Have you ever had a tough day? The kind that just makes you want to get away?
Everyone has, and Jesus was no exception. He had just finished a long theological discourse as a way of defending himself against his critics, who among other things did not like the idea of him healing people on the Sabbath. And now, he just wanted to get away and rest. In a boat with his disciples, he goes off across the Sea of Galilee to the other side.
But the crowds can see where Jesus and his disciples are going and follow him around the lake (the Sea of Galilee isn’t really a sea). The crowd followed because Jesus had been healing the sick. You start healing sick people and the crowds will follow you around.
Jesus gets to the other side of the lake and he goes up high on a high hill. Jesus gets away from the crowds, away from the controversy, away from the stress. And then he looks out, and what does he see? People. Coming in droves. Hundreds of people.
Jesus sees this large and growing crowd, and what does he say? Well, it isn’t what we might expect a person to say. He doesn’t say, “What does a guy have to do to get some rest around here?” And he doesn’t say, “Well, I guess I can pull out my ‘No Greater Love’ sermon.”
No, Jesus sees the crowd and he asks Philip, who happened to be from a nearby town, “Where are we going to buy bread for all these people to eat?”
Jesus is a prophet. He is a teacher and a healer. He is not a caterer. Why would this be his reaction on seeing the crowds? John clues us in that Jesus knew what he was going to do. This was just the setup. Philip said, “It would take 6 months wages to buy enough food for this crowd!”
Andrew, one of the disciples, reports that in the crowd there is a boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish - but what would that be among so many people? It is hard to imagine that in this big crowd, there was just this one kid with the foresight to pack a lunch, but that is the report.
This boy with the lunch has 5 barley loaves. Barley bread was the food of the very poor – one commentator said that it was held in contempt as a grain for animals. This was not a loaf of multi-grain bread from Panera. And don’t think that he had a couple of nice salmon in his lunch box. Think something more along the lines of sardines. There were great quantities 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. He is young boy, he is very poor, and he has about as meager and pitiful a lunch as you could imagine. It is not very promising. It is about as far from promising as you could be.
But Jesus doesn’t wring his hands over what they don’t have. Instead, he blesses what they do have. He has his disciples tell everyone to be seated on the grass. He took the loaves and fish, he gave thanks, and he distributed them to the crowd. And it was enough. It was more than enough. Everyone had all they wanted and there were enough leftovers to fill 12 baskets. The pitiful lunch offered by one of the most unlikely people in the crowd was more than enough.
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. It is not just about food for our bodies, it is about food for our spirit.
How do we look at the world? The predominant mindset is one of scarcity and fatalism. There isn’t enough to go around. We can’t afford to worry too much about others; we have to look out for ourselves. And even if we tried, we really can’t make much of a difference.
It’s no wonder we think this way. A lot of people are not asking, “When will I be able to retire?” They are asking, “Will I ever be able to retire?” Others are simply hoping and praying for a decent-paying job. We would all like to be generous, we really would, but we can’t afford to be too generous or there will not be enough for us.
It’s not just money. For some, time seems to be an even scarcer commodity. We are pulled in a million directions, with all kinds of demands on our time. There is never enough time.
In so many instances, there is this narrative of scarcity that is the predominant story. Security is scarce. Patience is scarce. Kindness is scarce. Understanding is scarce. Forgiveness is scarce. Imagination is scarce.
The tension between scarcity and abundance is always with us. It 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? We find pure abundance.
In the first chapter of his gospel, John speaks about Jesus as the Word from whom 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. And then John closes his gospel by noting that in addition to the things 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, with God’s grace there is always more than enough. In John chapter 10 Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
In a Christian Century article, Charles Hoffman wrote:
The church of my youth majored in a miserly view of God’s grace. Its message was grim. Life had no edge, no elegance and no joy, but was… largely limited to preparations for the hereafter… That early religion held no attraction for me, but I was bound to it by the guilt and fear it engendered in me.How would life be different if we really lived out Jesus’ way of joy and abundance?
All of that changed when a new minister walked into our church. He was winsome, engaging, honest and without guile. One Sunday morning he preached the most important sermon of my life. His text was John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” I still remember the message: Christ calls us to a life of fullness, affirmation and joy. In that moment the Word reached out and claimed me.
