“God’s Story, Our Story”
The Rev. Cathlin Baker
November 12, 2017, Stewardship Sunday
As I was preparing a sermon for this Stewardship Sunday, I was looking for a text that might speak to this unique moment in our congregational life together, this wild and precious time when we are poised to grow and to try something new. I scoured the letters to various congregations by the Apostle Paul, looking for some recommendation on how to manage abundance, for this wild and precious moment of ours is filled with opportunity. But I did not see the parallels I was hoping to find.
And then it came to me, we need an abundance vs. scarcity story to illuminate the possibilities. We need to revisit the feeding of the multitude. Today’s gospel story is one many of us know well. It is a centerpiece of Jesus’ ministry – we know it was a significant story to Jesus’ followers, because each of the four gospel writers chose to include it. Decades after the death of Jesus, when these gospels were written, the early church decided this story was necessary for us to remember. We remember it for the important things it tells us about Jesus, about his compassion (he is moved by the crowds) and about his trust in God (his belief that God will provide). We remember the story for the important thing it tells us about God, primarily about God’s faithfulness and abundant provision.
And the story also tells us important things about us, about how we, like the disciples, can get overwhelmed and anxious, but also about how we can sacrifice and risk. When we step out in faith, something miraculous happens. It’s like God meets us there and suddenly a way appears where before no way was evident. I think many of us can attest to this pattern playing out in our own lives, examples of when we risked more and somehow gained more in the process.
As I mention in the letter you received from me last week, our church is in a new place. This is not one of those years when we need to wrestle with challenging budget cuts. And it’s not one of those years when we are looking to raise just enough funds to cover our fixed expenses and basic ministry costs. This is a year when we are being asked to think creatively about what’s next, and to stretch our ideas about what is possible.
It’s time to look at our ministry together with fresh eyes. Our growing congregation means more relationships to cultivate and more outreach to those going through difficulties or grief. Our growing congregation brings new expectations, such as the desire for more spiritual nourishment programs and more volunteer opportunities for our children, youth and adults. Our abundance of energy and good will also translates into an increased responsibility to share our vision: God’s dream, of a just, inclusive and peaceful world.
This is a year when our contributions of money, time and talent can have a huge impact. This is a year when increasing our giving can birth a new spirituality group or a much-needed second worship service or can support me in offering pastoral care or expand our music ministry. As we stretch in our giving, we will be able to move beyond a basic needs budget to a budget that more fully reflects our commitments to compassion, service, beauty and inclusion. We have the chance to be part of our church’s story of transformation. It is a wild and precious moment, perhaps singular, and not easily repeatable.
And so here we stand, before a scene of abundance, an abundance of energy and engagement, but also of expectation and need. We can relate to those disciples looking out at the crowds on the hillside and saying, we can’t possibly feed all these people, we need to send them away. And as the story tells us, instead we can look out upon this scene and hear Jesus’ invitation, an invitation to faithful following and a chance to say “Yes.”
Even in our being stretched by the needs of the world and the longings of our congregation, we are inclined to say, No. No, we don’t have the people power. No, we don’t have the money. I think there is much to learn from this reaction and that it is important to explore those knee-jerk No’s. This story teaches us to ask: What is it we are worried about? What do we fear? What stands in the way of a faithful “yes”?
Like the disciples, we also make excuses. In the version of this story from the gospel of Luke, the disciples point out to Jesus that they are in a deserted place where provisions are not readily available and that the walk to town is long. In the gospels of Mark and John, the disciples point out that they do not have enough money to buy the necessary amount of food. But Jesus says just give them something to eat. You need not travel or shop or use money. Jesus asks them to look among themselves, to bring forth what they already have. You are enough is Jesus’ message.
But when Jesus asks us to look among ourselves for resources, a whole other line of worry commences. What if what we have to give is not sufficient? This gospel story reminds us that the amount that we give is not really relevant. In today’s reading, the disciples are able to scrounge up five loaves and two fish. In the version of this story from the Gospel of John, it is a little boy who donates all he has – five loaves and two fish. Even the smallest gift, when combined with the small gifts of others, and through the blessing of God, grows in magnitude.
And it seems to me that what is most miraculous in this story is the overcoming of feelings of scarcity. The blessing is in the journey of development – the journey of first saying no, of making excuses, and feeling insecure about what we can give, but then finally saying yes, and contributing what we can. Our story of scarcity turns into God’s story of abundance only when we overcome our limitations. In the end it is our brokenness that is so valuable. It is our worried, excuse-making, insecure selves that make for the best, transformed givers. It is in our overcoming of scarcity that we are blessed. It is not the amount we give that matters, but that we break free of the chains of scarcity thinking and reach the place of giving freely and joyfully in spite of ourselves.
There is an invitation before us today to overcome the familiar story of scarcity and to throw ourselves behind a different story. The story where we say yes, where we believe we are enough, where our small gifts given together grow in magnitude, and where we discover an abundant blessing just waiting for us to play our part.
I can feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in this place, moving among us, bringing us passion and vision, deepening our love for each other. And I suspect the Holy Spirit is just waiting to bless us, just waiting for us to make that first step in the direction of abundance. So let us join our broken selves, and our bits of bread, and give them over to God who longs to fill us up to overflowing. That’s what the story tells us, and I am ready to believe. Amen.