Saturday, August 1, 2015

"Perspective" - July 26, 2015

Text: John 6:1-21

It is good to be back!  We had a wonderful time on our sabbatical, with a mix of continuing education, travel, and family time, as well as the American Baptist biennial meeting in Kansas City.  I was able to do a good bit of reading and some home projects.  (Don’t worry; I left plenty of projects to do later.)  We will be sharing more about our sabbatical experience.

During our sabbatical, I learned some things and gained some inspiration, it was a time of rest and renewal, but maybe the most important thing was to gain a renewed sense of perspective.  Attending different churches, hearing a variety of preachers, reading more widely than usual, seeing new parts of the country – things like this all contribute to considering life and ministry from different vantage points, and that can be very helpful.  For starters, visiting a number of different congregations made me appreciate our church all the more.

As far as my sabbatical went, the matter of realizing that there are multiple perspectives came right away.  On May 10, following worship here, I left for Denver to attend the Festival of Homiletics.  There were about 1800 preachers in attendance from all over the U.S. and Canada and even a few from England, Australia, and New Zealand.  The opening session was held in the Colorado Convention Center, which is a huge building – some of you have probably been there.  I was walking to the Bellco Theatre, the meeting space where our gathering was to be held – I’d say it was a third of a mile hike from where I entered the building to where I was going – and I kept seeing signs saying, “Get the new ATS app for your Android or iPhone.”

I am at a meeting with 2000 ministers, so I assume that ATS is the Association of Theological Schools.  I know Dan Aleshire, the director from back when he was a seminary professor.  ATS is the accrediting agency for seminaries and divinity schools and a general go-to group for information on theological education.  They perform an important function, but I couldn’t imagine why they needed an app.  I suppose a potential seminary student might wonder if their school of choice is on academic probation, but I can’t imagine there really being much of a market for this app. 

Well, I forgot about the ATS app until a couple of days later.  After that first night, sessions were held concurrently at three neighboring churches, but I took the light rail into downtown Denver and the train went past the convention center.  They had big banners on the building: “Welcome American Thoracic Society.”  Well, now it made sense.  There was a bigger market for an app for heart and lung doctors than for seminary administrators.

If you heard the letters “ATS,” various things might come to mind depending on your perspective.  If you are shopping for a high end sport sedan, you might think of the Cadillac ATS.  It is possible that the Antarctic Treaty System or Antique Telescope Society or Anderson Trucking Services might come to mind.  Or maybe for you, ATS stands for A Tricky Situation – that’s more likely for most of us.

The point is: what we see is colored by our perspective - by what we expect to see.  We find this in our scripture this morning.  Jesus has just finished a long theological discourse as a way of defending himself against his critics.  After this, he goes off across the Sea of Galilee to the other side.  Jesus needs some time away from the crowds.  But the crowd follows Jesus around the lake (the Sea of Galilee is really more of a lake), walking the 8 or 10 miles to find him on the other side.  John tells us that the crowd followed because Jesus had been healing the sick.  You start healing sick people, especially in a time when there was very little in the way of medical care, and people will start following you around too. 

Jesus arrives on the other side of the lake, but before long people are coming in droves.  Jesus sees this large and growing crowd and asks Philip, who was from a nearby town, “Where are we going to buy bread for all these people to eat?”

Jesus is a prophet, not a caterer.  Why would this be his reaction on seeing the crowd?  Why would he think that this was his responsibility?  It’s not like he invited 5000 of his closest friends for dinner.  John clues us in that Jesus knew what he was going to do.  This was just the setup.  Philip answered Jesus’ question, saying, “It would take 6 months wages to buy enough food for all these people!”  But Andrew reports that in the crowd there is a boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.  That is all the food they can scrounge up - but what would that be among so many people?

The way this boy’s lunch is described tells us something.  Barley bread was the food of the very poor – it was thought of more as a grain for animals.  If you took barley bread in your lunch to school, the other kids might make fun of you.  So this is not just a small boy, but a poor boy.  And don’t think that he had a couple of nice salmon in his lunchbox.  Think something more along the lines of sardines.  There were large numbers of small sardine–like fish in the Sea of Galilee that were often pickled.  This boy had some bread eaten by the poorest of the poor and a couple of pickled sardines. 

From the perspective of the disciples, this was not at all promising.  But Jesus has a different perspective.  He views things differently.  He doesn’t wring his hands over what they don’t have.  Instead, he blesses what they do have.  He took the loaves and fish, gave thanks, and distributed them to the crowd.  And it was more than enough.  Everyone had all they wanted and there were enough leftovers to fill 12 baskets.

You know as well as I do that this is more than simply a story about food.  It is about generosity and stewardship and about God meeting our needs.  It is about the choice we have to live with an attitude of scarcity or to live with trust in God’s abundance.  And it is not just about food for our bodies, it is about food for our souls.

How do we look at the world?  The common perspective is one of scarcity and fatalism.  There isn’t enough to go around, and we can’t make much of a difference.  There is not enough money.  There is too little time.  There are too few willing workers.  Patience is lacking.  Good will is lacking.  Imagination is scarce.  Kindness is scarce.  We can’t find good information.  There is too little love. 

The tension between scarcity and abundance was certainly felt in Jesus’ time, and no matter that we live lives of ease and comfort and opulence compared to first century folks, we still live with this tension between scarcity and abundance.

