Realizing Abundance

[A sermon preached on 2 Kings 4:42-44 and John 6:1-21 at Hermon Presbyterian Church.]

Jesuit author and theologian Dennis Linn made the connection between food and faith when he was a young teacher on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation. He had just moved into a housing project there, and he wanted to do something he’d never done before: invite a few of his new students for a meal. Since soup was a customary meal in the community, he spent most of the day in the kitchen, boiling down bones into homemade broth. But when he added a cupful of rice, it seemed to disappear. He worried that it wouldn’t be enough for the eight people who would be coming to dinner, so he added the entire box, but it still didn’t seem sufficient.

Not knowing that rice expands when it cooks, he went to four different neighbors and collected two more boxfuls of rice. With all three boxes in the kettle, he left the soup simmering on the stove as he went to class. He figured that if he didn’t have enough, he could just fill them up with plenty of bread to go with it.

When Dennis returned home with his guests, the rice greeted them at the front door. The inside of his house looked as if a foot of snow had fallen. While some students stayed to help shovel the rice, others went out to invite their family and friends to the feast. Instead of eight Sioux students, that night Dennis fed the whole neighborhood (dogs included)!

For Dennis, this event launched not only his cooking career, but also his relationship with the people in his neighborhood. That evening after dinner, his students as well as their parents, younger brothers and sisters, and other teachers stayed and got to know one another. Together, they went around the table, sharing moments of gratitude and celebration and supporting one another through their stumblings and sorrows. Dennis told them that while he felt humbled and slightly embarrassed by his blunder, he was also deeply grateful that people of every age were meeting in his home to feast and fellowship and pray together.

That night, God used a simple cooking mistake to bring people together as a community. As folks gathered around, God transformed a newcomer’s fears of scarcity into a communal celebration of abundance. Though the soup nourished their bodies, the fellowship nourished their souls, and all were fed in more ways than one. In fact, that evening was so life-giving for Dennis that during the rest of his time on the reservation, he invited his neighbors for dinner every Friday night (though he did decide to stay away from rice).[1]

In our Gospel reading this morning, we encounter another such unexpected feast. The feeding of the five thousand, as we like to call it, is the only one of Jesus’ miracles to be recorded in all four Gospels, so clearly, it made just as much of an impression on the early Christian community as Dennis’ dinner party made on his new neighborhood. It’s a familiar story for many of us, and you probably know it well.

There they were, atop a mountain, where Jesus liked to go to get away from the crowds, but even there he managed to draw a following, and soon a whole crowd was gathered. They had seen the signs and wonders he’d performed, how he’d healed the sick and turned water into wine, and they just had to see and hear more.

When the disciples saw all of the people coming, they panicked. Here they were in the middle of nowhere, folks gathered expectantly with empty bellies and many different needs. There was no way they could meet all of the demand. With no grocery store in sight, no Grub Hub or Uber Eats, no pizza place willing to deliver our that far, they were really in a bind.

But the problem didn’t end there. Where are we going to come up with enough money to feed all these people, Philip asked. Even six months’ wages wouldn’t be enough to give everyone even a small snack! Then Andrew mentioned that a little boy had brought five loaves and two fish along with him, but surely that wouldn’t even put a dent in the need.

I think it’s important to note, here, that the disciples’ response was entirely focused on problem-solving. No one questioned whether the people gathered around were deserving of a meal. No one blamed them for not being responsible enough to pack their own food. No one worried that people would take advantage of the system. No one insisted that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” or suggested that the people gathered “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” No one disparaged the crowd for “asking for a handout.” The disciples were more interested in serving the people than judging their worthiness. When I read their responses, I hear genuine concern for others rather than condemnation or frustration.

Though they’re fearful and worried that there isn’t enough to go around, they know that setting up eligibility criteria isn’t part of Jesus’ Kingdom vision. They’ve walked with Jesus long enough to know that the economy of grace is much more all-encompassing. Surely, Jesus will know what to do.

