The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
The God of Abundance
Sermon adapted by the Rev. DWHinkle
P10 Proper 12B July 29, 2-18
Scripture: John 6:1-21
“1After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.”
Sermon: Several years ago, a group of Christian educators were promoting capitalism. One of the key ways they did this was to sponsor seminars for pastors to learn basic economics. A pastor friend of mine decided to attend one of these seminars. For a very minimal fee, he and several other pastors were brought to Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. They were housed in comfortable dorms, fed very well, and taught basic capitalist economics.
What was most memorable about his experience at this seminar was that he ended up becoming a thorn in the side for the Christian educators who sponsored the event. He didn’t mean to be a thorn in the side. He honestly wanted to learn more about economics, and he did learn a lot. But the first lecturer was going over the most basic definitions and assumptions, pretty close to how an economics textbook would proceed. The first paragraph gives a definition of economics; the second paragraph gives a definition of human wants; and the third paragraph began this way:
“Resources are the things or services used to produce goods, which then can be used to satisfy wants. Economic resources are scarce…” (1)
It’s that part about economic resources being scarce that caught my friend’s ears. He raised his hand and asked, “How do you know that resources are scarce? What about Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, for example? Isn’t the centerpiece there his words about not being anxious for the basics of life? God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. I think that Jesus was trying to get us to trust in a God of abundance, instead of assuming a God of scarcity.”
The lecturer was quite flustered. He absolutely could not fathom a beginning point of abundance rather than scarcity. He simply said, “Isn’t scarcity obvious? I don’t know what else to say. Capitalism doesn’t work as a system unless we accept this basic assumption.”
Well, my friend wouldn’t accept this assumption, so he persisted in asking each successive instructor how what they were presenting would change if we assumed abundance rather than scarcity. Well, by the end of the three days, they all were glad to see my pastor friend go home.
Why talk about economics today? Because I am convinced it has to do with the God we come to know and believe in our Lord Jesus Christ. Is the God of Jesus Christ a God of scarcity or a God of abundance? I think that the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand in today’s gospel has to do with this question. Jesus wanted everyone on that hillside to believe, at least for a few moments, in a God abundance.
Normally, we believe in a God of scarcity, don’t we? Capitalist economics is a prime example. I received an interesting bit of information over the Internet this morning. It said that 80% of Americans have just 7% of the wealth and 19% of Americans have 53% of the wealth. That means that the 1% have the rest, 40%. I didn’t fact check this information, but if true, this means that a tiny minority of Americans, the 1%, have more wealth than 80% of Americans put together. No wonder we might be made to believe in scarcity if 80% of us have to struggle for just 7% of the wealth. Hmm...this vast gap in income is the worst it’s been since the Gilded Age. It was similar problems that first brought the Prophets on the scene in ancient Israel.
But I don’t want to just pick on capitalism. Believing in a God of scarcity is another way to define our sin. Think once again about the Bible’s first story, the one about Adam and Eve in the garden. We might even call Paradise living in a state of abundance like the first man and woman were doing.
But that ol’ snake made a problem out of that one tree in the middle of the garden. He convinced our Great-Great-Grandparents, Adam and Eve, that there was a scarcity, after all, a scarcity of knowledge. God was hoarding knowledge, he told them, and if they ate from that one ‘scarce’ tree, in the middle of the garden full of trees, they’d be like gods and get in on his stockpile of knowledge.
As soon as that man and woman starting believing in a God of scarcity, Paradise was lost. It’s been the same for all of us ever since, hasn’t it? We fall to the many temptations to believe in a God of scarcity. We even end up building our economic systems on that assumption.
That brings us back to today’s Gospel story of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. I truly believe that this miracle is all about giving us a glimpse of the true God, who is a God of abundance, not scarcity. Getting us to believe in that, even for a few moments, is perhaps the true miracle.
So, what is the miracle here? We usually think in terms of a physical miracle. In other words, we usually think in terms of Jesus having physically multiplied the five loaves and two fishes into enough to feed five thousand people. It’s not that I doubt Jesus’ ability to do such a thing. The second story in our Gospel for today - Jesus walking on the sea - shows his command over nature. But, I wonder if the greater miracle in the miraculous feeding isn’t a spiritual miracle, that is, a miracle of opening up our hearts to believe in a God of abundance, even if only for a few moments. Here’s what I mean.
