Do you believe in God?...
OK, you’re here, so perhaps you do.
Maybe the real question is, do you trust God?
I ask these impertinent questions because as we continue our look at significant words in scripture, our word today is abundance. The essence of the word is “a large quantity of something.” The thing of it is, I am not sure we really like this word much. More to the point, we like having abundance, we are just loathe to admit it!
Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it abundantly, yet it is as if it is human nature to live as though surrounded by meagerness and scarcity. It is almost as if we can’t trust what Jesus says about how life is for his followers.
Consider the wealthy fellow who was asked to share his faith during stewardship season. “I am a millionaire,” he said, “and I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life. I remember that turning point in my faith. I had just earned my first dollar and I went to a church meeting that night. The speaker was a missionary who told about his work. I know that I only had a dollar in my pocket and had to either give it all to God’s work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to give my whole dollar – everything I had – to God. I believe that God blessed that decision, and that is why I am a rich man today.”
There was awed silence as he finished and then stepped down to his seat. It was quiet enough, that as he took his seat, some in the congregation heard the little old lady next to him whisper, “I dare you to do it again.”
Then there is Sean Connery, a fellow who has lead a charmed life. Tall, handsome, dashing, and of course, the best James Bond. Connery has traveled the world to exotic locals for his films, and in addition to acting he is a director and producer, positons of considerable power. His would seem the epitome of an abundant life.
Yet in an interview when asked why, at an advanced age he continues to act, Connery gave a surprising reply: “Because I get the opportunity to be somebody better and more interesting than I am.”
Many people feel like Connery. They miss the abundance of life right in front of them.
In a classic “Peanuts” strip, Charlie Brown goes to Lucy for psychiatric help. He says, “What can you do when you don’t fit in? What can you do when life seems to be passing you by?” Lucy leads Charlie away from her booth and says, “Follow me. I want to show you something. See the horizon over there? See how big this world is? See how much room there is for everybody? Have you ever seen any other worlds?” Charlie replies meekly, “No.” She continues, “As far as you know, this is the only world there is…Right?” Even more meekly, Charlie says, “Right.” Lucy presses on, “There are no other worlds for you to live in…Right?” Charlie admits, “Right.” “You were born to live in this world…Right?” “Right,” says Charlie. Lucy then explodes, “Well, live in it then! Five cents, please.”
While we may disagree with Lucy’s counseling technique, we recognize she is on to something. God is in our lives, remember - we believe - and we’re working on trusting, so there is abundance. In our lives and in our community. We need to find ways to own that and live into it.
This search is nothing Jesus did not anticipate. In the only miracle story to appear in all four gospels – something that should ring bells to its importance for us – Jesus and the disciples are in a desert place, surrounded by a large, hungry crowd. As the day winds down, in a perfectly logical, common sense approach to church problems, the disciples tell Jesus to call it a wrap. End his teaching so that folks can move on and get to town while its daylight so they can find dinner.
Can you imagine the look he shot them when they interrupted his teaching? Perhaps he did the time honored parental trick of counting to ten before he responded, so as not sound too harsh. Sensing another teaching moment, he gently soothes them, “They need not go away…” then he stuns them, “you give them something to eat.”
That’s when the scarcity thinking kicks in. The disciples brought their own picnic supper, some good crusty bread, plenty of dried fish to satisfy themselves. There was no way their meagre resources could possibly meet the need of those around them.
Did anyone notice the irony of this week on the stock market? The Thursday paper carried news that the day before the Dow Jones average had closed at 23,000 points. That’s an abundant stock market! The irony came in another section of the paper which noted Thursday as the 30th anniversary of Black Monday when the Dow posted its single greatest decline in history, 508 points, to close at 1,738. So think about this, in thirty years we have witnessed a tech bubble and burst, a housing boom and bust, a great recession, and 44-months of continued stock growth that left the market 21,418.86 points higher than that oh so dark day 30 years ago. Yet still the cry goes up for more. It’s helpful for people who believe in God, who trust God, to keep that in perspective when we hear Jesus tell us to feed some folks.
