“Celebrating Abundance in a Culture Crying ‘Scarcity’”

Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis
23 September, 2018
John 6:1-14

I don’t know about you, but there are moments when I wonder how we can possibly address all the needs of our day. The damage done by Hurricane Florence may top $50 billion, yet there are still people in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the southern United States who haven’t recovered from Maria’s devastation last year. On the other side of the world, but still connected to us by virtue of our common humanity, are the people in the catastrophic wake of Typhoon Mangkhut. More immediately, right here in New Hampshire, we’re grappling with the opioid crisis (which is part of a larger national health care quandary), and we continue to be affected in a variety of ways by the ongoing immigration mess. On top of all of that, every one of us here is being asked to pray about the pledge we will make to support the ministries and mission of this local church—because without everyone contributing what they can, we’re simply weaker, less able to accomplish what we believe God is calling us to together.

Yeah. Feeling overwhelmed yet? It’ll take a miracle to get it all done. Do you believe it’s possible? Can you even imagine it? There are some theologians who suggest that our theology—what we believe to be true about God and this world—has a lot to say about how we’ll answer that question.

You see, there are competing views of God’s created order: one is a theology of abundance; the other is an ideology of scarcity. At the heart of it is whether we believe there’s enough to go around: is there enough food, water, shelter, space, and resource to provide for every human life to flourish? The Rev’d. Dr. Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, theologian, and ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, explains it this way: “An ideology of scarcity says no, there’s not enough, so hold onto what you have. In fact, don’t just hold onto it, hoard it. Put aside more than you need, so that if you do need it, it will be there, even if others must do without. An affirmation of abundance [on the other hand], says just the opposite: Appearances notwithstanding, there is enough to go around, so long as each of us takes only what we need. In fact, if we are willing to have but not hoard, there will even be more than enough left over.”[1]

“The Bible,” Brueggemann declares, “is about abundance. From the first chapters of Genesis, God not only initiates abundance – calling forth plants and fish and birds and animals – but promises continued abundance by commanding them to ‘increase and multiply’[2]. God’s generosity and fidelity reach their climax on the sixth day, when God proclaims a sufficiency for ‘everything that has the breath of life’ and declares all this ‘very good’[3]. Having thus set in motion a world of abundance,” he concludes, “God rests – the mechanisms are in place, the world will have enough.”[4] Brueggemann goes on to recount examples from our oldest biblical stories of faith, where God’s people feared scarcity—but when they trusted God and didn’t withhold their own contributions, they discovered the joyful, divine reality of abundance.

The challenge for people of faith, as reflected even in those earliest stories from Scripture, has always been that we struggle with our human nature. We know that God provides. But we also know that God’s provision can get bottlenecked by other human beings: we can see that there are many who do without for a variety of reasons, and we do not want to wind up like them.

Furthermore, we’re immersed in a culture that’s constantly telling us we’re lacking something—that we won’t be truly content until we’ve got what they’re selling. There are relentless messages from every direction planting seeds of doubt: we’ll never have enough money to afford the good life; we won’t be able to send our kids to the best college or give them everything they deserve; or, we won’t be able to retire when and where we want to, or afford the health care we’ll need when we get there. Most of us have enough anecdotes of people who’ve experienced scarcity (it only takes one example to convince us, really), so we can easily give in to the fear that undermines the joy and liberation of a theology of abundance. And to make matters worse, some of us have experienced the pain of our generosity being treated with contempt—being told that we’re still not being generous enough, or feeling rebuffed because the gift we offered wasn’t appreciated for whatever reason. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, which is why we need the example of Jesus to guide us.

Jesus knew all about God’s generosity and faithfulness: not only could he recite the biblical stories of Israel’s past where divine abundance lavished the people, he embodied it. As Bruggemann put it, “Filled with God’s generosity, Jesus went around to people suffering from scarcity—of health, of acceptance, of power, of understanding—he replaced their scarcity with a gift of abundance.”[5] And that’s why the crowds pursued him: they recognized that, although he did not live in a palace or claim much in the way of the world’s material goods, Jesus possessed the bounty they wanted. He lived the good life our own souls yearn for.

The “Feeding of the Five Thousand” is the only miracle account recorded by all four gospel writers. The first thing that happens in each one is an acknowledgement of the need facing them: there’s a big crowd, and they’re hungry. And in each of them, Jesus asks his disciples how they are going to address or minister to that need. Not because he doesn’t know how to himself, but because he’s challenging them to deepen their spiritual awareness. He’s guiding, teaching, encouraging them to grow their faith by testing their confidence in God’s provision. It’s also worth noting that Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to solve all of the issues plaguing their world in that moment—he placed a specific need before them and invited them to respond in a concrete, practical way. Because he knew that even that one task would challenge them to stretch, or practice their faith in God’s trustworthy providing.