Indeed, he tells everyone gathered to sit down together, and he takes the loaves and the fish, gives thanks to God for the generous offering, and as he distributed the provisions among the crowd, somehow all were fed. And even after everyone had eaten their fill, as much as they wanted, there were still twelve whole baskets more! Save those leftovers, Jesus told them. None of these good gifts should go to waste. Not only is there enough for everyone – there’s plenty.

Jesus offers all those who come to him an abundance. He gives us more than even seems possible, and his ministry knows no bounds. As we read earlier in John’s Gospel, when he turns water into wine, it’s not just a box or two of Franzia, enough to keep the party going a little while longer; it’s twenty or thirty gallons of the finest wine (John 2:6,10). When he feeds the five thousand men (not to mention the women and children gathered, so who knows how many it could have been), he multiplies a few loaves and fishes with plenty to spare.

In a world where we worry whether there will be enough, Jesus shows us extravagance. In a world where we clamor for scarce resources, Jesus creates an abundance. In a world where we hoard what we have, Jesus calls us to share with one another.

As biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “The conflict between the narratives of abundance and of scarcity is the defining problem confronting us [in our time]. The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal service declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us. What we know in the secret recesses of our hearts is that the story of scarcity is a tale of death. And the people of God counter this tale by witnessing to [abundance].”[2]

He goes on to say that, “Jesus demonstrated that the world is filled with abundance and freighted with generosity. The market ideology wants us to believe that life consists of buying and selling, weighing and measuring and trading. But Jesus presents an entirely different economy, one infused with the mystery of abundance and a cruciform kind of generosity. Five thousand are fed and 12 baskets of food are left over – one for every tribe of Israel. Jesus transforms the economy by blessing it and breaking it beyond self-interest. In this account of miraculous feeding, people do not grasp, hoard, resent, or act selfishly; they watch as heaven multiplies the bread of earth. The closer we stay to Jesus, the more we will bring a new economy of abundance to the world.”[3]

This lavishness that God bestows on us often comes in the humblest of forms. Bread and fish, the stuff of daily living, can reveal to us the Kingdom of God, if we have the eyes to see it. A common meal can serve an extraordinary purpose, so long as we’re open and receptive to the moving of the Spirit. As disciples, we don’t have to climb mountains or set sail on stormy seas to encounter deep spiritual truths. The miracle, Jesus tells us, is hidden in the ordinary and tucked away in the everyday.

Preacher and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor explains it like this: “To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone.”[4]

Friends, we’re called to search for the sacred in the commonplace: in a crust of bread, in the face of a new neighbor, in a plate of leftovers, in a pot of soup, in the act of sharing with one another. We’re called to practice abundance in a world obsessed with scarcity. We’re called to remember that we have enough, that we are enough, because God lavishes us with grace upon grace. The miracle of the loaves and fishes wasn’t just about filling empty stomachs; God in Christ was filling hungry hearts, and there will always be plenty to go around. Amen.

[1] Linn, Dennis. Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. Paulist Press: New York, 1995. Pg.3-4.

[2] Brueggemann, Walter. “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity.” The Christian Century, March 24-31, l999.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Harper One: New York, 2009. Pg. xvi.

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Seeing the Unexpected

[A sermon preached on 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10 and Mark 6: 1-13 at Hermon Presbyterian Church]

Perception is a funny thing. If you’ve been on social media at all lately, surely you’ve seen the hotly debated Yanny or Laurel video. Countless family members and coworkers and Facebook friends insisted that the clip stated “Laurel,” but alas, I have to say, all I could hear was the name “Yanny.” This frivolous controversy is nothing new.

Before this, we quibbled over whether a photo depicted a blue or gold dress, and I’m sure they’ll be many more optical and auditory illusions to contend with in the future. It’s certainly no surprise, especially in this political climate, that people often see things very differently than one another.

