants I spent a lot of time secretly loving house plants. I decided the thing to do was to try and purchase a house plant of the - anyone can do it needs no care at all - variety. Not a mum. Something easier than a mum. After picking up more than a few plants, I ran into one of the master gardeners who works at the nursery. She looked between my apprehensive face and my overflowing arms for a few minutes before commenting on my assortment. “Do you know how to care for those plants?” she asked.
I am certain she was not judging me, and yet I felt judged. Because, the answer was no. NO. I have no idea how to care for these plants. Do they need care? If so, I’m already out of my depth. And, here was someone who knew exactly how to care for these plants. It seemed unfair that she should pose such a question to me.
Maybe this is why the idea of Jesus testing Philip in today’s Gospel rubs me the wrong way. The Gospel reads, “When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat? He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.”
Philip, bless his heart, responds with what he knows: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” You see, he’s been paying attention. He’s approximated how many people are present. He’s considered the cost of bread and how much, or how little, they have to give for bread. He knows they are short. And, he sees no way forward. Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, fares a little better. Not as constrained by the question, he notes the loaves and fishes of the boy. And, yet, “what are they among so many people?”
This is a paralyzing situation. Here is the crowd, 5,000 souls. And, the question is this: Do you know how to care for these hungry people? Of course! Provide them food! But, from where? And with what money? And, just, how?
The problem here was not a failure of knowledge. It is a failure of imagination.
Faith, says James Whitehead, is the enduring ability to imagine life in a certain way. Jesus, in asking such a question of Philip, sought to tap the prophetic imagination. Sought to suggest a way where there was no way. After all, isn’t this the life of faith? As one commentator puts it: “For this text, the end of human knowledge is the beginning of love’s knowledge, and that is enough to feed a multitude with much left over.”
Love’s knowledge is an expansive and imaginative seeing. It is a matter of vision. Barbara Brown Taylor notes that there are Native Americans who call this “looking twice” at the world. First, they say, we must “bring our eyes together in front” so that we notice every drop of dew in the grass, the steam rising from damp anthills in the sunshine. Then we must look again, directing our gaze at “the very edge of what is visible” so that we might see with the eye of the heart.
So often, when we think we see limitations or scarcity, we just haven’t looked to the very edge of what is visible. Today’s Gospel begs us to do that work and to look differently at the world. To see that, yes, what we have is not enough. And, yet, not enough is not the final answer. Look again. Look at the 5,000 sitting shoulder to shoulder. Look at their faith in Jesus. Look at their will to be healthy, and to be whole. Look at the small child, with a meal to share. Look at Jesus who is looking at you.
Look with a faith that necessarily calls us to imagine that this Gospel holds not one solution, takeaway or rule, but instead a different vision altogether. That life can be different, is different, than it first appears. Imagine it: A life where the weak are strong. Where ordinary people are prophets. Where strength is not measured in numbers but in love and presence. Where there is enough. Enough food. Enough drink. Enough arms to hold and ears to listen. Enough love. Where scarcity is broken open and out pours abundance. Where the hands of a child hold the fullness of many bellies.
A world where even I can keep a plant alive.
Something changed that afternoon at the nursery. I realized that the answer to the question: do you know how to care for those plants? was not just no. The answer was, "I cannot imagine a yes.”
The master gardener, she is a lover of plants. And, as we know, people who love seek to share that love. She wanted to me to love those plants too. So, when I said to her, no. I don’t. I’m hoping these are the easiest plants ever to keep alive. I kill all plants. She responded, “child, don’t say that. In saying that, you’ve already pictured them dead. Picture them alive instead. And thriving. Because, the key is not knowing how. The key is loving them enough to learn. And, to love them, you have to imagine them living.”
I am happy to report that they are still alive. And, that I have many more. And, that I love them, each, dearly.