Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 3, 2008

2008.08.03 “Feast of Plenty”

Central United Methodist Church

 “Feast of Plenty”

Rev. David L. Haley

Matthew 14: 13 – 21

August 3rd, 2008

“Now when Jesus heard about the execution of John the Baptist, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.  When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.  When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”  Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”  They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.  And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”  – Matthew 14: 13 – 21, from The New Revised Standard Version

There’s a spiritual disease going around that’s quite debilitating.  It’s called, “compassion fatigue.”

Though as old as the human race; in varying degrees, we’ve all experienced it. You open the door of compassion a little bit, and before you know it a flood of human need sweeps in and you find yourself overwhelmed. 

It happens in various ways. You give a little money to an organization with which you’re sympathetic and before you know it you’re getting phone calls asking for donations during dinner.  

You take one job, and before you know it you got more jobs than you can keep track of. Everyone with experience in the church knows it never is a good idea to miss a meeting.  Because if you miss a meeting, you get nominated for another job, in addition to the ones you already have.

From the people with needs that we know to the stories in each morning’s newspaper, once compassion fatigue sets in, our eyes glaze over and our hearts begin to grow cold.  We get fed up or burned out, feeling like we’ve got nothing left to give.

Meanwhile, the needs keep coming, the phone keeps ringing, the emails keep trickling in.  And our to-do list begins to look like — well, 5,000 hungry people.

At such times, it’s a good time to recall our Gospel for today: the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 hungry people.  Because it reminds us of something we often forget: what we can accomplish finally depends not upon what we have or how much we give, but rather what God can do with it.

You know the story. As Jesus’ fame grew, so did his ministry, and the crowds seeking him grew overwhelming.

The latest news seemed to question where it was all leading? The news was that John the Baptist, engaging in a public ministry just as Jesus was engaging in public ministry, had been executed by King Herod. If you were doing what John was doing, wouldn’t you find that discouraging?

Understandably, Jesus felt like he needed some time away from the crowds to be alone, to think, and to pray.  So away he went, by boat, to an out-of-the-way place.  Or so he thought.  

        Turns out the out-of-the-way place wasn’t that far out-of-the way, and once someone saw him, word spread quickly. Soon people from nearby villages walked around the lake to where he was. Even then, “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Apparently, even though Jesus may have felt compassion fatigue, there were no limits to his practice of compassion, and like the Energizer Bunny, “he kept on going.”

Soon, it began to get dark. They were out in the wilderness, so it’s not like there were any McDonald’s or Subways around.  People were getting hungry. Even the disciples, not always the most astute, began to notice: “We’re out in the country and it’s getting late.  Dismiss the people so they can go to the villages and get some supper.”

      But Jesus said, “There’s no need to dismiss them. You give them something to eat.”

      The disciples’ response sounds strangely familiar: “We have nothing . . . nothing but five loaves of bread and two fish,” they said.  “Bring me your nothing,” Jesus said, and we all know what happened next. 

      He took the bread, blessed it and broke it (sound familiar?), and gave it to the disciples to feed the crowd.  And then, in words used of church potlucks ever since, “All ate and were filled.” Not only that, “they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”

So there are three attitudes reflected in this story.  The first is that of the disciples, and increasingly often, ours: an attitude of scarcity. “How can WE feed them? We have nothing . . . nothing but these loaves and fish.”

To be sure, there are compelling arguments to entrench us in an attitude of scarcity.  We are in economic hard times: money is tight, jobs are threatened.  We are dependent upon foreign oil, which is under greater worldwide demand, and we see that reflected at the gas pump and in our energy bills. In the future, the item in short supply, and over which wars may be fought, may not be oil, but fresh water. Did you see the compact voted by congress this week to protect our supply of fresh water, the Great Lakes?  Cameron Davis, president and chief executive of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, noted that the United Nations has estimated that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population would lack ready access to clean, fresh water.  And, we know that even the environment in which we live is threatened by global warming; not by too little of something but too much: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  The New Economics Foundation, a British “think-tank” in a report released Friday, estimated that we have 100 months to make changes, before the environmental tipping point becomes irreversible. The polar icecaps melt, oceans rise, coastal populations are uprooted, where they gonna go? 

But all those are, at least, practical problems which can and must be addressed. Perhaps the greatest danger is that attitudes of scarcity will spill over to the way we treat people, and our practices of care, compassion, and charity.  At worst, it becomes downright selfishness: “What’s mine is mine, and I’m not sharing.”

The second attitude in the text is that reflected by Jesus, an attitude of abundance.  “Bring me your nothing”. “There’s plenty to go around.”  “All ate and were filled.”

I have appreciated the “Fruit Producing Strategies for Ministry and Mission” that our Bishop, Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, has brought to our conference, the Northern Illinois Conference. The very first one of those is, “an attitude of abundance rather than scarcity.”  He elaborated, several years ago, in his weekly article in the Northern Illinois Reporter, the conference newspaper:

      “We need to reclaim God’s abundance,” Jung said. “That is in direct conflict with the scarcity attitude that often exists in congregations and conferences.” 