Some years ago at the Lavington United Church in Nairobi three young men walked into the office. Although they were cheerful, they looked tired and wore out. Their tennis shoes were dusty and their clothes needed a wash. The first thing they asked when they entered was whether they could sing a verse of "Amazing Grace" in their language. They sang a cappella in parts. It was beautiful. It sounded like angel music, the kind of singing that tugs at the soul and brings tears to your eyes out of the blue.
Then they told the pastor their story. They were university students from Rwanda, 23-year olds. Two of them had been medical students. When war broke out in their country, they had escaped with only the clothes on their back and the song in their heart. They had walked for weeks without a change of clothes with no place to sleep. They had often gone hungry and they had no clue where any of their family members and friends were. Despite this dire outlook, they said they had learned to be grateful for their life each day and they had begun singing "Amazing Grace" as a prayer as they walked. They had seen so much violence and death and cruelty that they could not find words to pray so instead they sang "Amazing Grace" as they walked and they said, "God knew and that was enough."
The three young men had come to church to ask for assistance. They said they had found a room to rent for eight U.S. dollars a month. They said they did not need beds; they would gladly sleep on the floor. They were asking the congregation to help them with a month's rent. Eight dollars and some money for food, a total of $12 a month. The pastor asked the three students to come back in a few days so he could meet with the church leaders. At the meeting, they all agreed it was a great ministry. But someone mentioned the budget. Someone said $8 was not a lot, but if you multiplied by 12 months, the next thing you know, it would be impossible. Another suggested "Let's have a special project," they said. "Let's have a special offering. Let's tell the congregation about the situation, have these young men sing one Sunday morning, and whoever in the congregation is willing to help, could donate outside the usual tithing and offertory." The church leaders talked late into the night. Some were even concerned that so many refugees were in the city that the word would spread that their church was involved in paying rent and buying groceries and they would be swamped with needs. Some wanted to keep church and revivals only a spiritual level. No picnics, no food, no dinner.
As the pastor listened to his church leaders, he learned about the myth of limited resources. We often think there's just enough for some of us. Some have to go without. We have to take care of this property, before we can take care of that need. We only have this much, and we’ll run out, if… As the meeting dragged on, the pastor thought, God's world has enough for all of us. He remembered something he had read: "There is enough for all our needs, but there is not enough for all our greed."
Any church, like the disciples commanded to feed the crowds, is always in a desert place where it cannot rely upon its own resources. Like the disciples, they are few. The church is hungry itself and is surrounded by a world of deep cravings, people are lonely, disoriented, and poor in many different ways. Against the savage realities of human need, we in the church see only small numbers on our roles and even smaller numbers on our budget. So it is no wonder that, like our brothers and sisters in Kenya, and the disciples, our inclination is to cry, “This is a desert. Send the crowds away to fend for themselves.”
Jesus offers a lesson for the disciples and all who would follow and trust: God is compassionate and abundantly able to provide. So, with desperate and hungry people camped all over the church lawn, he looks at their resources, he looks at our resources, and says, “you can do it. You can give them something to eat. Trust me.”
Martin Luther spent the early part of his life affirming the scarcity of his life. For Luther, life was a desert of misery and angst. He spent hours upon hours ruminating upon every single thing he could possibly think of that transgressed God, --and he could think of pages upon pages, of what we might call small potato sins. He was known to spend hours and hours in the confessional. Until one day, after a particularly grueling hours long session, his confessor admonished him to get out and not come back until he had really sinned.
About that time, he began what became a five-year study of the Psalms and Romans. That was where his real breakthrough came, when he grasped the abundance that God had provided for him, and for the world. What he suddenly could see, was that everyone was the same, all had fallen short of the glory of God. Yet still God, in all God’s abundant grace, had offered Jesus for all. Once and for all. Grace was there all along, all he had to do was recognize the grace in his life.
The disciples, Luther, even Lucy, see that God has offered us abundance, it is for us then, who affirm our belief, to also step out and trust that abundance. For when we do, we too will discover twelve hefty baskets of leftovers for the next hungry folks.