Philip and Andrew represent us – they represent the church. “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.” Their vision was too limited. They were too captured by the story of scarcity.
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…
Malaak Compton-Rock traveled to South Africa working on an economic development project with very poor women. She returned from her trip and went directly to the Salvation Army in Brooklyn where she volunteered in an after-school program. She told the kids about her trip and they said they wished they could go on a trip like that. It got her to thinking. She wound up starting an organization called “Journey for Change.” She takes groups of twelve to fifteen-year-old kids from New York City to South Africa to volunteer in very poor communities.
The first group of kids who went were involved in that program at the Salvation Army in the Bushwick neighborhood. Bushwick is a working class neighborhood with a lot of problems. Less than 50% of the students graduate at Bushwick High. These were thought of as at-risk kids – at risk for teenage pregnancies, at risk for dropping out of school, at risk for getting involved in gangs, at risk for drugs.
These Bushwick kids were paired with college-aged mentors and worked in Soweto and other shanty towns in South Africa with AIDS orphans and granny families – families headed by grandmothers because the other adults had all died of AIDS. One of the things Compton-Rock felt was important in organizing the program was to give these kids, who were often on the receiving end of assistance, an opportunity to be on the giving side. And it has made a huge difference in their lives. These kids start to dream much bigger dreams. They learn that they have a lot to give and that their gifts really matter. Basically, they go from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset. They learn that there is enough, and that they are enough.
Early in the year, a planning team here at our church broke into two groups. Each group was assigned to plan an engaging activity for the church – one over the summer and one in the fall. In June we had a Sunday morning service and cookout and fishing that afternoon at McFarland Park. The fall group planned our Harvest Festival for today. I love the idea of a harvest festival because it is all about abundance. God provides for us and blesses us with a bountiful harvest. With God, there is more than enough.
I read a very interesting article just this week about a church in Lauderdale – it’s a small suburb just north of St. Paul, kind of tucked in between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Peace Lutheran Church is in an out of the way location, across the street from the sound barriers along Highway 280. I’m familiar with the area because it’s just blocks away from where I took classes at Luther Seminary.
The church is not in a location that draws visitors, and it had declined to the point that it had 20 members. They had enough money to keep the doors open for about 18 months. Basically, they had 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.
They hired a part-time pastor, and decided that if they were going to die anyway, they might as well go for it. They were going to die well.
So here is what they did: they decided to take “love thy neighbor” to a practical extreme. They leafleted Lauderdale with 700 fliers, offering to roof houses, fix plumbing, repair anything in need, free of charge. There would be no litmus tests, no income requirements, they didn’t care if you were Lutheran or atheist. They would get your furnace running, make your kitchen handicap accessible, ensure your car started in time for work. “Your quality of life can be improved if the toilet works,” said one member.
Pastor Dave Greenlund knew that Peace would get few takers. Lauderdale is a mix of working people and those who’ve seen better days. These were not people who talked about their troubles, and there was the natural suspicion of anything religious - the assumption that “free” would come with a lot of proselytizing.
Only two women responded. One needed concrete repaired and the footings fixed in a rotting garage. Another hoped that her house could be painted.
The church stayed at it. They cleaned homes for shut-ins, built chair lifts, rewired old houses for widows whose husbands had kept the lights on with the duct tape method. They did not preach or expect recipients to come to church. They would simply help.
In time, word spread. If an elderly widow’s furnace broke on Christmas Eve, people came to know that you could call the church. The idea was infectious. Non-members joined the cause by the dozens. Donations from the grateful kept the church afloat. An abundance of love and kindness and community proved bigger and more important than financial limitations.
The church is still small. They have quadrupled in membership – to 80. They are still a poor church. When their air conditioning went out, they could not afford a new system. So a local contractor offered to refurbish units that had been discarded by a school. But the contractor showed up with new units instead - the owner said he wanted to “pay it forward.”
Basically, this church took its five barley loaves and two fish and chose to look at what it had and who it was through the eyes of abundance rather than scarcity.
It is very easy to give in to the prevailing attitude of scarcity – the idea that there is not enough, there is never enough. But the good news is that with God, there is more than enough. There is an abundance of hope and joy and love and grace and possibility. And when we share what we have, our gifts are multiplied. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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