Monday, July 30, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Abundance Over Scarcity

I would like to begin my sermon this morning with an illustration I came across this week during my research. It’s told by Grace Imathiu in her sermon titled, "A Picnic on the Mountainside." She says:

A few years ago I served as pastor of Lavington Church in Nairobi. One day three young men came to my 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 came into my office was whether they could sing a verse of "Amazing Grace" in their language. They sang acappella in parts. It was so beautiful. Sounded like angel music, the kind of singing that tugs at the soul and brings tears to your eyes out of the blue. And then they told me 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, they said, and they had no clue where any of their family members and friends were. 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."

On that afternoon in my office, these three young men had come to church asking 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 our congregation to help them with a month's rent. Eight dollars and some money for food, a total of $12 a month. I asked the three students to come back in a few days so I could meet with the church leaders, and when I met my church leaders, they all agreed it was a great ministry. But someone talked about 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. And someone else suggested a very Andrew-like idea. "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 our church was involved in paying rent and buying groceries and we would be swamped with needs. Some wanted to keep church and revivals only a spiritual level. No picnics, no food, no dinner.

As I listened to my church leaders, I learned so much about the myth of limited resources. We often think there's just enough for some of us. Some have to go without. We're worried we'll run out, but guess what? God's world has enough for all of us. Someone has put it well, saying, "There is enough for all our needs, but there is not enough for all our greed."

I thought about Grace’s story quite a bit. I thought about it in light of our Gospel lesson this morning about Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 men plus women and children. I thought about it in light of how the disciples reacted to Jesus’ question, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?"

Philip responded, "Six months wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for each of them to even get a little bit."
In other words, "Jesus, are you out of your mind? We don’t have that kind of money. We can’t provide for all of these people. Our resources are limited. Be more realistic, Lord. Think about what you are asking."
So often in our churches, we are confronted with the same sorts of deals Grace’s congregation members faced and what the disciples faced. As we look around this world, we see glowing needs. We see poverty. We see destruction. We see people’s lives ruined by natural disasters, by recession, by poor choices, and by illness. The need is overwhelming at times.

And many times, we are asked to help. Many times our congregations are approached by individuals and by groups with their hands out asking, "Please, can you spare anything to help us?"

And how do we respond? How do our congregations, our denominations reply? Usually in one of several of ways. Either we react by saying, "Well, if we help you, then we’ll have to help everybody. And we just don’t have the resources to help everybody." Or, we react by saying, "Well, our congregation supports such and such a ministry. Please go to them to receive assistance." Or, we react by saying, "The job is just too massive for us, we need to let the government step in and handle things because they have all the equipment, resources, or what have you to make a difference." Or, we even respond, "Well, you made some poor choices to lead up to this happening. Perhaps you should learn from your mistakes and make better choices next time." Think about these reactions as you hear Phillip say, "Lord, six months wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for these folks to even have a little bit." And think about them when you hear Andrew also say, "This little boy here has five loaves of bread and two fish, but what are they amongst so many?"

What are they amongst so many, indeed? Andrew believes in scarcity. Andrew believes there is only so much to go around. Andrew believes we can’t make a dent in the enormity of the hunger that exists around us. And most of the time, we’re just like Andrew. We believe there’s only so much we can do, so much we can give, or so much we can say.

Of course, we know the rest of the story, and we know things work out much differently than we tend to think. We know how Jesus isn’t affected by scarcity. We know Jesus brings the power of God into the equation. "Make the people sit down," He commands. And they do. He takes the loaves. He takes the fish. He blesses them and begins distributing them. And all are satisfied. All eat their fill. And when the clean up ensues, 12 baskets full of bread are collected. From such a small start, there is an abundance in the end! The cup, or in this case, the baskets, truly runneth over! With Jesus, there is no such thing as scarcity. There is an abundance.

I am reminded about a Lutheran congregation in Houston. Yes, it’s an ELCA congregation. It was a struggling church in a changing neighborhood. It had been on the decline for numerous years with no prospects of increasing membership. The congregation’s average age was climbing and greying. So, the pastor who was there did something radical. He said, "Looks like you’ve chosen to die. Let’s die well."
He convinced the remaining members they should work to give away the church’s assets. They should invest in the community. Reaching out, they started finding out community needs and spending money in copious amounts to help their neighbors. And guess what happened?

As they began doing God’s work and giving away, the church became revitalized! Instead of a continuing decline in membership, folks from the community began attending. They began getting involved in the process of giving what they had away. And the congregation found out something quite interesting–they couldn’t out give God. It simply wasn’t possible. Each time they tried, more came in to make the Lord’s work happen. The congregation found out what Phillip and Andrew found out in our Gospel lesson–what Jesus knew as He asked the question–when it comes to doing God’s work, there is no scarcity. There is always abundance. And now we must ask ourselves, do we live our lives as if this were the case? Amen.

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