July 29, 2018: There’s Plenty!
Scriptures Used: John 6:1-16, Ephesians 3:14-21
I remember when Sam’s Club opened in Athens. It was close to our house – just as far as Walmart but in the opposite direction. Mom wanted to go to see if the deals on bulk were really that good. One Saturday, she took me with her. I remember her saying something about toys, which was just a ploy to get me to behave going to yet another store after the 3-hour Stein Mart fiasco I had just suffered.
I was really annoyed that there were no toys to be seen and she wouldn’t let me stay and play video games at the display. Then we met the food carts, and a lady offered me a sample of chicken nugget. I liked it, so I asked for another. Mom told me no, that one was enough, but the lady smiled and said, “It’s okay, honey, you can have another. There’s plenty.”
(Good move, ma’am. Mom bought a bag after that.)
That is one of the happiest statements in all the world. It means, “Don’t be shy – get you some!” It’s a powerful statement. To be so confident that there is enough for all takers. Both the giver and receiver get lifted up at the very thought: “there’s plenty.”
I believe the Gospels tell us this same thing over and over. There is plenty of goodness, of God’s grace, for everybody. We have so many stories of plenty: Jesus’ miracles of healing, turning water into wine, the promises made in the Sermon on the Mount, but none say it louder and clearer than today’s story: the feeding of the 5000.
It is the only story to appear in all four gospels. Matthew and Mark both have a second, similar story about feeding 4000. In total, stories about feeding lots of people appear six times!
The story begins after Jesus has crossed the Galilee. This is a common refrain in the Gospels. One would think most of Jesus’ ministry is going back and forth across the Galilee. For many people, we too live between a few places – usually home and work and what is often referred to by sociologists as “the third place” which are ballparks, restaurants we hang out at, etc. – and most of our interactions with others occur in these places. Places of plenty are usually places we know.
When Jesus gets back to “the other side,” he and the disciples realize a crowd had followed him. This crowd, the gospel says, follow him because they are looking for more of the miraculous signs of healing. Maybe they wanted to see it for themselves; maybe they too needed healing. People often go looking for places where they can receive something.
The disciples are surprised, maybe even scared, when Jesus asks Philip where they would buy food for all those people. Philip responds with a funny, and very human, answer: even half a year’s salary wouldn’t feed these people even a little bit. It doesn’t matter what a half year’s salary or a year’s salary would be. The point is: WE DON’T HAVE THAT KIND OF MONEY.
You see, the disciples didn’t think there would be enough. They didn’t carry food, and they didn’t have the resources with them to supply it. They didn’t think in terms of plenty – they didn’t see the possibility. All they saw was what they wanted to see: scarcity.
But, being good, obedient folk, they decide to at least figure out what they do have. They find a youth who has five loaves and two fish. I love this part of the story. Why would a youth have two fish and five loaves of bread? That’s going to be a terrible sandwich. And anyone hearing this story would know it wouldn’t make sense for one person to have all of this.
It’s this detail that gives it away: it adds up to seven: one of the biblical numbers of completion. Seven days of creation, jubilee is the year after seven rotations of seven years, etc.
Jesus prays over the offering and has the disciples disburse it among the crowd. Everybody eats what they want – the translation is they are filled. Not necessarily that they all got what they wanted. There was no lamb or fatted calf, but they weren’t hungry, either.
The disciples gather the leftovers: twelve baskets’ full. Twelve is another number of biblical wholeness. Twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples, etc.
What starts off as a story about being overwhelmed by demand, a sobering recognition of limits and scarcity, ends in a story of wholeness and abundance.
This story speaks to so many of the truths of our experience: people are longing to find something to believe in, and those of us who have accepted being a part of that work of caring for others can seem daunting – even untouchable, yet God provides for us.
In his state of the church address to the conference in the past two years, Bishop McAlilly has brought up these two terms – scarcity and abundance – often. Scarcity is a mindset that says we don’t have enough. It robs us of the resolve to try. Abundance is the mindset of faith: to gather what we have, give thanks to God for it, offer it, letting God do the rest.
