Last weeks sermon had more impact on me then most of my sermons do. I often say that I am really only preaching to one person, and that is myself. In my preaching I want to say what I truly believe and always hope that my high- sounding words will be translated into actions. I suppose that is the struggle for many preachers. But last Sunday, as I preached, I became more and more aware that it was the "big ideas" of early Christianity that really had an impact on the culture of the day and that maybe our problem today is that we just have lots of little ideas and we either dont have, or are fearful of, the big ideas that will change and transform us. So this week, and maybe for the next few weeks, I would like to look at our scripture readings through the lens of the big idea.
What was the big idea I mentioned last week? I suggested that the writer to the church at Ephesus saw the big idea, found in the teachings of Jesus, that it is possible to have a community that is radically open to everyone and so therefore must have the capacity to adapt, or to evolve and change when the spirit of the culture demands it. Some may call that syncretism or being overly relevant, but I think it is real life and that every living organism and, dare I say, every organisation, if it is to remain alive, must participate in the flow of this great river of life, and change and adapt.
Some of the big ideas that transform people and culture are often "counter- cultural." That is, they go against what we think of as obvious, our common sense. One of those I want to consider today is that we can actually live in a world of abundance rather than the model of life so often presented which says everything of value is in scarce supply and therefore must be rationed.
So here is a statement of faith. I dont believe that there is really such a scarcity of everything in our world. I think we have everything we need on this planet to live full and abundant lives and it is found, not in supply/demand economics, but in the message of Jesus. Many Biblical commentators have suggested that thats what keeps this story of the feeding of the 5,000 alive. Not so much the notion of a miracle, but rather this idea that what is thought to be scarce is in fact not scarce at all, but can, through Gods power, be seen as abundant.
The Feeding of the 5,000 MEN
I participated in a role-play on this story at a ministers' conference in New York some twenty years ago. During one of the workshops we had to imagine ourselves into this story of the feeding of the 5,000. You could choose to be a part of the crowd following Jesus to this lonely place; or one of the disciples wondering how to meet the needs of all these people; or the small boy who brings the five loaves and the two fish; or even Jesus, who multiplies the boys lunch into a feast; or those who gather up the crumbs that filled the twelve baskets.
It was quite a profound experience to take on the role of a character in the narrative. But the most powerful thing that emerged from this experience was the sense that what we saw before us in the simple narrative was not all there was to see. What I mean is that this narrative, and really it is a parable, confronts us with the truth that a world view that sees everything as scarce and limited will never have the power to change and transform lives and the life of this world. A world view however that is shaped by the notion - and let me put it this way - that everything, in the hands of Jesus and through the power of the Spirit of God, can be seen as abundant, full and life-giving will have this power.
The Eucharistic Story
The story is in fact a simple one. It is woven around the central idea that a few pieces of bread and two fish two of the earliest symbols of the Christian faith point us toward a new way of being in the world.
First, there is nothing in the Scriptures that is there by accident. The stories are there to point to the central themes of hope, love and faith. This is a story about the central message of faith.
Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.
Why mention the Passover? Is it just that that is the time of the year? Or is this a hint that Jesus is about to break bread in the new kingdom for all humanity? But if we are to move beyond religious tribalism, is there enough to feed everyone, to nourish all people?
When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" Philip answered him, "It would take more than half a years wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a single bite!"
This story is moving from a need to do a big shop, head for the supermarket, to something grander, to a big idea that will shift the consciousness of the disciples and, pray God, our consciousness:
Andrew, Simon Peters brother, spoke up: "Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?"
Silly question really. But here is something to work with. It doesnt always come across in our Christian faith, but our religion has a physicality about it. There is a danger in making Christian spirituality so ethereal or separate from the physical that we forget that it is really about the here and now, what we can see, touch and taste. I think that if you cant find God in the physical in this world, then you wont ever find God at all. The raw material here in this story of bread and fish is necessary for the transformation, for the "big idea" to grow.
Then Jesus said, "Have the people sit down." There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down. There were about five thousand men. (Note: it will take another 1900 years before we start counting the women and children as well.) Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
I love the variations and the variety we find in the other feeding stories in the gospels. In Marks gospel chapter 6 verse 30:
Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people.
Why the green grass, and why in groups of hundreds and fifties? Maybe its just the practicalities. No one wants to sit in the dirt. Green grass is so much more pleasing to sit on. And maybe thats the best way to distribute food, in smaller groups, more like communities than crowds, which when it comes to food distribution can easily become a mob!
But then comes the rub in this story:
When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, "Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted." So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
Why were there twelve baskets filled after all had been satisfied? What is the deep meaning of this action in the narrative? Surely it is because this is a story about abundance. Is it a miracle story? Well yes, in the ancient world, but for us, it is that power of the presence of the Spirit of Christ to change our hearts and minds. It is not about making sure everyone gets only what they deserve. No! Give them what they need and then . a whole lot more. Now that is a big idea that commonsense economics and food distribution will rail against. No one should get one penny more than they deserve . Of course we all know that there are those who get a whole lot more!
This is a very practical story. No one born into this world should have less than anyone else. But the truth is, some do. Thats nature. I was moved in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games by the quote which was used about the National Health Service in Great Britain, that "no civilised country should withhold medical treatment from its citizens because they are without the means to pay."
As Bishop Spong once said:
"The whole purpose of the Christ, the whole purpose of the Church, is to build a world where everyone in that world has a better opportunity to live fully, to love wastefully, and to be all that they can be in the infinite variety of our humanity. People of every race and of every ethnic origin, male and female, gay and straight, transgender, bisexual, left-handed, right-handed, ALL the varieties of our humanity. The job of the Church is not to tell someone what they must be to satisfy our emotional needs. The job of the church is to free everybody and to love everybody into being all that they can be. That's the message of the gospel. 'I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly' and 'By this shall people know that you are my disciples - that you love one another.' There are no exceptions. Jesus did not say, 'Come unto me, some of you'. He said, 'Come unto me, ALL of you'.
Now that is a big idea!! Thats abundance.