7.31.11 sermon – Debt Ceilings, Dying Churches, and God’s Abundance
13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
18And he said, “Bring them here to me.”
19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
I couldn’t have planned this better. As many of you know, I preach from the lectionary, which means there are 4-5 texts offered for each Sunday as part of a three-year rotation through much of the Bible. And as I prepared for this Sunday, I discovered that the story of the feeding of the 5000 falls on the Sunday when we have a potluck. How appropriate.
I love this story. It is the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels. That should get our attention. There is something powerful in this story. Something that so many in the early church were struck by that they each thought, “we need to remember this story”. And I can see why. Let’s look at the story a bit more closely.
Jesus retreats in his grief, but he is followed by a great crowd. In his compassion for the needs of those around him, Jesus offers healing. Then, the disciples, slightly less compassionate but understandably practical, say, “Hey Jesus, it’s getting late. We are in the middle of nowhere. Let’s send these people away so they can go buy food for themselves.” But Jesus has a different plan. He says, “You give them something to eat.” Just as most of us would do, they immediately make excuses out of their sense of scarcity: “We only have 5 loaves of bread and a couple fish. This will never work.” but then, Jesus takes what they have, blesses it, and gives it to the disciples to offer to the hungry crowd. And there is more than enough to go around.
In addition to being a great story, it is one that so readily reminds us of where we find ourselves each and every day. Because we are like these disciples. Daily, we see need all around us, and we ask God to do something about it. And we find ourselves hearing those challenging words: “You give them something to eat.” And we look at our hands, in our pockets, at our sense of what we are capable of doing, and we say,
“We barely have enough for ourselves.
We are only a small church.
I’m not very creative.
You can’t do much with what I have to offer.
This will never work.”
But it is precisely when we think we have the least to offer that God can surprise us the most. Jesus says, “bring what you have here to me.” And our offerings are blessed and given back to us as the church – the body of Christ – to multiply the good we can do by sharing it.
But if we do not trust in that abundance God offers, we focus only our scarcity. And that can be dangerous, because the perception of scarcity almost always leads to fear. And fear usually leads to looking out only for ourselves and neglecting the needs of others.
Haven’t we seen this in our churches and our denomination?
Many will try to argue that we are withering away & then we neglect the abundance of gifts right in our midst. Our fear of dying turns our focus inward, and our focus turns to budgets and numbers in worship and debates about the purity of the church. We focus on our own grief of what the church once was and we miss the tremendous opportunities to offer good news and abundant grace and shelter and bread to those gathered around us. I continue to be grateful that I have not seen Northminster function this way. You all do a lot more faithful risk taking than many, but it is always important to be mindful of the power of that nagging fear of scarcity. And we always need to do more to cultivate the amazing gifts we have to share.
And we would be naive if we pretended this story only had a message for the church.
The perception of scarcity and fear have dominated our political and economic conversations lately as well. Despite our very real (and sometimes politically-fabricated) economic crises, we are still one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Yet we share our resources so disproportionately. This nation that so many lift up for it’s Judeo-Christian values seems woefully unwilling to care for the poor, the sick, the elderly. What we are seeing right now is a political culture more concerned with winning than governing, and our most vulnerable citizens bear the brunt of these games.
My friend, Rev. J. Herbert Nelson was arrested at the capital building on Thursday, along with almost a dozen other religious leaders. After urging Congress to reach an equitable resolution on the debt ceiling debate, J. Herbert and individuals from a variety of denominations and religious traditions ignored the instructions of police to leave and remained to pray for our country and its leaders and all of its citizens, especially the most vulnerable ones.
Sometimes people get uncomfortable when we talk about politics at church. We hear “separation of church and state” and think we need to shut off part of our brains when we enter the doors of a church. But that is not how it works. Our former moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow clarifies it nicely. He writes: “when it comes right down to it, the role of the church is NOT to draft legislation and develop policy – holding true to the separation of church and state – but to make sure that those who are called and elected into that role are held accountable for the policies and legislation that they enact or in the case of the past few weeks . . . do NOT enact – honoring the convergence of faith and politics. In other words, religious commitments and convictions should not determine legislative infrastructure, but faith will always have something to say about the outcomes and impact of that legislation on the people over whom it claims to have authority.”
While I know this is a complex situation, we as people of faith cannot ignore the countless biblical mandates to advocate for the poor, sick, the orphans, the widows, the imprisoned – those who fell through the cracks of the system thousands of years ago and still do today.
Because it is not bread alone that the poor and hungry need. They need advocates speaking on their behalf in all levels of society. It is important for us not just to give someone bread. As people of faith, we must also ask why this person is hungry in the first place.
In the face of these difficult realities, this story of the feeding of the 5000 offers such a tremendous challenge and such great hope all at the same time.
We need to remind ourselves of it often, because “over and over again in life, we stand in the shoes of the disciples in this passage: surrounded by human need, faced with a challenge, knowing we do not have the resources, in our own wisdom, wealth, and strength, to meet the need, to stand up to the challenge. With the disciples, we say, “This is a deserted place. We don’t have enough.” We sometimes feel our only option is to sit in our La-Z-Boy and try not to see the needs, to ignore the challenge.” (Alyce McKenzie).
But this story knocks us out of our comfy chairs and into the challenging sea of people where God is already at work. And we do this even though it goes against everything we would think is smart or safe. But Jesus never said that following him would make you rich or keep you safe. But he did promise to never leave us.
Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” and then he asks us to bring to what we have and then he blesses it, and tells us to feed the hungry crowds around us.
Trust that God can work with what you are able to share.
Whether it is bread,
or a strong back,
or a voice for the silenced,
or notes of support,
or the willingness to teach a child
or the gift of music,
And the list goes on and on.
God does not ask us to work miracles. God asks us to trust. And God can do amazing things through us if we are but willing to share what we have.
We might even find that we have more than enough leftover. Amen.