      Jung called society’s prevailing attitude of scarcity “evil” and said it leads to racism, sexism, “and all kinds of ‘isms’ because we believe, in some way, that there is not enough.” 

      “When we trust in God’s ‘enough-ness’ rather than give in to the fears that there will not be enough,” Jung said, “we can celebrate mission and ministry.”

“When a church starts saying we don’t have enough, there is no way that church can survive,” Jung said. “You need to whisper, ‘Yes we do. We have love.’  And we need to rely on the humongous, huge, unlimited, unconditional potential of God.”

      Finally, this story goes beyond even that: reflecting not just an attitude of abundance, but extravagance. Even after all ate and were filled, there were — from 5 loaves and two fish – 12 baskets left over!  Do you think Matthew was trying to tell us something?

      Funny how God is like that, he’s saying. Like those stories Jesus told about a farmer who sows seed, extravagantly, all over the place. Some died, but some grew: the harvest was extravagant.

      When the wine gives out at a party after a wedding, what does Jesus do?  He turns water to wine!  Not just some water into a bit of wine.  He makes, according to John’s estimate, about 180 gallons of the best stuff they ever had.  Extravagant!

      Or the father of that wayward prodigal son – he didn’t just welcome home his son.  No, the father welcomed him back with a huge, expensive, wild party, killing the fatted calf.  Extravagant!  (“Extravagance”, by Bishop William H. Willimon, preached July 31, 2005, on Day 1 (formerly the Protestant Hour)

      Thank God, despite the pressures upon us to adopt an attitude of scarcity, despite our compassion fatigue, we still see an attitude of abundance, even extravagance, among people, among Christians, among churches.

      “Pastor, we decided to adopt another child. The parents have given him up for adoption, and we think we ought to do it,” she said.

      And the ever-cautious pastor, says, “Do you really think that’s wise? You already have three children. You’re a great mother, but don’t you think there are limits?  Aren’t there limits to how much love you can give?”

      “When it comes to love,” she says, “I haven’t yet found the limits.  From my experience, love feeds on love; it grows by being given away. The more love you give, the more love you seem to have. That’s how it’s been in my experience.” No compassion fatigue there.

      “Let’s ask Jane to take on this job,” says one of the members of the Lay Leadership Committee. “Jane always does such a good job on anything she undertakes.”   Widespread agreement.

      But again her pastor says, “Now, do you really think this is fair to Jane? Jane already has two or three jobs in the church. She is one of our busiest members, one of our hardest workers.”

      “That’s my point,” said the chairperson. “Everybody knows, if you want a job done right, ask the busiest person to do it. Busy people always seem to be the people who are able to find time somehow to do even more.” 

In the May 26th New Yorker, novelist Ian Frazier told the story of Church of the Holy Apostles in New York City. The Church of the Holy Apostles is a landmark, with a high arched ceiling and gorgeous stained-glass windows. Over the years the Episcopal congregation dwindled in size as the neighborhood changed until the 200 members could no longer afford to pay the bills to keep it going. A new rector suggested that “if Holy Apostles is going out of business, it might as well do some good before it does.”

So in 1982 the church launched a free-lunch program. Thirty-five people showed up. The program grew and attracted more people and outside support. In a few years the congregation was serving 900 lunches daily and bursting the seams of its mission house.

In 1990, during roof repairs to the main sanctuary, a fire broke out that caused major damage. During insurance-covered restoration and renovation, and while the pews were out, members came up with an idea: Why not leave the pews out and use the worship space, which was empty and unused Monday through Friday, for the lunch program?

Now the church is serving 1,200 meals a day. Volunteers do most of the work. They take the tables down on Friday afternoon and set up folding chairs for the weekend. The budget is now $2.7 million, which comes from businesses, foundations, the city — and the 200 members, who, instead of closing down a church, are part of a vital and compelling community of faith.

Frazier asked Elizabeth Maxwell of the Holy Apostles staff about the religious motivation behind the program. She said: “Well, we do this because Jesus said to feed the hungry. There’s no more to it than that. Jesus told us to take care of the poor and hungry and those in prison . . . . In all the intricacies of scriptural interpretation, that message — feed the hungry — could not be more clear. Those of us at Holy Apostles feel we have a Sunday-Monday connection. The bread and wine of the Eucharist we share on Sunday becomes the food we share with our neighbors during the week.” (Quoted by John Buchanan, the Editor’s Desk, “Something Christlike,” The Christian Century, July 29th, page 3.)

When we are tempted by an attitude of scarcity or overcome by compassion fatigue — this story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 reminds us that what we can accomplish finally depends not upon what we have or how much we give, but rather what God can do with it.

      Jesus may have fed 5,000 that day, but through this story, he’s feeding people still.  Souls and bodies. Amen.



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