Sometimes our vision is clouded by our context. This lesson became particularly apparent to me in the process of planning my wedding a few years ago. While brainstorming with our family, I remarked that it was a shame that I wouldn’t be able to wear heels to the ceremony. Curious, my family asked why not. I rolled my eyes as I explained that if I wore heels, then Stuart and I would appear to be the same height as me as we stood together at the altar. “Duh, mom!”

As everyone began to smirk, Stuart chimed in, “Hun, how tall do you think I am?” “About my height,” I explained, looking around the room, slightly confused. After some cajoling, both Stuart and I stood up to compare our heights. It turns out, Stuart is taller than me by more than six inches! We had been dating for four years, and somehow, I never realized something this simple! My perception way off the mark!

As we tried to unravel how I could have misjudged so dramatically, we realized that it was all about context! I had played basketball all growing up, even in college, and because I was always undersized for my position, whenever I went out on the floor to match up with my opponent, the player who was closest to “my height” was often six inches taller than me. BINGO!

The context in which I discovered my own height dramatically changed my self-perception. Familiarity with Stuart and with the idea of a taller person being “about my height” created a blind spot. (And in case you’re wondering, yes, I did wear heels . . . once I got over my embarrassment following this conversation.)

I find a lot of comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one who had to learn this lesson the hard way. Early on in his ministry Jesus, too, discovered that perception can play tricks on us. Our Gospel reading this morning presents an unusual sort of homecoming. At this point in his ministry Jesus has changed water into wine and cleansed the leper, calmed the storm and cast out demons, healed the sick and raised the dead to new life. We’d expect him to be the hometown hero, worthy of a welcome parade!

And sure enough, as he enters the synagogue and begins to teach, people were astonished and amazed at all he had said and done. He seemed to teach as one having authority, and they remarked on this wisdom and power that had been given to him.

But then the doubt starts to creep in. Can you hear it? –

“Where’s he getting all this?” “Isn’t he just that scrawny kid from down the street? You know, Mary and Joseph’s boy? Now that I think about it, I remember my kids were in school with his brothers.”

“Who does this guy think he is? He’s getting a little too big for his britches, don’t you think? He’s just a carpenter. One of those blue collar folks. Why on earth would God want to use him, of all people?”

Soon enough, their astonishment turns to rejection, and they take offense at Jesus. Actually, when we look at the Greek word there, it literally reads “they stumbled” or some translators would say “they found him too much for them.” Because their vision was clouded by their assumptions and preconceived notions, they couldn’t see anything other than what they expected to see in him. Their labels and stereotypes blinded them to the truth of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

They reject Jesus because they’re not able to see the unexpected. They cannot perceive God at work in the commonplace. Maybe they echoed the Pharisees’ demand for signs (8:11), searching for God in the exotic when God is much more likely to show up in the form of a regular guy from their neighborhood.

Nevertheless, this misunderstanding will be costly. It’s not just a stumbling block for them, it’s an impediment to Jesus’ healing ministry. The text tells us that he could do no mighty deeds among his own people. Their blindness limits Jesus’ power. Their unbelief creates missed opportunities. Their stubborn attitude and their unwillingness to partner with him constrains his effectiveness.

As New Testament scholar Lamar Williamson writes, “The spiritual climate of a congregation, its sense of expectancy, its openness to the power of God at work through Jesus Christ, will in fact have a great deal to do with how much God’s power can accomplish in that particular community. Our unbelief does not render God impotent, but when it is dominant in a congregation its dampening effect on the mighty acts of God in that time and place is evident and sad.”

As I read this passage, I’m left wondering “if only.” And I can’t help but feel sorry for the people of Nazareth. Truly, they didn’t know what they were missing. Their hearts and minds just weren’t ready to receive this Good News. As Jesus says, “Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown and among their own family and in their own house.”

That being said, I don’t think Jesus expected this to be such a tough crowd. Scripture tells us that he was amazed at their unbelief, almost as if he couldn’t see it coming. One would hope the people closest to us wouldn’t be the same folks whose misunderstanding runs the deepest. Rejection always stings, there’s no way around it, but I can only imagine how hurtful this must have been coming from Jesus’ own friends and neighbors, even his family. How lonely that must have felt!

