The Rev. Dr. Lucy Lind Hogan
This is it!
Have you heard people talking about “thinking outside the box”? Well, this is it, this is the box!
Our scripture readings today—from the prophet Isaiah and from the gospel of Matthew—challenge us to follow God’s lead and “think and act outside of the box.”
I. Thinking Inside the Box
Before we think about what it means to “think outside the box,” we need to back up and explore what it looks like to think “inside” the box.
How would you define thinking and acting inside the box? I would describe it as thinking and acting in ways that are predictable. Inside of this box, we know what is possible, and what is impossible. While thinking inside the box may be limited, at least we know what to expect. I don’t know about you, but I believe I tend to think inside the box. I do know that the scriptures are filled with the stories of people who thought inside the box.
Once they crossed through the Red Sea, the children of Israel returned to their in-the-box thinking. They quickly forgot that God had led them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They seemed to forget that, by God’s gracious hand, the waters of the Red Sea had parted, allowing them to escape on dry land. Instead, they complained to Moses. In fleeing slavery to the Egyptians, they also left behind the certainty of food and water, as meager as that might be.
“Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3)
What was possible? What was predictable? No food or water in the desert—that was in-the-box thinking. But, can we blame them? Would you think differently?
Or what of the man from Baal-shalishah who brought his gift to the temple? Twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain were a gift pleasing to God. Yet, the prophet Elisha said to the man,
“Give it to the people and let them eat.” (2 Kings 4:42)
Give it to the people? But the people were one hundred people! I would say that the man was thinking logically when he told the prophet, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” (2 Kings 4:43)
I just had a party for freshmen going off to start college in Cincinnati where my son is a junior. When the invitations went out, we imagined we would have fifteen, maybe twenty people who would be coming. Fifty! Fifty people came to the party. I know that twenty loaves of barley bread would not have been enough! Wouldn’t our reaction be the same as the man from Baal-shalishah?
We know what to expect in life. We know what is possible, we aren’t fools. If you need food, you need money with which to buy the food, you need a place to buy the food, and you need enough food to buy for all the people you need to feed. If that is thinking in the box, most of us think inside the box.
The disciples thought inside the box. Look at this morning’s reading from the gospel. Jesus, Matthew tells us, “withdrew in a boat to a deserted place, by himself.” But he wasn’t alone for very long. Jesus was joined by a vast crowd that came searching for him. The people were hungry to hear his word. They were longing to be healed by him. Jesus felt sorry for them, got out of the boat, and healed the sick. They are a long way from the towns, out in the middle of no where.
Should we be surprised that the disciples, like Jesus, take pity on the crowd and urge Jesus to send everyone home? Where will they get something to eat? Where will they get something to drink? Should we be surprised when they challenge their teacher’s command,
“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
Can we forgive the disciples for thinking in the box? We all, I believe, think inside of the box most of the time. We put ourselves in that box because we think that it is safe and secure. We also, I am afraid, try to put God in the same box.
II. Thinking Outside the Box
The scriptures may be filled with people who, like us, thought/think inside the box; they are also filled with story after story about our God who refuses to be put inside the box. The scriptures are filled with command after command by God to think and act outside the box. “My ways are not your ways,” God reminds us, “my thoughts are not your thoughts ” (Isaiah 55:8).
What does it mean to think God thoughts, to follow God’s ways, to see God’s possibilities?
The children of Israel were thirsty? God told Moses to tap the rock and water would appear. Water from a rock—in-the-box thinking? Impossible. But for God, nothing is impossible.
Feeding one-hundred people with only twenty barley loaves—in-the-box thinking, impossible. But for God, nothing is impossible. The prophet told the man, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” Not only will there be enough—there will be more than enough!
The scriptures are filled with stories of God’s extravagant abundance. Quail and manna in the wilderness, water from rocks. “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1).
Extravagant abundance—for everyone! Thinking outside the box of limits and restrictions.
The disciples, understandably, wanted Jesus to send the crowd home. They thought in terms of limits and restrictions. They didn’t have enough money to buy food for so great a multitude. And even if they did have the money, there was nowhere to buy that much food. All they had was five loaves of bread and two fish. Five loaves and two fish—for God that is enough!
Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave.
For God, nothing is impossible. And working with God, for us, all is possible.
The disciples took the bread and gave it to the crowds. They ate—and there was food left over! What the disciples had was enough! Extravagant abundance. Without limits or restrictions. That is what it means to think and act outside the box. That is how God thinks and acts, and that is how God calls us to think and act. Everyone who thirsts come to the water.
III. Moving Outside the Box
Those in the business world speak of thinking “outside the box” in order to be more creative, more original, more revolutionary, more daring. They want to think outside the box so that they will sell more products and make more money. But when I say that we are challenged, as followers of Christ, to think outside the box, I mean to say that we are challenged to think and act as God, as Christ, to bring freedom to the oppressed, healing to the sick, food and water to the hungry, and to bring reconciling love and peace to a world torn by suspicion, selfishness, and hatred.
The gospel message to us today is that when we place our trust, our lives, our resources in God’s hands, they, we, will be blessed, and we will not only have enough love, peace, healing, food, we will have more than enough!
The world is filled with God’s extravagant abundance. We are called to be, as preacher Barbara Brown Taylor describes, “detectives of the divine.” We are surrounded by signs and actions of “out of the box” thinking and acting. God is challenging us to look for them. And God is challenging us to act outside the box.
Sometimes it will be on a very small scale. Earlier this week, it was almost 100 degrees here in Washington. The Montgomery County fire fighters greeted people as they left the Metro. They were handing out free bottles of water so that people would not suffer heat exhaustion: “everyone who thirsts, come to the water.” That is out-of-the-box thinking.
Other times, we must think on world-wide scale. The nations of the world are being challenged to forgive the debts of the poorest countries so that they will be able to have a fresh start. “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” That is out-of the-box thinking.
So, join me as we become detectives of the divine. Where do we see God acting out of the box? Where do we see signs of God’s extravagant abundance? And how are we being called to think and act out of the box? This is God’s challenge to all of us as we gather around the table this morning.
Everyone who thirsts—come to the living waters!