Austerity vs Abundance

1 08 2012

Text:  John 6:1-21

Delivered on Sunday, July 29, 2012, St Peters Key West

If you have been following the news, you may have heard newscasters and politicians use phrases like “austerity measures.” What this generally means spending cuts, benefits cuts, and tax hikes which tend to be hardest on the middle class, the working class and poor. These measures were put in place largely as a result of the debt crises in Europe shortly after the financial meltdown of 2008. In this country, we are weathering that storm for a variety of reasons, but you still hear out own newscasters and politicians say things like, “we can’t afford this” even when it comes to basic things like fixing our roads, paying policemen, firefighters and teachers. It all seems very bewildering especially when you heard about paychecks for top executives going through the roof and corporate profits being higher than ever before and large companies sitting on hoards of cash instead of being invested. To make matters worse, there is a drought going on in the Midwest the size of which has not been seen since at least the Dustbowl of the earliest 20th century. Already you are beginning to see warnings of an increase in food prices, fuel and a scarcity of resources.

According to the powers that be that run the world, resources are like a pie. There are only so many pieces of pie you can cut away before the pie is gone. You can have a few large pieces, or many smaller pieces or some combination of the two. If YOU are in charge of cutting the pie, you get to ask how big a piece someone wants or you could even choose for yourself the size of the slice to be cut.

Jesus and his disciples faced their own problems with scarcity and resources. In today’s lesson, we find that a multitude has been following them around for some time and now … they need something to eat. When a little boy comes along and offers up what he has, Jesus then poses a test to his disciples and asks, “What are we going to do?” They the respond in various ways, actually in ways not unlike a modern parish might function. Phillip answers in a way the parish vestry might do and cites money-management concerns. Andrew sounds a little bit like the Outreach Committee saying, “ … er, this project is quite worthwhile but it exceeds what is in our budget for such a task.” Taking this analogy a bit further, you could imagine that the liturgy and worship team’s minds are elsewhere except what is happening at the moment as they are thinking about the next big Feast Day. And finally, the Building and Grounds Committee might be glad to help out with all the seating arrangements but they are going to start to worry about the landscaping very quickly once they realize they have 5,000 people sitting on the ground … in the parish garden. So, what we get from the disciples’ answers is a picture of a organization which some reasonable goals and workable plans, which is all very ice, but the focus is in the wrong place. Their focus is on institutional survival and what we are able to do on our own without any outside help. But once the disciples think they have run out of options, Jesus steps in, gave thanks over the bread and the fish, blessed it and gave it out, and everyone who wanted something to eat was fed and there was plenty left over.

Miracles are one of the ways the early church demonstrated Jesus’ identity and used them to point to him as the Son of God. Talking about miracles today can be tricky. Many times you get two opposing arguments. On one hand, you have those who say that we should take the miracle stories at face value, and that yes, it happened exactly as it was written down as we read it (sometimes preferably in Elizabethan English). On the other, you have those who say that it possibly couldn’t be like that at all, so they try to explain it away and say, “no no no! This is what REALLY happened here.” A popular interpretation of the loaves and fishes story is that one little boy’s generosity spurred the rest of the crowd to share their own possessions with everyone else. Trying to figure out exactly what happened during a miracle story actually misses the point. If we focus on the minute little details, we miss the bigger picture of what the story is trying to tell you about Jesus and the Kingdom of God. If you buy into the fact that Jesus actually caused the bread and fish to multiply, then he becomes nothing more than a genie in a bottle to pull out in case we are in trouble. If you reduce the story into a lesson or sharing and generosity, what you get is a story about people solving their problems on their own and Jesus becomes a social worker or a therapist counseling the need for charity or almsgiving. In reality, what we have here is the idea that when something that is scarce is placed in the hands of Jesus, the that scarcity becomes a vehicle for abundance as the power, love and mercy of God breaks into the world.

The feeding of the multitude also shows us how the Gospel of John attempts to address the temptation to shrug our shoulders in the face of human need. They say that knowledge is power, but in the information age we live in, all the knowledge and information we have at our fingertips actually renders us quite powerless. We can access just about the sum total of human achievement through our iPhones and Blackberries. We can find out about the weather, current events, wars and famine. We are now able to be fed with so much information that we become numb to what is going on around us. Instead of being moved to action at the news of tragedy, we become stuck. “Whatever can WE do that will do any good in the face of so much?” we ask ourselves. So we turn to the knowledge we have as a means of escape of entertainment instead of an occasion for inspiration and empowerment. The disciples saw only what they had to work with instead of paying attention to the One who was in their midst. At the end of human knowledge, beyond what we are able to comprehend, at the end of all of agonizing about how meager our resources and gifts might seem to be stands Jesus. And THAT is enough to feed a multitude with leftovers to spare.

It is no accident that this scene takes place during the Passover, when Israel celebrates God’s deliverance from Egypt. All the leftover bread probably called to mind the manna which came down from heaven to feed the Israelite while they wandered through the wilderness. They most likely also remembered the story of Elisha we heard earlier where everyone had enough and there was enough left over. For us reading it today, the phrasing John uses to describe Jesus’ actions call to our mind the Eucharist. The Gospel of John doesn’t really have a Last Supper narrative like the other three, so you could almost say that Jesus is instituting the Lord’s Supper right here … to all sorts and conditions of people who happen to be following him around. He takes the bread, gives thanks and has it distributed to everyone. In the feeding of the 5000, John is showing us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets who is calling us into a new way of living in the Kingdom of God. This is a Kingdom that is not about some concept of practices that “work,” but it is about following an incarnation that lives.

In the Kingdom of Heaven, resources and gifts that are brought before God are no longer limited like pieces of pie. “Austerity” and “Scarcity” are no longer the final answer. The Kingdom of Heaven does not operate on the principle of pieces of pie, but on the principle of loaves and fishes. Human weakness and limitations are miraculously transformed into abundance, the few become many and the weak become strong. One person can represent such a powerful sign of hope and healing that the thousands of needy people whop are following Jesus feel that their innermost hunger for the Bread of Life has been satisfied. When Jesus walks on water, his presence among ordinary, insecure and timid people calms their anxieties and causes them to walk where they feared to walk before.

Our own ministry becomes not simply what we can undertake together to meet basic human needs, but it becomes more about how our own resources and gifts become multiplied. You don’t charity, a handout, or a therapy session. You get nothing less than God’s bountiful, unlimited grace and abundance.

Amen

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