Imagine that scene with me. I understand that the climate in the Holy Land is pretty harsh to live in. And so I wonder how so many people could have been caught so unprepared at meal time. Would they really have left home without any food or water? When Barb and I go hiking, we always bring plenty of water with us and at least a snack to eat. Did those five thousand people really leave their homes that morning without any water or provisions? I don’t think so.
Rather, imagine that the problem was the age-old problem of people whose behavior was controlled by their belief in a God of scarcity. How does one behave when one believes in scarce resources? Do you share? Probably not! No. You hoard. You don’t want anyone to know how much you really have because, well, economic resources are scarce, right? That’s what the economists tell us, isn’t it?
Jesus knows this about us. St. John even lets us in on Jesus’ slyness here, telling us that he asks the disciples his question about food, knowing full well what he’s going to have to do. He knows our human economics, the way we think in terms of scarcity. Sure enough, Phillip is a great economist and good at math. He calculates, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
Then an innocent child steps forward and offers his five barley loaves and two fish. Andrew is quick to add, “But what are they among so many people?” Jesus, undaunted by the complications of capitalistic economics, shows the entire crowd that it takes a child’s faith to enter into God’s kingdom. It takes a child’s faith to be open to God’s economics. Jesus takes that meager offering from the child, gives thanks for it, breaks it up and hands it out. And, despite the economists’ premise of scarcity, five barley loaves and two fish are more than enough to feed five thousand people. When everyone has enough, everyone has enough.
How could that be? Is it because Jesus is the Son of God and can perform such miracles? Or is it because Jesus, as the Son of God, has the faith of a child that believes God is a God of abundance, not scarcity? There really is enough for everyone. And when everyone has enough, everyone has enough.
So, imagine, if you will, that the real miracle was the incredible moment when all those hardened grown-ups became like the child and opened their hearts to the God of abundance. It’s a dangerous belief, mind you, because you might even forget yourself and let others see what you have — in which case you might even find yourself sharing it with those around you.
Is that what happened on the hillside that day? Did enough people believe that God has truly blessed us with enough that they actually discovered abundance to be true by sharing with one another? Well, even if that is what happened, the moment didn’t last very long. Economic sanity quickly returned. Like I said, belief in a God of abundance is a dangerous belief, too dangerous to hold onto for very long. Apparently, this crowd didn’t, because they preferred to believe that Jesus somehow magically provided it, and so they moved to make him king. That’s when Jesus slipped away.
Well, I’ve been pretty tough on economics this morning. Does that mean that if we believe in Jesus, we should throw out capitalism? Not necessarily. We can say some positive things about capitalism, too. But, I certainly don’t think we can buy into everything capitalism tells us. Here’s the essential point: God’s economics are fundamentally different from human economic systems, even the best of them. And in Jesus Christ we believe that God’s Kingdom, God’s Household, God’s Economics, have come into this world. And we have the opportunity to begin living according to God’s economics of abundance. Most especially, we need to question assumptions about scarcity. If Jesus came to show us a God of abundance, then our participation in capitalism shouldn’t be ‘religious.’
For instance: Is the bottom line of economics always and only about profit? Or might we begin to balance that bottom line with other values, such as generosity? For believing in abundance also means believing in generosity. There’s plenty, so why not share? It means joining God in the stewardship of an abundant creation.
Every moment we live believing in abundance repeats the miracle that Jesus worked that day on the hillside. This miracle of the feeding of thousands of people from a few loaves and fishes was so important to the early church that it is one of the few miracles recounted in all four Gospels, and Mark, the shortest Gospel of the four, has two such stories in it.
The body of Jesus was broken for us on the cross. He gave it away for us. He trusted in the God of abundant life and so his resurrection is the first fruits of our abundant life, our return to Paradise. Come, share in the bread of life with me again today. Amen?!
Source: Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, July 27, 2003
Notes: 1. Economics USA, by Edwin Mansfield and Nariman Behravesh, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986, p. 10.