But Jesus doesn’t dwell on it. He doesn’t argue or try to convince him. He simply moves on. He doesn’t have time to wallow in self-pity or stew in anger; he has people to heal and sermons to preach and ministry to do. He doesn’t have the energy to carry a grudge or hoist a chip onto his shoulder; in fact, he tells the disciples to take nothing for the journey except a staff. No food, no bags, no money in their wallets.

Jesus knew the art of traveling light: not just physically, but emotionally. He gently explains to his disciples that when people aren’t ready to welcome them and can’t seem to hear the message, they don’t have to take it personally. The journey is hard enough as it is without carrying the extra weight of all that baggage. He assures them that they don’t have to take personal responsibility for other people’s perceptions. The disciples are called to preach the message, but whether or not people receive it is beyond their control.

Jesus tells us that we can bear witness to what we’ve seen and come to believe, but ultimately, it’s God who opens eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to respond in faith. Jesus’ experience in Nazareth reminds us that sometimes people just aren’t ready to see anything other than what they’re expecting. Sometimes an unfamiliar tune takes awhile before it catches our ear and begins to grow on us. And when that’s the case, Jesus tells us to shake off our sandals and keep on moving.

I love this imagine because it reminds me of both our missional responsibility and our human limits. As disciples, we’re called to shake off our sandals, stirring up dust that was once settled and kicking up sand that many footsteps may have trampled down. In other words, we can speak truth to power and serve as a prophetic witness to the Gospel, even if it’s messy or inconvenient or unlikely to be well-received. We can challenge the status quo and give voice to that which seems unbelievable.

Yet, we can also let that same dust fall to the ground so that it we don’t carry it too far with us. After all, sandy shoes lead to blistered feet sooner than we tend to realize. We have to know when to let go of that which isn’t ours to begin with in order to fulfill the work that God has called us to do.

Jesus’ teaching reminds me of that line in the Talmud that (loosely paraphrased) reads, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

So much of life is beyond our control. I don’t have to tell you that. Just opening a newspaper brings us to our knees as we contemplate the brokenness of our world and our own helplessness in the face of so many heartbreaking situations both here and abroad. Some days it’s hard to know where we should even start. So, we begin where we are. Even when it feels like it won’t make a difference. Even when it feels like no one is listening. Even when we feel powerless and misunderstood on the deepest levels. Even still, we press on, because like the Apostle Paul, we know that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness and God’s grace is sufficient unto the task.

So, like the prophets before us, we open our eyes and raise our voices. Empowered by the Spirit, we see beyond our assumptions and expectations, the stereotypes and labels we apply so unconsciously sometimes. We allow our limited and biased perceptions to expand as we consider others’ perspectives and learn from their experiences. We open ourselves to encounter Jesus in unexpected people and unexpected places, but most of all in the face of the vulnerable and marginalized. We hear him calling us to lives of humble service as we break down dividing walls of hostility that prevent us from recognizing the presence of God in the face of our neighbors. That’s the message that comes out of Nazareth. Will we hear it? Amen.

 
Affirmation of Faith

(Adapted from the PCUSA NEXT Church Sarasota Statement)

We trust our Lord and Savior who calls disciples to love unconditionally, who confronts brutality by refusing to take arms, and who defies racism by forming a community out of every tribe, people, and nation. Jesus aligns with people who are poor, meek, persecuted, and reviled, and calls the church to do the same. To be a Christian is to be continuously undone and remade by a Savior who encounters us in ways we might not expect, through a collection of people we might otherwise reject, screen, or censor. We commit to move beyond like-minded choruses that reinforce our biases, joining the community that reflects God’s grace, Christ’s kingdom, and the Spirit’s action. We trust that God is always at work in our world and in our lives, giving us joy and calling us to be faithful to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom. We commit to continuously rededicate ourselves to this work and strive, with hearty faith, to live this Kingdom on earth, proclaiming: Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!