It doesn’t take much looking to see evidence of people thinking in terms of scarcity and abundance. Scarcity is what happens every time people speak in terms of keeping our folks in and others out. It’s the phrase, “we have to care for our people first.” It’s the “well, I just don’t think we can do that.” It’s a normal response, not unlike Philip realizing the cost of feeding all the people.
However, scarcity is the default mindset of many people, even good church people. Especially in this age when worship is an option for most folks, those who remain devoted want things done in ways that have kept our people devoted. It may be a smart or strategic way of thinking, but when it becomes the only way we think, we stop trying new things. We stop using our imaginations, so when times get tough, we use the same old methods and programs and shrug when those don’t work.
Oftentimes, the language of scarcity is meant to be used only for a short while. It is normal to want to save our resources for a rainy day, but if we don’t allow ourselves to believe that God is behind us, all we know is to save for the rainy day even after we have gotten soaked by the deluge of needs in our community. It’s like we are telling God, “These stories are nice but not realistic.”
So, it is my hope we learn to tell stories of abundance. I have two great examples just from the past two weeks. Two weeks ago, as we were putting the final touches on VBS, we decided to take a risk and ask 30 kids to raise $1000. We have never raised over 300-400 by my memory. They raised $1100. Then we added another 500 on VBS Sunday. This past week, I asked the folks who came to Children’s Council to just plan some events. They did that, and started developing a new children’s discipleship program that we will start next week on Promotion Sunday. That’s abundance.
In our Church Council meetings, we are going to tell stories of God sightings or glory sightings – where we have seen God do something amazing that week. If we start to tell stories of God’s power over our concerns about enough, we will shift the narrative from scarcity to abundance.
Whether at home or in community, God provides for those who are seeking to be followers of Jesus. It doesn’t mean you will always get what you want. I’m sure at least one or two of those people would rather have a different meat than fish or maybe something other than bread, but they were fed and they were satisfied. It might mean that we have to make some sacrifices ourselves to help feed others, or it may mean we have to see things in a new way. There is so much opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ if we trust Christ to care for those hands and those feet.
I believe in God’s ability to provide abundantly and I believe the church – our church and churches all around the country – will end the period of decline once we believe that giving everything we can to God is worth it. And it starts with a heart that is open to what God is telling us, which starts when we too are fed.
In the earliest centuries of the faith, a small church was built in the town of Tabgha at the site believed to be where Jesus fed the 5000. When the first church fell, a second was built, but it too fell years later. In 1982, monks built a new structure that stands today. In that building, you can find the altar of the second church. On it is a mosaic of loaves and fishes, not unlike the image we have on one of our stained glass windows here in our church.
On that altar, so long ago, this story of the people being fed – being provided for – was enshrined on the holiest part of the church. The altar is where we lay our gifts to God, where we lay down our sins to God, where we offer our prayers to God. The altar is the central point of the church, and this story is enshrined there; this story is in every gospel account of Jesus; this story tells us one thing: God sustains us for our journey; there’s plenty to go around. On that altar are these communion elements which represent God’s spiritual food through the physical bread and juice.
So when you come forward later for Communion, I want you to ask yourself two things: 1) are you living your life with a mindset of scarcity that worries that God may ask you to feed the multitude? Or do you have that rock-solid belief that if God does, you’ll be fine? 2) If you do believe God will provide, how are you showing that? Do you regularly offer your gifts – your money, your time, your prayers, your witness – or do you think “God will call on me when God needs me”?
In today’s reading from the third chapter of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul calls on people of faith to develop this faith. To believe in the vastness of Christ’s love, because love is what pushes us to take an active role to believe in abundance. And, in verse 20, the reason is clear: because God provides for us.
In the next few weeks, we are going to roll out information about how you can live into God’s abundance by giving: your time, your witness, your service, your offerings. I have done the homework for you – numbers, specific tasks, roles – are all going to be laid out for you. Part of faith is saying yes, so I hope you will consider what is being asked.
When you come to the table of God’s abundant grace, God offers you a promise: there’s plenty. So, come, and believe.