As we heard in today’s lesson, John writes: “When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’  He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.”[6]

In each gospel version, the disciples responded like you or I most likely would: they were incredulous. Did Jesus even know what he was asking? They immediately pointed out the reasons they couldn’t possibly feed the multitude. It would be impossible. Irresponsible even to try.

                 “Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’”[7]

They surveyed the crowd, assessed the size of the need, and saw only scarcity.

It’s a contagious mindset. Have you ever noticed how infectious the anxious response to the mere possibility of scarcity is? Just visit Market Basket or Hannaford when the weather forecaster has predicted a snowstorm in the coming week. It’s as if folks are expecting Armageddon—people get terrified that there won’t be enough. But our panicked response to the prospect of scarcity isn’t logical. Still, it’s easy to argue that the disciples’ response was reasonable based on our human conditioning.

Jesus knew that God isn’t constrained by what’s reasonable. And God’s abundance cannot be confined by our human expectations. Where his disciples see barriers, Jesus sees opportunities for deeper faith, for surprising revelations of how God really works.

He remained calm. He knew the resources were there. He saw God’s abundance even if it was hidden. And he knew a generous child’s example could lead them. Jesus had the people sit down. In some gospel accounts, the writers report that he told them to gather in groups—a circle of smaller circles, if you will—so that no one was alone, no individual was lost or forgotten amidst the sea of people. Then he took the loaves and fish donated by the child and, John tells us, “… when he had given thanks, he distributed them . . . as much as they wanted.  When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’  So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.[8]

There are a variety of ways that the story of the loaves and fishes can be interpreted. One way is to maintain that Jesus took the little boy’s food, waved his hands over it and turned it into a banquet, a bit like a magic trick.

Another way, which does not diminish the miracle but does make it more believable, is this: Most of the people, having journeyed out to the countryside for the day, would have brought some sustenance with them—but they would have expected to keep the food to themselves. Jesus knows there’s enough, it’s just hiding in the pockets of those gathered around him. And, using the example of a child’s selflessness, Jesus blesses the offering. He allows the love of God to flow, from that child and through the crowd—and as it does, it inspires, and affects, and moves the people to participate in the abundance that pulses through them and around them, in all creation. Those who had discretely withheld their provisions for fear there wouldn’t be enough to share with everyone who might have need, suddenly produced what they had and shared it freely. Like in the more modern tale of “Stone Soup”, a tasty banquet emerged when everyone saw that each one’s contribution made a difference. And surely there were some who could only offer their gratitude and appreciation for the goodness others had provided, but they were not begrudged because they were also children of God who were contributing just by being there. The miracle occurred when the people responded with faith: each one shared what they could, caring for each other, which allowed them all to celebrate abundance in the midst of what only moments ago had looked like scarcity.

Now, I need to say something important. I know that this sermon—and the question of whether our lives exhibit a theology of abundance or an ideology of scarcity—makes some people uncomfortable, maybe even a little defensive. In a culture that’s overridden with messages of “never enough,” it can be easy to misconstrue the invitation to celebrate abundance as a veiled message that we’ve not been generous enough. But that’s definitely not the point—of our gospel lesson this morning, or of my sermon.

The point, God’s beloved, is this: As disciples of Jesus Christ, our first impulse in response to the overwhelming need that confronts us—need that God calls us to respond to with faith—may very well be one of fear or anxiety; we may see only scarcity, as Philip and Andrew did in our Gospel lesson. We don’t always immediately see or recognize the constancy of God’s love, faithfulness, and abundance. But that reaction is God’s jumping-off spot for a miracle. Because if we are faithful—if we remain open to the ways that God’s love can flow, moving around us and through us—then we will discover how God’s love casts out all fear, and mobilizes us to do what only moments ago seemed impossible. We’ll discover that with God, there is always abundance and possibility.

God doesn’t expect you and me to single-handedly solve all the world’s problems. But we are called by God to prayerfully discern and faithfully respond to specific and practical needs, mobilizing the abundance under our stewardship. And when we respond faithfully, like the disciples and those 5,000 people gathered on a hillside some two thousand years ago, we will surely be surprised and delighted by what God does with us and through us. The fear of scarcity will not inhibit us; the joy of abundance will inspire us to work with God to widen the circle, to transform our world. So may it be! Amen.

[1] “Enough Is Enough”, a sermon by Walter Brueggemann, brackets and italics mine.

[2] Genesis 1:22.

[3] Genesis 1:30-31.

[4] Brueggemann, “Enough Is Enough”.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John 6:5-6.

[7] John 6:7-9.

[8] John 6:11-13.

Further attribution: Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell, needhamucc.org/wp…/20141109-RevSusan-2Stewardship-ScarcitytoAbundance.pdf

 

© 2019 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC