Gather Up the Fragments

Gather Up the Fragments

“After the people were fed, Jesus told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’” John 6:12

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

July 29, 2018

In 1989, Robert Egger was an unknown nightclub owner trying to scrape together a living in Washington, DC. One day, Egger was approached by a friend who invited him to go along on a community service outing to a soup kitchen sponsored by a nearby church. As Egger tells the story, he didn’t want to go, but felt too embarrassed to say ‘no’ to his friend; so he went. The soup kitchen they visited was a traditional one: the program enlisted volunteers to purchase ingredients for the meal at the nearby Safeway in Georgetown, to prepare and cook the meal themselves in the church kitchen, and then to serve anyone who wandered in off the streets looking for a warm supper. At the end of the meal, the unhoused guests said their good-byes, went back out onto the streets, and the volunteers cleaned up. The model is a common one, and I’m sure many of you have volunteered in just such a program.

Eggers’ experience of the evening, however, was different than the usual volunteer’s. As he explained it to me years later when I first met him: “the whole model made no sense to me. It seemed designed primarily to make the volunteers feel good about themselves for doing a good deed, while keeping the guests at a safe distance in a state of helpless dependency. Moreover,” he told me, “this traditional model is grossly inefficient. Why buy ingredients at the most expensive market in Georgetown when perfectly good food is being thrown away every single day at restaurants and markets across the city?”

Drawing on his prior experience in the restaurant business, Eggers knew just how much food is wasted every day either because it is just beyond some arbitrarily imposed ‘expiration date,’ or because it is deemed too bruised, misshapen, or aesthetically imperfect to sell. So, rather than patting himself on the back for his one night of volunteerism, Eggers went about constructing a new model for feeding the hungry. He contacted all the restaurant owners in town he knew and secured from them commitments to donate food they no longer needed; he did the same thing with a handful of grocery stores; and he put together a small team of volunteer chefs and restaurant workers who were willing to train any homeless or unemployed person interested in learning how to cook and serve food. By inviting the homeless and unemployed to participate in the project of cooking and feeding, he explained, we not only put food in people’s bellies but we give them a skill that can help break the chains of poverty, and offer them a liberating sense of purpose and self-determination.

When Eggers promoted this new model to local church leaders, they resisted, convinced they knew better than he did how to serve the needy. The church leaders were worried about the liability risks of using donated food; so, Eggers did some research and secured a legal opinion that local ‘good Samaritan laws’ in fact protect non-profits from such liability. The church leaders then insisted that homeless populations would be too challenging to train; Eggers dared them to give it a try, offering to manage a pilot training program himself. But the church leaders were unmoved.

So Eggers set out to prove them all wrong and established what is now known as DC Central Kitchen. Since its founding nearly 30 years ago, DC Central Kitchen has prepared more than 27 million meals for homeless shelters, transitional homes, and other nonprofits in the Washington area. Moreover, it has done this at little to no cost, using donated food exclusively and relying on a program of previously unemployed persons enrolled in its culinary arts program to do the preparation, cooking and serving. Not only that, but ninety percent of the graduates from this culinary arts program now go on to secure jobs in the restaurant industry.

But Eggers didn’t stop there. He was determined to replicate this model nationally, and so he instilled a proud ‘open source’ tradition at DC Central Kitchen, encouraging others to start more than 60 like-minded central kitchens across the United States through the 1990s.

But Eggers didn’t stop there either. The reason I came to meet Eggers in 2010 is because he wanted the Episcopal school in Potomac that I then served as chaplain to be one of the first high schools in America to participate in his new national network of ‘Campus Kitchens’: colleges, universities and secondary schools who take this very same model of food recovery and delivery and apply it to leftover food from campus dining halls, using students as volunteer workers. And so Eggers met with me and some other faculty colleagues and persuaded our school, St. Andrew’s, to join this remarkable movement.

