Sunday, July 29, 2012

With Three Pennies and God...

Thanks this week to (you knew this was coming) Kathryn Matthews Huey, for direction and inspiration in the writing of this sermon. I found Mother Teresa's story here.

Finally, I recommend taking part in "World In Prayer," which is updated weekly and offers a prayer for the needs of the planet.

John 6:1-21
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards 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. 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?" Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, 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. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world."
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

This is the Word of the Lord.

In our reading last week, Jesus and the disciples were trying to get away, have a quiet meal and catch a nap. The disciples had gone out two-by-two into the towns and villages, bringing the Good News and seeing the power of God at work in themselves when they cast out demons. Jesus had just learned the horrifying news of his cousin John’s death, and their popularity had grown to the point that they couldn’t move without attracting attention. They cast off across the Sea of Galilee for some peace and quiet, and thousands met their boat when it landed on the other side.

In John’s account, the boat ride takes place under different circumstances, and Jesus and his disciples actually make it to the mountainside and sit down before Jesus sees the massive crowd coming. Honestly, if I had seen a crowd that size coming, kicking up dust in their wake, I would have first thought of running. But Jesus? He saw them coming and asked, “We’re going to need to feed them all. Where’s the bread store, Phillip?”

Phillip turned red and sputtered, overwhelmed at such a thought. “It would take thousands of dollars… and even then, there would be enough for maybe a bite… and besides, do they make that much bread?”

You can’t really blame Phillip. It was, on the surface, a nonsensical idea – the logistics of finding bread, paying for it, transporting it, distributing it… well, the word “impossible” comes to mind.

And then there’s Andrew. Where Andrew found the boy is a mystery… perhaps the child overheard Jesus speaking and tugged on the disciples’ robes. Perhaps Andrew heard what Jesus asked and immediately went scouting for food among the approaching throng. Whatever the case, while everyone else was studiously attending to not making it their problem, Andrew joined right in the nonsense. “Hey, Jesus, this kid has five loaves of barley bread and a couple of fish… not that it’ll help or anything…”

Jesus smiled and said, “Perfect! Sit ‘em down, let’s feed them!”

Now, I’ve heard a lot of theories about what happened next, including many commentators and scholars who say that the little boy’s generosity led to a “miracle of sharing,” where the people saw the child’s generosity and responded by sharing their own food.

Now, there are a lot of reasons that I think that particular interpretation of the Scriptures rings hollow, one of them being the crowd’s reaction to being fed. One would scarcely expect a crowd to become intent on making Jesus their king, by force if necessary, after being encouraged to share.

This wasn’t a warm, fuzzy, join hands and sing “Kum Ba Ya” moment. No, the crowd was responding, with excitement and an energy bordering on violence, to a sign – a demonstration of the power of God in Jesus Christ, a demonstration of who Jesus is.

Like their ancestors before them, the people being fed that day hold onto the promise of Deuteronomy 18:15, the promise of a prophet like Moses who will be raised up by God to lead them. Is it any wonder then that they see a good candidate for king in this man of power? After all, for a culture so steeped in the Scriptures, Jesus’ actions that day would have resonated for some with the stories of the Exodus from Egypt, where Moses himself had asked at one point, “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” Others would have seen someone bringing barley loaves that are inexplicably multiplied and shared, and would have remembered how a man had brought twenty barley loaves to the prophet Elisha, and had provided one hundred men their fill of food.  Others would have sat on that mountainside and eaten until they couldn’t look at another bite, and recalled the beautiful promise in Isaiah 25:6: “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare  a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines.”

Oh, make no mistake: for a people living so close to the ragged edge of starvation, suffocating under the bootheel of oppressive taxation and withering in the shadow of the ever-present Roman Empire, to enjoy a meal of barley loaves and fishes until they could eat no more was a banquet, a feast, a sumptuous repast beyond description.

The people long for freedom from lack, from starvation, from the empire that oppresses them, and this longing leads them to set their sights too short. It's certainly understandable, and only human, that they would see Jesus as a miracle-worker and even as a potential king. Even the desire for a king, however, is too small a dream and falls far short of God's dream for the people. Like far too many people today, the people in that well-fed crowd focus on what this miracle worker can do for them, which, to quote Charles Cousar, "skews the reality of grace and seeks to make of Jesus a genie or an errand boy…." Instead, Cousar writes, Jesus is even greater than that prophet they had been waiting for all these centuries, even greater than "a wonder-worker" who will fulfill their every need and desire.

History tells the tale of thousands upon thousands of kings and queens and empires and kingdoms that have risen, conquered, thrived… then either fallen to greater kingdoms or empires, or else collapsed under their own weight. Jesus came for a greater purpose, a Kingdom that will have no end… a Kingdom which conquers with love, and which rules and thrives by grace. A Kingdom which meets needs with an abundance that is always more than enough.

In the Letter to the Ephesians, we read of a God who “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” Jesus wants to give us what we don't even realize we need, at least not consciously; he knows what we need, deep down in our innermost, authentic human selves. How often have we been confronted with a need – one we experience ourselves, or one we see in another, and, like Phillip, have said, “it’s impossible… we lack the manpower, the infrastructure, the resources, the experience, it’s someone else’s problem…”?

How often, I wonder have I actually asked for too little, failing to see beyond my own immediate wants and expectations?

And while I know that I dismissed the idea of the Feeding of the Five Thousand being a “miracle of sharing,” I cannot deny that even that interpretation carries a message for us today.

Jesus asked Phillip about bread for the hungry crowd. Phillip looked at the bank balance and threw up his hands. The other disciples studied the clouds, strolled off whistling and twiddling their thumbs… and one little boy stepped out from the crowd, counted his pennies, tugged on Andrew’s robes, and handed him his lunchbox.

And Andrew said to Jesus, “we don’t have much, and we don’t know what difference it will make, but here is what we’ve got.”

Agnes had 3 pennies to her name… and a passion to help the poor. As a young girl, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu went through ministerial training in Ireland and India.  She graduated from her training with a burning passion to serve God and love people. The problem was a lack of resources. . .  how on earth was she going to realize her dreams with only 3 pennies?  What could she do with so little?

 One day she gathered all her courage and approached her superiors.  Agnes announced, “I have three pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage.”  Her superiors could not believe what they were hearing!  After laughing at her, they said, “You can’t build an orphanage with three pennies.  With three pennies you can’t do anything.”  Agnes just smiled and replied, “I know.  But with God and three pennies, I can do anything!”

Agnes got her orphanage, and for fifty years this worked among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India.  We know Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu as Mother Teresa.

Agnes looked at her pennies and said, “It isn’t much, but here’s what I have.” For Mother Teresa, three pennies were more than enough. For Jesus, five loaves and two fishes were more than enough.

What can we do to help all those affected by the devastating tragedy in Aurora, Colorado?  How can we help those fleeing the civil war in Syria, running from the undeclared civil wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Somalia and so many other parts of the world often overlooked by news organizations? What can we do about the one million children worldwide who disappear into child sex slavery?

Closer to home, what about that neighbor, that friend, who simply needs to know that God loves them?

Is the task too much? Is the need overwhelming?

With three pennies and God… we can do anything.

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