It is with this background that we read John, and what do we find in his gospel?  Pure abundance.  In the first chapter, John speaks about Jesus as the Word from whose fullness we have all received grace upon grace.  The first miracle, or sign, reported in John is when Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  Jesus instructs the servants to fill some jars with water, and they fill them to the brim.  The result is a profusion, not merely of wine, but of excellent wine.  Abundance.

At a community well in Samaria, Jesus tells a woman about living water gushing up to eternal life.  No just a trickle, but water all over the place.  Abundance.  In Jesus’ address to his disciples before he is arrested, he says, “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.”  Not just room for a few, not an exclusive view of eternity, but an expansive and inclusive kingdom.  Abundance.  At the end of the Gospel, John closes by noting that in addition to all he has told us, there is so much more that if it were all reduced to writing, there wouldn’t be enough space in the world to contain the number of books that would be required.  Abundance.

Whether it is wine at a wedding or rooms for eternity or picnic food, there is always more than enough.  In Chapter 10 Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  In John you find abundance all over the place – there is an abundance of abundance, if you will.

How would life be different if we really lived out Jesus’ way of joy and fullness and abundance?  What if we lived our lives with the perspective of delight and possibility and grace? 

Though Jesus time and again reveals abundance, the disciples just don’t see it.  Our scripture reading continues with Jesus’ disciples heading out on the lake.  It was now dark; the wind was blowing and the waters were rough.  Then Jesus approached them, walking on the water.  This scared them, as it would scare us to see someone walking on the water, but it is another example of perspective.  They had witnessed miracles of Jesus, or signs, as John calls them, but they still have a hard time seeing Jesus from the perspective of God’s power and possibility.

While we were away these last 10 weeks, there were a number of big news stories, one after another it seemed, and being out of the pulpit over the summer, I thought about folks who were preaching with all of this going on.  Lots of news: Supreme Court decisions, a treaty with Iran, the latest on Donald Trump, and so on.  What was heartbreaking were the mass shootings that seem to come more and more frequently.  Last week at a military recruiting station in Tennessee; this week at a theater in Louisiana.  What has continued to be on my mind is the shooting at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.  A stranger comes and joins a Wednesday night Bible study and is welcomed into the group before shooting nine people to death.  It was tragic and horrifying.

I thought about his as we went to church the following Sunday and then as we went to our ABC Biennial Meeting.  I thought about those who had gone to a place of worship and wound up losing their lives.  As much as this had touched me, it was important to hear the perspective and experience of others.  The shooter didn’t just choose any church; it was an African-American church.  Kind of lost in the news is that six churches have been burned to the ground since that tragedy.  They were not just random churches; they were all African-American churches. 

In recent months we have time and again heard stories of people who were stopped by police for minor infractions and who wind up dead.  This not a commentary on police; I would guess that police officers are no better or worse than preachers or teachers or doctors, and the ones I know are all very dedicated and people of integrity.  But when these incidents occur, it is always an African-American victim.

It hurts to hear these stories, but as I talked to African-American colleagues and heard African-American preachers this summer - and as I talked to friends and colleagues who have African-American children and grandchildren - I was reminded that these events affected them in a much more personal and existential way than they could affect me.  I need to hear and understand their perspective. 

When we are really open to other perspectives, to new and different ways of looking at things, to new possibilities, we may be surprised by what can happen.  The disciples went along and did what Jesus asked, feeding the crowd with the little boy’s lunch, and they were stunned by the results.  Some have suggested that seeing this child who was willing to share his lunch, others in the crowd shared what they had, and that there was enough for everyone.  John doesn’t report on the mechanics of it, but if it happened that way it would have been no less of a miracle.

This story invites us to be open to possibility – to be open to God’s power and grace, which can do amazing things.

Philip and Andrew stand in for so many of us in the church who worry, who doubt, who bring “realism” to dampen dreams and visions.  “It would take 6 months wages to buy enough food.”  “We’ve got some bread and a couple of fish, but it couldn’t possibly be enough.”  They were living with the soundtrack of scarcity playing in their minds.  They could not imagine a different way.

What if we learned to give thanks for what we have and share, rather than bemoan what we don’t have and hoard?  How would life be different if we were able to understand that God’s provision is enough, and we were willing to share what we have been given?  What if we were truly open to God’s possibilities for us?

Like anywhere else, it is so easy in the church to focus on what we lack.  If only we had more members, if only we were in a different location, if only we had more Sunday School teachers, if only we had a bigger choir, if only we had more young people.  If only we had a decent preacher.  If only…

And when it comes to the big issues that confront us as a society, as a nation, it is so easy to throw our arms up in the air and say that there is nothing much we can do.  How could one person, or even a group of people, possibly make a difference when it comes to solving problems like violence or racism or poverty or hunger or homelessness or any number of things?  And what about those personal hurdles we face, like unemployment or debt or addictions or illness or grief or broken relationships?

It is easy to get caught up in scarcity and fatalism.  But when we instead recognize our blessings and are willing to share what we have, when we are open to new and different possibilities and perspectives, when we take seriously the power and grace and surprising ways of God, we may find that those obstacles and situations that we face are maybe not so impossible.  We can find that there is enough – enough resources, enough know-how, enough collective will, enough commitment, enough hope, enough love, enough grace.

Seeing through the perspective of God’s abundance can change things, because we serve a God of grace, A Transforming Savior. (And that’s ATS, if you didn’t catch it.)  Amen.

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