In our gospel this morning, we hear the well-known story of loaves and fishes, the theological blueprint for Eggers’ feeding ministry. Jesus sees a hungry crowd; takes what seems to be a paltry amount of food; and somehow transforms it into an abundant banquet for all. Too often we reduce this story to just another proof-text for Jesus’ divinity. Isn’t it amazing, so this reading goes, that God through Christ miraculously meets our hunger, and provides for us just when we think there is not enough? And to be sure, this view has truth to it.

But as Eggers reminds us, this is not where the story of loaves and fishes ends. In verse 12, after Jesus feeds the hungry masses, and they are satisfied, he specifically instructs his followers to do this: “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” From the abundance that God gives us, we are invited to take what we need, but then, we are commanded to gather up all that is left, and to offer it to others.

The story of loaves and fishes is indeed a miracle story, but its deep meaning is less about the mysterious mechanics of making a little food go a long way than it is about Jesus’ invitation to change the way we see the world – to transform our worldview from a perception of scarcity to the reality of abundance.

Most of the time we see the world through the eyes of scarcity: We’re convinced that whatever we have, there is not enough of it. Not enough money. Not enough stuff. Not enough time. At bottom, this scarcity mindset is rooted in fear. Fear that we will be left out, that there won’t be enough for us.

This fear then leads to the panic of grasping for more. And, when we let that fear take hold of us, we give in to the lie that it is only through hoarding that we can be saved. The trouble is that once you go down that path, you can never get enough.

Jesus invites us to step out of this fear, to see the world through the eyes of abundance, and to begin to trust in the creative mystery of grace. The paradox that Jesus points us to is this: grasping brings less, while letting go brings more.

Let’s do a little thought experiment together. I want you to do a quick inventory in your mind of everything you have: all the food in your pantry; the clothes in your closets; the books on your shelves; the cars in your driveways; the stocks in your portfolios; the cash in your bank accounts; try to account for everything that is ‘yours.’ And then ask yourself the question: how much of all this do I reasonably need to comfortably provide for myself and my family for the present and the future? And then, after you’ve set that all aside, take a look at everything that is left over.

If you’re like me, there is likely quite a lot left over; indeed, I’m embarrassed to ponder everything that is left over, especially when I juxtapose it against what I know are my neighbor’s needs, let alone the world’s needs.

Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that anyone of us has such a generous and courageous spirit that we are willing to part with all or even most of this pile of leftovers, all at one time. We are, after all, weak and frail creatures. God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. But we heard Christ’s command this morning: he does expect us to at least make a faithful start in gathering up the fragments, the fragments of what we have been given but no longer really need.

As you reflect on this, my suggestion is a simple one: Start small. Set aside an hour a month to go through a closet or some drawers and take what you truly don’t need to Beverly Bootstraps. Or, find twenty minutes every third weekend to go through your pantry to fill up a bag with canned goods and take it to ‘The Open Door’ the next time you’re in Gloucester. Or, go visit the website charitynavigator.org to learn more about how to evaluate charitable organizations, and then set up an online monthly contribution to just one worthy nonprofit, in whatever small amount you can afford, and then just forget about it; you’ll be surprised how much over time you will help that organization and how little you will notice what you’re giving up each month. Or better yet, make that long overdue appointment with your trust and estates lawyer to review your will, and pray about which charitable organizations you might leave at least a small portion of your estate to.

The key to faithful living, as with most healthy behaviors, is prayerfully to develop simple habits that over time move us in the direction of a generous concern for the other, and move us away from the corrosive power of self-centeredness. For the paradoxical truth of the gospel is that the more we give, the more we become.

We like to believe that what we ‘have’ belongs to us, that it is ‘ours.’ But in truth, everything is a gift from the hands of Christ. Everything. And Christ gives us what we have freely and joyfully, so that we might meet our own needs and the needs of those we love. But as for what is leftover, the fragments: they are not ours to do with as we wish. They rightfully are His, and Christ trusts us to gather up these fragments, and to pass them on, so that nothing – and no one – may be lost.

Amen.